Lions led by donkeys

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"Lions led by donkeys" is a phrase popularly used to describe the British infantry of the First World War and to blame the generals who led them. The contention is that the brave soldiers (lions) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (donkeys).[1] The phrase was the source of the title of one of the most scathing examinations of British First World War generals, The Donkeys—a study of Western Front offensives—by politician and writer of military histories Alan Clark.[2] The book typified the mainstream First World War history of the 1960s, was vetted by Basil Liddell Hart and helped to form a popular view of the First World War (in the English-speaking world) in the decades that followed.[3] The work's viewpoint of incompetent military leaders was never accepted by some mainstream historians like John Terraine and both the book and its viewpoint have been criticised.[4]

The phrase has been applied more broadly to the leaders on both sides, implying that the War was a pointless waste of life, regardless of the technical competence or otherwise of generals on either side. Conversely, critics of the phrase have argued that, from the British viewpoint, the war was "necessary and successful".


The origin of the phrase pre-dates the First World War. Plutarch attributed to Chabrias the saying that "an army of deer commanded by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions commanded by a deer".[5][6] An ancient Arabian proverb says "An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep".[citation needed] During the Crimean War, a letter was reportedly sent home by a British soldier quoting a Russian officer who had said that British soldiers were "lions commanded by donkeys".[7] This was immediately after the failure to storm the fortress of Sevastopol which, if true, would take the saying back to 1854–55. The phrase is quoted in Anna Stoddart's 1906 book The Life of Isabella Bird in the scene where Isabella, en route for America in 1854, passes a troopship taking the Scot's Greys out to Balaclava.

These and other Crimean War references were included in British Channel 4 television's The Crimean War series (1997) and the accompanying book (Michael Hargreave Mawson, expert reader).[better source needed]

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels used the phrase on 27 September 1855, in an article published in Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 457 (1 October 1855), on the British military's strategic mistakes and failings during the fall of Sevastopol, and particularly General James Simpson's military leadership of the assault on the Great Redan.

The joke making the rounds of the Russian army, that "L'armée anglaise est une armée de lions, commandée par des ânes" ["The English army is an army of lions led by asses"] has been thoroughly vindicated by the assault on Redan.[8]

The Times reportedly recycled the phrase as "lions led by donkeys" with reference to French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War:

Unceasingly they [the French forces] had had drummed into them the utterances of The Times: "You are lions led by jackasses." Alas! The very lions had lost their manes. (On leur avait répété tout le long de la campagne le mot du Times: – "Vous êtes des lions conduits par des ânes! – Hélas! les lions mêmes avaient perdus leurs crinières") Francisque Darcey (sometimes Sarcey).[9][incomplete short citation]

There were numerous examples of its use during the First World War, referring to both the British and the Germans.[1] In Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear: Russia's War with Japan (2003), Richard Connaughton attributed a later quotation to Colonel J. M. Grierson (later Sir James Grierson) in 1901, when reporting on the Russian contingent to the Boxer Rebellion, describing them as 'lions led by asses'.[10]

More recent usage[edit]

In the Second World War Erwin Rommel said it about the British after he captured Tobruk.[11]

In early 2019, the hashtag #LedByDonkeys was coined by an anti-Brexit campaign group that highlights perceived hypocritical statements by British politicians.[12][13]


Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman who lived in Berlin during the First World War, in her memoir published in 1921, recalled German general Erich Ludendorff at German General Headquarters' (Großes Hauptquartier) praising the British for their bravery: "I will put it exactly as I heard it straight from the Grosse Hauptquartier: 'The English Generals are wanting in strategy. We should have no chance if they possessed as much science as their officers and men had of courage and bravery. They are lions led by donkeys.'"[14]

The phrase Lions Led by Donkeys was used as a title for a book published in 1927, by Captain P. A. Thompson. The subtitle of this book was "Showing how victory in the Great War was achieved by those who made the fewest mistakes".[15]

Alan Clark based the title of his book The Donkeys (1961) on the phrase. Prior to publication in a letter to Hugh Trevor Roper, he asked "English soldiers, lions led by donkeys etc. – can you remember who said that?" Liddell Hart, although he did not dispute the veracity of the quote, had asked Clark for its origins.[16] Whatever Trevor Roper's reply, Clark eventually used the phrase as an epigraph to The Donkeys and attributed it to a conversation between Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann:

Ludendorff: The English soldiers fight like lions.
Hoffmann: True. But don't we know that they are lions led by donkeys.[1][2]

The conversation was supposedly published in the memoirs of General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the German General Staff of the German Army between 1914 and 1916, but the exchange and the memoirs remain untraced.[1] A correspondent to The Daily Telegraph, in July 1963, wrote that librarians in London and Stuttgart had not traced the quotation and a letter to Clark was unanswered.[17] Clark was equivocal about the source for the dialogue for many years, although in 2007 a friend Euan Graham, recalled a conversation in the mid-sixties, when Clark on being challenged as to the provenance of the dialogue, looked sheepish and said "well I invented it". At one time Clark said Liddell Hart had given him the quote (unlikely as Hart had asked him where it came from) and Clark's biographer believes he invented the Ludendorff and Hoffmann attribution.[18] This invention provided critics of The Donkeys with an opportunity to condemn the work. Richard Holmes, wrote

... it contained a streak of casual dishonesty. Its title is based on the "Lions led by Donkeys" conversation between Hindenburg [sic] and Ludendorff. There is no evidence whatever for this: none. Not a jot or scintilla. Liddell Hart, who had vetted Clark's manuscript, ought to have known it.[19]

Dan Snow wrote in The Guardian:My family's dark Somme secret "Delving into his own ancestors' past, Dan Snow was stunned to discover that his great-grandfather Thomas Snow was a first world war general who sent thousands to die". Subsequently Snow wrote an article for the BBC in 2014 discussing 10 big myths about World War One debunked in which he posits the idea that "Much of what we think we know about the 1914–18 conflict is wrong" and that "This saying was supposed to have come from senior German commanders describing brave British soldiers led by incompetent old toffs from their chateaux. In fact the incident was made up by Alan Clark."

While Clark is said to have admitted to his imagining "the incident" this has no impact on the appropriate (or otherwise) use of the phrase, since a book with this title had been published by Captain Peter Thompson in 1927 (through an independent publisher, T. W. Laurie). Thompson was a well-travelled writer who had served in the Royal Army Service Corps – a forerunner of the Royal Logistics Corps. He was part of a small but growing group of soldiers-turned-writers who used their prodigious talents to raise profound questions about the nature and management of World War One.[3]

Popular culture[edit]

The musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963) and the comedy television series Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) are two well-known works of popular culture, depicting the war as a matter of incompetent donkeys sending noble (or sometimes ignoble, in the case of Blackadder) lions to their doom. Such works are in the literary tradition of the war poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque's novel (and subsequent film) All Quiet on the Western Front, which have been criticised by some historians, such as Brian Bond, for having given rise to what Bond considered the myth and conventional wisdom of the "necessary and successful" Great War as futile. Bond objected to the way that, in the 1960s, the works of Remarque and the "Trench Poets" slipped into a "nasty caricature" and perpetuated the "myth" of lions led by donkeys, while "the more complicated true history of the war receded ... into the background".[20]

Producers of television documentaries about the war have had to grapple with the "lions led by donkeys" interpretive frame since the 1960s. The 1964 seminal and award-winning BBC Television The Great War has been described as taking a moderate approach, with co-scriptwriter John Terraine fighting against what he viewed as an oversimplification, while Liddell Hart resigned as an advising historian to the series, in an open letter to The Times, in part over a dispute with Terraine, claiming that he minimised the faults of the High Command on The Somme and other concerns regarding the treatment of Third Ypres. The Great War was viewed by about a fifth of the adult population in Britain and the production of documentaries on the war has continued ever since. While recent documentaries such as Channel 4's 2003 The First World War have confronted the popular image of lions led by donkeys, by reflecting current scholarship presenting more nuanced portrayals of British leaders and more balanced appraisals of the difficulties faced by the High Commands of all the combatants, they have been viewed by far fewer members of the public than either 1964's The Great War or comedies such as Blackadder.[21]

The name of British anti-Brexit political campaign group Led By Donkeys was inspired by the saying. The activists thought it aptly described the relationship between the British people and their Brexit leaders.[22]


Brian Bond, in editing a 1991 collection of essays on First World War history, expressed the collective desire of the authors to move beyond "popular stereotypes of The Donkeys", while acknowledging that serious leadership mistakes were made and that the authors would do little to rehabilitate the reputations of the senior commanders on the Somme.[4] Hew Strachan quoted Maurice Genevoix for the proposition "[i]f it is neither desirable nor good that the professional historian prevail over the veteran; it is also not good that the veteran prevail over the historian" and then proceeded to take Liddell Hart to task for "suppressing the culminating battles of the war", thus "allow[ing] his portrayal of British generals to assume an easy continuum, from incompetence on the Western Front to conservatism in the 1920s...."[4] While British leadership at the beginning of the war made costly mistakes, by 1915–16 the General Staff were making great efforts to lessen British casualties through better tactics (night attacks, creeping barrages and air power) and weapons technology (poison gas and later the arrival of the tank). British generals were not the only ones to make mistakes about the nature of modern conflict: the Russian armies too suffered badly during the first years of the war, most notably at the Battle of Tannenberg. German tactics are routinely criticised for involving the immediate counterattacking of lost ground, leading to lopsided losses in essentially defensive actions. To many generals who had fought colonial wars during the second half of the 19th century, where the Napoleonic concepts of discipline and pitched battles were still successful, fighting another highly industrialised power with equal and sometimes superior technology required an extreme change in thinking.

Later, Strachan, in reviewing Aspects of the British experience of the First World War edited by Michael Howard, observed that "In the study of the First World War in particular, the divide between professionals and amateurs has never been firmly fixed". Strachan points out that revisionists take strong exception to the amateurs, particularly in the media, with whom they disagree, while at the same time Gary Sheffield welcomes to the revisionist cause the work of many "hobby"-ists who only later migrated to academic study.[23] Gordon Corrigan, for example, did not even consider Clark to be a historian.[24] The phrase "lions led by donkeys" has been said to have produced a false, or at least very incomplete, picture of generalship in the First World War, giving an impression of generals as "château generals", living in splendour, indifferent to the sufferings of the men under their command, only interested in cavalry charges and shooting cowards. One historian wrote that "the idea that they were indifferent to the sufferings of their men is constantly refuted by the facts, and only endures because some commentators wish to perpetuate the myth that these generals, representing the upper classes, did not give a damn what happened to the lower orders".[25] Some current academic opinion has described this school of thought as "discredited".[26][27] Strachan quotes Gavin Stamp, who bemoans "a new generation of military historians", who seem as "callous and jingoistic" as Haig, while himself referring to the "ill-informed diatribes of Wolff and Clark".[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Rees, Nigel. Brewer's Famous Quotations. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2006)
  2. ^ a b Clark, A. (1961). The Donkeys. Morrow. p. front-papers. OCLC 245804594.
  3. ^ a b Ion Trewin, Alan Clark: The Biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2009, p. 160.
  4. ^ a b c Brian Bond, ed. (1991). The First World War and British Military History. Oxford Clarendon Press. pp. 6–12, 41, 47. ISBN 978-0-19-822299-6. [D]espite the saturation coverage of the First World War in the 1960s, little was produced of lasting scholarly value because there was so little attempt to place the war in historical perspective; books such as The Donkeys and films such as Oh, What a Lovely War tell us as much about the spirit of the 1960s as about the period supposedly portrayed.
  5. ^ Plutarch; Morgan, Matthew (1718). Plutarch's Morals. London: W. Taylor. p. 204.
  6. ^ Plutarch, Regum et imperatorum apophthegmata 47.3
  7. ^ Tyrrell, Henry (1855). The History of the War with Russia: Giving Full Details of the Operations of the Allied Armies, Volumes 1-3. p. 256.
  8. ^ Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1980). "The Reports of Generals Simpson, Pelissier and Niel". Collected Works. Vol. 14. Moscow: Progress Publishers. p. 542. ISBN 085315435X.
  9. ^ Terraine, 1980 pp. 170–171
  10. ^ Connaughton 2003, p. 32
  11. ^ John Pimlott (1993), The Guinness History of the British Army, p. 138
  12. ^ "Billboard campaign reminds voters of MPs' Brexit promises". The Guardian. January 16, 2019.
  13. ^ "Four men with a ladder". The Guardian. February 7, 2019.
  14. ^ Evelyn, Princess Blücher (1921). An English Wife in Berlin. London: Constable. p. 211. OCLC 252298574.
  15. ^ P. A. Thompson (1927). Lions Led by Donkeys Showing How Victory in the Great War was Achieved by Those Who Made the Fewest Mistakes. London: T. W. Laurie. OCLC 4326703.
  16. ^ Ion Trewin, Alan Clark: The Biography Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2009, p. 168
  17. ^ Terraine, 1980, p. 170
  18. ^ Trewin 2009, pp. 182–189
  19. ^ Richard Holmes. "War of Words: The British Army and the Western Front". CRF Prize Lecture, 26 & 28 May 2003, Aberdeen and Edinburgh
  20. ^ Matthew Stewart (2003). "Review Great War History, Great War Myth: Brian Bond's Unquiet Western Front and the Role of Literature and Film" (PDF). War, Literature and the Arts. United States Air Force Academy. 15: 345, 349–351. ISSN 2169-7914. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-18. Retrieved 2010-07-26.
  21. ^ Emma Hanna (2009). The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 21, 26–28, 35. ISBN 978-0-7486-3389-0.
  22. ^ Led By Donkeys (2019). Led By Donkeys: How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit. London: Atlantic books. ISBN 978-1-83895-019-4.
  23. ^ a b Hew Strachan Back to the trenches – Why can't British historians be less insular about the First World War?, The Sunday Times, November 5, 2008
  24. ^ Corrigan, p. 213. "Alan Clark was an amusing writer, a brilliant story teller and bon viveur. British political life is the poorer for his passing, but he cannot be described as a historian".
  25. ^ Neillands, Robin (1998). The Great War Generals on the Western Front. London: Robinson. p. 514. ISBN 1-85487-900-6.
  26. ^ Simpson, Andy, Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front, p. 181.
  27. ^ Sheffield, Gary. The Somme, pp. xiv–xv.

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