On the centenary of the WWI Battle of Passchendaele, Chris Moore explores the legend and legacy of ‘the general who wept’.
One hundred years on, the battle fought in Flanders in 1917 for the village of Passchendaele still reeks of infamy. Books about the British offensive, which cost more than 500,000 British and German casualties, commonly note that its pronunciation in English sounds like a wicked irony – Passion Dale, Valley of Love. But ‘Passion’ also refers us to the crucifixion of Christ and his weary ascent to the place of execution, Golgotha, a barren hilltop in the shape of a skull. The infantry subaltern and war poet Siegfried Sassoon explicitly invoked such religious associations in describing one of his men in The Redeemer.
‘He faced me, reeling in his weariness/ Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear./ I say that he was Christ …’.
Lieutenant Herbert Read wrote in like terms in My Company, recognising the redemptive loyalty of his platoon to their orders from above.
‘My men, my modern Christs/ Your bloody agony confronts the world.’
The painters also found it hard to avoid Christ’s presence. The crucifix and the crown of thorns, in the form of wooden crosses and barbed wire, intruded into every landscape. One British war artist, Sir William Orpen, spent most of 1917 and 1918 on the Western Front and afterwards published An Onlooker In France, dedicated to the apotheosis of the fighting man, our Tommy.
‘The only thought I wish to convey is my sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity that was given to me to look on and see the fighting man, and to learn to revere and worship him …’
If the fighting man attained sainthood through suffering, his generals too were marked by Passchendaele – but with the stamp of calumny, as personified by the general who wept. This gentleman was first brought to the world’s attention by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who visited GHQ during the Battle of Passchendaele and wrote about it nearly 20 years later in his self justificatory, multi volume War Memoirs published with the help and advice of the former infantry subaltern and later military historian, Basil Liddell Hart.
‘Perhaps the most damning comment on the plan which plunged the British Army into this bath of mud and blood is contained in an incidental revelation of the remorse of one who was largely responsible for it. This highly-placed officer from General Headquarters was on his first visit to the battle front – at the end of the four months’ battle. Growing increasingly uneasy as the car approached the swamp-like edges of the battle area, he eventually burst into tears, crying, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” To which his companion replied that the ground was far worse ahead …’
It is possible that Lloyd George’s anonymous, tearful, ‘highly-placed officer’ might have faded entirely from the story of Passchendaele except for the fact that in 1954 he was identified. The attribution came in a book called Tempestuous Journey by Frank Owen, the first full length biography of Lloyd George to be completed after his death. Owen spent three years gathering material in the Welsh Wizard’s personal archive and took the orthodox ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of Passchendaele.
‘When General Kiggell, Haig’s Chief of Staff, paid his first visit to the scene of the shambles – after it was all over – he grew more and more restive and unhappy as his car approached this desolation. At last, he broke down, and wept. “Good God,” he sobbed. “Did we really send men to fight in that?” His companion, who had fought there, answered stonily: “It’s worse farther on up.” ’
Four years later, an American writer, Leon Wolff, borrowed from Owen’s work in publishing his own compelling account of the fighting in 1917, In Flanders Fields, which brought the Western Front vividly to life for a new generation of readers – the grandchildren of those who had fought in the trenches. Wolff again named the weeping general and dated his fateful drive to November 7th, 1917.
‘The following day [ie. the day after the village of Passchendaele was finally captured, November 6th] Lieutenant-General Sir Launcelot Kiggell paid his first visit to the fighting zone. As his staff car lurched though the swampland and neared the battleground he became more and more agitated. Finally he burst into tears and muttered. “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” The man beside him, who had been through the campaign, replied tonelessly, “It’s worse further on up.” ’
Sir Launcelot died in the same year as Owen’s book was published without leaving any testimony to defend himself. He has come down to us a theoretical kind of general, one who earned his rank by the pen rather than the sword. He commanded a desk at the War Office for many years before taking up a job as Commandant of the Army’s Staff College where potential generals were trained. One of Kiggell’s pupils, Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, later described him as tall, gloomy and erudite.
‘His theory of war was to mass every available man, horse and gun on a single battlefield, and by the process of slow attrition wear down the enemy until his last reserves were exhausted and then annihilate him … He was essentially a cloistered soldier; he never went near a battle, and – if correctly reported – only once visited a battlefield, and then long after the battle had been fought.’
As a soldier who’d risen to high rank without exercising field command, Kiggell would have been regarded with jealousy and resentment by some of his staff colleagues. He was also widely recognised at GHQ as suffering from the stress of over-work during the final stages of the Passchendaele campaign. Influential politicians in London, appalled by the casualties, were also looking for someone to blame. After the battle was shut down in November 1917, Sir Launcelot was sent home and the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, was given a new Chief of Staff to plan for the campaigns of 1918 that would finally push the German Army home.
Conscientious historians tend to prefer documented fact to hearsay but where the facts are obscure or in doubt, speculation is ever at hand. Once he had acquired a name, the general who wept became a legend and, as is the way with legends, every teller of the story felt the need to add a personal twist. Winston Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, wrote an excellent little book about men in combat called The Anatomy Of Courage, drawing on his experiences as a young Medical Officer on the Western Front. In discussing that often unpredictable moment at which a strong man breaks, he recalls something he once read, or was told, about the fighting in Flanders in 1917.
‘During the Battle of Passchendaele a very senior staff officer asked to be taken to the battlefield. His mind was saturated with all its details; his practised eye took in the scene. Suddenly he said to those with him “What is that stream there?” “That, sir,” said an officer pointing to the map, “is this road.” When the staff officer saw for the first time what he had asked his men to do, he broke down and wept bitterly.’
The thriller writer, Dennis Wheatley, who served as a subaltern on the Western Front, remembers the general who wept in his autobiography The Time Has Come – except what he actually writes is a mis-remembering of something he once read, or had brought to his attention, in Lloyd George’s War Memoirs.
‘One day a Cabinet Minister who was visiting the Front lunched there [GHQ]. Afterwards the Tank Brigadier blew his top, told the minister about the appalling state of affairs up at the Front and declared that the battle ought to be called off. When the Minister had gone, Haig’s Chief-of-Staff, General Sir Archibald Murray [sic], had the Brigadier on the mat and gave him hell for having dared to criticise the strategy of the Army High Command … The Brigadier protested he was right and asked the General to come up to the Front with him and see what it was like there for himself … A Rolls was sent for … When they could go no further Sir Archibald Murray stared appalled at the endless sea of mud. Then he exclaimed, “Can we really have been sending men to attack across this!” And he burst into tears.’
Starting off as an anonymous staff officer, the general who wept took twenty years to acquire a name. As Sir Launcelot Kiggell he ‘sobbed’ and ‘burst into tears’ and ‘broke down’ for a further twenty years while his car ‘lurched through the swampland’ or ‘approached’ the battlefield of Passchendaele. In 1934 he was ‘uneasy’ as he neared the combat zone; in 1954 he was ‘restive and unhappy’. By 1978 he had changed his name to Sir Archibald Murray [the wrong general entirely] and had traded in his ‘staff car’ for a ‘Rolls’.
The one thing we can say for sure is that the general who wept at Passchendaele, whether he did so or not, has become too powerful an archetype for writers to ignore. His tears, like those of Judas, offer a gesture of atonement so inadequate it only emphasises the full worth of those stalwart, Christ-like Tommies who, between 1914 and 1918 in Belgium and France, saved the sum of things worth saving in exchange for a shilling a day. I guess that’s why, in cases like this where the facts don’t quite confirm the legend, we print the legend every time.
Chris Moore’s novel about the First World War, The Hoarse Oaths Of Fife, was on the shortlist for the HWA Debut Crown Award in 2016. He also runs thegreatwarbookshop.com, specialising in the history and literature of 1914 – 1918.
- Wounded Canadians on way to aid-post during the Battle of Passchendaele, Library and Archives Canada
- Zonnebeke by Sir William Orpen, 1918, currently in the Tate
- Canadian soldiers survey a destroyed German bunker, Library and Archives Canada
- The morning after the first battle of Paschendaele, by Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia