THE GROUND WAS literally sodden with blood. In the four months of the Third Battle of Ypres, British and Commonwealth forces had suffered appalling casualties in seizing 10 acres of shell-wrecked Belgian soil. Believing that his summer 1917 offensive would be the one to finally break open the front and get the war moving again, when his “Big Push” sputtered to a halt, a frustrated Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig sent a well-groomed member of his staff to the front to see what was happening.
A million shells had struck every mile Lt. Gen. Sir Launcelot Edward Kiggell crossed in his staff car. It was another miserable wet day in Flanders, and the general’s mood darkened with each mud-caked and miserable Tommy he passed along the road. Finally, unable to bear any more, Kiggell blurted out, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” The veteran British officer then broke down in tears. As he was whisked away, a companion tried to comfort him, telling him the ground was even worse up ahead.
It was the first time during the battle for Passchendaele that Kiggell had visited the front. His superior, Haig, had never been there. More than 440,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers had become casualties—35 killed for every meter of ground taken. British military theorist Captain Basil Liddell Hart later wrote that Kiggell’s exclamation “revealed on what a foundation of delusion and inexcusable ignorance his indomitable ‘offensives’ had been based.”
Kiggell’s breakdown is perhaps an extreme example of the distance often separating those who make decisions in war from those ordered to carry them out. But with each new conflict and every new technological advance, the battlefield has grown in scope and complexity. Compare the battles of the ancient world, where a commander could sit astride his horse on a piece of high ground and see the entire action, with the recent invasion of Iraq, where the battlefield is the whole country.
In World War II, generals, admirals and field marshals, many of whom had led nothing larger than a division or flotilla before the war, were suddenly making decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men on battlefields that could stretch across continents. For this reason the soldiers doing the fighting and dying on the battlefields of Europe, Russia, North Africa and the Pacific frequently felt that their orders were being drafted by men who had little or no idea of what was occurring at the front.
While the difficulties of distance offer some explanation for why many commanders were unaware of what was happening at every point along the front, it does not excuse those leaders who failed to familiarize themselves with battlefield conditions or absolve them of responsibility for the outcome of their decisions.
The unexpected tenacity of the German defenders of the Hürtgen Forest was as shocking to First Army commander Courtney Hodges as it was to the unfortunate men of the 9th Infantry Division who stumbled blindly into the heavily defended woods in September and October 1944 and suffered terribly. Tragically, though the GIs quickly realized the horrors that awaited them in the woods, leaders at the highest levels of command did not. Stars on helmets were a rare sight in the Hürtgen. Gazing at maps from the safety of headquarters far behind the lines, the generals poured division after division into the battle. Each fought on until it was shattered, its troops too exhausted to continue. The fight for the tiny village of Schmidt alone cost the First Army more men than it had lost on Omaha Beach. Eleven divisions would eventually be consumed in clearing the 50-mile patch of pine trees that Ernest Hemingway called “Passchendaele with tree bursts.”