Casualties of ineptitude

John Crosbie
Published on July 6, 2013

First in a three-part series


How important is sound and solid leadership? Let’s just say it can be a matter of life and death.

“Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest,” by Wade Davis — a book hailed by the Globe and Mail as “a near masterpiece” — deals with what caused Englishmen to suffer so terribly from bad leadership during the First World War, that if they survived they had a burning desire for redemption.

The inept leadership of the British commander of its general staff, Gen. Douglas Haig, is particularly worthy of attention.

As Davis points out, by 1914 Britain had not fought a major continental war in a century; as a result, the high command of the British defence services “exhibited a stubborn disconnection with reality so complete as to merge

at times with the criminal.”

As a result, the author reports that the cult of the amateur, militantly anti-intellectual resulted in a leadership that, with some exceptions, was obtuse, wilfully intolerant of change, and incapable, for the most part, of innovative thought or action.

As late as March 1916, after 20 months of fighting, Haig, the British commander in chief, insisted in holding in reserve three full divisions of mounted troops, 50,000 men, ready at all hours to exploit the breakthrough at the front that would never come.

Haig sought to limit the number of machine guns per battalion, concerned that their presence might dampen the men’s offensive spirit. For similar reasons, he resisted the introduction of the steel helmet, which was shown to reduce head injuries by 75 per cent, later in the war. In the summer of 1914 he dismissed the airplane as an overrated contraption, and he had little use for light mortars, which in time became the most effective of all trench weapons.  

Even in 1926, as Britain mourned the death of nearly one million men, Haig wrote about the future of war: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Airplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse — the well-bred horse — as you have ever done in the past.”

At the beginning of the book we are introduced to an Englishman, Arthur Wakefield, born in 1876. What makes this book so relevant to us Newfoundlanders and Labradorians is the fact that Wakefield, a man of deep religious faith and a devout Anglican, after completing medical training following participation in the Boer Wars, joined the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. That led to his meeting Sir Wilfred Grenfell, who had established a series of remote missions along the rocky shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Wakefield arrived in Newfoundland in 1908, which was a time when cod still blackened the sea and caplin runs were so abundant that their spawn softened the rocks and greased the shores with roe. For six years Wakefield lived a life of considerable hardship, with intense cold in winter, clouds of mosquitoes in summer, and a diet of little but flour and grease, molasses, tea, caribou meat and salted fish.

He travelled, sometimes by dog team, by horse, on foot, or by skiff, patrolling the entire length of Labrador, a broken coastline of about 5,000 miles. In that entire land he was one of only two qualified doctors.

When the war came to Newfoundland in the summer of 1914, and word reached Labrador of the hostilities, Wakefield left immediately for St. John’s to attend a high-level government meeting on Aug. 10.

Wakefield still retained his rank of captain and was consulted because he had been active in the creation of a Newfoundland arm of the Legion of Frontiersmen, an empire-wide militia that had originated in the Boer Wars.

Using family money, he had personally equipped all the Newfoundland force. Rifles were in short supply in 1914 in Newfoundland, so on Aug. 21, when the government issued a call for 500 volunteers with pay equal to that of the Canadians, and free transport to St. John’s from any corner of the colony, it was inevitable that among the first to respond would be those already recruited by Wakefield. He went with them, and following disembarkation at Plymouth, they were transported to a training camp at Salisbury Plain.  

Wakefield did not stay with the Newfoundland regiment since his medical training meant he needed to be attached to a casualty-clearing station. He remained in that role for some of the worst fighting in France. It became obvious in the first months of the war that the number of dead and wounded quickly reached levels not previously contemplated, with the men suffering injuries of a kind and severity never before experienced.

“New conditions of morbidity overwhelmed everything that had been taught in medical schools with the result that amputation and radical surgery became the norm

as doctors raced against time to defeat the infectious spread of


There would be many more casualties to come, and no sacrifice any greater than our own.


Next week: the wrong weapon


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