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Remembrance Day, leadership and some lessons from history

Remembrance Day weekend has just passed, when we commemorated 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front and remembered the fallen from all other conflicts before and since the First World War. In this blog, Professor Keith McLay, the University of Derby’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education, writes about leadership and the lessons from history.

By Professor Keith McLay - 12 November 2018

It’s not far from a truism to say that at this time of year, alongside the appropriate marking of the sacrifice during the World War, the debate over World War One Generalship and the wider qualities of military leadership is always dusted down.

The book, The Donkeys (1961), by the late Conservative MP, Defence Minister, diarist and lothario, Alan Clark, has largely framed the argument on this topic. Taking its title from the popular phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’, the book’s contention was that the First World War Generals were generally wrongheaded, stubborn, and out of touch: fighting, atop their trusty steeds, a modern war with a strategy and tactics drawn from the military playbook of the 19th century.

By contrast, Clark argued, the lion-like courage, sacrifice, resourcefulness and accountability on the front line demonstrated by the rank and file and non-commissioned officers enabled Britain to extract herself successfully from the conflict after four years without generations more being decimated.

The epitome of this ‘donkey’ leadership was the alleged remoteness of the Generals, housed in French Châteaux far from the front line. Clark’s view of, and charges against, the Western Front Generals were wonderfully popularised by the TV series Blackadder Goes Forth. Specifically, on the characterisation of the Châteaux-Generals, aficionados of the series will recall the episode in which Stephen Fry’s General Melchett makes a rare visit to the trenches to offer the troops some encouraging words and departs with the breezy charge to Baldrick, “Remember if you should falter, Captain Darling and I are behind you”. Thereby teeing up Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Blackadder to comment wryly, “about 35 miles behind you”.

Brilliant comedy, obviously, and a sketch which has resonance due to its foundation in reality; but, of course, satire is a blunt instrument and Clark’s book is insufficiently nuanced and appreciative of the range of historical evidence. In recent years, historians have been reclaiming the Generals and their conduct from this opprobrium. The reputation of Field Marshall Douglas, Earl Haig who commanded at the Battle of Somme, 1916, and the Battle of Arras, 1917, is a case in point.

In an article for BBC News on 7 November 2018, the historian and biographer Professor Gary Sheffield reminded us not to employ historical present-centredness, or hindsight, when assessing the military leaders of the past. Professor Sheffield argued that far from being remote and out of touch as a leader, Haig was actively involved in reflecting and learning from his leadership, and that of others, in what were new and unique military circumstances for the British High Command. That is not to excuse or explain away the tragic loss of life on the Western Front, but it allows for a more complete and balanced picture and understanding.

Naturally, the debate continues – historians are a disputatious lot – but regardless of where your sympathies may lie, the history serves to highlight a wider point about leadership. Namely, leadership exists at all levels, in many contexts and from different perspectives. Its exercise is dynamic, requiring reflection and learning, and its immediate results may doubtless not meet the bar of hindsight. However, witty apercus, such as that from Captain Blackadder, do a disservice to those whoever, wherever and whenever step forward to lead. Only debated and disputed History can judge.

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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