General Kiggell’s Tears

One of the most enduring myths that have circulated about the War is the one about General Kiggell, Haig’s chief of Staff from 1915 to 1917. Kiggell was the man who was supposed to have burst into tears at Passchendaele when he saw the appalling mud, saying, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in this!”

The story has been used, of course, to prove the utter ignorance of the general staff about battle conditions. I gather that Brian Bond has proved conclusively that he never said any such thing. In fact, it’s inconceivable that he would have done. The mud was not a secret – it was even on the front page of the Daily Mirror:mirror mud

Even more prevalent than the myth of Kiggell’s tears is the myth that people at home had no idea at all of what conditions were like. But here is Percival Phillips writing in the Daily Express of August 17,1917:

The mud was our men’s greatest grievance. It clung to their legs at every step. When a heavily-laden infantryman pulled one boot free he carried great cakes of clay with it, and even with the cowering Prussians plainly visible in their craters he had to stop and shake free his feet. ..
Frequently they had to pause to pull their comrades from the treacherous mire – figures embedded to the waist, some of them still trying to fire their rifles at a spitting machine gun.

Those “cowering Prussians” come from the propagandists’ stereotype-cupboard. But about the weather reporters seem to have kept the British public accurately informed (You can find similar accounts in the reports of Beach Thomas and Philip Gibbs).

One Comment

  1. Posted January 22, 2007 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    A month after writing it, I feel dubious about this post. I’m sure that Brian Bond is right to discredit the myth about Kiggell, but I don’t think my my argument about press photos is convincing.

    However many photos of the mud you’d seen, I reckon you’d still say,”My God!” when you saw the actuality. And tears wouldn’t be out of order.

    Just as, these days, we’ve all seen plenty of authentic TV footage of the war in Iraq, and we’ve heard and read some good reporting of it – but I suspect we’d still be only partly prepared for seeing the situation in that unhappy country at first hand.


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