To lead from the front or not…

Reading AC Martin’s regimental history of the Durban Light Infantry in World War 2, I was intrigued to come across the following on p246:

It was a mere nine days since Auchinleck had taken over command of Eighth Army and in that time the change in fortunes was remarkable. Auchinleck, who believed that a “Commander should be as close behind the line as he could be without risking dislocation by capture or bombardment”, had conducted the operations from behind the Ruweisat Ridge in uncomfortable and austere conditions, not much to the liking of some of his Staff or members of the Press. He wished to live in the same atmosphere as his men. He considered it good for his morale and that of the Army. Certainly he would the better be able to appreciate the atmosphere of the battlefield. His influence on the operations was immediately felt by Rommel who commented at the time:
“General Auchinleck, who had meantime taken over command himself at El Alamein, was handling his forces with very considerable skill and tactically better than Ritchie had done. He seemed to view the situation with decided coolness, for he was not allowing himself to be rushed into accepting a ‘second best’ solution by any moves we made. This was to be particularly evident in what followed.” (The Rommel Papers, edited by Liddell Hart, p. 248.)
By the 4th July Rommel had been forced onto the defensive and, as his intercept service warned him that Auchinleck was about to thrust from the south at his right rear, he withdrew 21st Panzers from Ruweisat Ridge leaving 15th Panzers in a precarious position. There is evidence to suggest that had a decided thrust been made along Ruweisat Ridge at this time by 1st Armoured Division, the results would have been spectacular. As it was, some 200 German infantry surrendered and many more were probably prevented from doing so by their own guns.
The offensive ordered by Auchinleck was not well co-ordinated or pressed by 13 Corps…

Why this is intriguing is that there seems to be some debate as to whether it is better for commanders to lead from the front or behind. This was one of the issues concerning the 1914-18 war in Africa, especially under Jan Smuts’ command. Smuts commanded from the front – ignoring his General Staff and getting himself into corners. However, his opposite number, German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck seems to be highly regarded for his management of the campaign, many ignoring the fact that he also led from the front, and in fact was injured a few times. A little further on in Martin’s history (p294), he lists the commanders who tended to lead from the front, including Rommel, Bismarck, and Willoughby Norrie who led the South Africans into Sidi Rezeg ‘perched on a tank’.

With my focus being World War 1, with greater insights into commanders did before 1914 rather than after 1918, I had formed the view that leading from the front was out of fashion – until reading Martin. So I knew that Kitchener, for example, had got himself into trouble on the few occasions he was on the battlefield – where he lost sight of the big picture but also aware that for some cultures, that was what commanders or leaders did. The Indian officers and many African commanders moved with their men. This showed courage and solidarity. Auckinleck was able to galvanise his soldiers to greater heights being with them and showing he understood their position compared with comments one hears about Haig and others who, in WW1, stayed behind the lines.

No doubt, this debate will continue – it was one of the issues David Katz intended to address in his latest book on Smuts, but did not succeed in resolving. There are arguments for and against both leading from the front and from behind. Van Deventer, a man whose military approach needs investigating, seems to have got the balance right (at least from what I can see) and I wonder if that too, isn’t the reason many think Reginald Hoskins made a good commander.

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