Lions led by donkeys

Lions led by donkeys

"Lions led by donkeys" is a phrase popularly used to describe the British infantry of the First World War and to condemn the generals who commanded them. The contention is that the brave soldiers (lions) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (donkeys). The phrase was the source of the title of one of the most scathing examinations of British First World War generals, "The Donkeys" by British historian Alan Clark.

Origins of phrase

The origins of the phrase pre-date the First World War. During the Crimean War, "The Times" of London wrote of the British Army, "The Russians say we are lions led on by asses". "The Times" recycled the phrase as "lions led by donkeys" with reference to French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War. There were numerous examples of its use during the First World War, referring to both the British and the Germans.


Clark attributed the phrase to a conversation between German generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann.

:"Ludendorff: The English soldiers fight like lions."

:"Hoffmann: True. But don't we know that they are lions led by donkeys."

The conversation was supposedly published in the memoirs of General Erich von Falkenhayn, the German chief of staff between 1914 and 1916. Hoffmann served the entire war on the Eastern Front and so never encountered British forces.

A less well known book to use the phrase for its title was "Lions Led by Donkeys" by Captain P.A. Thompson, published in 1927, the subtitle of which was "Showing how victory in the Great War was achieved by those who made the fewest mistakes."

Richard Connaughton's book "Rising sun and tumbling bear: Russia's war with Japan" (p 32), also attributes a later quotation to Colonel J. M. Grierson (later Sir James Grierson) in 1901, when reporting on the Russian contingent to the Boxer Rebellion, describing them as 'lions led by asses'.

Dubious alternative formulation and attribution

In an article on the origin of the title of a 2007 film, Lions for Lambs, The Times wrote without attribution: "One such composition included the observation, 'Nowhere have I seen such Lions led by such Lambs.' While the exact provenance of this quotation (in its original German, “Ich habe noch nie solche Löwen gesehen, die von solchen Lämmern geführt wurden.”) has been lost to history, most experts agree it was written during the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest clashes in modern warfare. While some military archivists credit the author as an anonymous infantryman, others argue that the source was none other than General Max von Gallwitz, commander of the German forces during the battle. In either case, it is generally acceptedwho to be a derivation of Alexander the Great’s proclamation, 'I am never afraid of an army of Lions led into battle by a Lamb. I fear more the army of Lambs who have a Lion to lead them.'”cite news | last = Times Online | title = What's the significance of the title 'Lions for Lambs'? | publisher = Times | date = October 16 2007 | url =

See also

*Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs


Rees, Nigel. Brewer's Famous Quotations. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2006)

External links

* [ The Western Front Association: "British Military Leadership In The First World War", John Terraine, 1991]
* [ Centre for First World War Studies: Lions Led By Donkeys]
* [ National archives: Learning Curve WW1]

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