[PW] Origin of "Generals" quote?

T. F. Mills phasco at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 6 09:37:59 PDT 2012

Katherine Harper wrote:

> My guess would be that this dates from around 1914, when innovations
> like air bombardment and gas warfare were in use but the armies still
> relied on mules and horses for transport and instructions to troops
> still had to be carried by hand across active battlefields. 

Albert Einsten wrote in 1946:  "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything 
save our modes of thinking...."   I think this notion that human thinking in war (strategy and 
tactics) was failing to keep up with technology dates to the 1850s and specifically the 
Crimean War.  The pace of change before that was slow enough that thought could keep 

Europe experienced a 40-year peace from 1815 to 1854 that significantly dulled 
generalship.  The result was a classic tragi-comedy of errors in the Crimea  involving old 
French and British generals who had last experienced war fighting each other 40 years 
earlier.  The French commander Armand de Saint-Arnaud died of a heart attack while 
watching the battle of the Alma.  The allied commander Lord Raglan (FitzRoy Somerset) 
kept referring to his French ally as "the enemy."   London Times correspondent William 
Russell noted Raglan's incompetence at the time.  I don't think he ever quite used words to 
the effect that generals were fighting the last war, but the essence that Raglan's head was 
still in the Napoleonic wars was definitely implied.  (He had been a junior officer at the time.)  
Raglan then became the prototype for the proverb.  

Less than a decade later, both sides in the  American Civil War were very much in the same 
mind-trap, employing close-order drill that modern fire-power could no longer support, 
resulting in the worst blood-letting in American history.  Since then it has been proverbial 
that generals are not futurists, let alone able to keep up with the implications of present 
technology, the penchant in some armies for instantaneous "lessons learned" 
notwithstanding.  Norman Schwarzkopf is a little noticed case in point since he actually won 
the 1991 Gulf war.  He waged a classic, simple 19th century strategy against an enemy that 
was crippled by insanity at the top.  Given equal resources, any armchair general like me 
should have been able to fight Schwarzkopf's lack of imagination at least to a stalemate.  
Another example is the machine gun.  First used with deadly effect in the American Civil 
War and British colonial wars thereafter, First World War generals still had failed to adapt to 
its devastating power.  I think that's when the proverb really entered common parlance.

T.F. Mills 
(Colorado, USA)

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