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The meaning and origin of the expression: Lions led by donkeys

Lions led by donkeys

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Lions led by donkeys'?

This phrase is most commonly used as a description of the British soldiers of WWI.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Lions led by donkeys'?

Lions led by donkeysIt is widely thought that this expression originated as a reference to the British infantry of WWI (the lions), who were remorselessly sent to their deaths by their incompetence and remoteness of their generals (the donkeys).

The British politician Alan Clark alluded to this when he wrote a history of the war entitled The Donkeys. In that book he attributed the coinage of the phrase to the German soldier Max Hoffmann. That attribution isn't correct as the phrase, and variations on it, had been in wide use since the mid 19th century.

An early example is found in a newspaper report of the Siege of Sevastopol, 1855. The piece is in the American newspaper The Daily Journal, August 1855:

"It would be expecting too much of human endurance and courage, that forty thousand soldiers should longer maintain themselves against such an enemy, two hundred thousand strong, even though that army be, as the Russians say, "an army of lions led by donkeys."

Whether or not the phrase is Russian in origin isn't clear. It crops up in various European contexts in the latter part of the 19th century. It appears in France in this quotation from Francisque Sarcey, in Paris During The Siege, 1871, wrote that the French troops who had been defeated by the Prussians:

"Unceasingly had drummed into them the utterance of The Times: 'You are lions led by jackasses.'"

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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