|Monday, 20 October 2008 19:53|
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig,
Born: June 19, 1861, Edinburgh
Died: January 29, 1928, London.
Notable because: As 'the butcher of the Somme' gave the orders that sent countless hundreds of thousands of boys to miserable certain death in the Somme, Passchendaele and other monuments to mindless stupidity.
Haig was a British soldier and senior commander (field marshal) during World War I. He commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1915 to the end of the War. Most notably he was commander during the Battle of the Somme, the 3rd Battle of Ypres and the series of victories leading to the German surrender in 1918.
Haig was born in Edinburgh, the son of John Haig, who was head of the family's successful Haig & Haig whisky distillery. Haig attended Clifton College and unusually for a British officer at that time attended university, studying at Brasenose College, Oxford 1880-1883. He left without a degree, partially due to sickness, and perhaps also as he would otherwise have been too old to enrol for officer training in the Royal Military College in Sandhurst in 1883, from which he graduated the following year.
He was then granted a special nomination to the British Military Staff College, a common practice in the day for promising candidates, despite being colour-blind. He was commissioned into the 7th (Queen's Own) Hussars the following year and promoted to lieutenant shortly afterwards
Haig married the Hon. Dorothy Vivian, a daughter of Hussey Vivian, 3rd Baron Vivian and a lady-in-waiting at the court of King Edward VII on 11 July 1905. His wife became Lady Haig in 1909 and the Countess Haig when her husband was granted an earldom in 1919.
The couple had four children:
Haig first saw overseas service in India, in 1887, where he was appointed as the regiment's adjutant in 1888, giving Haig his first administrative experience.
He saw his first active service in Kitchener's Omdurman Campaign in 1898, where he was attached to the cavalry forces of the Egyptian Army, acting as Chief of Staff to brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Broadwood.
He served in the Boer War in further administrative positions with the cavalry, acting first as the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General in 1899. Haig was employed briefly as Chief Staff Officer to Major-General John French during the Colesburg operations, then as Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division. He was mentioned in despatches four times. His service in South Africa gained him prominence and the attention of French and Kitchener, both of whom would have important roles in World War I.
In 1901, he became the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers, which he commanded until 1903. He was appointed Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII in 1902, remaining in this position until 1904. After leaving the 17th Lancers, Haig returned to India after Lord Kitchener was appointed Commander-in-Chief, India, and became Inspector-General of Cavalry. Haig's war service had earned him belated but rapid promotion: having been a captain until the relatively advanced age of thirty-eight, within five years in 1904 he had become the youngest major-general in the British Army at that time.
Haig returned to Britain in 1906 as the Director of Military Training on the General Staff at the War Office. During this time, Haig assisted Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane in his reforms of the British Army, which was intended to prepare the army for a future European war. He took up the post of Director of Staff Duties in the War Office in 1907. A second return to India came in 1909, when he was appointed as Chief of the Indian General Staff. He was appointed GOC Aldershot from 1912 to 1914 and Aide-de-Camp to King George V in 1914.
In the Army Manoeuvres of 1912 he was decisively beaten by Sir James Grierson despite having the odds in his favour. On the outbreak of the First World War, Grierson was appointed commander of II Corps (alongside Haig as commander of I Corps) but died suddenly of natural causes before having a chance to command in battle.
Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914, Haig helped organise the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal John French. As planned, Haig's Aldershot command was formed into I Corps, giving him command of half of the BEF.
Tensions quickly exploded between Haig and French. Haig and Lord Kitchener, who was now Secretary of State for War, clashed with French over the positioning of the BEF. French argued to the war council that it should be positioned in Belgium, where he had confidence in the country's many fortresses, while Haig and Kitchener proposed that the BEF would be better positioned to counter-attack in Amiens, stating that the BEF would have to abandon its positions in Belgium once the poorly-equipped Belgian Army collapsed, forcing the BEF into retreat with the loss of much of its supplies. During a royal inspection of Aldershot, Haig had told King George V that he had "grave doubts" about French's military competence.
The BEF landed in France on 14 August and advanced into Belgium, where John French intended to meet General Lanrezac's French Fifth Army at Charleroi. During the advance the BEF experienced their first encounter with the Germans at Mons on 23 August. The Germans were bloodied in the battle but the BEF began a withdrawal after Lanzerac ordered his army into retreat exposing the BEF's right flank.
The retreats of I and II Corps had to be conducted separately because of the Mormal Forest. Both corps were supposed to meet at Le Cateau but I Corps under Haig got no further than Landrecies, leaving a large gap between the two corps. Haig's reactions to his corps' skirmish with German forces at Landrecies led to him sending an exaggerated report to John French, causing French to panic, but Haig had been unwell immediately prior to this engagement, and this may have affected his judgement. The following day 26 August, Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps had to make a stand in the Battle of Le Cateau unsupported by Haig. This battle further delayed Germany's advance. The French commander Joseph Joffre had ordered his forces to retreat to the Marne on 25 August, compelling the BEF to undertake a lengthy and arduous withdrawal to conform to the French movements. Sir John French's faltering belief in the competence of his Allies caused further indecision and led to him deciding to pull the BEF out of the war by withdrawing south of the Seine. Lord Kitchener intervened on 1 September, making a visit to dissuade French and order him to continue cooperation with Joffre's forces. The stand to defend Paris began on 5 September, in the Battle of the Marne. The BEF weren't able to participate in the battle until 9 September. The battle ended the following day; the German advance was defeated, prompting them to initiate a withdrawal to the Aisne that signified the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan.
Following defensive successes at Battle of Mons and Ypres (1st Battle of Ypres), Haig was promoted to full general and in December 1914 the I Corps was expanded into the British First Army of which Haig received command.
In December 1915, Haig replaced French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, with French returning to Britain. Haig had been intriguing for the removal of French as commander of the BEF and had told King George V that French was "a source of great weakness to the army and no one had confidence in him any more".
From 1 July to 18 November 1916, he directed the British portion of a major Anglo-French offensive, the British offensive at the Somme. The time and place of the battle had been forced upon Haig by the French, who needed to relieve the pressure on the French Army at Verdun. The French insistence on Haig continuing the offensive on the Somme continued throughout the duration of the battle, even after the French went on the offensive at Verdun in October 1916. The forces under his command sustained around 420,000 casualties pushing the German front line back 12km (7 miles) and also inflicting casualties on the German Army it could ill-afford. Haig's tactics in these battles were considered controversial by many, including the then Secretary of State for War Lloyd George, who felt that he incurred unnecessarily large casualties for little tactical gain. At this stage Lloyd George was not able to intervene in strategy, as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, had been given direct right of access to the Cabinet, so as to bypass Lloyd George's predecessor Kitchener.
On 1 January 1917, Haig was made a field marshal. The King (George V) wrote him a handwritten note ending: "I hope you will look upon this as a New Year's gift from myself and the country". However, Lloyd George, who had become Prime Minister in December 1916, infuriated Haig and Robertson by placing Britain's forces under the command of the new French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle at a stormy conference at Calais. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 (which Haig had been required to support with a British offensive by Allenby's Third Army at Arras), and subsequent French mutiny and political crisis, discredited Lloyd George's plans for Anglo-French co-operation for the time being.
The second half of 1917 saw Haig conduct another major offensive at Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres); Haig had hoped to break through and liberate the North Sea coast of Belgium from which German U-Boats were operating but, like the Somme Offensive the previous year, Passchendaele saw huge casualties for very little territorial gain, although arguably inflicting losses on the Germans which contributed to their ultimate defeat. (When he asked the Canadian Corps commander Arthur Currie to capture Passchendaele Ridge during the final month of the battle, Currie flatly replied "It's suicidal. I will not waste 16,000 good soldiers on such a hopeless objective"; the casualties were almost exactly in line with Currie's prediction.) Although Lloyd George was unhappy about Haig's operations, it was still considered unthinkable for politicians to overrule the generals' professional monopoly over strategy.
The final months of 1917 also saw a tank breakthrough at Cambrai, whose gains (after the church bells had been rung in England in celebration) were retaken within days by the Germans using their new stosstruppen tactics. The uninspiring results on the Western Front in 1917 were thrown into unwelcome contrast by Allenby's capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, a propaganda coup from a campaign which Haig and Robertson had regarded as a waste of resources (Allenby had in fact been sent out to the Middle East after his failure at Arras earlier in the year). By the end of 1917 Lloyd George felt able to begin to assert his authority over the generals. Haig was required to dismiss his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Lancelot Kiggell (who had allegedly broken down in tears and asked "Did we really send men to fight in this?" on seeing the mud at Passchendaele) and his intelligence chief, Brigadier-General Charteris, whose overly-optimistic estimates of German losses had been a source of inspiration during Haig's offensives. Robertson had arrived at Haig's Headquarters with orders (signed by the Secretary of State for War) for these officers' dismissal in his pocket in case Haig refused to do as he was asked. Early in 1918 Robertson was himself forced to resign over his reluctance to accept that the newly set-up Supreme Allied War Council at Versailles should have power to dictate to the British CIGS (Lloyd George had also secured the resignation of the other service chief, First Sea Lord Admiral Jellicoe). Haig's predecessor Sir John French was invited to give the Cabinet a "second opinion" of Haig's strategy, although in the event he had few positive suggestions to make and seemed to the Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey to be full of "hatred, envy and malice". The Cabinet Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts was sent to France to take discreet soundings among the Army Commanders to see whether any of them were willing to replace Haig - none of them were. Lloyd George was later to be accused (in the famous Maurice Debate in the House of Commons) of hoarding troops in the UK at this time to make it harder for Haig to launch major offensives, thus allegedly contributing to the debacle of March 1918.
In 1918, Germany, her Western Front armies reinforced to a strength of almost 200 divisions by the release of troops from the Eastern Front, launched major offensives in the west, enjoying great initial success, albeit with greater superiority of men and guns than Haig had ever had for his own offensives. The first of these, Michael on 21 March 1918, almost destroyed Gough's Fifth Army, and threatened to split the British forces apart from the French Armies; Haig, whose own reserves had been massed in the north because of the danger of a German breakthrough reaching the Channel Ports through which his armies were supplied, accused the French Commander-in-Chief, Pétain, of being "in a blue funk" as he threatened to retreat on Paris, and was at last forced to accept the appointment of a Frenchman, Ferdinand Foch as Allied Generalissimo (Supreme Commander), with power to commit reserves of all nationalities wherever he saw fit. During the second German offensive, Georgette in Flanders, Haig issued his famous order that his men must carry on fighting "With Our Backs to the Wall and believing in the Justice of our Cause". Ironically these two German offensives swept over the very ground (the Somme and Passchendaele respectively) which Haig's own offensives had gained at such cost in previous years. A third major German offensive against the French on the Aisne in May overwhelmed a British corps which had been sent there to refit after Michael.
By the summer the German offensives were losing momentum, and in July and August the Germans were defeated, by Franco-American forces at the Second Battle of the Marne, and by Rawlinson's British/Australian/Canadian Fourth Army at Amiens. The latter victory, at which tanks were extensively used, was described by Ludendorff as "The Black Day of the German Army" after the mass surrenders of German troops which were seen. Haig's forces had much success between then and the end of the war, storming the Hindenburg Line in October and advancing into Belgium, almost as far as Brussels. There is some dispute over how much direct operational control Haig maintained at this time, Tim Travers in particular arguing that he allowed his Army Commanders (Plumer, Byng, Horne, Birdwood and Rawlinson) a very free hand, whilst at the same time Ferdinand Foch, whose role had initially been confined to advice and deployment of reserves, was exerting ever-greater influence over strategy. However, the forces under Haig's command achieved impressive results: whereas the French, American and Belgian armies combined captured 196,700 prisoners-of-war and 3,775 German guns between July 18 and the end of the war, Haig's forces, with a smaller army than the French, engaged the main mass of the German Army and captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns - around half of these British prisoners were captured by cavalry. The military historian, Gary Sheffield, called this, the so-called Hundred Days' Offensive 'by far the greatest military victory in British history'
Haig died, aged 66, on 29 January 1928 and was given a state funeral on 3 February. "Great crowds lined the streets ... come to do honour to the chief who had sent thousands to the last sacrifice when duty called for it, but whom his war-worn soldiers loved as their truest advocate and friend." The gun-carriage that carried the Unknown Warrior to his grave and, in active service, had borne the gun that fired the first British shot in World War I took the field marshal's body from St Columba's Church, Pont Street, London, where it had been lying in state, to Westminster Abbey. Three royal princes followed the gun-carriage and the pall-bearers included two Marshals of France (Foch and Pétain). The cortege was accompanied by five guards of honour at the slow march, with reversed arms and muffled drums: two officers and fifty other ranks from each branch of the British armed forces (Royal Navy, the Irish Guards, and the Royal Air Force); 50 men of the 1st French Army Corps; and 16 men from the Belgian Regiment of Grenadiers. After the service at the Abbey, the procession re-formed to escort the body to Waterloo Station for the journey to Edinburgh where it lay in state for three days at St Giles Cathedral. He was buried at Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish borders, his grave marked by a simple standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission white headstone.
After the war Haig was often criticised for issuing orders which led to excessive casualties of British troops under his command, particularly on the Western Front, earning him the nickname "Butcher of the Somme". Haig's critics include many younger officers who served in the First World War, making the criticism that they "fail[ed] to understand" the actual combat conditions of the war ring hollow - Haig himself never actually visited the main front though in his dispatches he described the appalling conditions of the Somme accurately. The military historian Basil Liddell Hart, who served as an officer on the Western Front (but whose combat experience was limited to the approximately seven weeks over 2 years before he was downgraded to fit only for Light Duties), accuses Haig of ignoring reality in his 1918 offensive.
The assault on Haig's reputation began with the memoirs of the politicians. Winston Churchill, whose "World Crisis" was written during Haig's lifetime (and whose own record as a war strategist in 1915 perhaps left something to be desired), likened him to a surgeon who had to act dispassionately for the long-term good of the patient, no matter how messy were the short-term means, although in another passage he accused him of blocking enemy machine-gun fire with "the breasts of brave men".
Lloyd George pulled fewer punches in his War Memoirs, published in 1936 when Haig was dead and Lloyd George no longer a major political player. In Chapter 89 he poured scorn on Haig's recently-published diaries (clearly "carefully-edited" by Duff Cooper), and described Haig as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task", and "second-rate" (compared to Foch - p2014) although "above the average for his profession - perhaps more in industry than intelligence". He attributed his own "distrust of his capacity to fill such an immense position" to Haig's lack of clear grasp even of the Western Front (likening him to "the blind King of Bohemia at Crecy"), let alone the needs of other fronts, and his inability, given his preference for being surrounded by courteous "gentlemen", to select good advisers. He also criticised Haig for lacking the personal magnetism of a great commander, for his intrigues against his predecessor Sir John French, his willingness to scapegoat Hubert Gough for the defeat of March 1918 (although he had actually defended him, and the alternative would probably have been Haig's own dismissal to boot), and his claims to have subsequently accepted the appointment of Foch as Allied Generalissimo, a move to which Lloyd George claimed Haig in fact to have been opposed. On another occasion he is said to have described Haig as "brilliant - to the top of his boots". Lloyd George's biographer John Grigg (2002) attributes his vitriol to a guilty conscience that he had not intervened to put a stop to the Passchendaele Offensive.
Today, after decades in which Haig's name has been blackened in popular culture (see below), many still regard Haig as an inept commander who exhibited callous disregard for the lives of his soldiers, repeatedly ordering tens of thousands of them to supposedly useless deaths during battles such as Passchendaele. Sometimes the criticism is not so much of Haig personally, as of the generation of British generals which he is deemed to represent - a view aired by writers such as John Laffin ("British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One") and John Mosier ("Myth of the Great War"). As recently as 1998 a major tabloid newspaper celebrated the anniversary of the Armistice by calling for the demolition of Haig's statue on Whitehall. Norman Stone describes Haig as the greatest of Scottish generals, since he killed the highest numbers of English soldiers at any front in history, perhaps a slightly facetious point as Scotland in fact suffered one of the highest proportionate losses of any Allied nation (Niall Ferguson - "The Pity of War").
Paul Fussell, in "The Great War and Modern Memory," writes that "although one doesn't want to be too hard on Haig ... who has been well calumniated already ... it must be said that it now appears was that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant -- especially of the French -- and quite humourless ... Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm."
Others gave him much praise. General of the Armies of the United States John Pershing remarked that Haig was "the man who won the war". Brian Bond, in his 2002 book The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History, says: "Perhaps, however, it is a mark of a civilized, liberal society that it hugs and cherishes its defeats, dwells obsessively on the worst combat conditions and on casualties and cannot forgive Field Marshal Haig for being victorious."
The most ardent of Haig's defenders was the military historian John Terraine, who published a biography of Haig (The Educated Soldier) in 1963, in which he claimed Haig was a "Great Captain" of the calibre of the Duke of Marlborough or the Duke of Wellington. Terraine, taking his cue from Haig's own "Final Despatch" of 1918, also argued that Haig pursued the only possible strategy given the situation the armies were in; that of attrition which wore down the German army and delivered the coup de grâce of 1918. Gary Sheffield has claimed that although Terraine's arguments about Haig have been much attacked over forty years, Terraine's thesis "has yet to be demolished".
Haig's defenders also argue that the British and Dominion forces under his command were adaptive users of new tactics and weapons during the war and that some of Haig's critics - who remain obsessed with the tank and the machine gun - fail to understand that throughout World War I, battles were dominated by artillery and the struggle to coordinate infantry and artillery attacks. His critics would respond that Haig failed to appreciate even the critical science of artillery or supporting arms, and that he was "unimaginative". The results of the battles of 1915 and 1916 - Loos and the early stages of the Somme - do indicate some truth to this criticism - that even the most basic support of infantry was typically lacking, either in volume or method of deployment. But there is some debate as to whether this is Haig's fault entirely, or whether he is blamed for the mistakes of his subordinates. Scholars such as Tim Travers (The Killing Ground; "How the War was Won") make detailed critiques of the British forces' speed of adapting new technology and techniques of warfare.
A more balanced view of Haig has been recently proffered by Australian historian Les Carlyon - that while Haig was slow to adapt to the correct use of artillery in sufficient quantities to support infantry attacks, and was generally sceptical that the science of such doctrine had much place in military theory, he was fully supportive of excellent corps and field commanders such as Herbert Plumer, Arthur Currie and John Monash, who seem to best grasp and exercise these concepts especially later in the war. Carlyon also points out that there is a case to answer for his support of more dubious commanders such as Ian Hamilton, Aylmer Hunter-Weston, and Hubert Gough.
Haig is sometimes criticised for his faith in cavalry. In fact cavalry were still used on the Western Front on occasion, even at High Wood during the Battle of the Somme as mounted infantry to add quick reinforcements when needed. More importantly, it should be borne in mind that even the tanks of 1918 were restricted to walking speed (and were mechanically unreliable, and overcame their crews with fumes - almost all those used at Amiens were out of action within forty-eight hours), and that cavalry were extensively used during the months of pursuit which followed. An after-dinner speech which Haig made to a gathering of cavalry officers in the 1920s, in which he remarked that the British Army would find as much use for "the well-bred horse" as for technology in the future, has been a particular source of mirth (Correlli Barnett described it as "fatuous" in his coffee-table book "Famous Land Battles") - yet even allowing for humorous exaggeration (and for the fact that he was possibly tailoring his speech to his audience!), Haig should perhaps not be faulted too hard for relying on his own experience in 1918, rather than failing to foresee the technological evolution of the internal combustion engine, and the consequent results which improved models of tank would achieve in the 1940s. It should also be remembered that German artillery and logistics were still partially horse-bound in the Second World War, so Haig was not too far off in his assessment.
Along with John Terraine and Gary Sheffield, historians such as Richard Holmes, and Gordon Corrigan are sympathetic towards Haig, Gordon Corrigan in particular arguing that if Haig had really been the blinkered uncaring incompetent of popular legend then he would not have delivered victory. They point out that he faced enormous problems, notably the inexperienced New Armies, the lack of effective battlefield communication (radios then being too large for the battlefield but telephone wires impossible to lay under artillery barrage, so that senior generals had little choice but to command from chateaux miles behind the front lines), the lack of a decisive arm, the application of new technology and political interference.
Historians favourable to Haig also argue, as did British generals such as Sir William Robertson and Haig at the time, that the Western Front (where a defeat for either side would have exposed either Paris or the Ruhr to occupation) was the decisive theatre of war, where the Germans deployed roughly two-thirds of their army - between 150 and 200 divisions - in well-developed positions, and argue that Lloyd George's schemes to engage the Germans on other fronts such as Palestine and Italy did little to bring Germany nearer defeat.
Modern historians also make the point that mass warfare between Western Armies in World War I (and indeed World War II, in which the most serious land fighting was done by the Soviets rather than the Western Allies) invariably led to huge casualties and that if there was an easy, cheap way to break the trench stalemate, no-one else found it on either side - Ludendorff's 1918 offensive became increasingly costly once the initial sledgehammer blow against the British Fifth Army had been accomplished, while Nivelle's promise of victory in 48 hours was completely illusory. The only occasion during WWII when Britain took a leading role in breaking the Axis armies in a major area of operations was the breakout from Normandy, which was roughly half the length and involved roughly half as many divisions as the Somme in 1916; on a unit-for-unit basis casualty rates in Normandy were proportionately higher than the battles of World War One.
Haig was played by Sir John Mills in Richard Attenborough's 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War, in which he is portrayed as being indifferent to the fate of the troops under his command, his goal being to wear the Germans down even at the cost of enormous losses and to prevail since the Allies will have the last 10,000 men left.
Haig's tactics were also a running joke on the 1989 BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, where Stephen Fry's role as General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, nicknamed 'Insanity' Melchett, with his vast moustache and callous disregard for the lives of his men is a popular caricature of British leadership, with elements of Haig and Lord Kitchener, although his personality is most like that of Sir Edmund 'The Bull' Allenby, without the latter's ability. Field Marshal Haig, played by Geoffrey Palmer, makes an appearance in the final episode, shown setting up toy soldiers on a battle map and then pushing them over, before sweeping them up with a dustpan and brush and throwing them in the bin. In the series, he is portrayed as a complete idiot, whose previous military experience is (supposedly) confined to fighting natives armed with fruit, and whom Blackadder had once saved from being castrated by a tribesman. His battle plans include 'climbing out of the trench and walking very slowly towards the enemy'. Despite using this plan, Haig cannot understand why the men always seem depressed.
Haig was one of the chief inspirations for the character of Herbert Curzon in C.S. Forester's novel The General, a sharp satire of the mentality of old-school British officers in the Great War.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:36|