Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War is one of the most widely known and most controversial figures of the Great War. Since his death in 1928, his name has instantly sparked a debate as to whether the failings of the British Army were down to him. Some people believe he is entirely responsible, calling him ‘an unfeeling butcher’ who refused to share the true horrors of the war, disregarded huge casualty lists and was an incompetent technophobe.
However, people can also argue that as a human, he was inevitably going to make mistakes and his tactics must have worked, as he led the army to an eventual victory in 1918. Haig’s family and contemporaries defended him constantly, claiming he was a ‘great military leader’. There is no doubt that Haig was an experienced leader; he passed Royal Military College in under a year and became a Captain at the age of 36. He spent time as a Staff Officer in the Sudan and became a Brigade Major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot, in the Boer War in South Africa.
On his return, he was awarded the CB and became a brevet Colonel in 1902. Undoubtedly, his training and upbringing shaped him as a person, and would have had a huge influence on his actions and the decisions he made during the war. Haig has been heavily criticised for prolonging the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele in 1916 and 1917 and creating large numbers of unnecessary casualties. The launch of the battle of the Somme was planned for 1st August 1916, the aim being to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.
However, French generals forced Haig to bring forward the launch date one month, meaning the British army were not fully prepared to launch a full scale attack. Haig went into battle having said; “No superiority of arms and ammunition, however great will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives” Haig knew that whatever he planned, men would die and he was prepared to accept it; casualties were the price of success. As the battle progressed casualty numbers rose significantly, even thought little advancement was made on the battlefield.
Haig had originally intended a cavalry breakthrough, but everything depended on the artillery and it soon became clear that he had attacked on too large a scale and halved the impact of the artillery. Despite the huge losses, Haig continued the advancement and came under huge criticism. People described him as “negligent”, however Haig was seriously misled, he genuinely believed that the Germans were weakening and a prolonged attack would eventually wear them down. Also, his excessive optimism and pride urged him to continue, he refused to admit defeat and it made him more determined to maintain the attack.
His vision of the attack itself was that of a “battering ram to be driven into enemy lines by prolonged barrage”. He had a very simplistic view and although he’d seen how useless the cavalry were, he continued to rely on them, showing his inability to learn from experience. This would have inevitably led to many of the mistakes he made in the later stages of the war. British casualties weren’t disproportionate to those of France and Germany but the British public were outraged at Haig for allowing the rates to get so high.
David Lloyd George began to criticise Haig in his memoirs, which were entirely propaganda sources. He was merely shifting the blame of the failings of the Somme onto Haig as he clashed with Haig on many levels, and disliked him and the way he handled military matters. Haig came under constant scrutiny over his actions during Passchendaele (also known as 3rd Ypres), which has been described as the “most futile and fore doomed of all the mature Haig offensives. ” Haig had experience in this field, as he had saved Ypres previously.
However, as in the Somme Haig had an over optimistic expectation of what he and his army were capable of. The main battlefield, Flanders was strongly defended which meant it would be difficult to attack, Haig had not inspected the battlefield himself and could not draw up a plan which was tactically accurate, and could also could be carried out on the land itself. A problem soon arose; the battlefield became a muddy bog, which meant that it was very difficult for the British to advance. This was no fault of Haig’s; he was merely unlucky.
However, meteorologists had told Haig that there would be no improvement in the battlefield conditions and warned him that attack would be difficult so it would be in his best interest to postpone the battle. Haig, being the persistent, determined general that he was, ignored the warning and continued with the attack. Haig justified the fact that he continued with the attack despite the huge losses in men and worsening battlefield conditions by saying it was “the last chance for the British to win the war before the arrival of the Americans. Passchendaele was finally taken on November 6th, after 3 months. The British had learnt from the attack that mobile war and heavy artillery were essential, but in the eyes of David Lloyd George, Haig was a failure. What Lloyd George failed to notice was how Haig let the army to overcome the torrential conditions of the battlefield. Only the British army would have managed this, giving strong evidence of Haig’s leadership skills. When Haig was buried in 1928, the majority of people branded him a “hero”. However, historians still had mixed views about his personality.
Paddy Griffith was a strong supporter of Haig, claiming he was in touch with his men, whereas people like John Laffin criticise him for being “a stubborn donkey. ” As a general, Haig knew that the strengths and weaknesses of his character would be exploited greatly and he would be under constant scrutiny. One of the major criticisms made of Haig was that he refused to share the horrors of the trenches, “while Haig slept in a cosy bed… his men lived in noisy, muddy trenches. ” Haig’s military training and upbringing had taught him to be detached from his men, to make losses more bearable.
The fact that he didn’t visit casualties on the front line can also be criticised, however Haig’s son claims that it was not down to his ignorance but because “it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty clearing stations because these visits made him physically ill. ” Haig was a communications port for the trench system, and he needed to stay away as much as possible in order to get a whole picture of what was going on, so he wouldn’t have visited the front line much. Also, communications were very poor, so it would have been difficult for Haig to keep in touch with his men.
In 1915, a general was shot and killed on the front line, so from then on generals were advised to refrain from visiting the front line. Haig has been heavily criticised for being a “technophobe” who refused to update his artillery as the war went on. Haig’s training had taught him never to give up on a battle, but to use the cavalry to finish off an attack. The Great War relied very heavily on artillery, and without a general that was able to recognise this and alter his tactics accordingly would not have eventually won the war.
Therefore, Haig cannot be criticised for failing to respond to the demands for new artillery. If Haig saw that a weapon would be useful in helping to win the war he welcomed it, despite the problems that came with it. He was able to see these problems, but fit them into his tactics and use them successfully. Although Haig can be blamed for not learning from previous attacks, after the success of the tanks in the battle of the Somme, he ordered 1000 of them, proving that he was able to move with the times. He was willing to do anything to help his army.
Haig’s religious upbringing undoubtedly influenced him as a person. He saw himself as “an instrument of God” which gave him total confidence and determination, which could often be mistaken for “stubbornness”. His optimism came from hid devout faith in God, in his diary he says; “the enemy has undoubtedly been severely shaken and he has few reserves in hand” which is showing his optimism in the breakthrough. However, some may argue that his optimism and determination was too severe and lead to him being heavily criticised.
Another problem that Haig had was his failure to communicate. Although he could write fluently, he had difficulties communicating properly with generals and politicians. Haig disliked it when the government became actively involved in military matters, which lead to conflicts with politicians. This didn’t help him as a general, as he was heavily criticised in David Lloyd George’s memoirs, which were a propaganda source. When Haig saw a problem with battles, instead of interfering, he preferred to stand back and allow them to correct it for themselves.
Many people criticise him for this saying he was “negligent” however, he was merely helping the generals work through the problems themselves. In conclusion, I do not feel that Haig was entirely to blame for the failings of the British war effort on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917, because although many criticisms were made, they are all justified in one way or another. Although large numbers of casualties occurred while the army was under Haig’s command, Haig knew these were inevitable, and without them, success would not have been possible.
Although Haig didn’t keep in close contact with the front line, this was not through stubbornness or ignorance, but due to the poor communication systems, and the warnings made to Haig that it wasn’t safe for a general to visit the front lines. Haig is also criticised for failing to alter his tactics to fit in with the times, however this isn’t entirely true. He did experiment with different tactics such as the creeping barrage and mining tunnels.
Also, after the notable success of the tanks on the Somme, Haig ordered a large number of these, showing he was able to adapt to new technologies. Haig prolonged the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele longer than many people think he should have done, sending men over the top to die. However, due to the poor communications in the trenches, Haig was lead to believe that the Germans were weakening and it would not be long before they collapsed under the pressure, even though this was not entirely true.
These battles made eventual victory in 1918 possible. Although Haig may be described as “cold” and “remote” this is down to his military and religious upbringing. He was taught to never give up, and as he believed he was put as a general by the control of God, he felt it was his duty to lead the army to success. The only way he could do this was by perseverance. After the war, Haig was praised and supported for his actions, which lead the army to success.
Haig was stubborn, determined and insensitive enough to deal with the casualties. If he became too attached, it would cloud his judgement and make him unable to continue with his duties, as casualties were inevitable. Haig cannot be entirely blamed for the failings, as one man cannot be held responsible for the actions of a huge army consisting of thousands of men. Overall, I think some of the criticisms made of Haig are fair, but many of them are made without seeing the whole picture.