Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
Posted on 12th February 2021
Hailed as a hero at the time of his greatest triumph he has since been vilified as a stubborn and unimaginative man who condemned the soldiers who served under him to years of purposeless slaughter. Yet despite the criticism that would ultimately come his way he had just led the British Army to arguably the greatest series of victories in its military history.
He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1861 the eleventh child of the whisky distiller John Richard Haig and as a younger son not a great deal was expected of him as a younger son and in this respect at least he wouldn’t disappoint neither excelling at school nor making much of an impression, but he did work hard which was duly noted.
His academic achievements were to remain limited despite his time at Oxford University from where he didn’t graduate choosing instead to train as an Army Officer where it was said his polo playing would hold him in good stead. They weren’t wrong and his time at Sandhurst Military Academy was a great success, and he took to military life as a duck does to water. In 1885, he was Commissioned in the 7th Queen’s Hussars and posted to India. In 1898 he fought at the Battle of Omdurman and a little later served in South Africa during the Boer War where he was recommended, for the Victoria Cross but failed to meet the necessary requirements not that this was to prove a setback to a man whose career was clearly on an upward curve.
On 11 July 1905, he married Dorothy Maud Vivian, the daughter of the Third Baron Vivian and a former Maid-of-Honour to Queen Victoria in the Chapel at Buckingham Palace. He was now not only the scion of a wealthy family but also a well-connected one.
By the time of the Great War, he was Britain’s youngest Major-General in command of a Division, and in December 1915, he replaced Sir John French as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was not an obvious choice and in this respect his connections had served him well for he was a man of few words who made for a poor conversationalist which some took this to be a sign of stupidity; but he did at least look every inch the soldier being tall, ramrod straight, and always immaculately turned out.
The British Expeditionary Force, the ‘Old Contemptible’ had been reduced to a rump by the battles of the previous year and so the army Haig inherited was a largely untried volunteer one made up of so-called Pal’s Battalions. the formation of which Lord Kitchener had encouraged to boost recruitment.
Haig, who trained as a Cavalry Officer firmly believed that their use at the pivotal time was still the key to victory in any battle, but he also believed that the concentration of force and overwhelming firepower were required to create the opportunity for the breakthrough to be made.
The Allies had long planned a major offensive on the Western Front close to the River Somme in Picardy but the German assault on the French fortress town of Verdun had increased its urgency and so it would be brought forward as a diversionary attack to relieve the pressure on the hard pushed French. This was despite the fact Haig felt his army ill-prepared to undertake such an offensive, they had little experience and were far from battle hardened but Kitchener as Minister of War recognised that something needed to be done. Even so, Haig persisted to voice his concerns.
But as time passed the British High Command became more confident of victory. After all, a ferocious artillery bombardment had been battering the German trenches for the best part of a week, but unlike the shallow British trenches which were little more than jump off points for an offensive the Germans were well dug in. They may have skulked and cowered in a myriad of underground tunnels and concrete bunkers as the artillery barrage raged above them and the ground appeared to move beneath them terrified and driven insane by the relentless ear-splitting noise, but they remained for the most part physically unscathed.
To the waiting British troops witnessing the scene it seemed that no living thing could possibly survive such a bombardment and the rumour soon began to circulate that they would meet little if any resistance at all.
Unknown to them however, of the 1,437 artillery pieces deployed only a quarter of them were heavy guns capable of penetrating the German defences and over half of the munitions fired were shrapnel shells useless against heavily dug-in troops. Of the few high explosive shells used many did not detonate on impact. Also, the British did not have enough shells and the rate of fire had already begun to ease long before the troops were ordered to leave their trenches and at the very time when it should have been at its fiercest. Yet Haig remained confident of a swift breakthrough, unaware that the bombardment had failed even to cut the German wire.
At 07.30 the troops were summoned to leave their trenches by the whistles of their Officers and as they advanced in regular formation at walking pace, loaded with full packs some could be heard joking and laughing among themselves. One Battalion even passed a football around such was their confidence. But the Germans soon emerged from their trenches and the advancing British troops were to become easy prey to the devastating fire of their machine guns.
The first day on the Battle Somme was little short of a massacre with the British suffering 57,470 casualties, 21,492 of whom were killed. More than 60% of those Officers who participated were to perish, and some units were virtually wiped-out including 1st Newfoundland Regiment who lost more than 600 of the 801 men who set out.
But the battle was not to end there, Haig believed its first phase to have been a remarkable success despite none of its first day objectives having been obtained and so the attacks continued though at targeted sectors of the front rather than as an all-out offensive.
On 15 September however, reassured by intelligence reports suggesting the German Army was close to cracking and a breakthrough imminent renewed the offensive once more but again the assault failed to achieve the breakthrough predicted. Even so, it was only in October with the arrival of torrential rain which made any further attacks impossible that the offensive was finally called off. After three months of the most bitter and sustained fighting the British along with their French allies had advanced just five miles at the cost of 420,000 casualties, including 130,000 dead. Haig had got his strategy wrong, the battle itself was badly bungled, and those few gains made were never exploited. But he never considered it a failure: “The results of the Somme fully justify my confidence in our ability to master the enemy’s power of resistance.”
The high number of casualties he approached with fortitude and expected others to do the same. It was not the place of those in positions of command to be troubled by such things.
On 7 June 1917, a massive mine was detonated under the German held Messines Ridge in a blast so loud that it was heard as far away as London. By the time the smoke cleared more than 10,000 German troops lay either dead in or buried under the earth and rubble so dazed and confused they surrendered without a fight. The assault that swiftly followed achieved all its objectives as they so often did when the objective was limited in its scope. Haig was delighted for the Battle of Messines was a prelude to the much larger assault he intended to undertake the following month.
The little resistance shown by the Germans at Messines further convinced him that their morale was low, and they were close to cracking.
The Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, began at 03.50 on 31 July 1917 and it soon appeared that few of the lessons of the Somme the previous year had been learned for once again there was a long preliminary artillery bombardment which only served to warn the Germans in advance of what was to come.
This time the exploding shells did as much harm to the British cause by destroying the drainage system which coupled with an uncommonly wet August quickly turned the battlefield into an impassable quagmire as they did to the German defences.
British troops knee high in mud became stuck and sitting targets, others drowned in a landscape dotted with flooded craters. It was clearly impossible to stage any kind of effective advance, but Haig refused to call the offensive off and for months and months the battle dragged on. The village of Passchendaele, a first day target wasn’t finally taken until 6 November and once more British losses were heavy sustaining more than 310,000 casualties for only minimal gains.
To many in Britain it seemed yet another pointless waste of life with men sent to their deaths in the most appalling conditions for nothing. Haig did not see it this way, the sacrifice was necessary to grind the enemy down. After all, the combined British and French Armies outnumbered the Germans, and they could afford to sustain higher casualties. When the Prime Minister David Lloyd George accused Haig of giving him nothing but “Mud and Blood” he wrote in his diary for that day: “We lament too much over death”.
Haig was a strict Presbyterian and firm believer in the virtue of self-sacrifice for this not only cleansed the soul but provided the only path to true salvation, and this virtue was best expressed in duty, obedience, and hard work. He was true to these convictions, and he expected no less from his men. His faith dictated his attitude to the requirements of war and the demands he made of his army – no price was too high for victory.
Lloyd George thought otherwise and tried to have Haig relieved of his command but his close connection through marriage to the Royal Family saw him retain the confidence of the King.
Indeed, rather than be fired in January 1917 he was promoted to Field Marshal courtesy of His Majesty and much to the chagrin of Lloyd George who would later place the British Expeditionary Force under the command of the French General Robert Nivelle; but his plans to undermine Haig were scuppered following Nivelle’s disastrous offensive of April 1917, and subsequent demotion. The internal bickering would continue and not cease until Haig, facing the stiffest test of his life, found himself the man standing between Allied survival and catastrophic defeat.
In early 1918, the German Commander-in-Chief Erich von Ludendorff had written to the Kaiser: “We must strike at the earliest moment before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British”.
After three years on the defensive and having successfully repulsed numerous major offensives against them at Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres, and on the Chemin des Dames the Germans would at last take the war to the Allies. Their Spring Offensive named Operation Michael but better known as the Kaiser’s Battle, would be their attempt to win the war with one devastating blow.
Reinforced by 600,000 troops from the Eastern Front following their victory against the Russians and armed with new tactics they attacked on 21 March 1918. In a short but intense four-hour bombardment they fired over a million high explosive mortar, shrapnel, and gas shells into the already weakened British front line. They followed up this bombardment with small elite squads of storm-troopers armed with a frightening new weapon, the flame thrower while the bulk of the army followed behind ready to exploit the gaps made.
The British front-line was quickly breached as it crumbled under the assault and on the first day alone 21,000 troops were taken prisoner with thousands of others killed and wounded.
Sir Hugh Gough, in command of the 5th Army had lost control of the situation and begged to be allowed to retreat before he was overwhelmed. Haig agreed and indicated that he wanted an orderly withdrawal but in no time at all the British were in full flight. All the ground that had been gained at the cost of so much blood and so many lives on the Somme and at Passchendaele was lost in just a few days. Indeed, so rapid had been the German advance that Paris now came under bombardment.
Meanwhile in Germany it was being reported that the stalemate on the Western Front had been broken and that the war was as good as won, Church bells were rung and the Kaiser declared 24 March a national holiday. But Haig knew, as indeed did Ludendorff, that the key to victory was the town of Amiens, a major railway junction and supply depot where the British and French Armies met. Ludendorff needed to capture both the supplies and then split the British from the French before rolling the former back into the sea.
The French Commander Philippe Petain refused to come to the aid of the hard-pressed British instead insisting that his army would withdraw east to defend Paris but by doing so this would cause exactly the breach that Ludendorff sought. An emergency conference was called to discuss the crisis.
General Pershing, who was commanding American forces insisted that they were not yet ready for a major combat role and refused to relinquish even elite units such as the Marines to fight under foreign command, while Petain refused to budge on his demand that the French Army withdraw to defend Paris. In an increasingly heated atmosphere, the supposed dullard Haig took the initiative, he denounced Petain as a defeatist and managed to get him replaced by the more aggressive General Ferdinand Foch before orchestrating his appointment as overall Allied Commander by expressing his willingness to subordinate himself to his orders – but for the time being at least the British would have to fight on alone.
And the pressure was intense, they were bedraggled and exhausted, but they were not demoralised despite a retreat which at times seemed more like a rout and it was now that those characteristics so typical of Haig and which so frustrated and infuriated people, his stubbornness, his indifference to suffering and his propensity to behave as if nothing had changed now became an asset.
The German advance had begun to slow as British resistance stiffened and they now plundered the provisions of which they had for so long been deprived. The delay this caused made the likelihood of capturing Amiens slight so to renew the momentum of the advance Ludendorff now changed the direction of the attack towards the Channel Ports which he knew the British would have to defend if they were to continue to be re-supplied and hold should an evacuation become necessary. The Germans attacked with renewed vigour and hard pushed, with no reinforcements remaining on or any prospect of immediate help, Haig could only call upon the fighting spirit of his men. He now issued his famous order of the day:
“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”
The British held the line and the German assault faltered.
Undeterred, Ludendorff switched his offensive to other sectors but Operation Michael which had started so brightly was beginning to unravel. They continued to attack at Amiens but made little headway and were beginning to run short of supplies, there army began to starve. They had also lost 230,000 men in March and April alone but still they attacked.
With the French still unwilling to commit troops as long as Paris remained under threat, Haig again appealed to General Pershing for support but he continued to insist that the Americans would only fight as an independent army under American command and it was only under intense political pressure and faced with the prospect that the Allies might lose the war before America could become fully engaged that he at last yielded and some American formations were released to stiffen the Allied lines.
After three months of constant fighting both sides were exhausted and for a time there was a lull in hostilities. But on 15 July, Ludendorff launched his last great offensive, this time against the French. It was to prove a disaster and his troops after some initial success, half-starved and worn out, were easily repulsed. In five months of fighting, they had lost a million men, killed, wounded and taken prisoner. The German Army was close to breaking point.
General Foch was determined to take advantage of the disarray in German ranks, and he ordered an immediate advance from the town of Amiens. The ensuing Battle of Amiens was to be Field-Marshal Haig’s finest moment as the lessons of previous failures had at last been learned and the attack, he launched was a model of meticulous planning.
The British troops, now heavily reinforced were no longer the semi-trained volunteers of 1916 but were a fully professional army, battle-hardened and tough as lightly armed and advancing at pace behind a creeping artillery barrage and supported by massed-formations of tanks they made rapid and steady progress and by 8 August, all of the ground that had been lost in the German Spring Offensive had been recaptured with tens of thousands of German troops taken prisoner, and a 15 mile long breach made in the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. It was Ludendorff declared - The Black Day of the German Army”.
All this was but a precursor to the Argonne Offensive the length and breadth of the Western Front that would roll back the German Army. By now the Americans were fully involved and would play a late but decisive role. Their enthusiasm for the fight and often reckless courage imbued the Allies with a spirit that had not been seen since the opening months of the war.
The advance was relentless, and the outcome increasingly inevitable but there was still much hard fighting to be done. Haig had insisted all along that the war could only be won on the Western Front and that all other campaigns such as that in Gallipoli were mere distractions wasteful of men and resources. In this he was to be proved right. He had also taken a Volunteer Army and turned it into the most effective fighting machine the British had ever known before, leading it to a series of stunning and brilliant victories. Even Lloyd George, who had tried so hard to have him removed from command felt compelled at the end of the war to note in his diary: “Haig is a brilliant General, from his boots up”.
These words of praise do not reflect how he is remembered today, as a stubborn and unimaginative man forever associated with the industrialised slaughter of millions of men in the carnage of the Western Front. In a war during which the French Army had mutinied and order had only been restored after General Petain vowed that they would undertake no further offensive action; the Italian Army had come close to total collapse following the catastrophe at Caporetto; and the Russian Army engulfed by revolution had simply laid down their arms and gone home. But the British Army did not yield and neither did its indefatigable Commander-in Chief and when Haig issued his famous order of the day the British Tommy could rest assured that he meant every word of it. Perhaps then he had been the right man in the right place at the right time.
Douglas Haig’s reputation plummeted in the decades following the end of the war largely as a result of the publication of his war diaries and his memoirs. They revealed a man lacking in warmth, undisturbed by sentiment and not given to moments of quiet reflection. They showed that he rarely, if ever, visited the front-line, was ignorant of the conditions his men were fighting in, and refused to visit the wounded in hospital. He was also a man who appeared indifferent to death, and expressed no remorse at the number of casualties merely detailing that he thought it a worthy sacrifice. He also never admitted to having made a mistake. Such insight has determined our understanding of him ever since.
On 19 July 1919, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig was cheered wildly by the huge crowd as he rode down Pall Mall at the head of his army to take the salute at the Victory Parade. He was the hero of the hour and the man who had won the war. He was later made an Earl by the King, provided with a large annuity, and presented with a £100,000 grant by Parliament.
This caused some resentment among servicemen returning home many of whom were physically and emotionally scarred by the experience of war, often denied a pension, and condemned to many years of unemployment and a life on the dole. But they were in a minority, and most were proud of their Commander-in-Chief and of the part they had played in winning the war.
Haig retired from the army in 1921 and was to dedicate the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen though some have suggested, unfairly perhaps, that he only did so out of a sense of guilt or obligation to public expectation rather than from any genuine concern.
He established the Royal British Legion spending a great deal of his own money in doing so and organised and attended fund-raising events for wounded ex-soldier’s incapable of work.
He was to die unexpectedly of a heart-attack at his London home on 29 January 1928 aged 66 and was given a State Funeral five days later.
Tens of thousands of ex-servicemen lined the route of his funeral cortege to pay their last respects. Whether this was out of a love for the man, a sentimental loyalty to their old Commander-in-Chief, or an acknowledgement of and admiration for his abilities, we cannot know. It is impossible to know the mind of the individual soldier particularly when perhaps they did not even know it themselves.
Haig has both defenders and detractors; General Pershing declared him the man who won the war; Winston Churchill who had served on the Western Front accused him of “blocking enemy machine guns with the breasts of brave men”.
Even Lloyd George who had been so full of praise for him at the end of the war wrote later that he thought him intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the task.
Others believe that he had pursued the only strategy that could have resulted in victory and that he remained committed to this regardless of the intense criticism he received and that his vindication lay in having achieved that victory. Many of the more than 500,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died snared on the barbed wire of the Somme or drowned in the mud of Paschendaele may have thought otherwise.
To this day Douglas Haig remains to this day one of the most controversial characters in British history. Was he a brilliant strategist who had learned from his previous mistakes to become the architect of ultimate victory in the bloodiest conflict ever known to man?
Or was he merely the donkey fortunate enough to have been leading lions?
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