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John Keegan, a modern military historian, suggests that Haig was a "highly skilled, effective and successful commander"

Categories: Military

There are many mixed views on Haig, ranging from strongly for him, to fervently against him. This is really the theme for the sources here. But there are two key different types of sources here, those that focus purely on Haig at Third Ypres (G and L), and those that focus on Haig in general. Of these, there are in my opinion, three sources that are pro Haig, one that neither justifies nor condemns, and three that are anti Haig. Firstly, the sources that merely focus on Third Ypres suffer from a major limitation.

They may portray Haig’s success or failures in detail, but a general should never be judged on one battle alone. That said however, there are several key points within these sources. Source G does not openly condemn Haig, however, the references to the impossibility of fighting in the mud could well be an implied criticism of Haig. However, I believe this not to be so, as Gough was a strong supporter of Haig throughout the battle, and he was placed in charge for the Battle of Passchendale, when the conditions the worst they had been during the entire 3rd Ypres campaign.

The fact that he does inform Haig that the battle cannot carry on shows that he has tried to take this ridge, and finally admits defeat. However, for the British to hold their gains at 3rd Ypres over the winter, they had to take all three ridges, otherwise the Germans could rain artillery down on them.

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This was the dilemma facing Haig, and really there was no choice, he had to press on or all the lives lost so far would be for nothing. Source L however is a modern view which is strongly anti Haig. However, there are several key errors which Laffin makes in his criticism of Haig.

Yes the Germans did have land to fall back onto, but there were no prepared defences for them to use, there was no Hindenburg line at Ypres. If they did fall back, no doubt this would have led to their destruction. He also fails to mention that defence was just as costly as attack, and that the sea of mud hindered defence just as much as attack. This is shown in Source E. He also makes no allowance for the third ridge having to be taken before winter. The mud, which he makes much of, was only in the latter stages of the campaign, although the mud was indeed created mainly by British barrages.

Source K is an interesting contrast to this. Source K is also a modern view, but one which is very much pro Haig. Both sources are written as studies of Haig, but this is where the similarity ends. Source K also talks about the rest of Haig’s campaign, and although it does not put forward attrition as a good tactic, it does nevertheless acknowledge that in a stationary war, there is little else which can be done. It agrees that Haig did not enjoy the task of attrition, but knew it was necessary. Haig also deliberately took most of the flak coming towards the army, so that his subordinates would have an easier time.

The source mentions British success at Ypres, something which Source L completely fails to do. It shows that this success was a result of improving British tactics, which the Germans could not defend against. Warner obviously feels that had the Ypres campaign not been delayed by the attack in Arras, then Ypres could have easily become the much sought after breakthrough. If the campaign had started earlier, the weather would have been fine for the attack on Passchendale, and given the previous British successes, there is little doubt that this would have happened.

In fact, there weather curtailed the campaign, and before Haig was able to continue his assault in the spring, the Germans launched their own offensive which drove the British right back to the outskirts of Ypres. Source I is a pro Haig source, even though it is from a German newspaper. However, there is the chance that it is being used for propaganda. Basically the source is saying that Haig is a great General, but we (the Germans) are better. Parts of it can be backed up however. There was no mutiny in the British Army, and at this point, there had been none of the British success that was to come at 3rd Ypres.

The fact that the German defences were then broken during 3rd Ypres must therefore point to Haig’s ability. Source F is interesting on one major point. It is Haig’s diary, and he would have no reason to lie in his own diary, therefore we can accept this as reliable evidence. From this source, it seems that Haig never intended to fight a war of attrition, and that he really felt that breakthrough was imminent. This was in no small part due to the somewhat optimistic intelligence he was receiving from his intelligence officer Charteris, who felt that he was making Haig’s job easier by doing this.

Source H sees Lloyd George’s view of events. This was written some 15-18 years after the war had finished, and is putting forward the idea that if his suggestion of supporting Italy had been followed, then none of this would have happened. However, although he acknowledges that this would have weakened British forces to the extent that they could only defend. He fails to take into account that defence is just as costly as attack, and that supporting Italy would probably have prolonged the war further. He also states that the “disastrous” Chemin des Dames offensive wouldn’t have happened.

He forgets to include that he was a strong supporter of this attack until its failure, to the extent of forcing the British army to help. Indeed, the only success of the entire offensive was British. He also does not take into account the need to take Passchendale before fighting stopped for winter. He agrees with Gough in Source G in that Gough told Haig that fighting could not continue. However, instead of trying to find out why Haig pressed on, he instead blames it on an almost maniacal “obsessed mind. His last statement is also incorrect, as many now do defend the 3rd Ypres campaign.

Because of these errors and unbalanced opinions, I therefore feel that there is little to be gained from this Source, apart from showing what public opinion of Haig was at that time. The main reason for him publishing his memoirs was probably for money. This would explain the delay in writing the book. It would probably agree with public opinion in order to generate more sales. This public opinion is also shown in the only visual source in this section, Source J.

This does show the vitriolic public feelings towards Haig, and that he receives all the blame for the high casualties. This image is a take on an Army recruiting poster of the time, with a picture of Haig pointing a finger outwards, and the text saying “Wants You”, implying that Haig personally wants you to join the army. This was one of the most famous and successful recruitment posters of the First World War. The parody of this poster really does show the depth of resentment towards Haig, and asks the question, why is there such a range of opinions over him?

To me it seems that those who resent Haig all too often do not have access to the full range of evidence and events, and once the true horror of the First World War’s casualties had been known, people wanted a scapegoat. Haig filled this role admirably, for at first glance, he appears to have been an uncaring remorseless butcher. However, looking deeper into his motives, his beliefs and the actual facts of the battles and campaigns that he conducted, I believe that Haig was a good military commander.

He had some mistakes, but no military commander in history was infallible. He made the best use of what was available, and was willing to try anything to achieve a breakthrough. This was shown in his willingness to employ the tank as soon as was feasibly possible. The criticisms of Haig often do not take into account Haig’s objectives, or the limitations that he faced. Therefore, I feel that Haig was a skilled, effective and successful commander, in a difficult situation, but one which nevertheless, he overcame.

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John Keegan, a modern military historian, suggests that Haig was a "highly skilled, effective and successful commander". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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