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Considered assessment of the Great War career of Field Marshal Douglas Haig.
Douglas Haig was appointed as commander of the BEF’s 1st Army Corps at the outbreak of World War One in 1914 with Sir John French as Commander in Chief of the British Army. By the end of 1915 it became apparent that Sir John French was ill-suited to the role and Douglas Haig replaced him as Commander-in-Chief.
Haig became one of the most controversial figures in military history with tag-lines such as the “butcher of the Somme” and an “incompetent leader” being the most associated with him. His tough and decisive leadership style with apparent little compassion to the huge amounts of British deaths during World War One made him one of the most debated person in history with varying views of his leadership style.
It is widely believed that Haig was unwilling to accept new ideas but stick to his traditional, military experience with reluctance to hear new ideas and recommendations. Major Desmond Morton who served as one of Haig’s adjutants said “He (Haig) hated being told any new information, however irrefutable, which militated against his preconceived ideas or beliefs.” This reliable source that gives an insight to the leadership of Haig goes on to say that John Charteris was being a sycophant to Haig and although he was an”incredibly bad” head of intelligence, Haig favoured him because he was conservative of the truth and “always concealed bad news, or put it in an agreeable light. This is backed up by General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall who said that “One of the faults of Haig’s nature was that he trusted too completely some of his immediate subordinates”.
This is supported by the History Learning Site who says that “Haig had little time for new military ideas” and “was steeped in the ways that he knew-conventional tactics”. His history as a cavalry commander enforces this quote of Haig sticking to what he knew best and an inability to listen to new ideas or react to a changing situation-essential characteristics of a cavalry commander. Further criticism to Haig’s inability to listen to new ideas is given by Liddell Hart when he states that Haig “failed” in his poor “receptivity of ideas”.
However, some people hold the view that Haig and the other generals in The Great War were receptive to new ideas and did change tactics. The BBC History site says that “it is not true, as some think, that British Generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches”, “in reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches”. Whilst not directly talking about Haig, this does imply that although Haig may not have been the most experimental leader, despite this view it did not impact on the experimenting of new ideas that took place within the Army. Mike Hone would agree with this evaluation of Haig when he wrote “the fact is that British tactics developed considerably during the war”.
The disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme resulted in huge amounts of analysis and blame put on the event with mixed interpretations. With 19,240 soldiers being killed on the first day alone it was one of the most costly battles in the history of warfare.
The planning and conducting of the battle of Somme by Field Marshal Haig has also been subjected to criticism and evaluation. As Commander in Chief of the British Army, Haig is responsible for the welfare and safety of all British Soldiers and this has primarily led to the vast criticism of Haig regardless of Haig’s direct actions.
A Battle of the Somme timeline compiled by gommecourt.co.uk says that on the 23rd January 1916 whilst preparing for the preliminary attacks on a 20,000 yard front on the Somme to commence on 20th April, General Joseph Jaques Cesaire Joffre, Commander in Chief of the French Army suggested to Haig “wearing down attacks prior to the main joint offensive starting on 20th April and the other in May.” However, the source goes on to say that “Haig rejects the plan”. Whilst this may not be an extremely surprising quote it does present a worrying situation.
Dennis Wheatley who served during the Great War wrote that “He (Haig) had a rooted dislike of the French and was not even a second rate general. It presents an extremely worrying possibility that Haig’s personal feelings and attitudes could have led to poor decisions and the loss of many innocent lives. The rejection of the French plan is also a further example of both his decisive leadership and his inability to listen to advice and recommendations. This also shows that Haig’s planning of attacks are of an extremely dictatorial nature with a strong sense that his traditions of leadership should be withheld regardless of any interventions.
Later on in this timeline, Haig replies to Joffre again on 10th April 1916 to again reject another of his ideas and on the same day, Haig received a revised plan from Rawlinson suggesting a “long artillery perpetration rather than Haig’s preferred hurricane bombardment”. Communication during Haig’s planning of the Battle of the Somme has also been under scrutiny after “GHQ writes to Rawlinson that “it was not clear whether his attack or that of the Second Army at Messines would start first” “. Both communications and Haig’s decisions were disputed during the timeline of events, creating a picture of a dictatorial, private ruler who wanted to plan the British attacks by himself, using traditional methods and without any assistance, information or ideas.
PW Turner and RH Haigh wrote that the “planning of the Somme campaign was ham-fisted and clumsy. The fault for the failure of most of the strategic planning must fall on Haig.” They hold the view that the failure in planning for the Somme was not due to communications or incorrect decisions but of national and personal pride and that Haig and his generals “must have some spectacular victory to prove how right they were”. The historians conclude that “Haig promised victory and failed”. This account holds the view that Haig was fulfilling his role of winning the war. He was a traditional leader in the sense that he was given an order (to win the war) and he was to complete that task at whatever cost.
Martin Gilbert gave a somewhat more favourable view to the plan that Haig drew up. Gilbert believed that Haig made a logical plan to “wear out the enemy and exhaust his reserves” and then prepare for a “decisive attack made with the objective of piercing the enemy lines”. Gilbert the goes on to explain how Haig elaborated and made it extremely clear that it was to be a “decisive account” similar to his leadership. Haig’s plan went on to describe that “once the Germans had been worn down and used up their reserves-but not until then-a “mass of troops” would be thrown in “at some points where the Enemy has show himself to be weak” with the definite objective “to break through and win victory” “. Gilbert’s view of Haig’s planning is of an optimistic plan by Haig with clear and logical objectives.
Norman Stone agrees with Gilbert that Haig’s plan was logical but points out that Haig’s information and intelligence from the Somme was flawed. Stone explains how “Haig still imagined that the German line could be breached and cavalry could pour through the gap, but it could have been poured more effectively elsewhere”. Stone simply explains that the solidification of the German line in 1914 along ridges “allowed their guns a greater advantage” and gave them the benefit of “earth less likely to turn into mud”. Stone concludes that “the most Haig could do would be to take those ridges. Although the Brittish war industry was rapidly expanding to capabilities able to make thousands of guns and millions of shells able to launch a bombardment “Haig did not trust his men’s capacity, and Hereford relied on crushing bombardment”. Stone points out that he believed this was probably the error in the planning of the Somme.
After the catastrophic first day of the battle, questions were being asked about why to continue with the battle, why should Haig risk another 20,000 British lives? Martin Gilbert says that “the Germans knew that the British would not give up”. It was part of the British spirit and would not honour the 20,000 already killed to simply give up. It also didn’t comply with Haig’s determination to fulfil his task of winning the war.
Questions regarding the planning of the battle also arose- why was the wire not cut? Why were the Germans still alive after such heavy bombardment? Was it an British failure of a German success and who should ultimately be blamed for the deaths of so many innocent soldiers? Some people like Desmond Morton believe that figures such as John Carteris who was head of intelligence was “incredibly bad” and sycophant nature of his relationship with Haig led to incorrect predictions that formed Haig’s plans.
The overestimated results of the British bombardment by British generals is extremely clear by Martin Gilbert’s description of what British soldiers had to carry and what they were expecting. They carried ” a rifle with fixed bayonet, between 170 and 220 rounds of small arms, two grenades, a waterproof cape(although it was a beautiful summers day), two sandbags, a steel helmet, two gas helmets, a pair of google against tear gas, a first aid field dressing and iodine, waterproof groundsheet, filled water bottle, haversack, mess tin, towel, shaving kit, extra socks, message book, uneaten rations, extra cheese, one preserved and one iron ration. In addition 40% would carry shovels and 10% would carry picks and one battalion was given a tin of grey paint each. This resulted in about sixty-six pounds of equipment.
Historian General Edmonds wrote “the weight of this equipment made it “difficult t get out of a trench, impossible to move much quicker than a slow walk or to rise and lie down quickly” Historian Peter Liddle agrees with this conclusion adding ” thousands of men offering so bulky and slow-moving a target would crumple to the ground quickly enough but would not rise at all, never mind quickly”
In addition to this, a planned stun tactic was used to explode mines in front of German trenches two minutes before the assault but this resulted in craters being formed allowing the Germans to occupy these craters, install machine guns and deliver devastating fire upon the British Army. The overestimation of the success of the bombardment by Haig resulted in the false expectations of British soldiers to be able to simply walk across no-mans land and create the beginning of the end of the Great War. This is evident in Martin Gilbert’s long list of issued equipment-40% of men carried a shovel obviously for digging trenches, 2 sandbags each to protect their trenches, rations and groundsheets to be able to stop overnight during their long advance. If the British generals had correctly estimated the effects if the bombardment, British soldiers would not have gone over the top and 20,000 lives could have been spared.
Personally, I believe the initial failure of the battle of the Somme was down to the leadership and intelligence of the British generals. Soldiers trusted them for the correct information that would lead to the overall success of the battle-in reality false predictions led to the slaughter of thousands of innocent lives. Haig’s continuation of the battle led to the monumental and historical introduction of the tank and the eventual victory over the Germans.
The planning of the offence in Passchendaele was viewed by Stone to have “made sense” that Haig wanted to advance in Flanders. Stone explains that the German position was strong with height, the Messines ridge and could fire at Ypres from the side. It also allowed the British to “deal with” the submarine base at Zeebrugge”. Stone believed that the British army was very strong with “millions of shells and considerable experience with the kind of bombardment that might loosen the defence”. The problem of the water table at Passchendaele resulted in near certain considerable amounts of mud whenever it rained or was churned up by shell. Although eventual success occurred following the explosion of the Messines ridge on 7th June the initial success “lured” the generals “into disaster”
Disaster arose when “Haig threw away the advantage”. Stone says that “there was an extraordinary interval before the next British attack….during which the German defences were strengthened” and allowed the Germans to install “pill boxes” in which “heavy machine-guns were placed”. Therefore, it becomes clear that the initial planning of Passchendaele was extensive and proved a huge success but the resulting actions from Haig led to a catastrophic German rebound as a direct consequence of the leadership of Haig.
The 21st March 1918 saw a large German bombardment starting at 4:40 am and lasted until 9:40 pm. It resulted in a million shells being fired and a British retreat over the old Somme battlefield to the French town of Amiens. Later in the year when German reserves were disrupted, Norman Stone describes how Rawlinson, Monash and Currie had to persuade Haig “to not persist with the attack beyond a few days”.
J Rickard wrote that during the planning of the Battle of Amiens, “Haig had directed General Rawlinson, to prepare for an attack on the salient”. He goes on to explain that “Rawlinson developed a plan fro a tank battle. Rawlinson had a multi-national army with American, Australian, Canadian and British divisions”. Interestingly, “Haig was also given control of the French First Army”. However, “Haig launched a second attack further nothing, using the Third Army. The purpose of this attack known as the battle of Bapaume, was to force the Germans back to the line of the somme. This attack began n 21 August….the British advance forced the Germans to retreat to the Somme. The battle of Amiens gives an example of times when Haig’s leadership proved to be successful. Although Haig used the same methods of leadership as he did at the Somme and Passchendaele, the decisive, stubborn approach was needed here to drive the Germans back at a time when the German defence was at its weakest, the perfect conditions for the leadership of Haig.
The National Archives describe how “the final German assault which started in the Spring of 1918 very nearly succeeded. The final German assault, which culminated in the Spring of 1918, very nearly succeeded. American forces were vital in holding the line but it was the British who took the lion’s share of territory and prisoners, no doubt in part thanks to Haig’s still inspiring leadership”. However, questions have now been asked as to whether Haig nearly settled for a compromise with the Germans. Nick Allen wrote for the Daily Telegraph that”Haig didn’t realise how weak German forces were towards the end and wanted to settle for a compromise, according to Dr J P Harris, senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Dr Harris said: “He wanted to offer the Germans very, very, easy ceasefire terms in late 1918.”That could have left Germany with its armed forces, including its artillery, and its territorial gains in Eastern Europe intact.”
The end of World War One on 11th November 1818 was a result of many factors that all came together. The arrival of fresh troops from America in the summer of 1918 gave the allied forces a very large advantage. History on the Net explains how ” The German commander Erich Ludendorff (right) was a brilliant military commander and had won decisive victories over Russia in 1917 that led to the Russian withdrawal from the war.In 1918 he announced that if Germany was to win the war then the allies had to be defeated on the Western Front before the arrival of American troops.”
The British Naval Blockade led to food shortages in Germany and subsequent protests on the streets of Berlin. October 1918 saw the resignation of German commander Ludendorff and a naval mutiny. Kaiser Wilhelm II then abdicated on November 8th 1918 and an armistice was signed on November 11th 1918.
The controversial leadership of Field Marshal Haig throughout the Great War is subject to so many different views and opinions by different historians, making an informed assessment on his leadership is extremely challenging. However, I do believe that the infamous catastrophic first day of the Somme was down to poor intelligence, predictions and overestimation. Men were sent to their deaths in appalling conditions whilst I do not think that Haig was solely to blame, I do believe that his distinct leadership style was not suited to the planning of the Somme and as commander in chief he does have overall responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of all men in the Army.
However, his leadership style fitted the circumstances of the final year of the great war. 1918 saw circumstances requiring decisive, quick and dictatorial actions at a time when German defences were weak and rapid advancements needed to be made. Haig played an incredibly important role in the final year which ultimately led to allied victory along with the help of the fresh American soldiers.
In Conclusion, I believe that Field Marshal Haig had an incredibly unique leadership style that only fitted the final phases of the war. The inability to listen to new ideas and dictatorial style during the Battles of Somme and Passchendaele I believe led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent soldiers. Poor intelligence also contributed to the immense disaster of the first day of the Somme. Whilst Haig has a duty to take responsibility forthe deaths of British soldiers I certainly believe that a number of factors contribute to both the successes and failures of the Great War and no single person or factor can take overall responsibility.