Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, First World War British commander. A hero and great leader of men – or a power hunger and callous man, with little compassion for his men?

Field Marshal Douglas Haig returned from the First World War to throngs of adoring fans. They had turned out in solidarity and support for their hero, the man who had led them to victory in a war to end all wars. A ‘Great War’. However the adoration of the general public was fickle and short lived and Haig is now best remembered as a caricature of himself, a power hungry callous leader who was out of his depth in a new style of warfare.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

The assessment of his character is inextricably linked with the assessment of his most infamous battle, The Battle of the Somme. The Anglo-French casualties, estimated at 600 000 in total (with 60,000 of these occurring on the first day of the battle) can seem unjustifiable, especially when the gains were so meagre (the British and French advancing just 6 miles along a 16 mile front). However when one assesses Haig’s ability as a leader it is necessary to consider factors other than the Somme.

Haig, as with all career soldiers of his generation, was a traditionalist. He had served time in Egypt and Africa and was noted as an excellent cavalryman. He was described by his superiors as a born leader and as such it was no surprise to the establishment when he was selected to lead the British in Europe. However 1914 saw a war that was far from traditional. Fighting a modern, well equipped opponent, the war quickly descended into a war of attrition.

Sir D Haig introducing Sir Pertab Singh to General Joffre

Haig’s reaction to this, while seemingly callous in today’s context, was actually quite common amongst his contemporaries. Those who had experienced trench warfare seemed to concur that it was the only way to halt and then subsequently overwhelm the advancing German army.

Necessary or not, many who have had access to Haig’s public diaries have suggested that his references to the troops as ‘cannon fodder’ and such like were unacceptable, and showed a limited amount of compassion. This school of thought would also refer to the fact that Haig never once visited the frontline, preferring to keep a stoic presence behind the front line action. However the accusation of a callous or unfeeling nature does not stand up to scrutiny when Haig’s post war actions are examined. Haig worked tirelessly for wounded soldiers and their families, indeed refusing to accept a knighthood until he was given support for the opening of his numerous charitable ventures established during the 1920s.

Haig, Churchill and other military and civilian officials.

However he is presented, one can not ignore the fated Battle of the Somme when assessing Haig’s leadership. With 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, the battle has a bloody legacy in the history of warfare. It could be argued, however, that the motives for the battle were gallant to say the least.

Somme was in fact a distraction to provide respite for the beleaguered French at Verdun where there had already been 700 000 casualties. Their morale seriously depleted and their staying power in question, it was necessary for Haig to attack elsewhere along the German line to draw German troops away from the battered French.

Haig’s intelligence had suggested that 7 days of artillery bombardment would be sufficient to destroy the German defences, allowing Allied troops to march across no mans land virtually uncontested. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. In reality, the German trenches were located significantly lower than anticipated, due to the German advantage of higher and so not waterlogged ground. This allowed them to dig deeper and so provided shelter from Allied bombardment.

This error was compounded when advancing Allied troops also found that barbed wire defences had not been cut sufficiently, leaving troops caught as if sitting ducks for German snipers. Worse still, many of the shells themselves were faulty and did not explode due to poor craftsmanship.

It is clear then that the Battle of the Somme provides a defining moment in the career and life of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. A defence against some of the criticism levelled at him is possible and in fact necessary. Inefficient intelligence, faulty artillery and an abject need for a new offensive would all suggest that the decision to mount the attack on the Somme was not entirely misplaced. In fact, in a new style of offensive war where wearing down the enemy is key, perhaps he was at the forefront of his game. While in retrospect callous, his difficult decision to send men to their deaths contributed to the Allied powers winning the First World War.

Published: 17th December 2014.

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