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Field Marshal Haig: How Bad Was He?
I’ve been reading quite a few Andrew Wareham historical novels. He specializes in the British military, ranging from the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era, to as late as World War II.
His World War I novels, especially his “War to End All Wars” series, come down very hard on Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who for much of the war was in charge of the British forces (the British Expeditionary Force) at the Western Front.
Through his fictional characters, his portrayal of Haig includes:
- He never visited the trenches, his HQ was roughly 30 miles to the rear, and had no idea what his frontline troops were enduring. Nor did his senior staff officers.
- He was obsessed with horse cavalry. His master plan was for a big push led by horse cavalry that would overwhelm entrenched German forces. That never happened, but according to Wareham’s fictional account, as late as 1917, one year before the war ended, Haig was attempting to use cavalry.
- There was wartime censorship, and the public was being fed misleading reports by a compliant press. But according to Wareham’s portrayal, Haig was also lying to his political masters, especially when Lloyd George took over from H.H. Asquith.
- George was hostile to Haig, according to Wareham, but Haig was too popular, especially amongst Britain’s class-based elite, for him to remove Haig. What Lloyd George did to mitigate Haig was to stop sending as many replacement troops, and to place Haig under French command.
I’ve read Wikipedia’s page on Haig, and basically, Haig did not become known as the “Butcher of the Somme” by the general public until the 1960s. The page brings up historians that credit Haig for the overall victory because of innovations, though U.S. troops entering the conflict may have had something to do with it. Wareham’s portrayal is that Haig did everything to discourage innovation throughout the war, and until the end, was trying to use his beloved cavalry to sweep the Germans from the trenches in a charge.
Wikipedia has a link on the bottom of its Haig page called Haig and the Cavalry by Bob Bushaway, which presents a nuanced view. Pre-WWI, Haig did modernize the cavalry, making it into a mobile force. And he never ended up deploying the cavalry into an old-style charge.
The 1914 British cavalryman, trained in accordance with this doctrine and supplied with the most modern equipment, was a modern warrior not an historic relic of former times. Haig’s cavalry could ride far and fast, could reconnoitre, protect the flanks, the rear and the advanced guard, raid, charge as necessary with the support of mobile firepower, but could also fight on foot, shoot straight and with deadly effect and do all these things flexibly when called upon to do so. In the first five months of the war, British cavalry was called upon to do all these things and if it had not have been available and able to perform these tasks, it is legitimate to wonder what might have happened in the crisis period of the BEF between the summer and winter of 1914.
It goes on to say that standard equipment for the cavalry of 1914 was a MK1 Hotchkiss machine gun with tripod, and that the WWI British cavalry was designed to use its mobility and then dismount and fight.
The Western Front chewed up a generation of young people in large part because of offensive tactics deployed by both sides. It was during World War II that the lessons learned from WWI were put into effect, changing infantry tactics on the ground (though perhaps the Soviet Union didn’t learn so much).
Haig, as overall commander, deserves a lot of blame for those casualties. But would another available general have done any better?Published in General
I don’t have the expertise to answer this, but I wanted to thank you for the post. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of G.I. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, and, even with some knowledge, have been stunned at the brutality of the war. If I had to venture an opinion, it would be that Haig was a product of a different time, but was not alone in his tactics by any means.
Interesting stuff. The book “In Flanders Field” was very harsh on the man. I beleive that book came out in the 50’s. I’ve also seen videos on him that are a bit more nuanced. WW1 tactics seemed to end up with a lot of needless slaughter and misery.
In almost everything I have read about WWI, a recurrent theme is “How could we have known the horror to come?” That this was the first war of the modern age where tactics barely progressed from Napoleon met modern artillery and automatic weapons. That the resulting carnage could not have been anticipated. And this is just flat wrong. Despite my immense respect for Winston Churchill, Churchill was (or should have been) one of the cognoscenti.
As a young cavalry officer in the 21st Lancers, he was present at the climactic battle of Omdurman in 1898. Omdurman, in the Sudan, was the conclusion of the modern West’s first conflict with jihadi Islam – the Dervish – and the final revenge for Islamic Sudan’s destruction of Khartoum and the death of British Governor Charles Gordon. The British Army sent to destroy the Dervish featured fully modern Krups artillery and Maxim machine guns. Churchill had a front row seat to witness the effect of artillery and automatic weapons on infantry in the open. Churchill knew. From Churchill’s account of the battle of Omdurman contained in his book “The River War” … continued…
From Churchill’s account of the battle of Omdurman contained in his book “The River War”…
At Omdurman, the British suffered something like 50 dead and 500 wounded.The Dervish, 12,000 dead and 15,000 wounded.Yet that knowledge never seems to have been institutionalized. And 20 years later a generation of British and French soldiers paid the price.
There were already a lot of hints during the latter part of the American Civil War of what was to come. But yes, by 1898 it was no longer just a hint.
Some people say that militaries around the world are watching closely what’s happening in Ukraine and are starting to make some adjustments. For example, U.S. plans have been based on a short, deadly war and not a protracted one such as we’re seeing, and the combatants are consuming artillery ammo faster and for a longer period than anyone planned for. Some adjustments are needed, and it will take years to make them. But I dunno. There is a lot of inertia in most military establishments, for reasons both good and bad. It seems to take extreme duress and existential danger to induce adjustments.
I’m fairly knowledgeable about WWI, but not that knowledgeable about Haig specifically.
My overall impression is that he was unfairly vilified. Someone had to be blamed.
I disagree with the argument about the relevance of the Omdurman battle. WWI was a clash of far larger armies, with both sides being about equally well trained and equipped. It also shifted to trench warfare quite quickly, which was not the case at Omdurman, I think.
There were simply few options. The technology to overcome trench warfare was not in existence, with the principal technology being the tank. The tank was invented in WWI, and some were deployed, but they were primitive and in fairly small numbers. Truly massed artillery was also a WWI innovation, and it took a while to develop methods to use it effectively.
Leadership in a war of attrition is very difficult. The war drags on and on. If you don’t attack, then the attrition is minimal, and there’s no path to victory. If you do attack, the casualties are horrific.
I also think that attitudes toward WWI were affected by the near-pointlessness of the war, and by subsequent events. There wasn’t much of a reason to be fighting. The demonization of the Germans was mostly propaganda, with the British being particularly skilled at such propaganda. The blame placed on Germany was unjust, as many people knew at the time.
Further, due to the terrible losses, the war was viewed as the “war to end all war,” which was unrealistic. When the second, even more horrible war came along, people were even more disillusioned about WWI, which led to highly negative narratives about the leadership, I think.
Finally, I’ve been persuaded that a good amount of the blame for WWI should be placed on the British, and especially on Churchill. He was quite the warmonger, and amazingly skilled at vilifying his enemies and praising his friends — and turning from praise to vilification, or vice versa, on a dime, as he did with Mussolini and Stalin.
Absent British involvement, I suspect that WWI would have resulted in a fairly prompt German victory, which I suspect wouldn’t have been that bad. The German victory in 1870 wasn’t a terrible thing. I don’t suspect that the Germans would have taken much territory, though they probably would have taken a bit, as they did in 1870. This would have preserved European civilization and probably stopped Communism in its tracks.
There’s no way to know for sure, of course.
Speaking of unfairly vilified leaders — I think that Kaiser Wilhelm II may be the most unfairly vilified leader of the 20th Century.
Omdurman gives stark witness to the fate of fate of frontal assaults by massed infantry against the deadly combination of earthworks and accurate, rapid fire. As did Plevna before that. And to a certain extent Spotsylvania and Gettysburg and Fredericksburg before that. Omdurman is especially illuminating because it showcased the exact weaponry used by both sides in WWI … and because a prominent member of the WWI era British government had an up close and personal view of the horrific toll.
The US military has already secured a significant victory in the cultural war. From now on resistance to DEI in the armed forces must be done by covert means.
Yeah Haig is one of these people unfairly villanized, in the postwar, however he was nearly sacked by Parliament in the latter part of the war.
He certainly was an innovator and his of mines in the early campaigns of 1915-1916 and the eventual adoption of the tank, plus his respect and promotion of the colonials especially Currie of Canada, certainly shows he wasnt the anti-innovator that he has been made to look like.
His big problem in my view was his controlling of censorship in the army so that Parliament did not get the view of what was happening at the front. It was people like Churchill who served on the front lines and then reported back to the government on conditions there that led to the changes necessary to bring proper civilian oversight of the military that Haig and his people tried to hide conditions of the war from.
While Churchill achieved cabinet rank at an early age, most of his activities, pre-WWI were domestic, and he seemed to have advocated military cuts. Though his military service was British Army, he would advocate that what money was spent on the military be allocated more to the Royal Navy. As meteoric as his rise was, he doesn’t seem to have been influential in the area of foreign policy.
During war time, he was First Lord of the Admiralty and had little to do with the British Expeditionary Force and the Western Front. It was as First Lord that he became responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli, which was an attempt to bypass the Western trenches and bring the war to a different front.
Anyway, Churchill’s focus was not the Western Front but elsewhere, at least as a cabinet minister. He did end up serving in the trenches as a colonel and in command of a battalion after his disgrace at Gallipoli for about six months.
That view isn’t uncommon and one I’m receptive to. That the Germans in the early 20th century weren’t that bad. Though “weren’t that bad” is a bit different than good. Possibly the British letting them have their own way would have been the better alternative to what ended up happening. Certainly an alliance with the French was a new thing for them. Their history before that were multiple wars with the French from Napoleon to before Agincourt.
That argument is over the top for me. In the end, Kaiser Wilhelm was the one who started that war, despite all the side shows with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. He gets the blame. He’s no Hitler obviously, but it’s fair to vilify him as inept and that combined with his aggression brought a very bad result.
Remember, the first thing he did upon assuming the throne was to fire Bismarck, because he wanted to directly run things. He ran Germany into the ground as a result.
Al, my main sources for the heavy influence of Churchill as a warmonger are Niall Ferguson and Pat Buchanan. They include quotes about the supposed wickedness of the Kaiser, who is portrayed as seeking world domination. I think that this was projection. It was Churchill, and Grey — the other major warmonger — who wanted to preserve British world domination. The Kaiser had launched no wars — zero, zip, nada — in his 25 years on the throne.
The Kaiser was not the aggressor. Not at all. The aggressor was the Tsar, who launched a war on Germany, ostensibly in order to defend Serbia, but probably more for the purpose of expanding Russian power into the Balkans.
I do think that the anti-German, anti-Kaiser propaganda has dominated WWI scholarship until very recently, around the past 20 years. More recent, neutral scholarship has undermined the British propaganda which, in my view, was heavily advanced by Churchill himself, and then by the cult of Churchill that developed after WWII. My two major sources for this are Michael Neiberg, Christopher Clark, and — mostly about WWII — Peter Hitchens.
In the decades before WWI, the British orchestrated the encirclement of Germany, reducing their traditional opposition to both France and Russia, which helped enable the Franco-Russian alliance. The British then sided with that Franco-Russian alliance.
Part of this was caused by accurate British recognition that France was no longer a major competitor, being replaced by Germany as the strongest western European power. It seems very strange, though, to see Britain side with Imperial Russia. Strange, and short-sighted.
Churchill’s ultimate “accomplishment” was not to save Christian Civilization — the term that he himself used. Christian Civilization was lost. The British Empire was lost. The Communist Russians were the big winners. Subsequently, the UK has descended into an atheistic paganism, possibly on course to yield to Islam eventually.
This is a very different view than I would have taken 10 years ago, when I was still a devotee of Churchill. It’s been a difficult shift. Among other things, I had to jettison the American version of the false religion of “We Won The War.”
The WWI carnage was entirely foreseeable. It was not as if the outcome of charging machine guns was a surprise. Both sides knew that pointing the machine gun at an angle, paired with another whose line of fie made an “X” would create a virtually impenetrable barrier until bodies piled high enough. And they know to keep the line of fire at knee level–a wounded, crippled enemy required assistance and his appearance was demoralizing.
I don’t know if there was ever an instance of armor being sent forward en masse with airplanes attacking the same entrenched position and infantry behind the tanks to effect a breakthrough but it would seem to make more sense than blowing a whistle an getting guys slaughtered a few thousand at a time.
My great-great uncle was a Canadian soldier in WWI, left for dead after a mining attack blew up his trench. The Germans took him prisoner, patched him up, and exchanged him fairly soon. My father recalled his numerous scars and the fact that he was never right mentally (PTSD?). Even that attack was futile–the Germans were eventually driven back to the same starting points with heavy losses, the whole western front in microcosm.
If you’re talking WWII. The Soviets lost the most people during the war and their utopion government collapsed 40 some odd years later. I don’t know how you could call that a win. I’d agree the Commies were founded because of the instability WWI created. Lenin did quite well for himself because of WW1.
Atheistic paganism? Are the Brits back to practicing ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan rituals. All of Europe is becoming more secular but are they now practicing paganism? Is this a new thing? Neo-Paganism perhaps? Animal sacrifices and all that fun stuff? I don’t know much abaout paganism. What does one do at a pagan ritual?
Well, to point out some modern pagan rituals:
Have you missed these?
Of course, the modern atheistic pagans deny that they serve any “gods,” but act like religious believers, I think.
OB, I think that it was more complicated than this.
Massed artillery was very important in WWI, maybe more important than machine guns. Would massed artillery put machine guns out of operation? Would counter-battery fire knock out the enemy’s artillery? The answers to these questions were not obvious.
Then there was the complexity of the trench system. A number of offensives successfully breached the front line trench defenses, didn’t they? But then there was another line of trenches, and the various lines could be interconnected. The use of barbed wire was important, too.
Would gas work? No one knew.
Would the early tanks work? No one knew.
There were multiple weapons systems capable of causing mass casualties, but there was something else at work, too. The great wealth of the industrialized states and their empires, and the greatly increased population, allowed the war to go on and on, with human losses and at a financial cost that would have been impossible in any earlier age.
I would call these actions, not rituals. But I kinda get your point.
Don’t forget canned food.
All good points. But leaves unchanged the reality that mass charges against entrenched positions was blindingly stupid, a fundamental fact proven repeatedly. Whatever initial uncertainties there were about artillery, armor or other available resources, there was a pretty clear understanding that going over the top against an entrenched enemy carried a very high probability of becoming dead.