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General Douglas Haig at the Battle of the Somme

Military History

General Douglas Haig at the Battle of the Somme

General Douglas Haig led British forces during the 1916 Battle of the Somme and has been roundly criticized for his conduct of the offensive.

General Douglas Haig led British forces during the 1916 Battle of the Somme and has been roundly criticized for his conduct of the offensive.

by Michael Haskew

A century after the bloody Battle of the Somme of 1916 left at least 1.2 million British, French, and German soldiers killed, wounded, or captured, General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, remains one of the most controversial generals to emerge from World War I.
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While Haig indeed planned and executed the primarily British thrusts against well entrenched German positions along the River Somme to relieve pressure on the French, who were heavily engaged with the Germans at Verdun, some believe his actions at the Somme were justified in light of the mission. Others believe that he displayed tremendous ineptitude with tragic results – the British Army sustained more than 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme offensive, making July 1, 1916, the bloodiest day in British military history.

A “New Year’s Gift” From George V

By the time he succeeded Sir John French as the senior British commander on the European continent, Haig was already a combat veteran, leading troops in the Boer War and commanding an infantry corps during the opening months of World War I. His family owned the Haig & Haig distillery company, famous to this day for its Scotch whiskey. He graduated first in his class at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and served several years with the army in India.

During the Somme offensive, French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre warned that his army would cease to exist as an effective fighting force due to the terrible carnage at Verdun if the British halted their attacks. Haig responded to the continuing French demands, despite little territory gained and horrific casualties, by prolonging the Somme operations until November. On January 1, 1917, he was promoted to the rank of field marshal and received a note from King George V that read, “I hope you will look upon this as a New Year’s gift from myself and the country.”

Haig continued to serve during the war and directed the Passchendaele offensive in Flanders the following year. Allied casualties topped 250,000 in that terrible campaign. The toll of dead and wounded at Passchendaele was particularly high among Canadian troops, and it is said that Canada gained a measure of its national identity as its soldiers were sacrificed in the ordeal.

Unequal To His Task?

Overall assessments of Haig’s command capabilities have run the gamut, from praise as the general who won the Great War to vilification as an incompetent commander who failed to grasp the killing capacity of modern battlefield technology. To some, he has simply become known as the Butcher of the Somme. During his command tenure, some two million Allied soldiers were lost.

Haig died at the age of 66 on January 29, 1928. He was given an elaborate state funeral and was remembered for his service in war and for his concern for veterans during the peace that followed. His conduct was criticized both during his lifetime and after his death. In 1926, future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote that the Somme was a “welter of slaughter,” while former Prime Minister David Lloyd George said bluntly in his 1936 book War Memoirs that Haig was “intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task.”

The absolute verdict of history may never be rendered. Observers continue to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions about Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the man and commander.

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One Comment

  1. Lorb
    Posted July 5, 2015 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Haig is often made out to have been a technophobe. In reality he was cautiously conservative, unwilling to use technologies until they’d been proven or unless they showed exceptional promise. British pioneering of the tank and military aircraft would not have happened if Haig had not put his support behind them as CiC. Haig also supported the changes in infantry tactics and armaments as the war progressed.

    Much is made of Haig’s supposed callousness. Again, the reality is different. He was dispassionate rather than callous, and his mindset was compared to that of a surgeon by Winston Churchill (who was by no means uncritical of Haig in other respects). It’s sometimes forgotten that Haig was involved in setting up the British Legion (a veteran’s association) after the war.

    Lloyd George is scathing about Haig – this is unsurprising since they were frequently in opposition, and Lloyd George was a man with few doubts about his own surpassing qualities. Lloyd George’s nickname of “Lliar George” is also not undeserved. If one wants an unbiased assessement of Haig, Lloyd George’s memoirs are perhaps not the best place to seek it.

    Haig often gets the blame for things that weren’t directly his purview. Poor tactics and bungled attacks could be the fault of anyone from battalion level up to Corps level. One might invoke “the buck stops here” principal, but I remind readers that this sign was on a politician’s desk, not a general’s. Few critics of the BEF try to blame the Prime Ministers for its performance, despite the War Cabinet technically being the highest authority (well there’s the royal family too, but that’s highly tenous)

    Haig is rightly to blame for not impressing himself on his generals more. Many of the worst episodes in the Somme were a result of loose leadership from Haig, as he and Rawlinson had different ideas about how the battle should be fought, and the result was a muddled mixture of two approaches that were at odds with one another. The same can be said of the early stages of 3rd Ypres, where Gough ignored some sensible informal advice on preparatory attacks given to him by Haig that should really have been made a direct order.

    Let’s not forget that in the end Haig was a commander on the winning side. This wasn’t due to the Germans simply running out of men – when the counterattacks at the Marne and Amiens hit them, the Germans had been gearing up for yet another major offensive. The Germans were actually outfought (and out-produced) by the Allies. By 1918 the British had developed the sophisticated foundations of modern warfare, and the British performed the best out of the Allies during the 100 Days Battle.

    Sharp readers may suspect there’s a disparity in what I’ve said here: that I appear give credit to Haig for being in overall command during the 1918 successes while denying that he was at direct fault for failures in the earlier bloodier battles. There is something in this, though it goes both ways: if you blame him entirely for the blood spilled in the Somme and 3rd Ypres, then he should take the lion’s share of the credit for the 100 Days Battle and defending against the German Spring Offensives. However I think an all or nothing approach is unrealistic. Personally I think it’s a lot more nuanced. Haig made some bloody mistakes, but the battles of 1916 and 1917, while painful and somewhat mismanaged, were strategically necessary at the time and important steps towards overall victory. Haig also helped to lay the technological, logistical and strategic groundwork for the extremely effective tactics used in late 1918, even if his command role was limited to oversight and coordination of the generals under him.

    Haig was by no means a perfect general, or even an outstanding one. He was however competent, and his real character bears little relation to the pantomime villain of popular WWI myth.

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