Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General
Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the architect of “the greatest tragedy…of the British national military history” in World War I.
On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties.
Under Haig the British forces suffered unimaginable losses in the battle of the Somme, attributed by many to his misunderstanding of the new forms of weaponry used in the conflict: he is known to have said that the machine gun was an overrated weapon and was later quite dismissive of the role that tanks could play on the battlefield.
‘Lions led by donkeys’
A German army commander once described the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’. He admired the courage of ordinary British soldiers, but felt that many lives could have been saved had their generals performed their jobs more effectively. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was the most senior officer in the army. He was the Commander in Chief from 1915 to 1918. He, too, has been criticized for the way he managed the war and has been nicknamed, the ‘butcher of the Somme’ after the disastrous battle of the Somme in 1916 when tens of thousands of troops died.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General
Military History |
Published: May 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm
When the German offensive broke like a huge wave on March 21, the British army lost more ground than it had gained in any of Haig’s great offensives. In the end, the British held, but just barely. And the Germans now paid the price of attrition, which in this war fell harder on the attackers than the defenders. The British and the French had squandered millions of men in futile offenses. But now the Americans were coming, to replace the wasted battalions. Germany did not have an America to come to its assistance.
So the tide turned, and with Haig still commanding the BEF, the Allies pushed the Germans back and forced first a cease-fire and then the fatally flawed Treaty of Versailles. They were too weak to drive the enemy entirely off the ground it had conquered in 1914, so the Germans believed they had never in fact been defeated. The Allies were unable to make the point emphatically enough because they had squandered too much strength on the Somme, around Ypres and in other inconclusive offensives. If Haig was a victorious commander, as his defenders maintain, his victory was not decisive enough to convince, among others, Adolf Hitler.
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After the war, Haig became something of an awkward figure for the British government. He was popularly portrayed as a hero and given money and titles, but never another job. He worked selflessly on veterans’ causes, and when he died in 1928, 200,000 of them filed by his casket—men who had served under his remote, unflinching command, where generals slept in chateaus and drank champagne while soldiers lived in trenches and shell holes.
Early biographies were laudatory, and Haig did his best to ensure that by sending material to the authors. Then came the inevitable reappraisals. B.H. Liddell-Hart, a distinguished military historian who had been wounded on the Western Front, went from admirer to skeptic to unremitting critic. He wrote in his diary:
He [Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple—who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.
Haig’s military reputation might even have figured in the prevailing attitude of appeasement. Nothing, the thinking went, was worth another Somme. But of course the world—including the British—did go to war again. For all the slaughter, Haig’s war had been inconclusive and had to be fought again. And after this one, the sea changes set in motion by the first of the world wars became starkly apparent. Britain was no longer an imperial power, and the old Edwardian certainties had crumbled. Like the social class that had produced him, Haig was not so much a figure of controversy as one of contempt. A dull, unfeeling, unimaginative, smug “Colonel Blimp” of the worst sort. Haig was cruelly mocked, first in the satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War and then in the 1989 television comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth.
He still had his defenders, but they were in the last trench, barely holding on. Their books argued Haig was a curious, inventive soldier who had, in fact, appreciated the tactical value of machine guns and tanks. Before he died, however, Haig himself gave his critics ammunition by clinging publicly and stubbornly to his outdated certainties. As late as 1926, he was still capable of writing this about the future of warfare:
I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.
Astonishing that any man who was there could still believe in cavalry 10 years after the Somme. But it is the bit about “the well-bred horse” that really gives the game away. Haig was undeniably a butcher, as his severest critics have claimed, but he was most of all a pompous fool