PreviousHome

  

Haig

   

'Good-morning; good-morning!' the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,

And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Siegfried Sassoon

   

   

   

   

Haig and The Somme

Haig was unperturbed by the losses on the Somme, despite Churchill’s criticism, and even though he lost the support of Lloyd George.   Haig had the confidence of the king, and there was no-one to replace him.   Even so, he felt the need to defend himself.   In December he reported to the Cabinet what he claimed the battle had achieved:

     

  

Source A

The Effects of the Battle of the Somme, according to General Haig

A considerable portion of the German soldiers are now practically beaten men, ready to surrender if they could, thoroughly tired of the war and expecting nothing but defeat.   It is true that the amount of ground we have gained is not great.   That s nothing.   We have proved our ability to force the enemy out of strong defensive positions and to defeat him.   The German casualties have been greater than ours.

Part of a report written in December 1916, sent by Haig to the British Cabinet 

about the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme.

     

  

To a degree, Haig was correct.   There is evidence that the German soldiers were disheartened by the Battle of the Somme.   Also – although they did not give ground at the time – when the battle had finished the German commanders pulled back to a more easily-defendable position: ‘the Hindenburg Line’.   

   

It can be argued that, although not defeated at the Battle of the Somme, the Germans from that moment on knew they could not win the war.

   

   

Links

Spartacus encyclopaedia

 

Generals in general...

BBC Online

Dr Gary Sheffield

General Rees

John Terraine (summary)

Lions led by Donkeys? - Learning Curve exercise

   

Comments on Haig:

Blood on their hands

Digger History

Alan Clark, MP

Gerard de Groot

John Keegan

Tim Travers

Trevor Wilson

Shot at Dawn - a collection of anti-Haig statements.

   

Interpretations:

Interpretations of Haig - a historiography

Disenchantment's Haig 

Lloyd George on Haig  

Duff Cooper on Haig  

Denis Winter on Haig  

Tim Travers on Haig

John Laffin's Haig

The Great Haig Debate

Butcher of the Somme? - a school assignment full of ideas and information.

Mud Blood and Poppycock - quotes from G Corrigan (2004)

Dr Dan Todman - analyses tactics, arguing there was a 'learning curve' for the British Army.

 

Youtube

Original footage

Douglas Scott, Field Marshal's grandson, defends his grandfather's posthumous reputation.

 

Powerpoints

Mr Harrison's guide to the Haig validity question - ppt. / swf.

Mr Huggins' presentation on Haig for the OCR exam - ppt. / swf.

   

Source Documents

The Generals

Haig

Haig's Despatches

   

Task

   

Study Source A.   

How valid is this interpretation of the importance of the Battle of the Somme?   

Use the source and knowledge from your studies to explain your answer.  

  

Click here for help to answer this question.

     

 

British soldiers with two German prisoners at the Somme.   Does this picture prove Haig’s claim that ‘the German soldiers are now practically beaten men’?

   

   

After the Disaster

In January 1917, it seemed as though Haig had learned from his mistakes – he wrote to the French General Nivelle to tell him that he would never again get trapped in a long battle as he had at the Somme.   It was not to be – in the summer of 1917 the French troops mutinied: if the Germans attacked the French army the whole line would collapse.   To protect the French, Haig launched an attack at Passchendaele.   It lasted 5 months (July to November 1917); if anything, it was worse than the Somme.   But Haig was getting wiser – he let Gough, the commander of the British Fourth Army, take the blame for the losses and, after the battle was ended, removed him from his command.

  

In March 1918, the German army launched an all-out offensive, using a new strategy – which they called Blitzkrieg – in a last-ditch attempt to win the war before the Americans came to Europe.   At first it was a success.   The British Army, which bore most of the attack, lost 160,000 casualties in 16 days, the French lost 77,000.   On 24th March 1918 the French General Pétain warned Haig that he was about to abandon the front and retreat.  

  

Haig knew that this would lose the war.   He telegraphed the British government in London to insist that ‘General Foch be given supreme control [because] I knew that Foch was a man of great courage’ – Haig gave away his command to save the war.   Then he sent his famous Order of the Day (11th April 1918) commanding his army to ‘hold on where it stood’.  

  

He made the correct decision.   Foch did not retreat.   The German advance was halted.   Then, in August, Foch announced that ‘the moment has come to attack’.    

  

On 8 August 1918, the British attacked again across the fields of the Somme.   But this time, their attack was a surprise.   And it was successful.   In September Allied forces broke the Hindenburg Line, and on 11th November 1918, the Germans asked for a ceasefire: the ‘Armistice’.  

   

   

   

  

Tanks were used for the first time at the battle of the Somme.   However, they had serious problems, and did not bring the hoped-for breakthrough.  

 

 

Did You Know?

At the beginning of the war Haig said: ‘The machine gun is a much overrated weapon.

 

Haig believed that cavalry would win the Battle of the Somme, and was angry when Rawlinson did not send them into battle.

 

Towards the end of 1916, Haig issued orders that more officers should be executed for cowardice to strengthen the 'fighting spirit' of his troops

   

 

Verdicts on Haig

Haig had won, as he had said he could, but did he deserve any credit?   Many writers - including those writing just after the war - have criticised Haig for his tactics, for the great loss of men and, above all, for his defeat at the Battle of the Somme.  

Others, mainly military men and recent historians, have defended him, saying that he did as well as could be expected, and that only a man of great determination and character could have seen the matter through.

 

After the war, Haig was given £100,000 and made an Earl, but he was given no important job to do.   He spent the rest of life raising money for the men wounded in the war.

    

 

The play Oh! What a Lovely War, made into a film in 1969, satirises the playful way people went to war, and the horror it became.   The show contains many of the songs people sang at the time.  

It portrays Haig as joyfully selling tickets to the slaughter.   

EKG Sixsmith comments: 'the play may be good entertainment, but it cannot be regarded as even a good caricature of Haig'.

 

Source B

A View of Haig

This poster shows a caricature of Haig, with the words: ‘Your Country Needs Me… like a hole in the head – which is what most of you are going to get’.   It is taken from the book General Haig’s Private War.

     

Source C

Haig’s own views on the Somme and trench warfare

i)   The nation must be taught to bear losses.   No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives.   The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.

Written by Haig in June 1916, before the Battle of the Somme.

Question: would we stand for this sort of statement today from a commander who had lost 56,000 men in a single day – compare it to our approach to modern campaigns like the Gulf War and Afghanistan.

 

ii)   The men are in splendid spirits.   Several have said that they have never before been so instructed and informed of the nature of the operation before them.   The barbed wire has never been so well cut nor the artillery preparation so thorough.   All the commanders are full of confidence.

Written by Haig on 30th June, 1916, the day before the attack began.

Question: how does this compare to the memories of men who were there?   Why might Haig have got the impression that all the men were confident and felt well-prepared?

 

iii)   Very successful attack this morning…   All went like clockwork…   The battle is going very well for us and already the Germans are surrendering freely.   The enemy is so short of men that he is collecting them from all parts of the line.   Our troops are in wonderful spirits and confidence.

Written by Haig on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Question: how does this compare to your knowledge of how the battle went?   How do you explain this statement from Haig?

  

Source D

Field Marshall Haig as a military commander

Silent, humourless and reserved, Haig was also shrewd and ambitious and had great self-confidence.   Perhaps his greatest failing was his constant, often misplaced, optimism, which seemed to stem from his belief that he had been chosen by God to serve his country.   It was probably this inability to recognise defeat that led to his continuing attacks on the Somme and Passchendaele.

Written by the modern historian, Anthony Livesey, Great Battles of World War I (1989).  

Note: this is a dreadful piece of writing – notice how the writer drives on through a series of questionable 'seems' and ‘possiblys’ to his utterly questionable conclusion.

   

Source E

The Prime Minister’s view of what happened on the Western Front

The tale of these battles… is the story of the million who would rather die than call themselves cowards – even to themselves – and also of the two or three individuals who would rather the million perish than they as leaders should admit – even to themselves – that they were blunderers.   Ought I to have vetoed it?   Ought I not to have resigned than allow this slaughter of brave men?   I have always felt there are solid grounds for criticism in that respect.   My only justification is that Haig promised not to press the attack if it became clear that he could not attain his objectives by continuing the offensive.

Lloyd George, War Memoirs (published after the War)

Livesey (Source D) claimed that it was Haig’s ‘misplaced optimism’ and ‘inability to recognise defeat’ that kept him going; what does Lloyd George suggest kept Haig attacking?   The Battle lasted 4 months; Lloyd George could have dismissed Haig; what do you think of the excuse he gives for not doing so?

   

Source F

Was Haig right to press on with the Battle of the Somme?

As to whether it were wise or foolish to give battle on the Somme, there can surely be only one opinion.   To have refused to fight then and there would have meant the abandonment of Verdun to its fate and the breakdown of co-operation with the French.

From the biography of Haig, officially authorised by Haig’s family, by Duff Cooper, Haig (1936)

Question: do you agree that Haig had no alternative but to fight on the Somme?   And if he HAD to fight, did he HAVE to sacrifice so many men?

     

Source G

A modern assessment of Haig – was he totally at fault?

Blaming Haig the individual for the failings of the British war effort is putting too much of a burden of guilt on one man.   Haig was the product of his time, of his upbringing, education, training and previous, military experience.   One argument goes that he was, ultimately, victorious and, even if he had been replaced, would there have been anyone better for the job?   Even on the Somme a German officer called the battlefield ‘the muddy grave of the German army’.   This was the same battle in which Haig’s numerous mistakes contributed to the half a million casualties suffered by the Allies.

From an article in the magazine Hindsight, by S Warburton (April 1998)

Question: Warburton argues that Haig’s actions were simply ‘a product of his education and experience’, and that he won in the end – does that make the millions of casualties alright, then?

   

Source H

A modern satire on the war

The comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth continually portrayed Haig as a fool and a murderer.   In this scene, Blackadder tried to persuade Haig to get him out of the Big Push, while Haig (played by Geoffrey Palmer) plays war games with toy soldiers: 

Blackadder: (winds the telephone) Hello? Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, please.

(Haig picks up and is looking over a model of the battlefield.)

Blackadder: Hello, Sir Douglas.

Haig: Good lord! Blacky! (knocks down an entire line of model soldiers)

Blackadder: Yes, sir.

Haig: I haven't seen you since... (knocks down the second line of model soldiers on the same side)

Blackadder: '92, sir -- Mboto Gorge. And do you remember...?

Haig: My god, yes. You saved my damn life that day, Blacky.

Blackadder: Well, exactly, sir. And do you remember then that you said that if I was ever in real trouble and I really needed a favour that I was to call you and you'd do everything you could to help me?

Haig: (sweeps the fallen soldier models into a dustpan) Yes, yes, I do, and I stick by it. You know me -- not a man to change my mind.

Blackadder: No -- we've noticed that.

Haig: So what do you want? Spit it out, man. (hurls the dead platoon over his shoulder)

Blackadder: Well, you see, sir, it's the Big Push today, and I'm not all that keen to go over the top.

Black-Adder- Series 4, Episode 6

Question: this is utter fiction.   Blackadder never existed, Mboto Gorge never happened.   In real life Haig would have court-martialled Blackadder for even making the call.   So can this scene be of ANY use to an historian?

   

Task

   

Read Sources A to H.

John Keegan, a modern military historian, suggests that Haig was an 'efficient and highly skilled soldier who did much to lead Britain to victory in the First World War'.   

   Is there sufficient evidence in Sources A to H to support this interpretation?   

   Use the sources and your knowledge to explain your answer.  

  

Click here for help to answer this question.