from Duff Cooper, Haig (1935/6)
Genius and Greatness
and greatness are qualities that defy definition.
Men accord them more generously to their predecessors than to
their contemporaries. They
are right to do so, for as the picture recedes from our vision we can
distinguish more clearly the true proportions of the various figures.
Already as we read the history of the Great War and the mists
created by prejudice, propaganda and false witness begin to scatter, the
figure of Haig looms ever larger as that of the man who foresaw more
accurately than most, who endured longer than most and who inspired most
confidence amongst his fellows.
Genius, if it were, as it was once defined, au infinite capacity
for taking pains, Haig might lay claim to; but not according to any
other definition. There
is no action that he took, no sentence that he wrote nor one recorded
utterance bearing the hallmark of that rare quality which puts certain
men in a separate category, dividing them by a thin but unmistakable
line from those who possess the highest talents.
if military genius had existed upon either side it would have solved
earlier and in some simpler fashion the problem of the western front
must remain for ever a subject of speculation, to which no final answer
can be given. Haig
believed from the first that the German line could be broken and the
German Army beaten in the way that that line was as broken
and that Army was beaten at last.
the war began he had not been consulted as to the part the British Army
was to play in it, but studies of previous campaigns and the knowledge
of our parliamentary system had persuaded him of the probability that
during the early stages of a war on the Continent the British Army would
find itself in retreat. He
had therefore insisted, during the months when he was training the First
Army Corps at Aldershot, on the "manoeuvre in retreat" being
continually practised, which undoubtedly proved of vital importance to
the officers and men who were compelled to take part in the inevitable
retreat from Mons.
the early stages of the campaign he proved himself an exemplary corps
commander, and no doubt existed either among civilians or in the Army as
to who should succeed Sir John French at the end of 1915.
Great as his services had been in the
command is the supreme test, but in considering the military history of
these three years it cannot be too strongly emphasised that at no moment
was Haig in supreme command in the full sense of the term.
His instructions, which remain on record, were definite that he
was obliged to comply in all larger questions of strategy with the views
of the French. And
even without those instructions common sense would have compelled him to
accept, so far as possible, the decisions of an ally in whose territory
the war was being conducted and whose capital was in danger.
it has been seen that the battle of the
Nivelle had failed - Haig's share in his offensive proving the only part
of it that was brilliantly successful and when the French Army was in
danger of collapsing, upon Haig fell the duty of holding the foe at bay.
This, he frequently assert later, was the most critical period of
the war. If the
Germans attacked the French all might be lost; therefore it was
imperative that the British should attack the Germans.
Once again the first stages of the attack succeeded and might
have continued to succeed if the weather had not broken.
And once again it was the French who never ceased to urge the
continuance of the offensive.
It is possible that it was prolonged unduly, but who shall say
when the right moment had arrived for breaking off the battle?
Military history is crowded with instances, and the
Gallipoli campaign had afforded a recent one, of generals who missed
their chances through failure to follow lip initial success, to drive
home a well-directed blow and to convert an indecisive into a decisive
that evidence is available from German sources and we know what the
autumn offensives of 1916 and 1917 cost the enemy, the most optimistic
estimates which were made at the time from the allied standpoint are
found to have been no exaggerations of the truth.
How near the German Army was to defeat at the beginning of 1917
nobody realised, and the view is still held by many of the shrewdest
judges, both in France and in England, that if Joffre and Haig had been
owed to pursue their plans the end might have come in that year.
1918, when, in spite of Haig's protests, the western front was denuded
of troops and the British line was lengthened, the Germans scored a
victory that might have seriously affected the.
result of the war. The
most important decision that Haig ever took was when he realised that
the situation could only be saved by putting the two armies, the British
and the French, under the same commander.
So clearly did he see the facts, so swiftly did he decide, so
successfully was his decision implemented, that a partisan might be
pardoned for claiming that here at least was the evidence of genius.
Clear vision, swift decision, efficient execution - can genius
produce more in a man of action?
Haig himself would have been the last to put forward such a claim
and would have contented himself with quoting Field Service Regulations,
Part I - "Sound military knowledge built up by study and practice
until it has become an instinct." And in truth genius does demand
something more - that imponderable and undefinable increment which study
and practice alone can never produce, for the fact was that Haig was as
good a general as it is possible for a man without genius ever to
opportunity arrived in the last three months of the war, and he made
full use of it. The
great battles of August and September that brought victory to the Allies
were his battles, as much as
was the first to believe that victory must come in the autumn of 1918.
He believed it in March of that year.
The best-informed military and civilian opinion thought he was
wrong, and in spite of his victories remained unconvinced until he had
succeeded, with little support or encouragement from home, in proving he
was right. Taking the
whole war into review and remembering that he was engaged in it without
intermission, from the beginning to the end, it may be affirmed with
confidence that there is no soldier and no statesman whose record under
examination on would prove better and it is extremely doubtful whether
there is any whose record would prove as good.
The only faults that have ever been attributed to him by
reputable writers are merely the defects of the finest qualities.
That he was too reluctant to change his advisers, that he was too
hopeful on the eve and in the course of battle, and that being once
engaged he was too slow to give up the fight - if each of these
accusations has a grain of truth in it, they amount only to the fact
that he possessed in too great a degree the essential military virtues
of loyalty, courage and tenacity.
difference, of opinion on military policy, which during the
last two years of the war caused friction between himself and the civil
power, were such as are likely to arise in times of crisis between
professional soldiers and the popularly elected representatives of a
democracy. That Haig's
views on strategy were sound it has been the main thesis of this book to
prove. Seeing that
they were held by the overwhelming majority of those whose lives had
been devoted to the study of military science, to decide that they were
all wrong and that the truth lay with the civilians would indeed be a
recognised that Ministers were entitled to their opinions, and he was
fortunate in being able to maintain the most friendly relations with all
the politicians who crossed his path, with one exception.
In the exceptional case, what he found difficult to forgive were
the methods that were employed against him by one whose motives he knew
were the same as his own, to win the war.
To his straightforward and direct intelligence it seemed
incomprehensible that a man who distrusted him should continue to employ
him. He was very clear
in his own mind as to his constitutional position, and never threatened
to resign his command because he considered that he had no right to do
so. He was the servant
of the state, and so long as the state required his services he was
bound to render them. If
the state lost confidence in his abilities it was for the state to
dismiss him, and we may be certain that he would have taken his
dismissal without a word.
a fellow soldier who thought he had been harshly treated by the
Government, and with whom Haig sympathised, he wrote: "I strongly
recommend you to remain quiet and not stir up an agitation, because,
even though an officer has right on his side, it does not in the least
mean that he will get what he wants.
The Government has a perfect right to send any one of us away at
a moment's notice without giving us any reason beyond saying that they
are not satisfied with us. Indeed,
if any authority finds he does not work in sympathy with any of his
subordinates, he is perfectly justified, in the interests of the
country, in dispensing with the services of that subordinate.
I regard the conduct of the Government towards you in that
little resentment he bore, how far was any thought of malice from his
heart, is shown by the fact that in all the many speeches that he was
compelled to make in the years that followed the war, he never allowed
one word of recrimination to cross his lips, nor made a single bitter
allusion to the past.
of character is something different from greatness of mind or of
intellect. It is a
quality that does not dazzle men, and it is one to which few men of
genius, especially those who were also men of action, can lay claim.
More often than not it must be its own reward, for it seldom
leads to fame, or wealth, or power.
But when it is possessed by one of those upon whose life the
searchlight of history beats, it should command the homage of the
historian. In moral
stature Haig was a giant. It
may be easy to find in history a more brilliant, it would be hard to
find a better man. His
life was dedicated, from the day that he left
If there be a Valhalla, as some of our ancestors liked to believe, where the great captains of the past sit down and feast together and tell again the story of their fights, this modest, quiet Scotsman will have his place there; but very seldom will he be persuaded to tell the story of how for three long years he commanded the greatest armies that his Empire ever put into the field, how in the darkest days his faith in their ability to conquer never faltered, and how he led them to victory in the end.