from Duff Cooper, Haig (1935/6)


Genius and Greatness


Genius 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.  

Whether 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.  

Before 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.   

Throughout 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 Sudan , in South Africa , in India and at the War Office, the final verdict upon his military career must rest on his performance during the three years that he held the position of Commander-in-Chief.  

Supreme 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.  

So it has been seen that the battle of the Somme was fought at the place and at the time that the French decided, although Haig would have preferred a different place and a later date.   It has been shown too how in the following year the plans that he and Joffre had agreed upon were swept away on account of the French Government's confidence, shortlived as it proved, in a new commander, confidence which was abundantly shared by the British Prime Minister.  

When 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 battle.  

Now 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.  

In 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 become.  

His 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 Austerlitz was the battle of Napoleon or Blenheim the battle of Marlborough .   Whenever he differed from Foch he was demonstrably in the right.   His refusal after August 8th to go on battering his head against the Chaulnes-Roye front shows that he was not one who never knew when to stop nor one who would sacrifice the lives of his men unnecessarily.  

He 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.  

The 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 melancholy conclusion.  

Haig 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.  

To 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 light."

How 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.  

Greatness 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 Oxford until the day that he died, to the service of his country, and his reward was the firm faith which the majority of his countrymen reposed in so loyal a servant.   The nine years were granted to him after the victory were sufficient to show that his humanity was as deep as his military knowledge, and his fellow countrymen, who, for the most part share and sympathise with his reserve and reticence, learned to understand him as only those people do understand one another who are incapable of giving full expression to their feelings.   "The legion has lost a president," exclaimed one of them on hearing of his death.   "but it has gained a patron saint."

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.