John Laffin’s Haig: Unforgiveable
John Laffin, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988)
There are two ways of writing history. One is to read and research, surveying the available literature and ideas, coming to a weighed conclusion on the burden of evidence. The other is to approach the subject with an idea in mind, and then to look for facts which prove the case. The former may be the way of the purist; the latter is probably the way of most students. It is certainly the way of Butchers and Bunglers.
Most historians at least make a show of being dispassionate and detached. Laffin does not even try. Butchers and Bunglers is an intensely personal book. It is born of Laffin’s childhood, and the memories – and scars – carried by his parents, both of whom were nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service during the War. It comes after years of tramping the battlefields of the Western Front, as a tour guide and an author, and of collecting the memories and statements of those who lived and suffered through it all. Like a parent whose child has died in the operating theatre, Laffin has questions to ask, and he wants someone to blame. Note the use of ‘I’ in both the following quotes:
believe, that 70 years after the war ended, the memory of the old
Empire’s one million servicemen who did not return home and the
suffering of millions more who did, demands the truth about the senior
leadership. The time
for cover-ups, for pleas in mitigation, for apologetics and
rationalisation, and for parading extenuating circumstances and good
intentions is long past. (p.16)
Who better to look for to blame than those in command? They were, in an undeniable sense, those responsible for the conduct of the war:
have concluded that some British generals were bunglers and butchers.
The two went together because, under the conditions of warfare,
butchery was the result of bungling…
The more senior the rank, the greater the influence and authority
– and much greater the responsibility. (p.6)
So Butchers and Bunglers represents Laffin’s indictment of the generals – and of 10 generals in particular. Like a prosecutor in a court of law, he sets out his case in the first chapter of the book; then he systematically presents the evidence he has gathered to prove the case; and then he comes to a conclusion which calls for a verdict of guilty.
Laffin starts with a Chapter called ‘Persistent, troubling questions’, questions such as:
They are presented not so much questions as accusations. They are, essentially, the opening charges which he intends to prove in the rest of his book. First World War generals, he says:
Proof_1 - the Facts:
Note that, so far, all this is condemnation by assertion only. The case is not proven in fact. That is what Laffin seeks to do in the body of his book.
2 is called ‘The Butcher’s Bill’.
It presents 26 random samples of horrific facts about the war.
There follow chapters describing the various disasters of the
war, with titles such as ‘Dedicated Futility: “Bloody Balls-up”’
(French and the fighting from 1914 to the Battle of Loos), ‘Gallipoli
Fiasco’, ‘Haig and the “Heavy Casualties Inevitable” Fixation’
(latter stages of the
Alongside this biased narrative, Laffin hangs a running commentary, lest his readers fail to understand the implication of what he is saying:
rationalisation of losses is grotesque.
How would the losses have occurred had he not attacked?
He never did explain (p.77).
confident – he did not have to drag his own feet out of the sucking
mud – Gough remained a disciple of the offensive at all costs, even
with exhausted, sick men (p.95).
smug complacency at GHQ did not communicate itself to the soldiers in
the trenches and miserable billets who had survived the slaughters of
and so on.
Laffin recounts all the old chestnuts, such as:
as well as new ones I hadn’t heard before, such as:
These stories are apocryphal anecdotes, probably or certainly untrue, at best inconsequential and at worst downright misleading, but they are presented as shafts-of-light into the mind-set of people living a century ago who thought and spoke differently to us.
- the Quotes:
As well as collecting together all the campaign disasters of the war, Laffin uses many key criticisms of Haig stated at the time and afterwards:
1. The generals are condemned out of the mouth of soldiers, such as Brigadier-General EL Spears, Liaison officer, who wrote of the Somme: ‘How enraging to think of the irreparable waste’, or the Australian Lieutenant JA Raws, who wrote in one letter home:
want to tell you, so that it may be on record, that I honestly believe
that [the men] were murdered through the incompetence, callousness and
personal vanity of those high in authority.
I realise the seriousness of what I say, but I am so bitter, and
the facts so palpable, that it must be said (p.88).
2. Other eye-witness statements are cited, such as that by George Bernard Shaw, who came to the conclusion that Haig was settling down to fight a war which would go on until he retired (p.93).
3. The generals are also condemned out of the mouths of historians, including quotes from Winston Churchill, Liddell Hart, AJP Taylor, Marc Ferro, Tim Travers, et al. Particularly, Laffin devotes an entire section to a string of quotes criticising Haig by various people (pp.159-63).
Perhaps most powerfully, the generals are condemned out of their
own mouths – Laffin quotes General Rees’s description of an advance
not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back…
The reports I have had from the very few survivors of this
marvellous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes, viz. that
hardly a man of ours got to the German front line. (p.9
- but see the comment on Laffin's doctoring of this evidence
This is, indeed, a statement which is chilling in its joy at the deaths of thousands of young men because they showed bravery. Nowadays, we would just not think it worth it. Laffin comments:
he seems to have convinced himself that the gallantry, discipline and
determination were the equivalent of victory… he was repeating the
principle pushed by his seniors – that the offensive always triumphed.
The 94th Brigade had been offensive, ergo it had
In the final two chapters (excepting an anthology of tragic utterances by ordinary soldiers) finalise the case for the prosecution. Some historians have praised Haig, offers Laffin, and have even called him ‘master of the field’. Comments like this, he says, are ‘sycophancy to the point of absurdity… extravagant and ridiculous’ (p.158), and he admits ‘a feeling of outrage’ at Haig’s claim that the battles of 1916 and 1917 laid the foundations of the victory of 1918.
Haig did not win the war, and it is not true that attrition was the only way to win it. If Haig had shown more flexibility and imagination, consulted more, or tried experiment, innovation or enterprise, the war could have been won sooner, with fewer losses:
The dull, inflexible Haig and the other generally dull and unimaginative senior officers stood firmly in the way of real change…
What right thing had he done for his troops? There is little evidence that he did anything for his troops. He could not even, by his own admission, bear to visit the wounded in hospital. Over and over again he had asked the impossible of his troops. And at what cost to himself? He suffered in no way at all…
and other British generals must be indicted … for wilful blunders and
wicked butchery…. They
knew what they were doing. There
can never be forgiveness. (pp.163, 167)
Nevertheless, however much one might sympathise with its conclusions – this is a poor book. It is an angry book, barely containing itself from bursting out-of-control. It is not good history, even if you do not agree that Haig was a good general.
Laffin presents one side only
EW Bean – the official Australian historian of the war, generally
regarded as authoritative and reliable – wrote a history ‘in which
blame and credit [of Haig] are so evenly apportioned that one cannot
enter the result on one side of the ledger or the other’ (Leon Wolff, In
Flanders Fields, 1959, p.269).
Not so Laffin. On
the nine occasions Laffin quotes Bean, all are negative, including the
quote about the
general who wears down 180,000 of his enemy by expending 400,000 [of his
own] men of this quality has something to answer for (p.98)
Also, Laffin’s selection of authorities is highly biased. The Western Front (1964) is the only Terraine book which makes the list. On the other hand, Norman Dixon’s psycho-babble (On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 1976) is not only mentioned in the bibliography, it is quoted no fewer than four times in the book!
where statements in favour of Haig are acknowledged, it is only to
contradict and dismiss them, such as Boraston and Dewar’s statement
back from the perspective of nearly 70 years, one can only wonder how
they could make this statement and believe that they were speaking the
truth… how could
they have so grossly deluded themselves? (p.98)
Laffin is heavy on assertion
Laffin continually interprets Haig’s actions or thoughts without a shred of evidence. When, for example, the battle of Loos had gone badly for Haig, Laffin claims:
Lord of Hosts, on whom Haig had depended, had been conspicuously absent
from his side during the fighting, but Haig may have been able to
rationalise that the ill-will of his Commander-in-Chief was a greater
force than the goodwill of the Lord of Hosts. (p.35)
the importance of ‘may have been') and on another occasion, speaking
of Haig’s attitudes during the
the middle of July he [Haig] was no longer mentioning God…
My feeling is that he felt, perhaps in his deep subconscious,
that God had let him down. (p.85)
It is impossible to take this kind of speculation seriously.
On another occasion, Laffin quotes Norman Dixon to substantiate his assertion that British Generals were butchers and bunglers:
the most blinkered could deny that the First World War exemplified every
aspect of high-level military incompetence.
For sheer lack of imaginative leadership, inept decisions,
ignoring the military intelligence, underestimation of the enemy,
delusional optimism and monumental wastage of human resources it has
surely never had its equal’ (pp.7-8).
thing to realise is that
Similarly, Laffin’s narrative is heavy on facts which imply fault on Haig’s part, and Laffin is quick to draw the implication – but he often fails to provide the proof that his interpretation of the facts is correct.
Laffin’s use of evidence is
is worth looking at one example of this in detail.
Seeking blame for the first day of the
The tall, gangling Rawlinson – 'Rawly'
to his friends – must bear much of the responsibility for the dreadful
failure of the
Notice the flow of argument and proof in the passage:
result is a paragraph, full of criticism and facts, but with neither
related to the other in any meaningful way.
Specifically, it is also worth noting that, in his treatment of Brigadier-General Rees, Laffin actually doctors and misrepresents the evidence to make Rees look an insensitive monster who was 'blind to problems'.
Laffin contradicts himself
Since Laffin is selecting evidence to support his argument, rather than basing his argument on the evidence, there are a number of occasions where the same evidence crops up in contradictory situations:
So – were the generals ridiculously over-confident or callously walking into disaster? For Laffin, the answer was both – when it pleased him to make the accusation. The phrase: ‘Damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ comes to mind.
There are other, similar, examples of ‘arguing both ways’:
and so on.
When you’re getting data which contradicts itself like this, it’s usually a sign that you’re neither right nor wrong – you’re simply barking up the wrong tree altogether. The question is not, with Laffin, whether Haig was or was not a butcher and a bungler – we need to address another issue altogether.
Butchers and Bunglers is important reading, if only because it collects together a huge weight of evidence and assertion against Haig. It is easy-to-read polemic – the kind of book you can take to the beach on holiday, and be uncritically amazed at the horrors of the past. It is thought-provoking and – who knows – Laffin might even have the right answers.
His problem is that he was asking the wrong questions. The question: ‘Was Haig a Butcher and a Bungler?’ is inappropriate. It is a question we might fairly ask of a general or politician today. It is not a question we can meaningfully ask of Haig, at least not in the terms in which Laffin has framed it.
Laffin promises (pp.15-16) to avoid judgement by hindsight. This is impossible. When he collects information, selects his sources, and comes to his judgements, he is doing so with all the experience of a century behind him – a century substantially shaped by the First World War (see Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975). He is using the lessons learnt from the Great War to judge the participants in the Great War. That is unavoidably judgement by hindsight.
It is not valid argument for Laffin to judge Haig by attitudes and beliefs – about, for instance, the justifications for war or the value of human life – which have been shaped by the Great War. It is not valid for him to compare, as he does (p.4), the leadership in the Second World War to that of the First World War, because the generals in the Second World War had the advantage and additional knowledge provided by the First World War. It is not even valid to use quotes and opinions from the inter-war period to judge Haig for they, too, emanated from the new world and new attitudes shaped by the First World War.
Haig, who was fighting the War, was the first Commander-in-Chief ever to experience the First World War. He was faced by events as they unfolded and spent the entire War, in modern parlance, ‘flying by the seat of his pants’. This was the first war to use poison gas and tanks. And – although they were known before the war – it was the war which saw the assimilation into regular warfare of the machine gun, the automobile, aeroplanes, and trench fighting. To Haig, all this was new. His only experience – ANYBODY’S only experience – was of colonial wars and, perhaps, the American Civil War, both significantly different to the First World War. As Rowan Atkinson says in Blackadder Goes Forth:
When I joined up, I never imagined
anything as awful as this war.
I'd had fifteen years of military experience, perfecting the art
of ordering a pink gin… and then suddenly four-and-a-half million
heavily armed Germans hove into view. That was a
shock, I can tell you.
question is not, and cannot be, did Haig run the war as a Second World
War general would have, or did he have an appreciation of the value of
human life which we would applaud today?
If we have the right to judge Haig at all, then it must be on how
well he administered the army, dealt with hostile politicians, liaised
with the French, Dominions and Americans, introduced new strategies and
technologies, and (while the French and Russian armies fell apart) co-ordinated
fighting involving forces of millions, with an army which before 1914
had barely 100,000 men – and all that when there had never been a war
anything like it before.