John Laffin’s Haig: Unforgiveable




A personal indictment,    

Opening Statement,   Proof_1 - the Facts,   Proof_2 - the QuotesConcluding Argument,   

OErrors of Argument:   1. Laffin presents one side only,   2. Laffin is heavy on assertion,   

3. Laffin's use of evidence is unfair,   4. Laffin contradicts himself.   Conclusions



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:


I 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:


I 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.  



A personal indictment

The Opening Statement:


Laffin starts with a Chapter called ‘Persistent, troubling questions’, questions such as:



Why didn’t the general public – as well as the press and pulpit – complain about the massive casualties?


Why did the generals persist, in one battle after another, with methods of attack long after they had been proved ineffective?...


How could generals accept such calamitous losses on their own side with apparent equanimity?...


Did the senior generals and their staffs have any conception of what they were asking their fighting men to do?...


Did any of the men in great authority have any sense of shame or remorse over their failures and the loss of life which ensued? (pp.5-6):


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:



were responsible for ‘the wholesale slaughter of British and Empire troops’ (p.6)


‘were all too ready to accept heavy casualties… had no sensitivity about the conditions under which their men lived and fought, and little or no remorse for the vast numbers of casualties which their campaigns and battles brought about. (p.6)


‘regarded war as more predictable and simplified than it actually was’ (p.9) – and failed to understand that they had failed to understand the nature of the War - thus they thought and planned attacks as cavalry officers, fighting the war along Napoleonic lines, according to plans, rules and structures which were out-of-date.


ignored the 19th century military thinker Clausewitz, who had argued that the defensive was stronger than the offensive: ‘Haig and others insisted that only the offensive could lead to decisive results, even though the defensive had become even stronger since Clausewitz’s time’. (p.8)   They therefore ‘were obsessed with attack’ (p.12) and pursued an offensive strategy despite all the deaths and its clear impotence.


did not realise the value or killing-power of machine guns, and still thought that a good cavalry charge and ‘the terror of cold steel’ would terrify the enemy into defeat (p.11).


thought that willpower, determination would win the war – ‘British generals could see that battles would be murderous, but they reasoned that victory would certainly go to those who showed the greatest staunchness’ (p.11)


had an ‘uncaring and stupid attitude’ such as Siegfried Sassoon’s general, who forbade the wearing of steel helmets because he thought it would weaken the fighting spirit of the men.


were arrogant, patronising and anti-intellectual, actively discouraged thinking, and did not allow criticism or debate.


‘were limited in their professionalism’ (p.3), in that they did not accept responsibility when things went wrong, but blamed others – the dead soldiers, junior officers, the weather etc.


[Haig] ‘saw God in his own image’ (p.16), and was therefore too rigid in his self-assurance.


did not win the war, which was won in the end by the naval blockade, the entry of the Americans, and the betrayal of the German army by the German politicians (the ‘stab in the back’).


‘those men who had bungled most grievously received the highest awards and rewards (p.6)



Opening Statement:


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.


Chapter 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 Somme ), and ‘Carnage at Passchendaele’.   In these chapters Laffin describes the generals’ mistakes, omissions and mad attacks which resulted in the blood-baths of the war.   Throughout, the negatives are emphasised, the positives derided, and the worst possible interpretation put on every action.   


Alongside this biased narrative, Laffin hangs a running commentary, lest his readers fail to understand the implication of what he is saying:


His rationalisation of losses is grotesque.   How would the losses have occurred had he not attacked?   He never did explain (p.77).


Pigheadedly 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).


Such smug complacency at GHQ did not communicate itself to the soldiers in the trenches and miserable billets who had survived the slaughters of 1917 (p.118).


and so on.


Laffin recounts all the old chestnuts, such as:



Haig’s dictum that 2 machine-guns per unit were enough (three times – pp.36, 76 and 99),


Kiggell’s bursting into tears when he actually saw Passchendaele (p.118), and


The claim that Monash would have been a better Commander-in-Chief than Haig, if only anyone had heard of him (pp.172-3)


as well as new ones I hadn’t heard before, such as:



Smith-Dorrien being told by French to ‘do as you are ordered and don’t ask questions’ when, having been told to give battle on the line of the Mons canal, he had asked: ‘Do you mean to take the offensive or stand on the defensive?’  


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.



Proof_1 - the Facts:

Proof_2 - 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:


I 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).


4.   Perhaps most powerfully, the generals are condemned out of their own mouths – Laffin quotes General Rees’s description of an advance at the Somme on 1 July 1916 which was wiped out by machine-gun fire:


Yet 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 below)


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:


Mentally, 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 triumphed. (p.10)



Proof_2 - the Quotes:

Concluding Argument:


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…


Haig 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)



Concluding Argument:

Errors of Argument:


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.


1.   Laffin presents one side only  

Charles 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 Somme :


A 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!


And where statements in favour of Haig are acknowledged, it is only to contradict and dismiss them, such as Boraston and Dewar’s statement that the Battle of the Somme was ‘a great triumph for the genius of British leadership’:


Looking 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)


Errors of Argument:

1. Laffin presents one side only

2.   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:


The 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)


(notice the importance of ‘may have been') and on another occasion, speaking of Haig’s attitudes during the Battle of the Somme , Laffin comments:


By 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:


Only 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).


The thing to realise is that Dixon ’s claims are also merely assertion.   Assertion is not proven by supporting it with more assertion.  


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.


2.   Laffin is heavy on assertion

3.   Laffin’s use of evidence is unfair

It is worth looking at one example of this in detail.   Seeking blame for the first day of the Somme , Laffin writes about General Sir Henry Rawlinson:


The tall, gangling Rawlinson 'Rawly' to his friends must bear much of the responsibility for the dreadful failure of the Somme offensive, and especially for the carnage on the first day.   Any bright ideas or constructive suggestions made by his staff were brushed aside.   He could no more brook criticism than could Haig, as is shown with blunt clarity in April 1916 in the Fourth Army's Tactical Notes, produced by Rawlinson's Chief-of-Staff, Major-General A.A. Montgomery. One passage in the 32-page document is stressed.   It states, ‘It must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the head of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.’   These might be Montgomery 's words but they are Rawlinson's attitudes.   The passage also shows Rawlinson's poor standards of logical thought, since it is not at all clear why junior officers' loyalty would be harmed by a senior criticising an officer who was even more senior.   (p.64)


Notice the flow of argument and proof in the passage:


The initial assertion is that Rawlinson bears responsibility for the failure of the Somme offensive.   Before we have got to the end of the first sentence, the descriptive term ‘gangling’ and the parenthetical comment about ‘Rawly’ have been introduced to demean him, and the emotive words ‘dreadful’ and ‘carnage’ have been used to heighten his crime.   


And why does he bear this responsibility?   Presumably because he ‘brushed aside’ the bright ideas of his staff – that is what the passage invites us to assume anyway.   But Laffin offers no proof of this.   Instead he further asserts that Rawlinson could not ‘brook criticism’, which is taken as the same thing.   The proof offered for this – which is claimed to show it ‘with blunt clarity’ – is a quote, not by Rawlinson, but by Montgomery .   Actually, the quote itself hardly even proves that Montgomery could not bear criticism; it is a fairly mundane statement that criticism can undermine morale.   And it absolutely does not prove that Rawlinson could not brook criticism.   Yet Laffin glosses over this by asserting: ‘These might be Montgomery 's words but they are Rawlinson's attitudes’.  


With this quibble now out of the way, Laffin then uses Montgomery ’s words to justify a further assertion about ‘Rawlinson’s poor standards of logical thought’.   Thus Laffin is able to move on in the next paragraph to attack Rawlinson’s ‘uncriticisable over-confidence’ and lack of realism.


The 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'.


3.   Laffin's use of evidence is unfair

4.   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:



Laffin’s account of the run-up to the battle of the Somme is typical.   Haig, we ‘know’, was careless of losses of men, so on pages 63-4 we are hardly surprised to learn that Haig estimated the number of men ‘available for expenditure in casualties’ at 500,000, and that Kiggell, too, warned of ‘heavy casualties’.    By the bottom of the same page, however, Laffin is criticising Rawlinson’s ‘unrealistic overconfidence’ and Maxse’s statement that the artillery bombardment would make the German front line ‘easy prey’.  When, on page 67, however, Rawlinson wrote on the night before the attack: ‘What the actual result will be, none can say’, Laffin complains about his ‘late misgivings’ and accuses him of moral cowardice in not communicating them to Haig.


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’:


A key cause of the failure of the first day of the Somme , says Laffin, was Rawlinson’s ‘heavy reliance on artillery’ despite the fact that he had ‘too few guns’ (pp.66-7).   Yet, when Hunter-Weston said as much after the battle, Laffin uses this to attack Hunter-Weston, saying that it was simply a move ‘to steer blame away from himself’ (p.72).


As part of his attack on Haig’s offensive strategy, Laffin asserts that defence held the advantage, and the Germans would never have been beaten by attack or attrition (e.g. pp.170-1); yet, when he is trying to deny that Haig won the war in the end, he states that one of the reasons the Germans were defeated was: ‘the entry of the United States into the war and the imminent use of… perhaps millions of fresh men’ (p.17).


When Laffin is decrying Haig’s promotion, French is portrayed as Haig’s mentor (pp.27&37), but when Laffin is trying to blame French for the failure at Loos, French is jealous of Haig (p.32).


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.



4.   Laffin contradicts himself



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.


The 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.