Tim Travers, The Killing Ground
The British Army, The Western Front and The Emergence of Modern War 1900-1918
(Allen & Unwin 1987)
Dr. Tim Travers did his History degree at Yale University (United States) and is emeritus professor of History at the University of Calgary in Canada (he retired in 2004). He has written widely on British military history, and is an expert on the topics of command and the impact of technology on warfare. His book The Killing Ground was a seminal development in the study of Haig because he placed Haig in his historical context, and did not judge him with the benefit or the prejudices of hindsight.
Haig in His Historical Context
1. The Edwardian Army
Tim Travers sees Haig in the context of the
Edwardian army. In the period 1900-1914, he says, the Army was
reforming, not only in terms of Haldane’s administrative reforms of
1905-12, but also in terms of its methods and attitudes; the Edwardian
Army, says Travers, was halfway between the amateur colonial army of
Victorian times, and a modern professional army. The army in which
Haig operated, therefore, was an army in transition.
Inevitably, the Edwardian Army – whilst
trying to make itself more professional and ‘modern’ – mirrored Edwardian
beliefs and attitudes. It included elements which were openly
anti-intellectual, rejecting ‘theory’ and ‘doctrine’ and preferring
experience, common sense, breeding and a classical education (against
‘someone who has given his mind to Electricity and Physics and those kinds
of subjects’). It was class-conscious and embraced Social Darwinism –
including the belief that the football-loving working classes (‘pale,
narrow-chested, hunched-up, miserable specimens, smoking endless
cigarettes, all of them learning to be hysterical as they groan or cheer
in panic unison’) were not the same quality of man as the upper classes,
and therefore neither as patriotic or as reliable. It stressed
‘character’ and the centrality of human qualities such as bravery and
self-control. It was aware of modern technology and fire-power, but saw
these as tools for commanders to use, rather than an entirely new way of
making war. Military thinking of the time defined a battle as a
structured, ordered phenomenon with three defined stages: preparation,
assault-and-decision, exploitation. Above all, it was dominated by ‘the
cult of the offensive’, believing that wars were won by a
morally-superior, better-trained force attacking and defeating the
enemy. Travers quotes Lord Wolseley who, in an introduction to the
publication of a series of military classics wrote:
I hope the officers of Her
Majesty’s Army may never degenerate into bookworms. There is happily at
present no tendency in that direction, for I am glad to say that this
generation is as fond of danger, adventure and all manly out-of-door
sports as its forefathers were.
It sums up the typical attitude of the Edwardian
Tim Travers sees Haig in the context of the Edwardian army. In the period 1900-1914, he says, the Army was reforming, not only in terms of Haldane’s administrative reforms of 1905-12, but also in terms of its methods and attitudes; the Edwardian Army, says Travers, was halfway between the amateur colonial army of Victorian times, and a modern professional army. The army in which Haig operated, therefore, was an army in transition.
Inevitably, the Edwardian Army – whilst trying to make itself more professional and ‘modern’ – mirrored Edwardian beliefs and attitudes. It included elements which were openly anti-intellectual, rejecting ‘theory’ and ‘doctrine’ and preferring experience, common sense, breeding and a classical education (against ‘someone who has given his mind to Electricity and Physics and those kinds of subjects’). It was class-conscious and embraced Social Darwinism – including the belief that the football-loving working classes (‘pale, narrow-chested, hunched-up, miserable specimens, smoking endless cigarettes, all of them learning to be hysterical as they groan or cheer in panic unison’) were not the same quality of man as the upper classes, and therefore neither as patriotic or as reliable. It stressed ‘character’ and the centrality of human qualities such as bravery and self-control. It was aware of modern technology and fire-power, but saw these as tools for commanders to use, rather than an entirely new way of making war. Military thinking of the time defined a battle as a structured, ordered phenomenon with three defined stages: preparation, assault-and-decision, exploitation. Above all, it was dominated by ‘the cult of the offensive’, believing that wars were won by a morally-superior, better-trained force attacking and defeating the enemy. Travers quotes Lord Wolseley who, in an introduction to the publication of a series of military classics wrote:
I hope the officers of Her Majesty’s Army may never degenerate into bookworms. There is happily at present no tendency in that direction, for I am glad to say that this generation is as fond of danger, adventure and all manly out-of-door sports as its forefathers were.
It sums up the typical attitude of the Edwardian generals.
2. Promotion in the Prewar Army
Parallel with this, ran a promotion system which was based, not on merit, but on the rivalry between Indian and African armies, and personal recommendation and favouritism. Travers quotes General Haldane, who told how one day Haig’s secretary came to ask him if he knew any good men for promotion, as Haig ‘had come to an end of those he knew personally’. Travers’s many examples of unwarranted promotion-by-preferment perhaps owe too much to (particularly Edmond’s) tittle-tattle and bitchiness, but the case is well-made (and I suppose that generals who would tittle-tattle and bitch in such a way would be absolutely the people to prefer their friends and their friends’ friends). This, of course, gives the lie to Denis Winter’s dark insinuations that Haig gained promotion by satisfying the homo-sexual inclinations of his superiors; Haig (and his wife, who was quite open in seeking preferment for her husband) simply used the established system of his day, and in fact – because he served in both Africa AND India – he had a clear advantage over his rivals because he had more connections to call upon. This personal/recommendation system of promotion explains, suggests Travers, the reluctance of officers to criticise planned advances and attacks, however impossible, or to pull out of a battle to save the lives of their men – given the ‘cult of the offensive’ among the senior generals, and so personal a system of promotion, to contradict one’s superior officer and refuse to attack was career suicide. This cult of the offensive, he suggests, may also explain why Haig preferred cavalry officers, who were seen as more ‘thrusting’ and attack-minded. It also, of course, explains Haig’s belief that the fast-moving cavalry were the ultimate hub of warfare, and that the infantry and artillery were essentially auxiliary forces. It was cavalry which would administer the coup de grace.
3. The Prewar Army and Technology
It was not that the army was unaware of new technology. In the period 1909-14 a new automatic rifle was issued, the Vickers light machine gun was tested, the Lewis gun was fixed in aircraft and there was ongoing debate about the best way to use machine guns and artillery. The problem – apart from valid issues such as the unreliability and clumsiness of the new technology (especially the tank) – was how to USE the new machine guns in a battle situation. And here, generally, the generals forced the new technology to work within existing concepts of how war happened:
The reaction [of the Fourth Army to the tank] was one of cautious acceptance of it as a piece of new technology, as in the case of the machine-gun, but with a tendency to slot that piece of technology into understood and ‘traditional’ roles’. (p.75)
The concept of ‘the human battlefield’ remained. Travers quotes Lt Gen Ian Hamilton, who wrote in 1910 about the machine gun:
Blindness to moral forces and worship of material forces inevitably lead in war to destruction. All the exaggerated reliance placed upon [machine guns] by France before 1870; all that trash before 1904 about zones of fire across which no living being could pass, heralded nothing but disaster. War is essentially the triumph, not of a machine gun over a rifle, not of a line of men entrenched behind wire entanglements and fireswept zones over men exposing themselves in the open, but of one will over another weaker will.
The brunt of army tactics, therefore, became – not how to correctly apply the new technology, which was essentially sidelined – but how to apply the men with sufficient impact at the appropriate moment. Army manuals stated that the men ought not to be allowed to halt to seek cover because of the ‘moral effect on the enemy’ of doing so (and, incidentally, practising retirements was forbidden during army manoeuvres). Faced with a realisation that the new fire-power could kill larger numbers of men, the reaction of the generals was not to change their tactics, but simply to demand more men. By 1914, army theorists were talking openly about the need to prepare the soldiers and public opinion to accept high casualties. And so it was that by 1916 – as the prediction of high casualties was proven correct – army memos were routinely allowing for a percentage ‘wastage’ of men and preparing plans of attack which postulated 25 waves of men to breakthrough.
4. Army Incompetence
In the meantime the Army was also subject, of course, to the normal incompetencies which might be expected of an army undergoing sea change during a time of peace:
Sir John French had problems at the 1913 manoeuvres, when his two Corps diverged, and his opponent, Gough, refused to stay still; while the winter 1913-14 General Staff war game, designed to test the workings of the BEF’s GHQ, resulted in total confusion… these problems with the staff command structure came back to haunt the BEF in August and September 1914, when Sir John French and his GHQ did not make a particularly good showing. (p.42)
Thus, if we are to judge Haig, we need to judge him against this background – as incoming commander of an ‘Edwardian’ army which was just not very good, and which in its ethos was a hierarchical and authoritarian institution wedded to offensive action whatever the cost in men (characteristics which, in fact, were mirrored in EVERY army of the period). It was THIS army with which, taking control in 1915, Haig had to win the war.
Haig’s Tutelage: a Man of His Time
1. Staff College
Studying Haig’s time at Staff College (1896-7), Travers shows that, not only did Haig take over an army with these attitudes and beliefs, he himself absorbed and accepted those attitudes and beliefs. Haig’s notebooks show that his concept of warfare was essentially traditional. He saw ‘a normal battle’ as a structured three-stage offensive, with superiority of morale and ‘pluck’ the essential ingredient of success, and technological firepower as an auxiliary aid to the decisive attack. Warfare for Haig was mobile, with the cavalry on hand to take advantage of errors and lapses of enemy morale to press home the victory. Haig’s further experience in South Africa and the Sudan merely reinforced these beliefs, with the exception that – faced with the reality of enemy armies with significant physical resources – he came to see the preliminary ‘preparation’ phase as an extended phase, a ‘wearing out fight’ lasting a few hours and drawing in the enemy’s reserves, so that the assault, when it occurred, would be decisive.
Travers thus locates Haig in the cultural and theoretical milieu of his era. However, this should not be seen in any way as supporting or justifying Haig. Travers is deeply critical of Haig. He writes:
Certain truths were expounded to Haig by the teachers at Staff College, and it is noteworthy that Haig’s notebooks show very little sense of independent criticism. Indeed he was not an independent thinker, and his Staff College concepts were applied, with few changes, to the battles of the Somme twenty years later … The most remarkable aspect of Haig’s experience at the Staff College … was the tenacity with which he (and other senior officers) carried the ideas of 1896 and 1897 into the First World War. (pp.86 and 97)
Travers tells how Haig, reflecting in 1927 on the role of cavalry during the war, was to comment that only the battle of the Aisne (September 1914) had been ‘a normal battle’, and there is obvious implied criticism of Haig in this respect:
Evidently the years 1915-1918 were not normal. (p.88)
2. Haig’s Ideas of the Commander-in-Chief
At Staff College, Haig also developed his ideas of what a Commander-in-Chief should be like. He should be, Haig’s notes reveal, a single-minded man who imposes his authority on GHQ and demands unanimity; indeed, it is better to stick to one guiding idea, even if it is not the best plan, than to be always changing it, and a good Commander-in-Chief does not allow his subordinates to advance their own ideas. Significantly, the role of the Commander-in-Chief is to select strategic objectives, but leave the battlefield details to the initiative of the commanders on the spot – ‘After having clearly indicated to subordinate leaders their respective missions, we must leave the execution to them’. Travers comments:
This idea goes far in accounting for the critical vacuum in leadership between Haig and Rawlinson, and then between Haig and Gough, during the preparations for the Somme and Passchendaele. (p.97)
Was Haig a ‘Stupid’ Commander-in-Chief?
Generals Edmonds, Wilson and Ernest Swinton (in charge of the tanks) ALL separately labelled Haig as ‘stupid’, and a traditional has grown up that Haig was of limited intelligence and understanding. Travers does not accept this, but his account of Haig’s leadership of GHQ is deeply critical. Haig, by character, was ‘inner-directed’ – a man who controlled himself by immense self-discipline, but was cold and isolated from others. He had an obsessive need for order, and surrounded himself by men who genuinely dare not disagree with him and simply told him what he wanted to hear.
In summary, GHQ, together with Haig’s personality and understanding of the role of Commander-in-Chief, learnt at Staff College, were so structured as to make change, innovation and suggestions difficult, although not impossible. (p.107)
1. A Vacuum of Leadership
For Travers, what had happened was that GHQ became isolated from the rest of the army. This was as a result of a number of factors, including a tendency to think in platitudes and principles not realities; Haig’s belief in setting the principles and leaving commanders on the ground to implement the details; the impossibility of applying Haig’s 19th century principles to 20th century warfare; lack of understanding (especially of new technology such as artillery); a preference for Charteris’s over-optimistic assessments of German ‘morale’ over more factual and rational intelligence from the War Office; the huge increase in size of the army which ‘overwhelmed’ Haig and his staff; a lack of empathy with Kitchener’s New Army; and poor communication and information, partly as a result of a rule that Staff commanders could not visit the front because it was too dangerous. As a result, claims Travers, GHQ developed a ‘group think’ mentality, where it developed its own peculiar view of reality, made its decisions in total isolation from facts, external advice or outside expertise, and simply ignored information which did not fit into its general conception of what was going on.
Many factors therefore went into the isolation of GHQ and the Commander-in-Chief – some of them based on Haig’s understanding of the role of the Commander-in-Chief – but the net result was a paralysis at the top, which prevented change, innovation and rational planning. In effect, there existed a command vacuum… In a strange way GHQ seemed to become or make itself largely irrelevant during the Somme and Passchendaele battles – rather like a Deist Being who set the clock running and then retreated to observe results. (pp.111 and 118)
Travers in this section is almost wholly dependent for his ‘proving facts’ – apart from statements of social theory from Resiman (the ‘inner-directed’ personality) and Janis (‘group think conformity’) – on information from Edmonds, Wilson and Haldane, along with comments from Liddell Hart and Lloyd George. He could hardly have selected a more venomous vipers’ nest from which to select his information. His view of Haig would have been unrecognisable to Terraine, who drew very different conclusions from Haig’s own letters and notes to his commanders. Travers, however, justifies his conclusions, despite the fact that they are based on admittedly biased sources, apparently on the basis of volume:
and Travers adopts a technique of argument (‘to be fair… but…’) which allows him to allow even the most extreme and unfair accusations, whilst appearing to overrule them:
2. Haig at the Somme
Part III of the book is devoted to a case study of the battle of the Somme. In a close study of the preparation and of the action at the Somme, Travers seeks the facts which prove his case. So be honest, the case is not as obviously made as perhaps he would have hoped. He claims that Haig and Rawlinson had different objectives for the first day of the Somme (Haig expecting a breakthrough, Rawlinson a less ambitious ‘bite and hold’ operation), but the evidence he presents is contradictory, and it is arguable that different hopes between the two men amounts to a ‘vacuum in leadership’ as Travers asserts (e.g. pp. 97, 142, 166, 189). What IS clear is that the artillery arm was inadequate, and both Haig and Rawlinson had plenty evidence that the artillery bombardment had failed to break the wire or to damage the deep dugouts (p.140) – factors which were to result in the disaster of 1 July 1916 – and that they rejected advice which advocated a creeping barrage (pp. 143 and 162). But Travers sees evidence of a deeper failure:
what happened at the Somme was really the application of prewar styles of thinking and operating to a technical reality that could not be so easily or quickly mastered. Haig and his GHQ were actually applying the prewar concept of the human-oriented structured offensive to the Somme, in hoping that wearing down tactics would lead to a German morale breakdown and the decisive offensive. But when this did not happen, GHQ was at a loss. At this point. a change in fundamental strategy was required … but there was no structure or forum by which fundamental changes could easily be introduced into the BEF, except at GHQ, and there was no willingness in 1916 to look for radical changes. Consequently, the learning process at GHQ followed a cybernetic rather than an analytic pattern - that is to say, prevailing ideas were recycled and reaccepted by a small self-sustaining group, instead of external ideas and criticism being allowed to break the cycle.' The … real tragedy of the battle was that the learning and decision-making process at very senior levels did not appreciably change as the BEF prepared for the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. (p.190)
Actually, Travers appears too harsh on Haig at this point. It is clear, even from Travers’s account, that British commanders WERE changing. As a result of the Somme, British artillery started to use barrage maps and meteor telegrams, improved cooperation with the Royal Air Force and introduced the creeping barrage (battle of Flers, 15 September 1916). On the same day, Haig used tanks for the first time. What is more, on 4 November, Haig cancelled an attack at Le Transloy after Cavan and Rawlinson had advised that the muddy state of the battlefield made an attack impossible. Also, although Haig is accused of incompetence (by another vipers' nest if ever there was one):
In a discussion after the war, Liddell Hart, Gough and Lloyd George came to the conclusion: the major problem was that GHQ left Army commanders alone to try to formulate their own plans. The entire army resembled a floating and helpless whale, powerful in itself, but lacking co-ordination, proper purpose and articulation. (p.189)
Travers also quotes Maxse and Haldane, who both accepted that Haig had a very clear strategy: that of attrition, and he concedes:
It [attrition] was not the only way, and not, in fact, the best way, but it was the least demanding intellectually, and if persisted in, would lead eventually to victory, although at heavy cost. (p.190)
3. Judgement: Victor, but Impediment
In fact, The Killing Ground is not a traditional anti-Haig ‘lions led by donkeys’ text. Travers is not concerned to lay blame – indeed, when describing the German successes of early 1918, he says:
None of what follows is intended to reflect unkindly on the participants involved. (p.231)
And he is quite happy to call Haig ‘the victor of 1918’, to declare him ‘one of the main architects of the Allied victory’, and to acknowledge a ‘strong learning curve’ in the years 1917-1918.
The proponents of the human
battlefield paradigm were starting mentally to engage the technological
paradigm, although fundamental conceptions of war were naturally hard to
change … it must not be forgotten just how far and how fast mental changes
had to travel from the prewar decade when officers still resolutely
insisted that the ‘same principles apply as were in force 100 years ago’
to 1918, less than ten years later, when warfare had become a
fundamentally different undertaking.
This reaching towards enlightenment was hampered by the personalised army system, by the continuing influence of the cult of the offensive and the psychological battlefield, by the persistence of associated ideas concerning morale and manpower, by the structure of command whereby Haig and the GHQ became isolated and created a vacuum, and by the tenacity by which … Haig clung to an earlier paradigm of war. … Fundamentally, then, the British army was actually fighting two wars during 1914-19, a hidden internal war and an external ‘real’ war. The hidden war took place within the external war, and pitted the power of prewar ideas and the power of a prewar army structure, against the encroaching reality of a ‘modern’ technological war. (p.252)
Thus Haig may have won the war, but by his nature and principles he delayed the internal developments which changed the army so that it was able to win the war. To be fair, says Travers, the French army was no different.
Haig and the Official History
The final section is taken up with an explanation of how Edmonds – despite his private hostility to Haig – allowed the Official History to be deflected so that it protected the reputation of the High Command, and essentially scapegoated others. The case is entirely proven, but – it must be said – shows that Edmonds was influenced by a large number of people and personal considerations. Denis Winter’s interpretation that Haig corruptly perverted the Official History is not supported.
John Terraine criticised The Killing Ground in the Army Review on the grounds that it was too closely focussed on 1916-17, and that it preferred sociological analysis, at times superficial, over adequate study of tactics, strategy, logistics or technology.