Denis Winter’s Haig: A Manufactured Fraud



Denis Winter,    Attacks on Haig: 1) Haig did not get his command on ability,   

2) Haig was a lousy commander,   3) Haig falsified the History of the Great War,  

Reviews:   On the jacket (journalists),   On the jacket (historians),   Brian Bond,   On the web.



Denis Winter, Haig’s Command – A Reassessment

(Viking 1991)



Denis Winter was born in 1940, and read History at Cambridge University.   He has written many books on various aspects of the First World War – many of them about Australia’s part in the war.   Most reviewers say these books are accurate and reliable.


In 1980, Winter became a Research Fellow at the Australian National University .   While working there, he explains, he realised that there were materials in the Australian and Canadian archives which were NOT in the British Public Record Office.   Winter has also found differences between Haig’s handwritten diary, and the official typed version.   From this, he argues that the sources from which previous histories have been written are tampered-with and often entirely rewritten versions of the truth – e.g., the daily war diaries kept by all army units were often altered by the cabinet office, cabinet war minutes were rewritten, and Winter even claims that the war's official historian deliberately destroyed documents.   



Winter simply attacks Haig from start to finish.   Among his assertions are:



Denis Winter

1.   Haig did not get his command on military ability:


His period of command had exposed grave professional weaknesses in a man whose rise had always owed more to intrigue and patronage than to any evidence of talent as a soldier.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 41.   


Although Haig’s Diary claims that he came top of his year at Sandhurst, there is no record of it, and Winter says he did not even pass near the top, despite a bonus 20% ‘from the professors’.


At Camberley Staff College, says Winter, James Edmonds – the college’s star pupil – was ordered to dictate examination answers to Haig


Haig’s wife was one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, and the king was throughout his career a strong supporter of Haig.  


Winter ascribes his promotion to the help of three allegedly homosexual superiors ‘attracted by the striking physique and blue eyes of a young Hussar’ (page 32) – the inference is blatant.  



Attacks on Haig

1.  Haig did not get his command on ability

2.   Haig was a lousy commander.


Much of Winter’s analysis is speculative assertion that he (Winter) could have thought of a way to do things better than Haig.   A lot of his chapter on the Battle of the Somme is spent trying to prove – from a few facts and odd sources – that Haig planned the battle of the Somme as a diversion to draw German troops away from Passchendaele, where he intended to make his main assault.  


Winter’s account is riddled with value-judgement phrases like ‘ponderous lines, advancing like a German machine-gunner’s dream’ (p.58), ‘Haig’s blunders’ (p.79), ‘months of fumbling’ (p. 84),  ‘the smoke-screen of lies and fictions put out by Haig’ (p. 87), ‘costly error’ (121), ‘fundamental error’ (p.152) etc.  


His conclusions are damning:


The army Haig sent onto battle was therefore badly organised…   Poorly trained and ill equipped, supported by staff work of low quality and commanded by generals inadequate to the task, the BEF under Haig was, indeed, the bluntest of swords.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 150.   


[Haig’s generalship had] three basic weaknesses: a faulty selection of battlefield, an inability to break the crust of the enemy’s defensive positions at the outset and a failure to exploit such fleeting opportunities for breakthrough which appeared.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 151.   


With military dogmas cut and dried before 1914, Haig felt no need to study the details of his profession, and many competent judges were astounded by the gaps in Haig’s knowledge relating to the most elementary aspects of soldiering.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 163.

(To support this, Winter quotes John Monash, commander of the Australian forces on the Western Front, and James Edmonds, the government’s official historian of the war.)


Symptoms of a man avoiding situations which might challenge his own rigid conceptions of command were accompanied by a disturbing change in Haig himself … As soon as he became Commander in Chief, a religious dimension appears … It was an unhealthy development in a man already tending towards delusions of infallibility.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 165.   



2.  Haig was a lousy commander

3.    Haig falsified the History of the Great War


In the final chapters of his book, Winter describes how Haig set about falsifying the historical record after the war: 


First, he rushed into print his dispatches to the Cabinet from the Front – i.e. Haig’s accounts of the battles in his own words, followed by a 49-page justification of his methods. 


Next, he wrote a 75-page Memorandum on the Operations on the Western Front and sent copies to everybody he knew was writing a History of the war. 


He supervised the writing of the book Sir Douglas Haig’s Command, supposedly by J Boraston and G Dewar (1922).    


He made sure that versions of parts of his Diary (versions which he changed to suit his needs) were freely available. 


He interfered with the Official History of the war – written by James Edmonds – which was passed to him for comment as it was written.   Indeed, Edmonds assured Haig’s widow in 1928 that he was writing ‘the history of his command as he would have wished’.   For reasons of its own, and because Haig had immense power through his connections, the government supported Haig’s interpretation of events.  


The end product of Edmond's work was therefore an Official History which presented a fraudulent account of the Western Front, supported by documents mischievously selected…

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 255.   


In this way, Haig made sure that his version of the war became the accepted version of the war.   Thus, claims Winter, there was: ‘falsification on a considerable scale’ (p. 3).


Haig had systematically falsified the record of his military career, underpinning the most important years with a diary written for circulation in his own cause during the war and re-written in his own favour after it.

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 3.   


The official record of the war – political as well as military – had been systematically distorted both during the war as propaganda and after it, in the official history… All documents passed on the Public Record Office were carefully vetted so as to remove those which contradicted the official line.’  

Denis Winter, Haig’s Command A Reassessment (2001 Penguin edition), page 4.   


Even, according to Winter, when the Cabinet and War Office papers were opened to the public in the 1960s, historians who ‘get most of their material within strolling distance of the Public Record Office’s excellent cafeteria’ (p. 2) were unable to realise that Haig had falsified the record.  


Only, says Winter, when he (Winter) did his ground-breaking work on Australian and Canadian papers, did Haig’s manufactured fraud come to light.







3.  Haig falsified the History of the Great War

What do they say about Denis Winter’s book, Haig A Reassessment?



As you might have expected, the reviews on the jacket of the Penguin edition of Winter’s books (2001) all praise it.   Some newspaper reviews have been very enthusiastic:


This well-researched and important book brings to life the polemics and controversies of a past generation over Field Marshal Haig ... The fresh documentary evidence produced by Winter makes it difficult for historians in future to take up the cudgels for Haig.

Richard Lamb, Spectator


In Haig's Command Denis Winter launches the most devastating attack on Haig's reputation since the publication of Lloyd George's self-serving memoirs in the Thirties ...

Michael Howard, London Review Of Books



On the jacket (journalists)

And – if you accept the book cover – historians, also, have praised the book:


A major contribution to Great War history ... It has long been known that the British Official History was painstakingly sanitized, and that Haig had a hand in the process. How exactly it was done Winter explains in detail.

John Keegan, Daily Telegraph


This is history on several levels, human, technical and, in the end, moral. Haig does not come at all well out of this work; but Winter does, for he demolishes, piece by piece, the version that was served by the Official Histories ... This is among the score of books on 1914-1918 which will live.

Norman Stone


Denis Winter has lobbed a hand grenade into the British historiography of the First World War…   This angry attitude makes for vigorous and splendid entertainment…   The author's indefatigable exploration of the sources and impassioned presentation of the case for the prosecution should ensure that his study is taken seriously by all future historians of the First World War.

Brian Bond, History Today



On the jacket (historians)

Actually, although generally positive, Brian Bond's review was not wholly positive, and you may wish to compare some of his other comments with the spiel on the jacket cover:


[His] angry attitude makes for vigorous and splendid entertainment, but also raises questions about the author's objectivity and judgement... Occasional factual errors and overconfidence in the handling of casualty statistics also raise questions of judgement on larger issues  

Brian Bond, History Today


In contrast, a review by Correlli Barnett, in the Times Literary Supplement (19 April 1991) was highly critical of Winter as a researcher, and a sharp exchange of letters with Winter followed.   Barnett's comments were supported by John Hussey (Letter, TLS, 10 May 1991), and it is generally agreed that Winter's research was sloppy (see also below).



Brian Bond

You should also know that the reaction of First World War buffs on the web has been very hostile:


Winter's "Haig's Command" has received deserved adverse criticism for its lack of complete honesty, cavalier distortions and personal "Out to get him" attitude.    I am no big fan of Douglas Haig but the tone of that book put me off, coming over as unscholarly, and as if the author had a personal vendetta.

From: "Michael Kendix" Date: Thu, 02 Nov 2000

 WWI Modeling Mailing List Archive


A very serious attack on Denis Winter "Haig's Command" may be found in Stand To no 36 winter 1992 in which a John Hussey claims that Winters book is quote: "an astonishing mass  of deception and downright lying".   I would beware of Winter's book on Haig, his references are for the most part unsatisfactory and he seems not to have the impartial attitude of a fair historian.  An example is that he quotes the, now disproved, story of Kiggel bursting into tears and saying "Did we really send men to fight in this" after Passchendaele! 

Not a good reference book IMHO and too biased!

From: "Geoffrey Miller", Date: Wed, 11 Feb 2004

Univ. Kansas Electronic Library WWI Discussion Forum


Much of Winter's claim to authority and originality lay in his alleged use of archival materials held in Australia , and on this your readers may find further comment useful.

A check of the documents cited in the Heyes papers, collected for C.E.W.Bean in London in the 1920s, and in the correspondence between Bean and the British Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, not only fails to substantiate Winter's claims but reinforces still further Barnett's criticisms of his capacity as a researcher.

Space does not permit a full listing, but such a catalogue would include the misidentification of documents, misquotation of documents, the running together of passages from different documents without identification in any form that the material is from different sources, and misdating of material.

The most serious shortcomings are to be found in his handling of the Bean-Edmonds correspondence. Here Winter misdates a letter by seventeen years in order to support his conspiracy case against Edmonds , and his 'quotations' from the correspondence must be viewed with considerable distrust. To give but one example, on page 31 he cites Edmonds to the effect that 'before 1914 the army was very feudal in its status and...great personages still exercised the higher patronage.' What Edmonds actually wrote to Bean, in June 1929, was: 'I can't help feeling that you think the BEF of 1914 was still the feudal army it was in 1899 before the South African War...Efficiency, not birth, alone counted!' A reading of the correspondence in toto undermines still further the complexion which Winter chooses to place on Edmonds endeavours.

Dr. Jeffrey Grey of the University of New South Wales (Letter, TLS, 9 August 1991)



Also, two reviews on a website called have been particularly hostile:


Mendacious Nonsense

Denis Winter's nickname in Great War history circles is "The self-appointed Witchfinder General of the Great War".   It's not catchy, but it's pretty accurate.  

This book is a nonsense that would be ridiculous were it not worryingly popular.   Winter's thesis is effectively a vehicle to advance his own agenda and has been debunked by a number of highly reputable historians, including Australia's two most eminent historians of World War 1, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson (neither of whom could be described as fans of Haig).   It has also been disowned by the staff at the Australian War Memorial.   Not a very glittering endorsement.  

Winter accuses a lot of people (pretty much everyone in Britain, basically) of covering up Haig's deficiencies and generally lying.   Aside from that fact that it is generally unwise to buy into any conspiracy that requires more than three people to keep their mouths shut, Winter's thesis doesn't have much credibility when one considers that fact that half the people accused of conspiring harboured massive personal animus agaisnt Haig and would have taken delight in sticking the knife in where possible (as Brigadier James edmonds did on more than one occassion).   Given the shockingly bad reputation Haig enjoys among the public at large, Winter's book has been described by one historian as "surely the most unsuccessful conspiracy in history".   Well, quite.  

On top of this, ironically given the relish with which he accuses others of lying and distorting history, it has been demonstrated that Winter systematically misquotes and selectively edits sources and distorts the evidence… Of course, for people without the time to look or access to archived material it is fairly difficult to refute this sort of thing and for a long time Winter's claims went unquestioned (aided in no small part by the fact that he was often telling people what they wanted to hear)…

In summary, this is a terrible book.   It is bad history.   It is polemical.   And above all it is intellectually dishonest.   There are far better books on great war generalship out there, if only people would care to look.   Sadly, most people seem happier reinforcing their prejudices with this sort of thing and as long as this is the case I don't doubt Winter's books will continue to sell like hot cakes while more worthy academic works will continue to gather dust on the shelves.


A polemic, not history

Part military history, part rant, part character assassination, and part conspiracy theory, Denis Winter's "Haig's Command" has, in a morbid sense, something for everyone.  

The central thesis of the book is simple, yet sensational: The "truth" about British military operations in France during the First World War was concealed for nearly fifty years because Field Marshal Douglas Haig, with the complicity of the British government, bowdlerized and rewrote the official records so that his own incompetence (and indirectly that of the British Government) would be hidden.   Winter claims that the true story can be pieced together by comparing the histories and minutes of the Dominion records (i.e. Australian and Canadian) that escaped the censorious scalpel and became public record in the 1960s.  

From beginning to end, Winter unleashes a firestorm of abuse on Haig.   To begin with, he says, Haig's military career is the story of a completely fabricated C.V.  and the patronage of a few, well-placed figures in the British Army.   Moreover, the author hints that Haig's relationship with these key mentors -- most notably Lords Kitchener and Esher -- may have been homosexual in nature.   As a Corps commander under Sir John French during the opening months of the war, Haig bungled every operation he was entrusted with, Winter says, so his eventual promotion to Field Marshal had nothing to do with battlefield performance.  

From the moment Haig takes command in December 1915, Winter's book so entirely rewrites the history of the Western Front that it is impossible to synthesize his points and accusations.   Needless to say, everything you've read before is wrong; everything Haig did was a moronic disaster; and everything in the British war records is a willful, malicious lie.  

This book comes with the imprimatur of dusk jacket praise from Norman Stone, a respected historian of the First World War.   It also lists some prominent endorsements for Winter's previous effort, the widely acclaimed "Death's Men." It isn't surprising that John Keegan and others refused to sign up in support of the author's latest work.  

If you are a serious student of military history and the First World War in particular, it may not be a bad idea to familiarize yourself with Winter's arguments, if only to reject them out of hand.   Otherwise, don't bother with this book.


On the web