Sir Douglas Haig

How fairly was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig judged by contemporaries?

“Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”

Field Marshal Haig’s order to British troops on the Western Front, 12 April 1918.

This introduction has been divided into several sections.

General Introduction

The losses of trench warfare on the Western Front, enormous in comparison with previous wars, had a massive impact on the British, and part of their reaction was to direct heavy criticism at their generals. War poets, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, were contemptuous of the “incompetent swine” who appeared to send soldiers to their death from the comfort of French chateaux miles behind the front line. The man who has come to symbolise this view of British military leadership is Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who commanded the British army on the Western Front from 1915 until the end of the war. Haig was savagely caricatured in the 1960s musical “Oh, What a Lovely War!” and in the 1980s television series “Blackadder Goes Forth”. Some contemporary politicians like Lloyd George and Churchill were also highly critical of Haig and his colleagues. Academic opinion, particularly from 1945 to the 1980’s, tended to share this view, although more recently Haig’s reputation has received a more sympathetic assessment from a younger school of military historians who emphasise “the learning curve” by which the raw citizen army of 1916 became the highly skilled and victorious fighting force of 1918.

Image reference: Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/2/48 A. Reproduced with permission of Mr M A F Rawlinson.

Haig was the commander of the largest British force ever put into the field. Under his leadership the British and Dominion forces bore the brunt of the fighting against the Germans after 1916 and were strengthened by his faith in ultimate victory. Haig’s strategy, however, caused major controversy during the war itself. Haig was a “westerner” – that is, he believed firmly that the Western Front, where the main body of the German Army was deployed, was the only one that mattered and that all money, resources and reinforcements should be concentrated on it. His opponents were known as “easterners” – i.e. they believed that the stalemate in France could be broken by breakthroughs on other fronts, such as Turkey or Italy. The Prime Minister (principal Minister of Government), Lloyd George, inclined to the “easterner” point of view; he was also increasingly concerned about the huge losses that Haig’s strategy seemed to entail, and about the ease with which Haig seemed to accept them. As a result, Lloyd George was very reluctant to authorise further reinforcements for Haig’s Western Front command. That reluctance was to have major consequences in the spring of 1918.

Map of the Western Front

The Battle of the Somme

Shortly after his appointment as British Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front, Haig threw himself into preparations for the first major British offensive of the war, to be launched in the summer of 1916, at the same time as attacks by Russia and Italy on their own fronts against German and Austrian forces. Originally it was to have been a mainly French affair with strong British support, but these plans had to be changed after the Germans attacked the French at Verdun in February 1916. Now the British would have to bear the brunt of the offensive, which would need to be as large as possible, in order to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. The attack was launched in the countryside near the river Somme on 1st July.

The initial assault went disastrously wrong: the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day, and instead of breaking through the German line, as they had hoped and expected, they got bogged down in almost static trench warfare which not even tanks could break. By the time the battle petered out in the autumn, the British had only advanced as far as they had intended to move on the first day, and it had cost them almost half a million casualties. The German Army, however, had suffered an equivalent loss of about 650,000 men, while the French line had not collapsed.

To the British public Haig was presented throughout the battle as a national hero, aggressively taking the fight to the enemy, but in government serious doubts were being voiced about Haig’s strategy.

Haig and his Critics

After the failures of 1916, the Allied commanders had high hopes of success in 1917. The French built up enormous hopes of a major offensive planned by General Nivelle, but it too resulted in heavy casualties and failed to break the German lines. Nivelle had to be replaced by Pétain, the hero of Verdun; more significantly, almost half the French troops mutinied and refused to take part in any more such offensives. With the reluctant sanction of the War Cabinet, Haig launched a similarly optimistic British offensive in Flanders in July: this did make some gains, but suffered from the heavy rain which bogged Haig’s forces down in appalling mud around the village of Passchendaele.

On other fronts, British troops were having more success and advancing much further. In the Middle East General Allenby was pushing the Turks back through Palestine and Syria, and in December 1917 Allenby’s troops took Jerusalem. To Haig’s critics – the “easterners” – the contrast with his failure at Passchendaele seemed obvious. Haig’s defenders pointed out that Allenby was fighting on a much smaller scale, in a very different sort of campaign.

By the end of 1917 Haig had to draw up his plans for the following year. They were the subject of serious debate in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet (the group responsible for overall strategy and policy in time of war). Haig’s leading opponent was his predecessor as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (part of the Army available for service in Europe), Lord French. His main ally was General Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (C.I.G.S., responsible for co-ordinating the armed forces of Britain and the Empire). But Robertson was a soldier and therefore not in the Cabinet; and in any case, his rival General Sir Henry Wilson was manoeuvring to replace him.

The German Spring Offensive

By the end of 1917 Germany was much closer to collapse than her enemies realised. The British naval blockade was causing serious food shortages, and the enormous losses of the Western Front, at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, were draining her just as much as they were draining the Allies. Although the new Bolshevik government in Russia was keen to make peace, the United States had entered the war in April 1917 and significant numbers of American troops would be arriving in the new year. The German High Command decided that they had one last chance to win the war: they must launch massive surprise offensives on the Western Front, capture Paris and force the Allies to make peace before the Americans arrived in large numbers.

The Allied commanders knew that a major German attack was likely, but when Haig asked for reinforcements to prepare for it, he immediately hit problems with Lloyd George, who would only let him have a sixth of what he had asked for. As a result, the British Third and Fifth armies, on the old Somme battlefield, were in an unusually weak state when the Germans finally attacked, on 21st March 1918. The Germans broke through the British lines and raced on into open country behind. It was a critical moment, as the Germans sensed victory, but within a week Haig and Pétain had managed to regroup and halt the German advance before the enemy could reach any strategic objective. Further German offensives also failed.

‘The Hundred Days’

The failed German spring offensives had left their troops spread round vulnerable salients, or ‘bulges’. On 18 July 1918 the French Army launched a successful counter-stroke against the Germans on the River Marne. On 8 August the British Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson launched the “Second Battle of the Somme”: a successful surprise attack involving 400 tanks, 2,000 guns, and 450,000 massed infantry from Australia, Canada and Britain. General Ludendorff, the German Chief of Staff, acknowledged that “August 8 was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.”

This was the first of a series of hammer-blows up and down the whole Allied front in the coming months, now also involving American troops, forcing the Germans back in steady retreat. In their victorious “Hundred Days” advance, the British took huge numbers of prisoners and guns, nearly as many as those taken by the French, Americans and Belgians put together. Haig himself was convinced that Germany could be defeated that year, though Churchill as Minister of Munitions had to plan for a 1919 campaign. In the first week of October 1918 Haig’s armies smashed gaps right through the formidable Hindenburg Line. Ludendorff urged the German government “to lose no time” in asking for an armistice. This it did on 4 October, the armistice eventually coming into effect on 11 November.