Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the architect of “the greatest tragedy…of the British national military history” in World War I.
On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties.
Under Haig the British forces suffered unimaginable losses in the battle of the Somme, attributed by many to his misunderstanding of the new forms of weaponry used in the conflict: he is known to have said that the machine gun was an overrated weapon and was later quite dismissive of the role that tanks could play on the battlefield.
‘Lions led by donkeys’
A German army commander once described the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’. He admired the courage of ordinary British soldiers, but felt that many lives could have been saved had their generals performed their jobs more effectively. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was the most senior officer in the army. He was the Commander in Chief from 1915 to 1918. He, too, has been criticized for the way he managed the war and has been nicknamed, the ‘butcher of the Somme’ after the disastrous battle of the Somme in 1916 when tens of thousands of troops died.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General
Military History |
Published: May 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm
Visiting the Somme battlefield in northern France is largely a matter of going from one Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery to another. The graveyards are everywhere, some of them very small, comprising only a handful of white Portland marble stones, many bearing the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War / Known unto God. One sees so many of these cemeteries and so many stones—along with the vast memorial at Thievpal bearing the names of some 70,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered—that after a few hours of it, you feel numb. Overwhelmed.
The magnitude of the battle still stuns the imagination. The Somme was an epic of both slaughter and futility; a profligate waste of men and materiel such as the world had never seen. On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties. Nearly 20,000 of these were either dead already or would die of their wounds, many of them lingering for days between the trenches, in no man’s land. The attacking forces did not gain a single one of their objectives.
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Even so, a staff colonel had the cheek to write: “The events of July 1st bore out the conclusions of the British higher command and amply justified the tactical methods employed.”
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and architect of the battle, evidently agreed. On the day after the debacle, stating that the enemy “has undoubtedly been shaken and has few reserves in hand,” he discussed with subordinates methods for continuing the offensive.
Which he did, with a kind of transcendent stubbornness, for another four months, until winter weather forced an end to the campaign, if not the fighting. By then, Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties. For the British, in the grave judgment of noted military historian John Keegan, “the battle was the greatest tragedy…of their national military history” and “marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”
But Haig was not finished yet.
The great commanders of history fascinate us, and we read their biographies looking for one or more character attributes we believe accounted for their success. With Napoleon, for example, we think imagination. In Lee, we see audacity. Wellington, composure. Hannibal, daring. Of course, truly great generals seem to possess all these qualities to some degree. They are artists of a kind, blending in one person intelligence, intuition, courage, calculation and many other traits that allow them to see what others cannot and to act when the time is right. For students of military history, the question of what makes great commanders is inexhaustibly fascinating.
We are, naturally, not intrigued by unsuccessful generals any more than we like to read about ballplayers who hit .200 lifetime. There is nothing edifying in the biography of, say, Ambrose Burnside or any of the Union generals tormented by Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.
But Douglas Haig may be the great exception to this rule. First, because he still has defenders who—in spite of those many graveyards and inconclusive, costly battles—would claim he was not in fact an unsuccessful commander. At the end of the war, after all, the army he commanded—and had almost ruined—was, if not victorious, then plainly on the winning side. Still, at the other extreme, one can argue persuasively that Haig did not merely fail to achieve his stated objectives in the great battles of the Somme and Ypres. He failed in a much grander sense; failed classically in the fashion of Pyrrhus, who lamented after the battle at Asculum, “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”
While the controversy over Haig has never been settled, there was no question about his fitness for command when he took over the British forces on the Western Front after the failures of 1915. The battles at Arras and Loos had been badly planned and managed, captured little ground and resulted in what seemed at the time heavy casualties. Then–BEF commander Sir John French was exhausted, demoralized and lacked confidence in himself and that of his immediate subordinates. He was replaced by Haig, who was, in the words of Winston Churchill, “first officer of the British Army. He had obtained every qualification, gained every experience and served in every appointment requisite for the General Command.” And Haig was as confident as he was qualified. Churchill, again: “The esteem of his military colleagues found a healthy counterpart in his own self-confidence….He was as sure of himself at the head of the British army as a country gentleman on the soil which his ancestors had trod for generations and to whose cultivation he had devoted his life.”