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.
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.”
The “country gentleman” meme is especially apt in Haig’s case. The man had a thing for horses, which is understandable in one who had been a cavalry officer during the infancy of the internal combustion engine. But Haig’s attachment to the horse was abiding and stubborn, and he went so far as to argue that the machine gun was an overrated weapon—especially against the horse.
Generals, the cynics like to say, are always fighting the last war. To the extent this is true, they can be excused, as they can’t possibly have any direct experience of the next war. But Haig continued to believe in the cavalry long after the war that he was actually fighting—World War I—had proven mounted soldiers absurdly vulnerable and obsolete.
Haig envisioned a vital role for the horse in his masterpiece, the Somme offensive. That battle is generally, and incorrectly, remembered as one decided through attrition. (It failed even on that score, since the Allies lost more men than the Germans.) Haig, popular thinking goes, attacked and kept on attacking—even when the ground his men gained, yard by bloody yard, was useless by any military measure—in order to wear down the Germans. Attrition is never an inspired strategy and is usually the refuge of a commander who cannot come up with anything better. And Haig was, if anything, unimaginative. As Paul Fussell writes in his indispensable volume The Great War and Modern Memory, “In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention…Haig had none.”
Still, in his defense, it’s clear Haig honestly believed a massive frontal assault by British infantry would punch a hole in the German line, through which his cavalry would then charge to glory. On several occasions mounted troops were brought up in anticipation of the breakout that, of course, never occurred.
Critics of Haig are remorseless on this point—the man was so confident in his outdated ideas that he never allowed actual battlefield experience to challenge them. His fantasies of cavalry charges across open country were matched by his insistence on sending infantry against the enemy in neat ranks at a slow walk, the better to maintain control. Andrew Jackson had demonstrated the flaw in this method of attack during the War of 1812, and the American Civil War had truly driven the point home on a dozen different occasions. But if Haig had ever heard of Cold Harbor, he plainly did not believe its lessons applied to British soldiers. And the Confederates who had cut down 7,000 Union troops in 20 minutes didn’t even have machine guns.
When the horrific 142-day ordeal of the Somme was finally over, the feeling in the British government was “no more Sommes.” The politicians, it seemed, had learned something, but Haig had not. He wanted to fight another battle, very much like the Somme, only bigger, and on terrain that was even less well suited for the offensive. This time, at the notorious Ypres salient in Flanders, he believed he would get it right and win the war. The cavalry, of course, would carry the day.
By the summer of 1917, frontal assaults had failed disastrously up and down the Western Front. After its last attempt at piercing the German line, the French army had broken and mutinied. Haig had no new tactics to offer, and the only technological advance that showed any promise was the tank. However, there may have been no terrain along the entire 300-plus miles of the Western Front less suited to tank warfare than the wet, low-lying ground of Flanders.
But Haig and his staff were sublimely confident, and as Churchill dryly points out, “hopes of decisive victory…grew with every step away from the British front line and reached absolute conviction in the Intelligence Department.” However, Haig’s civilian bosses in London were skeptical. The new prime minister, Lloyd George, wanted to fight defensively on the Western Front while waiting for the Americans, now in the war, to begin arriving in Europe in decisive numbers.
Haig waged the ensuing political battle with customary remorselessness and prevailed in the bureaucratic trenches. He got everything he wanted in the way of men and materiel for what became known as Third Ypres or Passchendaele, a battle remembered for, among other things, terrain so wet the entire world seemed to consist of nothing but mud and shell holes filled with vile water. Indeed, in no land battle in history did so many men die by drowning.
In Churchill’s devastating judgment, Haig “wore down alike the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction.” Keegan is also merciless: “On the Somme, [Haig] had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors in the slough of despond.”
Of the final assault that carried the ruined, pointless little village of Passchendaele, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller, wrote, “To persist…in this tactically impossible battle was an inexcusable piece of pigheadness on the part of Haig.”
This is the key to Haig’s failure as a general. Every virtue becomes a flaw when pushed to excess. Daring becomes impetuosity. Prudence becomes irresolution. Will and resolution become stubbornness and pigheadedness. Haig evidently believed that will and resolve could carry any obstacle. Even mud and machine guns. Third Ypres was the battle that gave rise to the story of Haig’s chief of staff being driven to the front and, as he viewed the muddy wasteland, breaking into tears and saying, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
“It gets worse,” his driver said, “farther on up.”
Fussell, among others, finds that story a little too good, and some of Haig’s defenders consider it a slander to imply the field marshal and his staff were so blithely unaware of actual battlefield conditions. One wonders why they protest: It would seem worse if they actually had known and kept sending men up to the front, where in a literal quagmire the Germans, in Churchill’s memorable phrase, “sold every inch of ground with extortion.”
The indictment against Haig and his “pigheaded” insistence of fighting Third Ypres at a cost of more than 250,000 British casualties is not simply one of losses, though that would be enough. What secures Third Ypres’ status as one of history’s great military blunders is the fact that while Haig thought it a victory, the battle nearly lost the war for the Allies.
In late 1917 and early 1918 the Germans moved troops from Russia to the Western Front and began preparing for their own great offensive against a British army that had been so badly mauled it was compelled to reduce the number of battalions in a division from 13 to 10. The country was now, in Churchill’s chilling phrase, “driving to the shambles by stern laws the remaining manhood of the nation. Lads of 18 and 19, elderly men up to 45, the last surviving brother, the only son of his mother (and she a widow), the father, the sole support of the family, the weak, the consumptive, the thrice wounded—all must now prepare themselves for the scythe.”
There was no alternative. The men who should have been defending the line against Ludendorff’s great spring offensive were, in the words of that grim trench ditty, “Hanging in the old barbed wire.”
Haig needed reinforcements. There were troops available back across the channel, but Lloyd George wouldn’t send them for fear that Haig, like a teenager with a new credit card, would simply spend to the limit. And Haig had given him every reason for believing this. If there was deep mistrust between civilian and military leadership, Haig was to blame for it. Swathed in sublime self-confidence, he always promised great success and, as events unfolded, changed the definition of success. So he felt contempt for the politicians, and they for him. The politicians were in the right but didn’t have the courage to act on their convictions and fire Haig. The compromise—letting him keep his command but denying him the reserves he needed—was the worst of many bad alternatives.
When the German offensive broke like a huge wave on March 21, the British army lost more ground than it had gained in any of Haig’s great offensives. In the end, the British held, but just barely. And the Germans now paid the price of attrition, which in this war fell harder on the attackers than the defenders. The British and the French had squandered millions of men in futile offenses. But now the Americans were coming, to replace the wasted battalions. Germany did not have an America to come to its assistance.
So the tide turned, and with Haig still commanding the BEF, the Allies pushed the Germans back and forced first a cease-fire and then the fatally flawed Treaty of Versailles. They were too weak to drive the enemy entirely off the ground it had conquered in 1914, so the Germans believed they had never in fact been defeated. The Allies were unable to make the point emphatically enough because they had squandered too much strength on the Somme, around Ypres and in other inconclusive offensives. If Haig was a victorious commander, as his defenders maintain, his victory was not decisive enough to convince, among others, Adolf Hitler.
After the war, Haig became something of an awkward figure for the British government. He was popularly portrayed as a hero and given money and titles, but never another job. He worked selflessly on veterans’ causes, and when he died in 1928, 200,000 of them filed by his casket—men who had served under his remote, unflinching command, where generals slept in chateaus and drank champagne while soldiers lived in trenches and shell holes.
Early biographies were laudatory, and Haig did his best to ensure that by sending material to the authors. Then came the inevitable reappraisals. B.H. Liddell-Hart, a distinguished military historian who had been wounded on the Western Front, went from admirer to skeptic to unremitting critic. He wrote in his diary:
He [Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple—who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.
Haig’s military reputation might even have figured in the prevailing attitude of appeasement. Nothing, the thinking went, was worth another Somme. But of course the world—including the British—did go to war again. For all the slaughter, Haig’s war had been inconclusive and had to be fought again. And after this one, the sea changes set in motion by the first of the world wars became starkly apparent. Britain was no longer an imperial power, and the old Edwardian certainties had crumbled. Like the social class that had produced him, Haig was not so much a figure of controversy as one of contempt. A dull, unfeeling, unimaginative, smug “Colonel Blimp” of the worst sort. Haig was cruelly mocked, first in the satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War and then in the 1989 television comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth.
He still had his defenders, but they were in the last trench, barely holding on. Their books argued Haig was a curious, inventive soldier who had, in fact, appreciated the tactical value of machine guns and tanks. Before he died, however, Haig himself gave his critics ammunition by clinging publicly and stubbornly to his outdated certainties. As late as 1926, he was still capable of writing this about the future of warfare:
I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.
Astonishing that any man who was there could still believe in cavalry 10 years after the Somme. But it is the bit about “the well-bred horse” that really gives the game away. Haig was undeniably a butcher, as his severest critics have claimed, but he was most of all a pompous fool.