Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I's Worst General | HistoryNet

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General

5/11/2007 • Military History

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.

120 Responses to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General

  1. Trevor Kneath says:

    If Haig was the worst general ever, how come that Joffre, Ludendorff, Nivelle, Falkenhym also lost similar numbers of manpower for France and Germany during the fighting yet the only successful breakthrough during the 100 days was by the British Imperial forces. The fact that the destruction was the same for many generals indicates that it is not simply an individual general who is to blame. Personally I think the politicians have equal blame. And who elected them ?

  2. Clipper2 says:

    If Haig was so incompetent how come under his command the British Army had its greatest ever number of consecutive victories; he commanded it during the only time it played the major role in the defeat of a significant European adversary; smashed through the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line in ten weeks; in 1918 did as much damage to the Germans, in terms of prisoners & captured guns, as the combined efforts of Belgium, France and the US; had by 1918 developed tactics for advancing against fortified lines which were way ahead of its allies, US forces were still using 1916 tactics and suffering the consequences.

    If Haig was so uncaring about causalities why then did he reprieve 9 out of every 10 men sentenced to death; why did the British have less than 1 million causalities compared to Frances 1.3 m and Germanys 2 m, even the US had 115,000 from very limited input.; why was it Haig, due to the increased level of causalities in winning the war, who argued for the armistice against the wishes of Foch and Pershing who wanted to finish Germany off, Foch being right when he said “we have bought ourselves an armistice for 20 years”. Wrong decision by Haig but made for the right reason. Why also did Haig spend the rest of his life caring for injured service men and set up the Haig Fund now the Poppy Appeal?

    • Dennis says:

      Your arguments are somewhat flawed.

      If you read the WHOLE history of the war you will find out that the reason France and Germany sustained so many casualties compared to the Brits is that for the bulk of the war France bore the bulk of fighting in the west while Britain built its army and sat predominantly in a quiet sector. Additionally you compare 1m Brits vs. 1.3m French casualties. If you take into account the total forces invested. Additionally, Germany’s losses account for both East, West and South. So, you need to include the fact that Germany fought against Russia, Italy and Serbia/Romania as well.

      I dont disagree that Haig probably cared about the soldiers he lost, but he waged a horrible battle at the Somme in ways AGAINST the recommendations of his subordinates who knew better and were there to know (Rawlinson in particular). HOWEVER, also note that on the morning of Nov 11, Haig ordered senseless attacks against German positions that he KNEW would be handed over in a few hours at the cost of over a thousand men.

      Finally, Haig’s ‘victory’ was only achieved because of the butcher bill paid by the French. In spite of many peoples specious claims about the French military, they performed beyond all reasonable expectations for almost four years.

      • PaulTurtle says:

        The French were certainly doing more fighting early in the war, and they suffered terribly. But the British sector certainly wasn’t quiet – First & Second Ypres, Loos etc.

        The vast bulk of German deaths (1.8m or 2.1m depending on which set of figures one uses) were incurred on the Western Front, where she had the bulk of her forces throughout the war – never much less than 100 divisions, usually nearer 150 and nearly 200 in early 1918, but never more than about 50 divisions in the East and a handful on other fronts. German deaths probably split out at around 1.5m in the west (compared to c2m Allied) and 0.5m in the east, small numbers elsewhere.

        I agree that British accounts (Haig’s Final Despatch, John Terraine, a lot of “revisionist” writing today) gives a false impression that Haig won the war single-handed, whereas the bashings he gave the Germans were only part of the story why they crumbled in the autumn of 1918. At the time and in the 1930s it was Third Ypres rather than the Somme for which he was criticised, and one of the criticisms was that he was bleeding his own forces white and exhausting his political credibility at the very time when Russia’s collapse meant that the manpower balance was about to tip back in Germany’s favour.

        Lots of good books are now available in English telling the story of WWI from the German point of view (eg. the books of Jack Sheldon) but there is a sore lack of accounts from the French point of view – Doughty’s “Pyrrhic Victory” is about the only really good one.

  3. Ian says:

    I concur with this analysis on Haig. Haig must bare the lions share of blame for the disasters on the Somme, Passhendaele, and Ypres. He clearly used the infantry as ‘cannonfodder’ in order to achieve unrealistic objectives. The problem with Haig is thus; the lives of the men under his command were clearly not a high priority to him. His overriding aim was sending ‘good news’ back home to the politicians who had come to manifestly distrust his abilities. His belief in attritional warfare was eminently a disasterous one. To it, men were sacrificed by the tens of thousands in often futile and pointless attacks. One suspects that Haig was merely carrying out such folies in order to appear in the light of a ‘pro-active’ commander.
    Granted, you do not win a war by maintaining a static position, but Haig seems to have given little or no thought to the appalling casualties that ensued due to his plain pigheaded repetitive attacks. He appears to have little concept of, or made little use of, intelligence that was being supplied that warned him of German defense strength – this is particularly true at the Somme in July.
    Of course, arguments can, and will be made for Haig’s decisions and tactics, but the point remains that he sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths on a whim. Often believing that a ‘breakthrough’ was immenent. The very fact that he ordered thousands of men to ‘walk’ virtually shoulder-to-shoulder across No-Man’s Land without any cover whatsoever, seals his fate as an incompetent albeit arrogant commander. Haig should have been removed, but I fear that his high connections prohibited this. Coupled with the fact that politicians were loathe to remove a top commander for fear of undermining moral at this crucial time, sealed the fate of the men in the trenches in the Great War.

  4. Tim says:

    Haig was as bad as his press indicates. Those who point out his string of victories in l918 convenienlty fail to mention the complete collapse of Germany’s social order durring this same time period.

    While the German soldiers were facing the enemy at the front, it was the enemy in their rear that put the final nail in Germany’s coffin.

    In 1918, Germany was nearing the end of her rope. Revolution stalked the cities. General strikes hampered the war effort.In many cities, private armies clashed with police. Desertion in the ranks was increasing at an alarming rate. Talk of mutiny was making the rounds in German trenches. The morale of the German civilian populace was circling the toilet bowl, and ready for the final plunge. Oddly enough the man that hit the flush lever on the toilet wasn’t Haig, it was Ludendorf.

    The success of Lundendorf’s 1918 Offensive was due in large part to the use of his “new tactics”. The failure of Ludendorf’s 1918 Offensive was due in large part in forgetting one “simply rule”. Troops that lack significant mobility, should never advance beyond the protection of their own artillery fan.

    Ludendorf violated this simple rule, and it cost the German people over 1 million of their sons, brothers, and fathers in a very short time period. For the German people the Ludendorf 1918 Offensive was the last straw.

    German government, and society proved to be much more fragile than that of their British cousins. While Britain was able to weather such disasters as all of 1915, the Somme, and Galipoli, the German People in 1918 could not do the same. There is a lot to be said for the British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip

    By the time Field Marshall Haig had finally figured out how to use his own army without killing most of it, the German people had already thrown in the towel. Haig’s great string of 1918 victories, was in reality a campaign of mopping up an already demoralised enemy.

    Ludendorf’s final offensive may have finally succeeded in teaching Haig some things he had failed to learn in three years of throwing away British/Commonwealth lives.

    1. How to concentrate troops to deliver a decisive blow.

    2. How to avoid deluding the effectiveness of his own supporting artillery, bye concentrating their fires on key objectives.

    3. To make sure his forces did not advance beyond the protection of their own artillery.

    4. Most importantly, to give his men realistic objectives.

    Still, most Buffoon’s won’t go down without a fight. Haig still managed to botch up quite alot of things in 1918.

    • gary d. snyder says:

      excellant comments and enjoyed reading them.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      You are right about German domestic unrest and poor morale, although that was caused as much by losses from Allied offensives as from the effects of blockade.


      1. Ludendorff enjoyed far greater numerical superiority for “Michael” (March 1918) and “Blucher” (May 1918) than Haig had ever enjoyed for any of his own offensives. At this stage German strength in the West was up to 190 or 200 divisions, many of them poor quality but enough to hit Gough’s Fifth Army with 50or 60 of them and about 6 or 7,000 guns. By contrast “Georgette” in April 1918 was stopped quicker because Haig has his reserves concentrated in the north to protect the Channel Ports.

      2. By this stage of the war British (and other) armies were perfectly capable of making progress with concentrated artillery fire – eg. the bits of Third Ypres (Broonseide, Polygon Wood) where Plumer had made progress. Ditto Cambrai, which modern scholars attribute to predicted artillery fire which made possible the tank breakthrough remembered by history.

      3. Artillery was mule-drawn in those days, and air strafing was in its infancy. A breakthrough would inevitably get beyond the range of heavy artillery support. Ludendorff did and was beaten at Amiens and Second Marne.The Allied Hundred Days Offensive, in which Haig was one of many players, kept going.

      4. Once the breakthrough had been attained, scholars (eg. Kitchen) poor scorn on Ludendorff’s confused micromanagement of the battle which followed, or indeed his lack of any realistic objective.

      Not sure what Haig is supposed to have “botched” in 1918. He performed well.

  5. Kimbo says:

    Reading a book on reassessing Haig and it would appear that a great deal of the problems stemmed from the attitudes of the day, leading up to war. Public schools, having the right contacts, the forces being the last chance for many rich families sons to have careers, the old school tie mentality as we say and training that set the British up for days of the empire.It would appear that the BEF did not adapt to changes in tactics, technology or training and certainly would not take advise from other countries. So yes the commanders & politicians should take the blame & accept responsibility for the slaughter. The British common man/woman had always been sat upon in this manner.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      British officers were expected to lead their men into battle and suffered disproportionately high casualties – including colonels and even sometimes brigadiers. I attended a fee-paying school with a “War Cloister” full of the names of dead officers. They were also expected to look after their mens’ welfare (food, leave etc)which is one of several reasons why British moraledidn’t crack like that of other armies.

      Haig and other generals had served bravely in the front lines earlier in their careers and many (eg. Allenby) had sons killed as young officers.

      As the war went on many British officers were promoted from the ranks, again sometimes even colonels and brigadiers. (There were a few exceptions even earlier, like Sir William Robertson, the head of the British Army in WW1 – son of a servant and a former NCO). This was not the case in the German Army, where officers might be remote figures, not promoted beyond their peacetime rank (eg. lieutenants commanding battalions).

      As for the idea that the British Army didn’t adapt new tactics (after the middle of the war at any rate), modern scholarship has long since exploded this.

    • John says:

      Oh, good grief. Don’t assess the past using the norms of to-day. Times were very different then.
      The only people who had the respect and education enough to lead men into battle were the middle and upper classes. Though there is no equality (as we would recognise it) in this, it was practical and as the war progressed other men came through the ranks.
      Anyone who had actually read seriously about British Army tactics would know that they changed enormously in four years and led to the greatest victories of the First World War.
      Does anyone call Grant a butcher? No, like Haig, he was doing what he had to do with the material he had available.
      Put yourself in his place, he had a job to do and did it in the only way he could. Sack him and what difference would it have made? The politicians (as usual) got us into this war and the soldiers just had to get on with it.

  6. Simon Bailey says:

    Hello, I am an A level student currently writing my essay on the Battle of the Somme. Who is the author of this article as I would like to quote some of these words in my coursework but need to know the author so I can credit him correctly.

    Regards Simon

  7. Colin says:

    Having just finished reading “In Flanders Fields”, by Leon Wolff, I am astonished that anyone could believe that Haig was anything other than an
    incompetent buffoon who believed he was being guided by god when he ordered hundreds of thousand of British, Australian and Canadian troops into a
    situation where they were mutilated and slaughtered in the Flanders campaign of mid and late 1917. Here is a man, who in his pigheaded ignorance,
    considered that rifle and machine gun fire had little stopping power against horses and whose plan for battle amounted to rupturing the German line to
    let his beloved cavalry ride through to victory. He had little time for tanks, considering them to be of little value, and was so anxious for glory
    he chose not to await and share a possible later victory with American and French forces, for whom he had little confidence.

    For the ten years he lived after the war he spent much of his time helping create an organization, The British Legion, to benefit veterans and
    families whose sons had been killed or mutilated in France and Belgium, . Of course had he not been such a pathetic dolt there would have been far
    less of such people to comfort.

    • Dennis says:

      I am a staunch critic of Haigs, however, your sole source condemnation of him is unrealistic. Read more than one book, and books that span more than one battle to make a judgement. Reading one book gives you one mans opinion and all you wind up doing is replicating that version of ‘history’.

      I dislike Haig and feel he made several serious and avoidable mistakes, but aside from specious claims like the ones you read by Leon Wolff, I have never come across anything that indicated he was stupid or a zealot.

  8. Mark says:

    A competent general would have realized his error and ordered
    his troops back into the trenches, saving countless lives.

    • samuel says:

      but if u was a general and there was no phone line that work properly. what would you have done knowing not about what was happening over the trenches.

    • Dennis says:

      Easy to say with hind sight, but almost every battle Haig fought there was pressure from Foche and Nivelle, the home government and others to press home all attacks against the Germans.
      Haigs mistakes were ones on the tactical and operational level, not the strategic. The Somme HAD to be fought, I just whole heartedly disagree with how it was fought (remember the Germans were bleeding the French dry at Verdun the same time).

  9. Richard says:

    Also – lets not forget that the breakout when it did come was a
    direct result of the Australians and Canadians – NOT the Brittish.
    Monash and Currie punched a hole through the line at Amiens.

    Ludendorf himself described it as ‘the dark day’ for Germany
    during the war.

    Monash also was the one who planned the (successful) attack on
    the Hindenburg Line.

    Indeed from Amien through to the end of the war it was the
    Australian and Canadian troops (with their Generals Monash and
    Currie respectively) who were the pointy end of the spear that
    pierced the German lines. Indeed the French call the hundred
    days offensive ‘Les cent jours du Canada’ (Canada’s hundred days)
    as both the Canadians and Aussies were permenantly engaged
    the whole way.

    Meanwhile Brittish 4th Army General Rawlinson (4th army
    being the Brittish component of the spearhead) described the
    Australian advance as the single greatest military achievement
    of the war.

    Basically – Haig’s only ‘success’ came when he didn’t actually
    have anything to do with the planning of the battles.

    Pretty damning record.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      The Australians and Canadians were fine troops, and nobody has ever pretended otherwise (they were actually part of Rawlinson’s Fourth Army – a polyglot Anglophone force). But their record (including the “Monash Method” – the new artillery and infantry tactics which were evolved by almost every army as the war went on) should not be used to denigrate that of the British. Many British divisions also played key roles in the Hundred Days Offensive, both under Rawlinson and other Army commanders like Plumer, Byng, Horne and Birdwood.

  10. Mike Stone says:

    Beg pardon, Trevor, but Foch (and Petain) also favoured an
    Armistice, though demanding stiffer terms than Haig. Only
    Pershing wished to press on with the war.

    Foch’s famous remark about a twenty years truce referred to the
    Treaty of Versailles, not to the November Armistice, which was
    largely his own work.

    The main difference between Haig and the French was that he did
    not wish to occupy the Rhineland. He suspected (correctly) that
    they had notions of detaching this region and making a
    protectorate of it – a sort of “Alsace-Lorraine” in reverse – and did
    not wish any of his men to die in pursuit of such a dubious aim.

  11. adam waugh says:

    The fact is, Haig was not a bad general. He had served in the Boer and colonial confilcts, with great distinction, courage and intelligence. He displayed these qualities when he refused to retreat any further in 1918. Furthermore, he knew the suffering of his men, he refused to be painted by an artist in 1917 and insisted he paint the men “who are fighting and dying in the mud”. By the end of the war, the British army was the best in the world, it had been transformed from a highly capable (yet 19th century oriented) army in 1914, to a highly capable, citizen army, adept in modern warfare in 1918. Haig and his generals, such as Rawlinson, Gough and the Austrlian and colonial cammanders, eg Monash are to thank for this, along with the suffering and courage of millions of British and Imperial forces.

  12. Aimée says:

    Adam – thank goodness someone has provided a well-balanced piece on Haig in this thread!

    It is shocking that there is still such a reliance on polemical works such as Leon Wolff’s ‘In Flanders Field’ that, rather than treating the topic objectively, recycle memoirs written by statesmen in 1930s.

    Haig was not the ‘pigheaded’ cavalryman that is generally perceived. He believed in the use of tanks and the modernisation of the battlefield – one needs only look at the all-arms cooperation of the Hundred Days campaign as a good example of this. It is interesting that generals such as Plumer and Byng do not come under fire even though they themselves were cavalrymen by trade.

  13. Mole says:

    i think he was a caring person because he provided good care and tactics

  14. lews :) says:

    i thnk that a certain man oculd one say that a person was involved other than another certain person…….

  15. lews :) says:

    that one was false i now say that he was good and put others before him and had natural instinct and talent to be leader

  16. Steven Scott says:

    The battle of the Somme was indeed a great slaughter, but for both sides.

    It was French pressure (justified French pressure) that largely forced Haig to attack at the Somme (which wasn’t Haig’s ground of choosing and a month before he wanted to launch an offensive) and engage in a grinding battle of attrition.

    It is an objective fact that the Somme served its strategic purpose of drawing off German reserves which would have otherwise been used to break the back of the French army at Verdun.

    While the British and French suffered 620,000 casualties during the battle of the Somme, the Germans also sustained 500,000 casualties.

    Even with the negation of 500,000 German soldiers on the Western front, the French still almost lost the battle of Verdun. Their army was being bled white and was still almost broken as a fighting force even with the battle of the Somme drawing off German reserves that would otherwise have been used to almost certainly destroy the French army in 1916.

    Revisionist history is all fine and good but anyone who advocates that Haig shouldn’t have launched the Somme offensive should also be objective and concede that the Allies would have almost certainly lost the war if the British had sat and done nothing while the weight of the German was grinding down the French at Verdun.

    I think it is also very unfair to ignore the fact that Haig was considered to be a very good general during and after the war. He was forced to make gruel but necessary decisions during the WWI.

    Churchill later likened him to a surgeon who had to act dispassionately for the long-term good of the patient, no matter how messy were the short-term means.

    The British public understood that at the time. Later revisionist historians tend to have forgotten it.

    The British public was not alone in their admiration of Haig. No less than Black Jack Pershing, commander of the American army in France was quoted as saying that Haig was “the man who won the war”.


  17. Martin Hill says:

    I used to believe all this rubbish about Haig being useless but the more I read the more I am convinced that not only was he the best strategest of the war but the best British General of this century with the possible exception of Slim.

    The 1st of July 1916 was exceptional for its casualties but the daily rate for the rest of the Somme offensive was not exceptionally high compared with the other campaigns of the war ( and I don’t just mean British campaigns) and nowhere near the rates of the eastern front of WW2.

    Even the casualties of the 1st of July are not unduly higher than the 3 days of Gettysburg which was fought with much less effective weapons. How come then that Lee is said to be a military genius and Haig useless?

    Yes Haig had faults but so do most generals even the greatest, but he was more resposnible for winning the war than any other general anf if the weather hadn’t intervened the German army may have cracked on the Somme or at Passchendaele. Certainly Ludendorf feared it would.

    The point about attitional warfare is that it can very rarely be avoided whereever huge armies meet. The recent Gulf Wars being the exception, I would argue that the ‘Gulf’ was also in quality of the armies involved.

    The American Civil War, The Western Front of WWI, the Eastern Front of WW2 and Korea were also wars of attrition. Grant accepted vast casualties as did Zhukov; They both won. Haig did also and he cared as much or more for the lives of his men than the other two.

    Had Haig been French, Russian or American they would eulogise him, only the British would rubbish him and his achievements and those of,his staff and his brave officers & men that defeated the army of the greatest power of his day. Only Edward III, the Black Prince, Henry V, Marlborough & Wellington of all British Generals can equal that record.

    I am amazed that the old story of Germany being undermined at home losing them the warstill being brought up. this was the main thrust of Nazi propaganda to blame jews & Communists for Germany’s defeat. It was a defeat. The German army was being beaten.

    Germany was a dictatorship, the Generals and The Kaiser at Spa in 1918 knew the couldn’t stave off defeat any longer. They cared far less about the troubles at home than the propect of total ruin and occupation. The great German army of 1914 died on the Somme which was as great a failure of German tactics as it was British. 3rd Ypres was almost as destuctive to them.

    Ludendorf’s gamble of Spring 1918 used up the fresh divisions from Russia, but the German army was still a very formidable opponent just as it would be in Spring 1945. Haig & Foch together knew that the Hindenburg line could be broken. (It had been at Cambrai) and together they decided that simultaneous attacks by all the allied armies would prevent the Germans being able to move reinforcements to the point of attack and that is how the war was won.

    If there were as many studies of Amiens, Bapaume, Epehy, Canal du Nord, the St Quentin Canal and the other victories of the hundred days as there are on the Somme & Passchendaele our country would realise what a debt we owe Haig.

    As for Monash & Currie, they were both exceptional generals leading exceptional troops but many British divisions had exceptional records too and the Australians & Canadians were equally well led previously by Birdwood & Byng respectively and both were loved by their men.

    For those who want balanced views on the War and its Generals I can recommend ‘the Smoke and the Fire’ by John Terraine, ‘The Great War Generals of the Western Front 1914-18’ by Robin Neillands .As for the Final campaign I reccomend ‘Amiens to the Armistice’ by JP Harris & Niall Barr.
    I found this book invaluable on a recent tour with Leger Holidays. Unlike every atlas and most histories I have been able to find this has maps on the battles of the hundred days most of which were bigger and more important than Mons, Le Cateau, Neuve Chappele or Loos that those atlases and histories lavish their attention on.

  18. A.W.M.S.Griffin says:

    An extremely balanced piece of writing well done, sir. in fact why don’t you contact the British Army now because it is obviousthat you should be a general in the British Army. How can you judge someone who has done something you have ever done? who won the war? the British. Who was their victorious Field Marshall? Haig- a National hero in life and death.

  19. Marilee says:

    I would just like to say that firstly Germany implemented the strategy of attrition (was not Haigs intention) and Haig was ordered reluctantly into the Somme by his political superiors. He did the best with what he had (which was relatively little) and used the innovations of the tanks at the first opportunity given. Any commander in his place would have done the same or indeed a worse job. I agree completely with Scott, and think that this kind of opinion is badly researched and ignorant of his political and military context

  20. whodoyouthinkyouare? says:

    this is a crap and badly researched article.
    Martin Hill really said it all.

  21. Dale says:

    My view is that Haig and his abilities/shortcomings must be viewed against the circumstances and realities of the time.

    Once the “race to the sea” had been completed both sides dug in causing a war of attrition to commence. Grand movements and clever maneuvering was simply not an option for Haig, as it was for Lee or many of the other historically successful generals mentioned by others.

    Additionally, while generals (of today’s “Super Power” nations) enjoy a wide variety of weapons and technologies, WW1 era commanders had noting but artillery and infantry at their disposal. Airpower at the time was effectively nothing more than recon. Since manevuering was out of the question there was no other way or means for WW1 generals to dislodge the enemy but by frontal attacks.

    Some will point to the misuse or disregard of tanks by Haig. The facts are, during battle WW1 tanks moved at a rate of less than 3 MPH. The terrain, having been mauled by literal years of artillery barrages, was utterly unsuitable for an aggressive use of slow and ponderous vehicles – no matter how armored they might be.

    Haig, and indeed all generals of the time, faced a quandary; how does one advance against nearly impregnable defensive positions with nothing but artillery and infantry at hand? In the 90 years that have passed no one has been able to offer a suitable alternative or solution to that question.

    As a commander Haig was chocked full of faults. That much is true. His showing during the 1912 Army Maneuvers was wretched, his Boer war activities were similarly undistinguished, and there is nothing to suggest that his actions throughout WW1 were infused with genius. That said, I am not sure that even General Grierson (who was heads and tails a far better leader than Haig and would have certainly been selected as the successor to General French had he not died prematurely) could have done much more than Haig if given the chance.

    The war was won not due to Haig and his bloody (viz. suicidal) attacks. It was not won through daring or masterful operations. It was won because the Allies simply outlasted the beleagured German army. The people of Germany could and would no longer support the war. Once a home front crumbles it is only a short matter of time before the war itself is lost. 50 years later America would prove a similar tenet during Vietnam.

    The staggering loss of an entire generation within Britain can and should be placed at Haig’s feet. Does that make him a bad general? I cannot say. As a contrast, during the 1941 Battle of Moscow General Zukhov lost 140,000 men. (Another Russian general ,Kozlov lost about 40% of his men – between 150,000 and 175,000 killed!) And yet Zukhov has been hailed by many as a great general.

    Personally, I do not like Haig. I do, however, have to give him just due if for no other reason than the circumstances during WW1 gave him no other options but costly (and suicidal) frontal attacks or sitting still.

    Haig can be righty blamed for throwing his troops

  22. Jan says:

    Most comments I read here tend to a mere ‘black or white’-view.
    In almost every occasion in history, a wide variety of circumstances and a good deal of unprecedented or unexpected events influenced the final results.

    Although Haig may have been an able leader, in Belgium he tended to very conservative battlefield tactics, making him seem more audacious than bright.
    Nonetheless, one can’t blame him for everything that went wrong.

    Keep in mind that we watch these events in retrospective, making it pretty easy to put judgement on people with regard to the known results of their actions. It’s a complete different matter it you are about to make decisions not knowing how they’ll turn out.

  23. Emma says:

    Haig was obviously so self-obsessed and wanting so much glory, that he didn’t care how many people he put to death or sent onto the battlefield with no idea of the experiences they went through. He threw hundreds after hundreds of men into the battle, not caring about what happened to them, if he did care, after a few hundred had died, why didn’t he stop?
    I know he was put under pressure, but then why didn’t he go out and fight? why didn’t he come up with a strategic battle plan, rather then ruthlessly sending men to their deaths. I completley back up the statement. ” the lions were led by lambs.” I think Haig had power, but was cowardly and used these together to kill thousands of men.

  24. Guerrilla Roach says:

    Haig was a victim of his era. He embodied the distance between classes, between soldier and commander, the exemplified the character dominating the upper classes mindset of the time. His distance from the battles compounded this isolation in thinking. I find Stephen Fry’s character of General Malchet in Blackadder comically embodies this thinking well.

    Haig undoubtedly made many wrong turns. His bloody minded adherence to a war of attrition in the face of massive failure was to say the least unwise. But was the fault all his? That I fear is an impossible question to answer. He was made by a society that considered themselves superior to the rest of the world.

    Britain has a long colonial history of failing to learn from experience, they new about the folly of trench warfare, in both the Crimean War and the New Zealand Wars (against the Maori). They had experienced failure at trying to bombard earth worked fortifications, as outlined by Belich in the New Zealand wars books, yet, failed to translate this experience to the Western front.

    The fault only partly lies with Haig in my opinion. He was a fine example of the colonial British mindset; arrogant, ignorant, foolish, and unimaginative. The silly notion of relying on the tried and tested, that had already failed in the past; the unwillingness to change tactics in the face of overwhelming loses: in my mind speak for itself.

  25. Bob Marley says:

    U R Sad

  26. WongHoongHooi says:

    WW1 largely involved Europe and so this comment comes from an “outsider”.

    It is the later comments in this thread that allude to the real issue. WW1 articles tend to focus on describing battles, planning and commanders. There doesn’t seem yet to be an article summarising the question of how that war SHOULD have been fought (tactically & operationally), given:

    a. the onset of trenchlines on both sides in a continuous front; and

    b. political pressure on military commanders on each side to deliver a military victory.

    It seems to this outsider that any criticism of the tactics or planning or generals must be in the form of measurement against how the war should have been conducted (albeit this would still be the ‘hindsight’ view.)

  27. Will says:

    It is interesting to read these comments and to get both sides of the argument surrounding Haig’s ability to command. Why is it that all the armchair generals, who share a common lack of military credentials, are able to understand the basic statement, “A dead soldier is no good to anyone?” Lives are not there to be thrown away. Hindsight is not the driving force here. It is widely understood that Haig was forced to support the French in their defence at Verdun. But his lack of control over the battleground (eg: Gough and the the fiasco of Bullecort.) caused excessive loss. Haig does not deserve the adulation given to him. He was not an effective leader. The death toll was going to be high, his poor leadership made it worse.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      Other countries, including Germany, suffered worse proportionate losses than Britain in WW1.

      In WW2 the Soviets were doing most of the land fighting, and tens of millions of them died (I am no communist, but facts are facts). Britain fought sideshow campaigns for most of WW2, largely to avoid a repetition of WW1.

      Haig had sixty or so divisions, locked in near stalemate with equally large German forces. You may imagine that there was a costless alternative way of fighting that didn’t involve lots of Haig’s men dying, but I’m afraid you would be kidding yourself. The onlyalternative would have been sitting out for along siege – which was politically not an option.

      • Krishna Kumar Panjaje says:

        Mr Turtle, I agree that Germany suffered worse proportionate losses in WWI. But none of their individual commander’s performances, with the possible exception of Falkenhayn or Moltke, is comparable to the series of pointless advances done by Haig. Also Haig was in command for three years, he badly conducted each battle he was assigned, be it Ypres, Somme or Passchaendale. The other commanders with a similar span of time in command, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, have a much better record.

  28. bob maris says:

    If you ever read Haig’s final summary of the war (a written document presented to King or Parliament, I forget now) you will be truly sickened. He treats it like a game of cricket, trading numbers between the Allies and the Central Powers.

    Thank God that Lloyd George was able to exercise some civilising influence on the way the war was conducted.

  29. walter coulthard says:

    What is missing in these notes is the recognition of the stategic genius of the Canadian general Currie . It was he who organized the remarkable capture of Vimy ridge . So good was he at strategy and the fighting qalities of the canadian troops with superior leadership that they were the lead troops in future battless .Haig was hopeless and the ineptituteof the upper class officer class so hopeless that at the end of the war the class system began its decline

  30. Beaviz says:

    Why do you attack Haig so viciously. Nivelle and several Russian commanders was much worse than Haig.

    Haig had his faults, but defense had over 100 years been improved, the attack was still based on Napoleon-tactics.

    So faulting Haig for being clueless, is like faulting him for not ordering Navy SEALs parachuting behind enemy lines to conduct sabotage.

    Such tactics wasn’t invented yet. And Somme was ordered by Foch, not Haig. WWI was a war of attrition, and everyone knows that.

    Haig was a competent general. And he advocated the dragoon role for cavalry, dismount to fight The original role.. Cumbersome, but look at the cars then. The T-Ford didn’t even exist.

    • Krishna Kumar Panjaje says:

      But you forget one thing. Nivelle, Joffre, Falkenhayn and Moltke were promptly relieved of command once their inflexibility and lack of judgment revealed itself. Haig was allowed to continue and he committed blunder after blunder refusing to learn from hia previous one. Even Ludendorff and Foch learned from their mistakes, but not Haig.

      • PaulTurtle says:

        Nivelle and Moltke were relieved quickly as neither man was up to the strain of command at the top. The other appointments were a lot more political: Joffre was a protégé of Aristide Briand and gradually lost influence in 1916 as Verdun dragged on. Falkenhayn’s attrition strategy at Verdun ended up costing the Germans almost as much, but he lost power amidst all kinds of intrigues – involving not just Ludendorff but also politicians like Bethmann-Hollweg – about Romania entering the war and whether or not to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare. To a certain extent senior appointments in any army, in any war, at any time, are political. The British generals Haig and Robertson had acquired a slightly excessive degree of autonomy in the middle years of the war as politically-motivated expeditions on other fronts had failed (Gallipoli and Kut), governments fell and power slipped from Asquith’s and Kitchener’s fingers. By the end of 1917 Lloyd George was ready to begin asserting himself, but he couldn’t find anyone willing to step into Haig’s job. Had the war dragged on longer he wanted to send more troops to fight the Turks and wind down the British commitment to the western front as more US troops arrived – which might have saved some British lives at the cost of prolonging the war. A lot of the denigration of Haig, not all of it fair, came originally from Lloyd George’s pen after the war.

    • Andy Wilson says:

      Beaviz, the Model T Ford was produced between September 1908 and October 1927.

  31. Joseph S says:

    Haig was a bitch.

  32. Dr Rj Daw says:

    Haig, should be remembered as an egotist of the highest order, insightless and odious in his lack of foresight. I personally, feel nauseus upon mention of his name. Churchill and Haig et al should all have been Court Marshalled… For Crimes against humainty…Ibid

  33. Jamie says:

    The battle of the Somme was designed to relieve pressure on the French. It relieved pressure on the French. Therefore Haig achieved the aims put to him. If you can think of another way of relieving pressure on the French I’m sure everyone would be delighted to hear it.

    • Krishna Kumar Panjaje says:

      Remember what MacArthur did at Inchon?

      • PaulTurtle says:

        Leaving aside the question of exactly what Inchon achieved – by some accounts the North Korean forces down at Pusan were already crumbling away and the landing near Seoul was just MacArthur grandstanding, and there were still two years of stalemate after the Chinese came in – there were no opportunities for such activity in WW1. In early 1915 the Cabinet discussed seizing an island off the coast of Germany (eg. Borkum) before deciding it was not sensible to risk the fleet so close to German U-boat and torpedo boat bases. They decided to land at Gallipoli instead, and we all know how that turned out. There were plans to land a force of infantry and tanks on the Belgian Coast near Ostend in autumn 1917 (actually somebody did once describe that a “mini Inchon”), which were mercifully cancelled. Lloyd George and Churchill (and influential historians like Liddell Hart in the 1930s) were “Easterners”, ie. always looking for schemes for Britain to operate on other fronts, but no serious historian nowadays believes that this would have done much to beat Germany.
        The Somme did have other objects besides taking the heat off Verdun (success) – drawing in German divisions which might otherwise have been used against Russia (some success, although the Germans were still able to send some forces east) and breaking through and defeating the Germans. The latter was an obvious fail, but over a period of five months the Germans were pushed back, albeit at great cost. The retreat to the fortified Hindenburg Line and the resort to unrestricted submarine warfare were in large part a reaction to the hard pounding the Germans were given on the Somme.

  34. Petur says:

    Accepting the fact that sitting at home and chatting about war does not make anyone capable of judging past generals and their doings,would be a good beginning for those commentators that have given here their comments,with Adam 20.nov 2008. as an exception.In war soldiers have to follow orders,if necessary fight and die doing that.In making comments on Haig the question is.Did he fulfill his superior order or not.Did he do his duty.Those sacrifices he made,were they easing burden of comrads elsewhere,isnt that a duty of a soldier to be ready to sacrifice his life for his fellowfighters,freedom and fatherland.In Haigs situation,what other possibilities did he have.Did those men die to save lives of people elsewhere.Haig and his superiors must have looked at it as a sacrifice necessary to make.Sitting at home and commenting on terrible sacrifices like that,respect is what is often needed.Respect

  35. […] Article from a history website. […]

  36. gareth says:

    Generals who use the strategy and tactics of attrition seem to lack imagination, but a really good commanding general will at least consider seriously suggestions by his more imaginative subordinates.
    We have a great example in the memoirs of Grant (an attrition man if ever there was one) and Sherman (a strong believer in minmum casulaties once he obtained independent command and had gained experience). Grant in the end deferred to Sherman’s strategy and tactics (cancelling orders to bring Sherman north and sending Sheriden on his great raid) and yet still kept his subordinate’s respect. Haig should have done the same. His brilliance in handling politicians, like Grant’s, could have created shield for more brilliant men and like Grant he could have vetoed the more outlandish ideas of bright subordinates.
    Admittedly the British army of the early 20th century did its level best to crush all immagination; but the colonial armies had generals if not of genius at least men more willing to consider the options. Even the British army had Plummer, although he came from a lower class background than his colleagues on the general staff.
    Haig failed not by being an idiot. He was in fact a bright man and quite probably was among the best of the British general officers, although the competition was not that high. Someone in war has to make the fighting decisions, and stick with them. He could that, just as Grant did that.
    Haig’s tragedy was not to recognise his own failings, and the similar failings in much of his narrow-minded yet brilliant staff, and seek and promote his Shermans. Supreme command requires more than just technical know-how and an ability to follow the rules of war; it also requires the ability to write those rules.
    That in effect was what Ludendorff did, and if he had had a large Austrian army (the French equivalent) and been backed by a fresh great power (the Americans) Germany would have won.

  37. Anna says:

    is there a known author?

  38. Will Jones says:

    Bob Maris,

    Was that the same Lloyd George who preferred to send re-inforcements to the middle east, salonika and italy and keep even more at home after russia had pulled out?

    Robertson and Haig desparately tried to convince Lloyd George they need them in France to face the coming onslought. Lloyd George’s ‘civilised management’ almost cost the allies the war.

    Gareth – not promote his Sherman’s? How do you think the combined arms battle developed?

    As for those others in the vein of Emma, do you have any idea what war actually means? Commanders know that they could be ordering their men to their deaths, but misplaced sympathy will only lose the battle and the war.

    The Somme is a good example; firstly the first day was not a complete failure, in the south their were good gains made, especially in relation to the norm at the time. It was only in the north that the popular perception holds true. Secondly, the battle had to be continued, the whole idea was to take pressure off verdun so that the germans would be forced to spread their men, thus decreasing their liklihood of breakthough. If they did, the war would probably be lost.

    Bearing these things in mind, Haig had to choose between calling off the offensive, saving lives, but (possibly) losing the war, or maintaining it (knowing it would cost lives) to stop losing. To consider what the outcomes of losing would entail, you only need to look what happed in eastern europe after Brest-Litovsk. Not very pleasant.

    For those that criticise the tactics, I recommend that you re-acquaint yourself with 1910s technology. I had an argument with a person once who couldn’t understand why runners etc were used and not radios. He couldn’t grasp that radios in 1916 wer quite large and bulky and certainly couldn’t be carried around easily. I dare say some (thought not all) suffer similar shortsightedness.

    As for the ‘attritional’ concept; it is an unescapable part of modern warfare. The great proponent of manouevre warfare in the 20th century (Nazi Germany) and its rival (USSR) fought horrendous battles costing large numbers of men and material, yet they are not considered ‘attritional’ in the WW1 sense, yet fundementally they are no different. Even when the British army finally fought a battle on the scale of WW1 (the breakout from Normandy) it was far bloodier (in terms of percentage casualties) than the somme and 3rd ypres.

    If a modern conventional war was to be fought today between two industrial countries, it would be even worse given the increased accuracy and lethality of munitions. Keeping that in mind, and thinking if WW1 in those terms, the fact that Haig managed to overcome problems not even imagined in May 1914, and defeat the main bulk of the german army (ably supported by his subordinates) should be cause for at least some respect.

    Lastly, how many people have read Field Service Regulations 1909? Doing so should demonstrate the flexibility in british operations leading up to WW1. Most of it is reproduced in the doctrinal pams of modern western armies, so it can’t be too bad.

    • John Blaylock says:

      Well said.

      Oh how easy it is to misunderstand how steep was the learning curve travelled by the British Army during the First World War. Most of the senior commanders prior to 1914 didn’t expect to end their careers in charge of anything more than a brigade. In the end many of them were corps commanders, each having control of more men than either Marlborough or Wellington. The British Army didn’t even have a staff college until fear of a great European war hove to on the horizon.
      What Haig and his army commanders achieved was remarkable in the circumstances, their armies broke the back of German resistance which led to the end of the conflict. The fact that the politicians of various nations messed up the peace, thus leading to yet another European war wasn’t the fault of the soldiers.
      Much of the blame for the unreasonable criticism of Haig and his generals lies at the doorstep of Joan Littlewood and her ludicrous “Oh What A Lovely War”. Attenbrough’s movie of the same title is good cinema, but it is NOT an historical document.

  39. Will says:

    The jury will remain out. Some points to bear in mind when discussing Haig. He did not graduate from Oxford. His period as Aide-de-Camp to the King gave him a foot in the palace door which he used to his advantage.He did not give support to Gen.Smith-Dorien who was a more able commander. Lloyd George stabbed him in the back and made it impossible for him to deal effectively with the French. He did not use tanks effectively. They had a good showing at Cambrai which was not exploited. He did not plan effectively and allowed subordinates to roll the dice. Thus he could share their success or distance himself from their failures. Haig should not bear full responsibility for the number of casualties and he cannot be given full credit for the victory.

  40. Stephen A. Fletcher says:

    Is Haig that bad, or are we trying find someone to blame for all the British dead and the dead of British territories and dominions in the Western Front in World War One. We heard how Haig is so bad to the point that we believe in it, and no one is going to believe that he is a good general.

    • samuel says:

      but Haig is a good general. if he wasn’t, why did Britain win the war then? tell me. the tactics that haig used was great because that was the only tactics that any general should have use to win the war cause, haig the it and won to war with it.

      in a war people are(soldiers) a going to die anyway so…

  41. CKB says:

    The author appears to have a soft spot for the Confederate States of America–hardly a rare condition among military historians, I fear. But it seems odd to single out the butchery of United States troops when discussing misguided assaults across open ground, when of course the signal example of this phenomenon took place on the day the Confederates lost the war. I mean, of course, Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps to mention this obvious case would cast too much aspersion on the “audacious” Lee, a man who was blessed above all in his choice of opponents…until the final one, that is.

    Of course, I am always a bit baffled by these references to “Union” troops, “Union” generals, and so forth. I am unaware of any “Union Army” that participated in the conflict. There was, of course the Army of the United States…

  42. Al says:

    The time machine has worked, I’m back in the 1960s, “Donkeys” style pulp history and all!

    This article is a long. long way from the current, though yet distilled, consensus on this subject. I would not recommend the inclusion of any part of the above in academic submissions for persons in post-16 education.

  43. Dave says:

    I agree that Haig was not competent in his generalship, but he’s far from the worst. Many Austro Hungarian and Russian generals, could easily claim that distinction. The there’s Von Moltke the German Army commander who committed the original sin of poor generalship. Von Moltke took what was basically a hypothetical sketch of what Germany might do if at war with both France and Russia, devised by an already dead strategist -Von Schlieffen-, and presented it to the Imperial German leadership as a complete plan of war. When he put it into practice -with 20 less divisions than called for by the Schlieffen Plan-, Von Moltke found he couldn’t extend his forces -some of which needed to be diverted elsewhere- far enough to encircle Paris and capture vital port cities. Soon after, The Marne battle ended the German advance then the trenches and the carnage they brought with them were constructed. Proclaiming the worst WWI general takes guts mixed with naivete’. Considering the multitude of incompetence that occurred in that war, I think a consensus on the subject would be a better approach. Anyone have candidates?

  44. Galen says:

    It mystifies me that there are still people who would defend Douglas Haig. Let us not forget the Haig was in charge of the British army for three years–he wasn’t some divisional or corps commander that made some bad decisions–the soul-searing sacrifice of British and Commonwealth soldiers was all his doing and responsibility. May he and those who enabled his maliciousness rot for all eternity.

  45. keith crowley says:

    Interesting to read all of these comments,Doug was a close relative of mine…

  46. […] Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General 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. Amplify’d from […]

  47. […]  Published: May 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm         ShareThis (Single Page) 47 comments […]

  48. […]  Published: May 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm         ShareThis (Single Page) 47 comments […]

  49. Steven Scott says:

    Haig was greatly respected as a general both during WWI and for 40 years after it.

    It wasn’t until the 1960s, when flower power revisionists decided to rewrite history, that Haig’s reputation was seriously attacked.

    By way of example, the phrase “Lions led by Donkeys” was never uttered by any German general but rather was invented by Alan Clark in his 1961 book ‘The Donkeys’. Clark later admitted that he had lied when he attributed the phrase to a German general.

    Clark’s cavalier attitude with history (outright lying) gives us a flavour of the lack of historical accuracy and balance in much of the 1960s revisionism.

    Haig on the other hand led the British army to its greatest series of victories in its entire history, a record that should speak for itself. He was also immensely popular with and respected by the people who lived through and fought WWI.

    So much damage has been done however by the anti-war propaganda put out in the 1960s that it may take another 40 years before his reputation fully recovers.

    • Krishna Kumar Panjaje says:

      Could you please name some of the victories in this greatest series that you claim?

      • PaulTurtle says:

        : from August 1918 onwards: Amiens (“The Black Day of the German Army”), Second Arras (incl the Scarpe & Drocourt-Queant), Second Bapaume, Mont St Quentin, Epehy, Fifth Ypres, the Storming of the Hindenburg Line (Canal du Nord, St Quentin Canal, Second Cambrai), Selle, Lys, Sambre. They are very little known to the public today because the backlash against the war – initially abetted by Lloyd George and Liddell Hart in the 1930s, then the “Donkeys” brigade in the 1960s – tended to dwell on the Somme and Third Ypres.
        In the interests of fairness it should be noted that the Franco-American victory at the Second Marne was a far larger battle than Amiens, and British accounts are often at fault in not stressing this (although the American role in it was smaller than American accounts would have us believe – British, US, Australian and Canadian accounts of WW1 are all equally guilty of national chauvinism). But in that final autumn it was Haig’s forces – including the Canadians and Australians, but also a number of effective British divisions – who were doing the lion’s share of the fighting – engaging around half the German forces in the west and taking roughly as many prisoners and guns as the French and Americans put together, despite having the smallest of the three Allied contingents. Extensive use was made of aircraft, tanks (in August) and cavalry after the primitive tanks had had to be left behind. Daily casualty rates were actually higher than at the Somme or Third Ypres, and a third of all British casualties were suffered in 1918 – about equally split between the German Spring Offensives and the Hundred Days.
        John Terraine once pointed out that if Haig had taken command at the start of 1918 there would be no dispute about his reputation – he would be regarded as one of the great generals of history for defeating the German Spring Offensives and then winning the Hundred Days. Sadly he needs to be judged on his whole record – but it just goes to show how reputations are moulded by being in the right place at the right time. Haig was a lot more hands-off in his generalship in 1918 than he had been in 1916, in large part because efficient tactics had been evolved and by then the BEF had experienced staff and artillery officers who knew what they were doing.

  50. keith crowley says:

    Hmm, poor old Doug, he was my grandmothers cousin, a few of his own relatives were killed in those battles, so feelings are mixed in his own family about his battle tactics…frontal assaults were part of the Kings Regulations a battle manual written before machine guns were in common use, and artillery that saturated the landscape…

  51. Steven Scott says:

    With a front line running continuously from the Channel coast to the Swiss border (around 300 miles) what was the alternative to frontal assaults? Flanking attacks were impossible.

    Some people appear to assume that the allies didn’t need to attack at all. That is perhaps based on the widely held assumption that the attacker suffered higher casualties than the defender.

    Such an assumption is untrue. On the whole, on the Western front, both attacker and defender suffered comparable casualties.

    Consequently pursuing a defensive strategy would merely have passed the strategic initiative entirely to the Germans, allowing them to win the war by attacking where and when they chose, while doing nothing to minimise allied casualties.

    Both sides launched their own offensives in an attempt to prevent the strategic initiative passing into the other side’s hands and the defeat that that would have entailed.

    Both sides also launched attacks, elsewhere on the front, in response to offensives directed at them, to draw reserves off and prevent a decisive breakthrough.

    If the allies hadn’t been willing to launch frontal attacks to draw enemy reserves off and compete for the strategic initiative, they would have lost the war.

  52. […] and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the […]

  53. […] and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the […]

  54. PaulTurtle says:

    A very shoddy article on which I recently chanced, reminiscent of the sort of pop history one used to read twenty years ago, and merely serving to lend encouragement to the under-informed.

    Full of nonsense about “frontal attacks” and “attrition” (no other direction was available) and cavalry (in fact cavalry were used extensively in 1914, 1918 and even for a few brief moments at the Somme and Cambrai – the Haig speech at which we are invited to laugh was a humorous after-dinner speech to cavalry officers!). We are told he was “unimaginative” and that he kept on using “the same old tactics” (false actually) yet by 1918 the British Army was making far better use than most of the primitive tanks and aircraft of the time.

    Most of the better-informed comments on here say it all really.

    Haig was not just some nincompoop operating in a vacuum. He was answerable (directly and indirectly) to politicians and the press in London and Paris, who wanted the war fought to drive the Germans out of Belgium and northern France, where huge Allied and German forces were locked in near-stalemate. Not attacking wasn’t an option, even if with hindsight it might have been wiser. Other fronts (Italy, Salonika, Palestine, Mesopotamia) offered no chance of defeating Germany. Churchill and Lloyd George, politicians both, played a part in trashing his reputation after the war when they were looking for scapegoats.

    He was also part of a large organisation of staff and artillery experts who took time to evolve tactics which would work – how wide should attacks be, how many guns were needed, how long to bombard, how much HE, gas and shrapnel. There were no computer simulations in those days. The French and Germans were a bit better in 1915 and 1916 as they had more guns to start with. By the latter art of the war everyone, not just Monash and Ludendorff, had figured out that an short, intense bombardment of HE and gas, followed by a creeping barrage, was optimal. This enabled infantry, now equipped with mortars, light machine guns and grenades, to use infiltration tactics.

    Over the course of several years a tiny British Army of 4-6 divisions had been built up into an efficient Army Group of over sixty divisions, an unsung triumph of organisation.

    After the middle of 1916 Britain had to take over the main burden of the offensive on the Western Front. Tactics had improved by then but this was when the huge, long battles remembered by history took place – the latter stages of the Somme, Arras, Third Ypres, then 1918 when casualties were just as high. Yet they were still less bad, proportionately, than the losses taken by France earlier in the war.

    Yet it is politically difficult for a democracy to fight like that, which is why one must see that the slippery and deceitful Lloyd George did have a point. In WW2 the Soviets were furious, at conference after conference, at Churchill’s prevarication over committing to a Second Front while millions of Russian soldiers were dying. The Eighth Army in the desert consisted of a dozen or so divisions, half of them British – as opposed to the 2 million men (about half of them combatants) under Haig’s command in 1918. A few years ago a Lithuanian friend told me that they find it quite literally laughable the way the British think they “won” the Second World War.

  55. keith crowley says:

    Interesting information on Haig from Paul Turtle, you seem better informed than most people !

  56. Claudius says:

    Sending men and animals into sure slaughter, not once or even twice, but for years as head of the Britsh Forces, and their Allies is inexcusable. Haig was an egotistical idiot who, through family influence, and bullying tactics of lower ranks got his own way. The overall blame however, belongs to King George V. Not only did he not listen to the many who beseeched him to remove Haig time after time, but rewarded him with higher rank.
    It is geneally accepted that the military casualties of WWI are ranked thusly; British and Allies 36%, Germany and Allies, 22%. As you can see there is a 14% difference.

    The Germans did not lose the war as such, but rather signed a piece of paper and went home to a country besieged with intolerable problems, both economic and social.
    The Allies did not win the war, they lost it with incompetents like Haig who led them into countless, pointless, bloody disasters. They may have been named the victors, but hothing is further from the truth.

    No nation ‘won’. An entire generation was virtually wiped out, and the bitter hatred which followed was the cause of an even greater horror.

    I recommend the book, “British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One”, by John Laffin. Sutton Pub. 1989 (ISBN:0750901799)
    *Note the cover photo (Haig)*

    • PaulTurtle says:

      It is perfectly true that Allied deaths (around 0.9m BEF, c1.3m French)exceeded German on the Western Front (c1.5m out of 2.1m dead on all fronts on their final adjusted Sanitaets figures) – for the perfectly good reason that they were doing most of the attacking. Early in the war the Allies were taking losses of around 2:1, a ratio which later improved somewhat as Allied artillery grew stronger and large battles like the Somme and Third Ypres consisted extensively of German counterattacks – they were certainly bloody but not one-sided “disasters” for the Allies. The Germans sometimes achieved local superiority, eg. in the early stages of Verdun, but by 1918 their casualties were just as bad as the Allies.

      That said, a lot of the global Allied total were Russians and a lot of the Central Powers total were Turks – both of these suffered far worse losses than Haig or any western general inflicted on their own men – not just Turks against British and Russians against Germany & Austria-Hungary, but also the Russo-Turkish War in the Caucasus which is very little known in the west.

      King George V was an earnest man who took his duties as titular head of the Armed forces very seriously. Lots of senior officers, not just Haig, kept in touch with him but the decision about senior appointments was taken by the government. Royal favour did not save Smith-Dorrien or Wully Robertson from dismissal, and – make no mistake – if Haig had been due for the chop the King would have distanced himself the same as he had from Sir John French at the end of 1915. A number of influential generals (Charteris, Kiggell) were sacked or reshuffled in late 1917, and in early 1918 Robertson was squeezed out and a joint Allied command set up under Foch. But it is not the case that there were repeated calls to sack Haig – Lloyd George hated him but there were no obvious alternatives and he enjoyed a lot of support from some politicians and from the press because, hard though this for some people to believe nowadays, he wasn’t actually obviously incompetent. By 1918 Haig had lost press support and his political position had grown quite weak after the German Spring Offensives – the turn of the tide came just in time for his career.

      There are plenty of more balanced books than John Laffin about WW1 out there. The problem with emotional attacks of this kind is that claims that can be easily rebutted, eg. that methods of war were available which did not involve huge numbers of men dying, get in the way of a proper understanding of why WW1 turned into such a human tragedy.

      They also get in the way of any more serious critique of Haig’s generalship, such as why it took the British a bit longer than the French and Germans to assemble massed artillery and learn to use it properly (although the Americans suffered similar problems two years later), or why Haig allowed himself to be fed overoptimistic intelligence reports rather than facing up to the fact that taking 3:2 losses by 1917 was wearing down the Allies’ small lead as fast as it was wearing down the Germans – this was before the German offensives of 1918 which gave the Allies a bad scare but which ultimately weakened the Germans, and before the arrival of the Americans. Both these failings lay at the heart of the reason why some politicians at the time began to lose faith in him and were quick to blacken his name once he was gone.

      • PaulTurtle says:

        “British Butchers and Bunglers” – as Robin Neillands once memorably said, whatever virtues such a book may have, with a title like that objectivity clearly isn’t going to be one of them.

        It’s a very personal book, written by a WW2 veteran about the slaughter of the generation which preceded his own. “Lions Led by Donkeys” mythology really got going in the 1960s as the WW1 veterans began to grow elderly and fade from the scene – (by the 1990s the handful of centenarians wheeled out for TV documentaries were giving carefully-honed soundbites which bore relation to the reams of detailed recollection written down nearer the time). Nowadays, in my experience, the real Haig-bashers tend to be (old) men of Laffin’s generation and younger who reached maturity in the 1940s and 1950s.

        In Laffin’s case he is asserting a case and picking evidence which supports it. He invites us to mock Haig for his religious faith, his “arrogance”, his supposed lack of professionalism and resistance to new tactics and technology (complete myth actually) and uses words like “pigheaded” and “smug”. A lot of this is judging Haig by the standards of later generations, as WW1 left western countries horrified at the thought of bloodshed on that scale. There are a lot of quotes, obviously selectively picked (and some of them just silly, like the writer George Bernard Shaw claiming that Haig wanted the war to go on until he retired). Occasional quotes in favour of Haig – such James Marshall-Cornwall comparing him to Ulysses Grant – are brushed aside. Generals are made to look silly with out of context quotes and even callous for praising the bravery of their own men.

        There is also a great deal of nonsense, such as the apocryphal story of Kiggell bursting into tears on seeing the battlefield at Passchedaele. He claims that Haig was unaware of the power of defence (no he wasn’t – see his Final Despatch – but you don’t win wars without attacking) and obsessed with cavalry (which was in fact extensively used in 1914 and 1918 when the fronts started to move again). He blames German defeat on blockade –in fact the Germans were hungry by 1918 but still perfectly capable of fighting, although so many factors went into Germany’s sudden collapse (blockade, defeat on the Western Front, collapse of her Allies, American entry, collapse of morale) that it is hard to apportion weight to each one.

        His argument doesn’t really get beyond the intellectual level of “lots of men died, therefore the generals must have been “incompetent” (indeed he invites us to laugh at what he calls the “Heavy Casualties Inevitable Fixation”). There is no evidence that he grasps that forces as large as Haig’s, locked in stalemate for nearly four years, would have suffered hundreds of thousands dead through what was called “normal wastage” (trench raids and mutual shelling) even if no offensives at all had taken place. He makes a great deal of battles early in the war like Loos, Gallipoli or even the First Day of the Somme, when Allied generals were still unsure about tactics. He refuses to accept that the Somme or Third Ypres hurt the Germans, although it is perfectly clear from German accounts that they did. He doesn’t seem to realise that the British suffered many of their worst casualties – about 32% of the total – in 1918 or that the German losses were just as bad by then.

        Laffin says he has ‘a feeling of outrage’ at the idea that the great attritional battles of 1916 and 1917 laid the foundations of the victory of 1918. Unfortunately attrition is a necessary part of war unless somebody has enough of an edge in firepower, numbers or tactics to avoid it, and “a feeling of outrage” is not an argument. Fifteen years ago one used to get angry letters to the newspapers from proud British WW2 veterans “outraged” at suggestions that the Soviets had done most of the fighting in WW2 – which was, to repeat, far bloodier than WW1 – it’s just that Britain got off more lightly, which is why Laffin et al can nurse the delusion that wars of that size can be fought with low casualties.

        Was victory possible with fewer losses? The alternatives which Laffin suggests (from p170) are completely ridiculous. His first is that more use should have been made of tanks (tanks were used extensively at Cambrai and Amiens but their operational life was no more than forty-eight hours – nobody was going to fight a blitzkrieg with the technology of 1917 or 1918!). His other is an offensive along the Belgian Coast – an option rejected at the time as the ground was even wetter than at Ypres – using the guns of the Grand Fleet as cover – as if the fleet would have been risked so close to German U-boat and torpedo boat bases, and when Jellicoe had declined to press his advantage after Jutland out of worry about torpedo boats. At some point the reader has to ask himself whether, if the alternative suggestions are so silly, the generals of the time might have had a point in going about things the way they did.

        Of course people should read widely and make up their own minds. But don’t take Laffin’s polemic at face value – if the meaning of “history” is getting to the facts behind the folk memory, recognising that our ancestors were intelligent people like you or I and understanding why things turned out the way they did, then “Butchers and Bunglers” isn’t “history” in that sense. For the pro-Haig point of view the works of Gary Sheffield or the late John Terraine are the obvious place to start, but there are plenty of good general histories of the war which are sceptical of Haig but take a more balanced approach, eg. John Keegan or even Liddell Hart (reprinted in the 1990s).

  57. Jack Humphries says:

    Haig was merely the puppet of a political and financial elite that sought to maximise profit from the military industrial complex products funded by their banking cartels for nmaximum profitability that necessitated the suspension of morality and the destruction of the physical and mental hopes and dreams of a generation of healthy youthful, albeit poor, human beings throughout Europe and allied territories. To credit him, or any other military or political manager of the time, with success or failure in any aspect of any campaign of WW1 is to ignore the messages emergent from the millions of formal and informal graves and the lost aspirations of the extremely brave war dead and their enduring families, I doubt any will rest in peace until the perpetrators of one of the most ignoble events of the C20th are punished and their families made to recognise their ancestral contributions implicit in partaking as a most evil brotherhood. Remnants of that movement remain, devouring the lives and aspirations of the new youth, it is time that historians told the real truth – it’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

  58. John Blaylock says:

    I’ve just read Jack Humphrey’s piece and can’t believe that there’s anyone left in the world who can still trot out such Marxist-Leninist crap.

  59. Thomas Kerr says:

    Ah look at the numbers…58000 in one day! Did he ever read about Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg? (Long before machine guns.) He was a perfect example of Corelli Burnetts donkey and the end of the British class system.
    During WW2, American commanders remarked on the unwillingness of their English compatriots to suffer casualties to their men. Well, perhaps the ‘men’ or OR (Other Ranks) had something to do with that cautious attitude after hearing the stories of the survivors. . In WW2, unpopular officers (read UPPER class Brits) had a habit of ‘lost at sea’ from Canadian troopships crossing know the Atlantic and we all know about ‘fragging’ unpopular officers during the Vietnam conflict.
    I don’t think todays western soldier would let himself be led by such Donkeys. All to the better!
    On the other hand, would they follow a leader like Rommel or Patchett (Aussie 39th Battalion at Kokoda) to glory?

    I do not know, but I do know that Haig changed modern war forever (and damn the horse!)

    • PaulTurtle says:

      Haig had studied the American Civil War at Staff College so was probably perfectly well aware of Pickett’s charge and his letters home from the Sudan Campaign reveal a deep interest in machine guns and what they could do.

      There is a case to answer with artillery (not because he was an idiot but because British combat experience in the Boer War suggested that field guns firing shrapnel were the way forward and even then weren’t terribly effective). 1915 had featured ineffective Allied attacks but involving relatively few British troops – where success had been close (German defences were weaker than) it was on too narrow a front and the Germans were soon able to bring their own artillery to bear and seal off the breach – hence the decision to attack over a wider front at the Somme. The artillery bombardment there was longer and heavier than ever before, but was not sufficiently dense to cut the wire or suppress German machine guns and artillery. The result on 1 July 1916 was a tragedy, as we all know, although those 20,000 deaths were, over the course of a long war, a small drop in a large pool. After 1 July 1916 artillery densities and tactics improved quite sharply.

      Britain was committed to attack at the Somme by the Chantilly Agreement of late 1915 (the French component of the Somme was scaled down because of Verdun), along with simultaneous offensives by Italy and Russia. For what it’s worth, Haig would have liked to delay the Somme attack until August when more artillery would have been available, but Joffre shouted at him in a meeting that “the French Army would cease to exist” if he left it that long.

      As discussed above, British officers had a very hands-on relationship with their men, took disproportionate casualties, and as the war went on officers were extensively commissioned from the ranks, far more so than in the German Army. There may have been occasional men “lost overboard” (I’ve heard it about naval officers in WW2) but I’ve never read anything to suggest that officer-man relations were ever a serious problem in the British Army.

  60. ramon h leigh says:

    After reading several accounts of the battles of WWI, one of the few
    undeniable truths is that Gen Haig was incredibly dumb, even mindful that others (Nivelle) were just as bad. However, Nivelle and others were tossed after one disaster – Haig managed to create, all on his own, multiple disasters. The only way Lloyd George could stop the carnage was to stop sending Haig enough soldiers for him to plan another “great show” and slaughter, for no purpose, another couple hundred thousand Brits. Had it not been for the lies being fed the British public by the generals and their staffs Haig would have been retired, if not court marshaled. Haig had to see a million of his men slaughtered over 3 years before it dawned on him (sort of) that his tactics were faulty. Now that’s what stupid is all about. He only really stopped his big bloody offensives because he ran out of soldiers.
    All British generals of WWII were careful to not repeat the failures of Haig during the Great War. Haig was considered by them the epitome of failed command.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      Nivelle thought he could “rupture” the line in one go – something Haig had stopped believing after July 1916. He had been promoted after some small offensives at Verdun (autumn 1916) whose success actually owed a lot to the fact that the Somme was still going on, pulling in German guns and reserves. He had only commanded an army for a few months, and had never commanded an Army Group. He did not have the confidence of the Army Group commanders over whose heads he had been promoted. The situation soon got so bad that before his offensive was even launched he suffered the indignity of having them invited by the French government to debate his strategy in front of him, and it went ahead only after he threatened to resign – which didn’t stop him refusing to resign and trying to cling to office for a few days after it went wrong. A very sorry story.

      The large battles of 1916-17 were not “disasters” – they inflicted damage on the Germans. The Somme – all five months of it – was seen at the time as a marginal and very costly Allied victory. Together with the failure of Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive, it led to the coming to power of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and was a factor in Germany’s resort to submarine warfare. Both the Somme and Arras made progress – small by WW2 standards but more than had been managed in previous years, and after the Somme the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line sooner than they had planned. Third Ypres, a dreadful experience for the men on the ground, gained less ground as there was no room for German retreat.

      It is not the case that the generals “fed lies to the public”. People aren’t that stupid. The Cabinet, press and Parliament knew perfectly well what was going on, barring a few minor points of detail. The issue was the intelligence estimates of just how much damage Haig was inflicting on the Germans. Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was increasingly uneasy about Third Ypres – and knew his intelligence estimates were more realistic than Haig’s – but his relations with Lloyd George were acrimonious after the Calais Conference early in 1917, when Lloyd George had tried to place the BEF under Nivelle’s command.

      Haig did not slaughter “a million of his men (actually more like 900,000, and some of those were before Haig took over) over three years” before changing tactics. Tactics began evolving in 1916 – admittedly somewhat slower than the French – and in fact a third of all British WW1 deaths were in 1918 when the fronts were moving again.

      Lloyd George’s preferred option was offensives in Italy and/or Palestine. This was politically problematic as the Italians weren’t keen (although eventually after their defeat at Caporetto they had little choice but to accept Anglo-French help) and the French were furious – they wanted the Germans expelled from France, whatever it cost, and as far as they were concerned from 1916 onwards it was time the British did their share of dying. Joint command under Foch helped to coordinate things during the German offensives of spring 1918 but after that made little difference – the British forces did more than their fair share in the autumn of 1918 and suffered accordingly. Nor do Lloyd George’s efforts spare many British lives in the long run, as the British took more losses from the German Spring Offensives in 1918 than they had done at Third Ypres the previous autumn. The bottom line is that once the political decision had been made to commit a huge force of sixty or so British divisions to France there was going to be political pressure to use them and they were going to rack up hundreds of thousands dead over the course of several years whether Haig had been a genius or the idiot of popular myth.

      The generals of WWII criticised their predecessors – this is true but all generations like to criticise their predecessors, not always fairly, just as Haig had criticised his seniors like Roberts (a different man from Robertson, mentioned above) and Kitchener. Circumstances were very different in WW2. The Soviets were doing most of the fighting and by the end the Allies had enormous superiority in aircraft and tanks.

      Do keep this up, though. It’s fun.

  61. Alexander says:

    I grew up with the Haig and all British generals in WWI were blood thirsty buffoons stereotypes, but I now find myself being more sceptical. The problem with the anti-Haig perspective (including this pretty hackneyed article) is that it is never credibly explains what anyone could have done better to win the war with low casualties given: the nature of the front (it couldn’t be turned); the tools used to wage war at the time; and the recurrent need to deflect German pressure from other points in the allied front that were about to implode. A problem with the pro-Haig perspective is that it doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation (one I’ve found satisfactory at least) for the tactic of walking steadily towards machine guns while carrying large packs, that was so disasterous on the first day of the Somme (athough to be fair it wasn’t persisted with).

    There are a huge number of myths abounding about the period and almost all the related history on WWI seems to be serving some agenda or other. The bias in the British accounts of Haig seems to have its origin in a domestic argument about who was to blame for the intolerably high casualties (even though British casualties were lower per capita than was the case for the French, Germans, Russian, Italians, Serbians, Austrians etc.) such that the view of Haig has been manipulated to serve the argument. Lloyd George, the consumate politician, seems to have kicked off the revisionist view of Haig in his memoirs and has since been accused of finding it expediant to deflect balme onto Haig. Not surprisingly, people in Australia, Canada, the US and elsewhere have been happy to climb aboard (if the Brits say Haig was useless he must have been useless). So I can’t help feeling that most accounts of Haig (including the above article) end up lazily repeating all secondary sources rather than attempting to see beyind their biases and giving an informed and dispassionate appraisal.

  62. Callum Bushman says:

    I personally think that the comment that was made about not being intrigued by unsuccesful generals, was rather unnecessary, these people are rather disresepctful, ok bye

  63. Wong Hoong Hooi says:

    Comes back to the same question I had asked: “Before we dig into any general, how SHOULD that war have been fought ?”

    Only Paul Turtle seems to have addressed the point, which summarises as optimising composition of fire support and its co-ordination with infantry advances that were bound to produce high casualties. I’m not knocking it. I’m precisely the non-military man trying to understand context. Realistically, it might have been the only thing that could have been done and to have kept grimly at it because the political demand was for “victory”.

  64. Doug Ashcroft says:

    Haig and the German Generals imbibed Napoleonic principles of attack is better than defence. This of course ignored the obvious lessons of Gettysburg and other Civil War Battles.

    ‘So, over the top lads. Never mind the machine gun fire. smash the line.’ The Somme, and of course the sucking mud of Passchendale revealed the foolishness of the Napoleonic, ‘attack is preferable to defence’ in MODERN warfare.

    Not until the invasion of Russia by the Wehrmacht in 1941 was the lesson finally driven home. The Russians prepared miles of ‘in depth’ defences. Against these the attacking Wehrmact was bled white.

    So, Haig like many more was trapped by the philosophies of the past. He had not the creative thinking to break out of the quagmire.

    • PaulTurtle says:

      In order to win a war, you normally have to attack – but you have to assemble enough firepower and kill or demoralise enough of the enemy, and it took time for the WW1 generals to do this. Generals of that era knew perfectly well that storming strongly-defended positions would be costly – but not necessarily impossible, as Grant had shown, as had the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. Nor was it inevitable – the Franco-Prussian War had seen much movement and cavalry fighting, as had the US Civil War (Haig’s instructor at Staff College in the 1890s, Lt-Col G.Henderson, was an expert on the campaigns of Stonewall Jackson, whilst his study partner at Staff College, Edmonds, wrote – in his spare time – a History of the US Civil War which was still being used as a West Point textbook in the 1930s). But conditions on the western front – hundreds of British, French and German divisions locked in stalemate – did not allow for manoeuvre. If the Western Allies had not kept attacking, the French would have been cross and the Germans would have beaten Russia quicker, and mitigated some of the effect of the blockade by feeding themselves from the resources of the Ukraine.
      A better critique of Haig is that he usually erred on the side of optimism, listening to inflated intelligence reports of German losses and morale-crumbling, losing sight of the fact that he was bleeding his own army white as well, and believing that a spectacular victory was imminent. Had he instead concentrated on inflicting attrition on the Germans (which is what he later claimed he’d been doing all along), the war would still have been costly for Britain, but his reputation after his death would have been higher.

    • Dennis says:


      I completely disagree with your assessment. The attack is almost always prefereable to defense. The lessons you give arent evidence of the contrary but evidence of poorly executed attacks. The Somme casulaty list was a product of a poorly planned / led attack. If you read some detailed accounts of the Somme there were actually some very good successes that occurred when attacks were properly planned and supported by artillery (and that, BTW, is the one key point that brings Haigs ignorance / incompetence to light, that is that there WERE successes during the Somme that could have been learned from and were not). Napoleanic sweeping attacks by flying columns are THE quintessential basis for American tactics currently. You bring up the invasion of Russia in 1941 and the Somme, but ignore the eastern front during WWI where vast movements were conducted at the same time the West was stagnent and ignore France and Poland of WWII where the Wahrmact made unbelievable successes, and in France/Belgium against forces larger and better equipped than their own, as well as Gulf War I and OIF where the Iraqi Army was flanked and destroyed in detail. Napoleanic formations marching into each other was proven a dismal failure before WWI as well during the Franco Prussian War of 70-71, but the idea of marching lines of infantry into each other is not Napoleanic Strategy but a Napoleanic Tactic. There is a difference.
      Modern warfare REQUIRES mobility. Any army that stands still in a modern fight will be destroyed by artillery and air, there is an IMPERATIVE to move in modern war, so sticking to fixed fortifications and the defense ala Germany western armies in WWI would actually be suicide now.

  65. PaulTurtle says:

    ” there WERE successes during the Somme that could have been learned from and were not” – certainly the pushes of 14 July and 15 September were fairly successful, and in between was a great deal of costly grinding. Detailed accounts like Hart (2006) quote a number of increasingly angry memos from Haig to Rawlinson telling him to get a grip on the situation. But much of the costly grinding was necessary to capture key woods and villages and “straighten the line” for the next Big Push, so there are no easy answers. Given the strategic situation, a lot of men were going to die whatever happened.

  66. John Smith says:

    I to be honest must say that this is a very biased report. Haig was not the worst general in WW1. He had great military success. One thing you said was true, that people are overwhelmed by the Somme. This I would argue is the reason for such a negative view of Field Marshal Haig. People do argue that the Somme was a waste of lives but do they forget that if the British led by Haig did not help the French who were dying in Verdun, France would have been taken over by Germany and the allies might have lost the war. ALSO GOING INTO A WAR WHAT DO YOU EXPECT IT ISN’T BALLET.

  67. Andy Wilson says:

    Monash and Currie were critics of Haig and the British Army in general. They complained of the poor training and performance of the British Army and its staff officers in particular. They noted the promotion of personnel based upon social standing and patronage regardless of military incompetence. The Australians and Canadians were grossly over-used by Haig – chiefly because they delivered results – outstandingly so. Currie and Monash were decidedly the best commanders in the Army but scarcely acknowledged nor appointed to appropriately higher command by the British. The Australians and Canadians stand in stark contrast to the British because they were properly trained, well led and employed according to new and effective strategies and tactics. One prominent British military historian (Cyril Falls) described the British Army as “… the best disciplined but least effective in the war”. The Germans said of it, “… lions led by donkeys”.
    For those of us who observe them from a distance, the British tend often to have a much higher opinion of themselves than they can ever support by the facts. Haig was a great BRITISH general and that is about the best that can be said of him.

    • John Blaylock says:

      Cyril Falls was a very well respected hisorian, but wrote many years ago and has been dead for some time. Had he been alive and had access to the latest reviews of material and opinion, he may well have changed his mind.

      The “Lions led by donkeys” lie was begun by Alan Clark in his book “The Donkeys” in the 60’s. NO GERMAN (or any other) GENERAL EVER SAID SUCH A THING. Clark was an entertaining writer, but no true historian ever makes up quotes.

      • Andy Wilson says:

        John, check out the attributions as to the source of the various quotations where “Lions led by Donkeys/Lambs” originated at Wikipedia. It seems that the expression had considerable currency well before Alan Clark supposedly made up the quotation or, as you say, lie. In any event, it seems apt WRT British military leadership during WWI.
        One of the major difficulties facing anyone trying to assess the competence of British military leadership (especially Haig’s) or the conduct of the war as a whole is the fact that official and personal records were so thoroughly sanitised by deletion, alteration and revision during and after the war. “Perfidious Albion” ?
        Perhaps one of the most potent comments concerning Haig’s fitness to command comes from the most famous British General in the Second World War, Montgomery, who wrote of John Monash (Australia’s most famous commander in the First World War):
        “I would name Sir John Monash as the best general on the Western Front in Europe; he possessed real creative originality, and the war might well have been over sooner, and certainly with fewer casualties, had Haig been relieved of his command and Monash appointed to command the British armies in his place”.
        It is, of course, fanciful to think that such an eventuality was possible given the entrenched British attitudes and beliefs of the time. The Canadian Currie and the Australian Monash only ever attained command of their respective Corps, condemned to subordination to British Army commanders kept in place by what Denis Winter in “Haig’s Command – A Reassessment” describes as “… the closed shop … ” that was the British Army Officer corps.
        The Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders came away from WWI with a very jaundiced opinion of the British and the British Army – at all levels. Pre-war illusions had been shattered and what was most notable to Dominion troops and their Officers was how unlike the British they were – especially in the conduct of warfare. Australians commonly regarded British troops as “bovine” – rigidly disciplined, lacking in initiative and, by and large, led by incompetent Officers appointed almost exclusively on the basis of their position in society. Ultimately, the only discipline that counts is battle discipline.

      • John says:

        Hi Paul,

        Alan Clark admitted on television; after considerable evasion, that he had made up:- ‘Lions led by donkeys.’ I,m not saying it was ever used, but there is NO record of it having been. It seems likely that had it been said, it is so good, that someone would have written it down.
        I wish I’d made it up.


      • PaulTurtle says:

        I don’t recall Clark saying it on TV but the correspondence between Clark and the elderly Liddell Hart is listed in the Ion Trewin biog of Clark – neither could remember who actually said “Lions Led by Donkeys”, so Clark made up the attribution. If a journalist were caught doing that, it would be a career-ender, but Clark’s book “The Donkeys” has always sold well, despite being described by Michael Howard as “woeful history” when first published.

        Another book which sold well despite being damned by historians, many of them no fans of Haig, is of course Denis Winter’s “Haig’s Command”, also mentioned above. Anybody in a public position produces reams of paper, and not all of it can be kept. Twenty years have now gone by – nobody has corroborated Winter’s conspiracy theories, based on a few minor discrepancies which he claimed to have discovered. It is true that there were a few occasions (eg. March 1918, where his role in the appointment of Foch as Supreme Commander was probably less than he later claimed) whre Haig showed himself in a better light in his diary – which makes him no different from most other people who write memoirs.

  68. PaulTurtle says:

    Once again, this reflects old-fashioned mythology rather than up-to-date history. At the time Currie in particular spoke highly of Haig.

    The Canadian and Australian corps, about 5 divisions each, were fine fighting forces. The British Army was much larger, c 55 divisions. Although their quality was more constant than the Germans (there was a huge difference between a German trench division and an attack division), the quality of British divisions varied a bit and the best of them (eg. the Guards, the Scots, and several others) had as fine a fighting record, and were used as frequently where elite troops were needed, as the Aussies and Canadians. I refer the interested reader to the books of Andy Simpson for more up-to-date evidence on this.

    No German general ever said the British were “Lions Led by Donkeys” – it is now known that Alan Clark simply made this up to use it as the title of a famous 1960s book on Loos. The quote probably dates from the Crimean War or Franco-Prussian War.

    There is some evidence that the British were a bit slow to adopt their tactics in 1916, just as the Americans were in 1918. It’s what happens when you build a huge army from scratch. By 1918 British tactics were as good as any.

  69. Doug Ashcroft says:


    Whilst I appreciate your points regarding The Somme and Verdun and the possibilities of the Allies losing the wAr, I think there are one or two other considerations to be taken into account.

    Fiirst: your comments seem based on pure strategic calculation with no concern for the loss of human life, nor indeed on the horrific injuries and suffering entailed.The comment that was is not ‘a ballet,’ seems a rather cold assessment of matters.

    Second: As time went on the whole object of the conflict in France was to turn it into a WAR OF MOVEMENT. I would argue that had the Allies simply dug in and allowed the Germans to attempt to impale themselves on the barbed wire around the allied trenches, things would have been different because :

    1. the German attacks on the trench line would not have broken through

    2. British and French manpower would have built up more and more behind the trenches had the Generals not squandered it by adopting the same ‘over the top’ strategy as the Germans.

    3. as time went on the blockade of Germany was having an effect on German Supplies and causing immense suffering on the Home Front in Germany

    4. With the eventual entry of the USA the Allies materiel and manpower advantage was overwhelming. Germany, despite the caving in of Russia was overstretched and COULD NOT WIN.

    SO, although the Somme played a part in reducing the size of the German juggernaut IT ALSO HAD THE SAME EFFECT ON THE ALLIED MANPOWER.

    I am sure you will come back at me and offer some evidence that my appraisal: sit tight, build up supplies, allow the enemy to expend itself, cut off its resources is somehow deficient.

    I wait eagerly for your analysis.

  70. PaulTurtle says:

    Most sensible people agree that war is hell, but that’s a good reason not to start one unless strictly necessary, not to delude oneself that they are always going to be quick and cheap. It is somtimes wrongly supposed that Allied tactics on WW1 were massively wasteful of life, which is true of a few instances like the First Day of the Somme, but overall not really. Look at the higher casualties suffered in 1918 when the fronts were moving again, or the vast casualties suffered by the Soviets in WW2 when the Commonwealth were fighting a small campaign in North Africa. Fight wars, people get killed – sad but true.

    What you say about sitting in for a long siege may be true, but it wasn’t acceptable to the French. Loos, the Somme and Arras were launched at French demand – then by summer 1917 the French were almost knocked out by mutiny. Third Ypres was a bit different, and was agreed to by the British War Cabinet with deep reluctance. By the end of 1917 Lloyd George wanted to leave the western front to the Americans and concentrate on fighting the Turks, but events overtook him – the German Spring Offensive and Allied counterattack.

    The other caveat is that it might have left the Germans free to pick off the Allies – Russia, then Greece, then Italy, one by one. The Allies were quite keen on keeping the inititiave and killing Germans, even if they deluded themselves about howmany Germans they were killing.

  71. Doug Ashcroft says:

    Thanks Paul.

    Just one or two points:

    1. ‘The French were almost knocked out by mutiny.’ Yes, but surely this adds some weight to my comment. They mutinied BECAUSE of the ‘over the top’ notion. In fact, this at one level seems to suggest that the French SENSED the ‘over the top’ strategy was clearly wrong.

    2. ‘Keeping the initiative’ it was hardly an initiative more like you win some, we win some.’

    3. “the Spring Offensive’ was as the German commanders realised a massive once and for all ‘GAMBLE, launched because the British Naval Blockade was having effects of a devastating sort in Germany. It squandered the lives of warn out German soldiers.

    I am not convinced that sitting tight, letting the Germans bleed would not have won the day. By the time of the Spring Offensive Allied materiel and American manpower were increasng as Ludendorff and others knew.

    I still believe that sitting it out would have won for the allies without the horrific effects produced.

    Please come back to me Paul and punch holes in my comment.

  72. PaulTurtle says:

    Lots of armies came to the point of mutiny in ww1, in the French case it was largely a reaction to the exaggerated expectations of victory which Nivelle had built up. After Petain became CinC he improved leave and other conditions – and the French army resumed small-scale offensives, eg. Malmaison, quite successfully with massive artillery support, although their success may have owed a bit to the way Haig was sucking German reserves into Ypres at the time. So the men were still willing to attack provided they were looked after and all due preparations were made.

    Germany was hungry but not starving by 1918, still capable of fighting. Also short of some key metals used in engine manufacture etc.

    Remember Germany was not a democracy. The Imperial Reichstag was democratically elected, but had little power; the Prussian Landtag had an unequal franchise (Bismarck had, after all, fought his wars to keep the status quo in Prussia!). By this stage of the war there were demands to democratise Prussia and seek a compromise peace (Reichstag Peace Resolution), so Ludendorff’s Spring Offensives had a lot to do with the Prussian old order/officer class clinging to power. When the war was clearly lost, the Army and other nationalists let the Social Democrat and Liberal politicians make peace and set up the Weimar Republic (it was better than communist revolution, after all) – then spread the myth that they had stabbed Germany in the back, undermining the Weimar Republic right from the start.

    In months with no offensive, British forces used to take casualties of around 35,000 per month in what was called “normal wastage” – patrols, trench raids, mutual shelling. Call it 10,000 deaths for the sake of argument – you can calculate that there would still have been hundreds of thousands of British dead, and similar numbers in other countries, even with no major offensives, although perhaps less horror than the Somme and Third Ypres. (In reality “wastage” deaths were less than this because when major offensives were going on there was less wastage in the quiet sectors – so be careful not to double-count if you are doing the calculations.)

    The Allies didn’t know how long the war was going to drag on for – for nearly a year after the First Marne they thought victory was just round the corner, until summer 1915 when it became obvious that Russia was in serious trouble. Most historians believe that, despite his later claim that he had been practising attrition all along, Haig was aiming for some kind of decisive victory, certainly at the Somme and possibly the following year as well. It’s easy to snigger, but on the other hand if it had come off he would have looked like a hero. None of us can foresee the future, and generals and politicians who had just wanted to sit and wait would have looked defeatist and risked their own people wanting to give up.

    What would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had forbidden his generals to invade the South and had settled down for a blockade of many years instead? He certainly would have had to put up with Lee menacing Washington, and possibly Northern war-weariness.

  73. Doug Ashcroft says:


    Many thanks, Paul I will give this some further thought and come back on it. I have not surrendered yet.

  74. […] academies that cater for the British elite are designed to emotionally cripple their students. Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig demonstrated at the Battle of the Somme, why it is important to lack empathy. How else could he […]

  75. Kiwi Joker says:

    People who call call Haig merely a poor commander never have a proper in-depth knowledge of the war nor a wider perspective.

    I’m not denying that Haig is ultimately responsible for the high casualties the British suffered during their offensives from 1916. But I can’t see how too much of it was his fault as it was due to the technology and weapons of the time heavily favouring defence. Haig can be criticised for sticking to the tried-and-true on many occasions, but this “safe” approach more often led to success (including ultimately). It was the bad medicine the Allies needed and it was no different to Joffre’s approach (who always escapes similar criticism).
    Haig can be criticised for the political games that led to his ascent at the cost to the also-capable Smith-Dorian, but that’s no reflection on his Marshalling abilities.

    Anyone who thinks he was the worst of the war plainly has no idea of what they’re talking about.
    Compare Haig to some of the other commanders of the great war such as von Moltke, Rennenkampf, Cardorna, John French or any of the Austrian commanders and he looks like Guderian.

    • Doug Ashcroft says:

      Haig was like many commanders in the Great War a victim of the military assumptions of the time. One of which was the Napoleonic dictum that attack should prevail over defence. However, time and technology had moved on. By the time Haig and others were ordering the’ over the top’ slaughter programme. Defence was superior to attack.

      • Kiwi Joker says:

        Doug: nothing personal, but it’s not that simple.

        You need to attack to win wars. You can’t win by sitting in your fortifications, you need to breakthrough and send them into retreat capturing their reserves and material in depots etc. And the French desperately needed the British to mobilise a decent-sized army and assault the German to relieve their forces at Verdun.
        The had to attack and there was no other way than to send infantry over-the-top. Tanks/automobiles were still in their infancy.

        Haig was certainly not a great war general still stuck in Napoleonic backwardness like Von Moltke or Samsonov. He had previous success in the Boer war (unlike most British commanders who served in that conflict) and had been a proponent of the Haldene reforms.

      • Dennis says:

        —-“and THE TANK were all prior to or during his tenure”? Um… …NO.
        It was Haig who actually authorised the Tank’s debut at the Somme. And he was not responsible for developing the tactics of the Tank corps—

        So Im going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say you just didnt read my statement.

        Second, if you introduce a new weapon to the front, ITS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY as the CINC to develop a concept of employment for it. You dont just hand your subordinates a new weapon and say, “here, i dont know what the * to do with it, YOU figure it out.” Not only is that NOT an answer, thats NOT what happened. He did prescribe how to use them, he spread them across the front (not concentrated) he prescribed them to lead (not follow) attacks and didnt account for forests.

        “Your story about misunderstanding contemporary counter-battery tactics is utter fiction”

        My story? Really? Have you even read a WORD about the Somme? EVERY BOOK / ACCOUNT thats worth anything notes the LACK of support for counter battery fire to support units once on their objective. If he learned it before 1916, he didnt employ it. What is your excuse for the completely disproportionate artillery battles along the front on Day 1 of the Somme and practically every subsequent day?
        You say poor communicatins and inexperienced troops. THATS the utter fiction, you cant communicate with guns that arent there!! You cant communicate or fail to communicate with batteries that dont exist.
        Care to explain your answer with FACTS that support each other?

        Too many shrapnel shells on the initial bombardment? Yeah, I saw that episode on the history channel too. Research further about the assignment of # of guns per meter of front which was the overriding problem of the whole Somme battle. You can use whatever shot you want, but if its not in the right density it doesnt matter. Which, was again a mistake he repeatedly made.

        Haig attacking at night? He opposed the idea!!! It was Ralinson who pushed it and Haig almost overrode him until Rawlinson had to go to his CP and explain it more.

    • Dennis says:

      “Kiwi Joker”

      First off, this isnt some MSNBC / FOX article, its Historynet. If you want to lead off by insulting everyone who disagrees with you, take it somewhere else.
      Second, if you DO decide to do so here, you better d*** well know what you are talking about. And in this case, you obviously are guilty of what you accuse others of, ie NO IN-DEPTH knowledge.

      The supporting statements you have made for Haig take into account NOTHING of what he was really facing.

      You say he was a victim of technology and weapons. Well, lets analyze that a little. the development of the machine gun, long range artillery, and THE TANK were all prior to or during his tenure.
      Granted, the tank was just coming into its own, but after its first use in the later part of the Somme, he learned practically nothing of how to deal with it. Likewise, artillery, the Franco-Prussian and the Austrian-Prussian wars, plus practically every war in Europe back to the Napoleon era, demonstrated the need for significant attention to counterbattery fire – even the US Civil War did. The first day of the Somme and, in all but a few cases, the other attacks in the months following Haig REPEATEDLY left counter battery units understrength. He repeatedly, in spite of continuous evidence that it couldnt be done and complaints by his subordinates, attempted massive breakthroughs against all three lines of the German front when every attempt continued to show that bite and hold was the way to go.
      You act like because others made mistakes he is no worse. HE WAS THE CINC of the BEF, you dont get that high and get a pass because other lesser officers made mistakes too. He failed REPEATEDLY to learn from his mistakes and cost TENS of THOUSANDS of lives.
      I personally do NOT feel Haig was the worst, but it could easily be argued. YOU however, with your initial insults have proven a complete lack of understanding of history or the problems with assuming everyone else is ignorant and YOU are the one guy that knows and understands all.

      • Kiwi Joker says:

        “and THE TANK were all prior to or during his tenure”? Um… …NO.
        It was Haig who actually authorised the Tank’s debut at the Somme. And he was not responsible for developing the tactics of the Tank corps.

        Your story about misunderstanding contemporary counter-battery tactics is utter fiction, Haig has already gained strong experience in modern artillery tactics before he became C-in-C when he was commander of the 1st army at Neuve Chapelle and at Loos.
        The main problems Haig and Rawlinson (who somehow never shares the criticisms leveled at Haig) faced at the Somme was the inexperience of Kitchener’s “New Army” troops, malfunctioning artillery fuses, poor intelligence about the strength of German fortifications and poor communications.
        Haig and Rawlinson can be criticised for using too many shrapnel shells to cut the wire in the initial bombardment instead of heavy munitions, but then again that was also due to poor intelligence.
        I’m not even going to bother with this nonsense about him somehow not learning from the US civil war, Franco Prussian war or whatever hilarious nonsense you’re trying on. The man was one of the major proponents of the Haldene reforms, somehow I think he was a bit more up-with-the-play than you like to think.

        He was not only not worse than most other commanders of the conflict he was BETTER. Once again; compare him to some of the commanders of other armies such as Von Moltke or Cardorna. Or even compare him to Sir John French or Sir Charles Townshend. How on earth could anyone informed think he was anything but one of the war’s best commanders defies anything rational.

        I mean; take a look at his ultimate successes in 1918! even the third attacks in the Somme on July 1916 were highly successful, and because Haig adopted the tactic of attacking at night and with troops advancing into no-mans land whilst the Germans were still sheltering from bombardment.

        And what I’m saying is the consensus amongst historians, instead of the consensus amongst popular history and British TV like Blackadder…

  76. Doug Ashcroft says:

    Kiwi Joker

    Thanks for your civilised comment.

    Even so, I wonder had the British

    1. sat fairly tight while
    2. allowing the Germans to crucify themselves on the British barbed wire and being splattered by the British machine guns and
    3. WAITING for the American build up of men and materiel and
    4. allowing the British naval blockade to bite, starving Germany at home and in the field of vital resources.

    In short, like Cunctator facing Hannibal, would deprivation and strangulation have workef?

    Good to see a polite, non-belligerent contributor

    • Kiwi Joker says:

      No this wouldn’t have worked!

      Because; without Britain attacking in its sectors, Germany would have had the reserves to knock-out Russia, continue attacking the French at Verdun (and defeating/demoralising them). Verdun may have been a German breakthrough that may have dug deep into the allied lines and allow the German to outflank or even encircle the British positions.
      Or it may have simply allowed the Germans to attack and demoralise the British.

      With all due respect; what you’re advocating is very much from the smaller picture.

  77. HistoryNet Editor says:

    A note to all from the editor and moderator of this site: We welcome the lively debate on whether or not General Haig deserves his bad reputation but refrain from making personal attacks and tossing around insults; they are a violation of site rules. Thank you. Now let the debate continue—with civility.

  78. Doug Ashcroft says:


    Many thanks.

    I take it your point is

    1. The German High Command were intent on attacking, come what may

    2. Had the British simply dug in and not moved the German High Command could have reasoned, “It’s OK the British won’t come out, so let us get on with mopping up their allies.’

    So, would the USA and the British Navy have saved the day?

    Looking forward to another civilised comment.

    • D I says:

      The German Army never had any intention of taking Verdun in 1916 and this demonstrated what likely would have been their tactics without American intervention. They were driven to attack in 1917/18 for the combined reasons of the Russian collapse, the impending American arrival, and the beginnings of a potential collapse in the southern front and Levant by the Austrians and Turks. Without the US they could have redirected Eastern front divisions to the southern front to stabilize and to the west to do what they nearly did in beginning of 1918. But the Germans throughout the war demonstrated in action they were content to sit in place and let the allies bleed themselves to death. The action of which I speak is the intricate trenches built up by the Germans. Counter this with the ‘temporary’ trenches built by the British and to some degree the French because they high command ‘philisophically’ opposed the thought of sitting and waiting out the Germans. That said, the Germans, again without American interference, had shown a willingness and ability to wait out the Allies, and make thrusts when the opportunity presented itself.

  79. […] niż kolejne szarże piechurów. Zainteresowanych tematem odsyłam do dwóch artykułów (pro i kontra), szczególnie zainteresowanych – […]

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