Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig commanded British forces on the Western Front from December 1915 through the end of World War I. His tenure as commander in chief has been criticized heavily, both during the war and afterwards; he is best known as the architect of the Battle of the Somme, with its catastrophic loss of life. His defenders see him as the right man for the job with which he was charged, although the qualifications named in this context seem like little more than the stereotype of the British officer. Sir Douglas Haig was a man with modest gifts and no more than tepid support from his political leadership, but he was charged with an awesome responsibility; he presided over two of the greatest bloodlettings of the war in a vain search for a breakthrough, but in 1916 and 1917, no one else seemed capable of better, and the decisive developments of 1918 came from factors that were out of his control.
Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861. His father was a manufacturer of spirits, and Douglas was well-educated, attending both Oxford and Sandhurst. Making his career in the army, he served in the cavalry, rising through the ranks during tours of duty in key regions of the British Empire. He fought at the Battle of Omdurman, served as the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers, and then assisted Sir John French in the Boer War. His rise generated political attention, and when Secretary for War Haldane set about the reform of Britain’s military posture in the world, he made Haig one of his chief advisers. His marriage to Dorothy Crespigny also brought him powerful connections: his wife had served Queens Victoria and Alexandra, bringing Haig to the attention of the Royal Family and its leading retainers. King Edward VII considered Haig a friend.
Haig was given command of I Corps at the beginning of the First World War, serving under his superior officer from the Boer War, Sir John French. Haig’s men performed well in 1914, but at great cost; the fighting around Ypres, in particular, largely devastated the British Expeditionary Force as it had existed at the beginning of the war. Still, Haig showed some ability in the most difficult phases of First Ypres. Moreover, he still enjoyed royal favor, and he carried on a private correspondence with King George V. This correspondence included his criticisms of Sir John. With all of these considerations, it should not be surprising that Sir John was relieved of command on December 19, 1915, and that Sir Douglas was promoted to succeed him.
Haig’s first major initiative as commander in chief of the BEF was to lay the groundwork for a joint Anglo-French offensive along the River Somme, where British and French sectors met. The original intention was to crush the German defenses with the combined might of the two chief western allies. After a year of relative quiescence, the Germans surprised them by opening a major offensive against the French at Verdun. For the remainder of 1916, this was the overriding preoccupation of the French, and no meaningful help would come from them at the Somme. The desperation of the French effort at Verdun made the promised offensive at the Somme even more important, however; a British offensive in the northern part of the Western Front would draw German reserves to that sector, easing the burden of the French. And so, Haig was compelled to proceed with the planned offensive, but to do so with a much reduced force at his disposal.
The result was the Battle of the Somme, which opened with the loss of some 60,000 men on the first day alone. Haig should not be criticized for undertaking the battle in the first place; the decision had been political, and Haig, a loyal soldier, obeyed. A more just criticism would be that he expected too much from the battle, and prepared too little. Without adequate justification, he believed that the Somme attack would break the German lines and provide him with the breakthrough that Sir John French had sought in vain the year before. In essence, he thought he could go beyond the intermediate goal of buying a respite for France, and actually win the war outright with this offensive. As it turned out, he did not have enough men, artillery, planes or tanks to do so.
Two key elements contributed to Haig’s thinking in this matter: a tendency toward blind optimism and a faith in the power of artillery that was realistic in theory but which could not yet be validated in 1916. The former is a straightforward part of Haig’s personality. Haig saw himself as God’s instrument, and believed that the actions he undertook had been part of God’s plan. Such a belief instills a conviction that he would prevail in the end, and several other key leaders in World War I shared that kind of belief. In Haig’s case, it might also have served to blur the distinction between a minor setback that could be overcome if he persevered, and a failure that would only grow if he did not withdraw as soon as possible. This is one possible explanation for his inability to recognize disaster in the Somme Offensive of 1916 and the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
Belief in the power of artillery also underlies Haig’s planning at the Somme. Both Haig and his German opponent, Falkenhayn, concluded that the artillery would decide the war. The realistic component to this conclusion lies in the proposition that sufficient quantities of artillery and shells, arrayed properly and used accurately, would bring victory. There is an argument to be made that this is exactly what the Allies accomplished by the summer of 1918, when they had turned back the last German offensives and undertook successful offensives of their own. This prospect was still an illusion in 1916, however. While the collection of shells looked enormous by contrast with the stockpiles of the past, it was still too small to grant the kind of victory that was desired by either commander, and certainly, their subordinates were not yet knowledgeable enough to exploit the full effectiveness of artillery or to set realistic goals for what artillery might accomplish.
Haig and Falkenhayn attempted to use their artillery in opposite ways, but neither worked. Falkenhayn concentrated his artillery’s fire, wreaking devastation in a narrow field but neglecting the flanks, allowing the French to set up opposing fire. Haig spread his fire out over too wide a field, leaving the German defenses too little affected when the infantry attack came. Like Lee on the third day at Gettysburg, Haig thought he had enough artillery to decide the attack before his infantry reached the battle line, but in fact, the artillery fire had not been enough to suppress the enemy’s defense, and the attack was consequently blunted.
The end of the year brought a change in political leadership. Prime Minister Asquith was swept from power, and David Lloyd George took his place under a coalition government involving the Conservative and Liberal parties. Lloyd George had been incensed by the Somme, but he recognized that he could not act against Haig directly; the military enjoyed significant support in the Conservative Party, on whose cooperation Lloyd George depended. Removing Haig was not an option, so Lloyd George thought instead to rein him in by denying him the scale of reinforcements that would encourage more battles like the Somme. Haig was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal on January 1st, but Lloyd George still did not trust his judgment, and when the French presented a commander who seemed to inspire confidence, General Nivelle, the Prime Minister was quite willing to subordinate Haig to a French supreme commander.
This first effort at a joint command failed spectacularly in the Nivelle Offensive, and the threat of a French collapse in its wake compelled Lloyd George to accept Haig’s plans for a new offensive in Flanders. Britain could not remain passive, for fear that a Germany uncontested on the Western Front could defeat Russia and then compel a weakened France to make peace. In effect, however, this gave Haig the latitude to plan another attack like the Somme at Passchendaele, with similar results.
The end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 demonstrated the efforts on the Allied side to revive the concept of a unified command, first through a Supreme War Council, and then through the selection of a supreme commander. Haig resisted the control of the council as much as he could; the selection of a supreme commander came in the most dangerous phase of the German spring offensives, however. Lloyd George was happy to see another French general in this post, this time Ferdinand Foch. It should be noted, however, that in this case Haig himself supported Foch as the supreme commander.
Haig also performed well under Foch’s command during the last months of the war. In part, it may be that Haig, known for his stalwart nature rather than for any imagination, was better suited to a subordinate’s role than he was to top command; at the same time, it could be observed that the amount of artillery support available to the Entente, and the skill in its use, could now deliver the kinds of results that Haig had expected in the previous two years. Haig had not changed, but the circumstances around him had changed to the point that he could deliver results.
Through it all, Haig retained the confidence of his subordinates; with the support of so many leading commanders, it is not surprising that in the prevailing British views of the war, Haig would enjoy a positive appraisal. Much of that confidence can be attributed to his unflappable nature, conveying an air of certainty in the midst of a crisis that can win over those who worry about the results. After the war, he was created Earl of Bemersyde, and he helped to found the Royal British Legion for the support of veterans.
Others see Haig as an example of what went wrong in World War I; by failure of imagination, he failed to embrace useful changes that could have brought about a victory, and instead condemned his men to wholesale slaughter in frontal assaults. This view is not entirely just, either. While the consequences for his men were the same, his belief in the success of his plans was founded on the promise of artillery, a promise that was real but still immature at the time, and not on reliance on a massed frontal assault. Furthermore, he was slow to give a chance to new technologies, but not stubborn on this point; it should be noted that he gave the tank advocates their chance at the Battle of Cambrai, and with the success that the first day of the battle enjoyed, tanks were given greater latitude in 1918.
In the end, a simple assessment may not be possible. Haig did his duty, as he saw it. Due to a lack of imagination, his understanding of his duty may have been inadequate in certain respects, but he was also constrained by political considerations and the limitations of the technology at his disposal. The disasters over which he presided were the consequences of all of these elements; at the same time, the successes in the last few months of the war were also the fruit of many elements, and Haig’s leadership is among them.
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