Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: A Donkey Leading Lions?

Hailed as a hero at the time he has since been vilified as an unimaginative, callous, and obdurate fool who condemned the soldiers under his command to years of pointless slaughter. Yet despite this criticism he was ultimately to lead the British Army to arguably the greatest series of victories in its military history.

Douglas Haig was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1861 the eleventh child of the famous whisky distiller, John Haig.

At school the young Douglas was to prove a dull child who was considered to be a hard working pupil of limited intelligence and though he was to go onto attend Oxford University his academic achievements remained limited and he left without acquiring a degree. He did, however, become a fine polo player – a military career beckoned.

He attended Sandhurst Military Academy where taking to army life as a duck does to water he was to become a star cadet and in 1885, he was Commissioned in the 7th Queen’s Hussars and posted to India and was to see active service at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 and later during the Boer War where he was recommended, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for the Victoria Cross not that this was to prove a setback to a man whose career was already on a steep upward curve.

On 11 July 1905, he married Dorothy Maud Vivian, the daughter of the Third Baron Vivian and a former Maid-of-Honour to Queen Victoria, in the Chapel at Buckingham Palace.

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He was now not only the scion of a wealthy family but also well-connected associations that were to serve him well in the future.

By the time of the outbreak of World War One he was Britain’s youngest Major-General in command of a Division and in December 1915, he replaced Sir John French as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

A man of few words who made for a poor conversationalist some took his taciturn nature to be an indication of stupidity but he did at least look every inch the soldier being tall, ramrod straight, and always immaculately turned out.

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 had been reduced to a rump by the Battles of Loos and Arras of the previous year and so Haig had inherited a largely untried volunteer army the bulk of which was made up of Kitchener’s so-called Pal’s Battalions the formation of which Lord Kitchener had encouraged to boost recruitment promising that those who enlisted together would serve together. As a policy it worked but would prove to have a devastating effect on communities the length and breadth of Britain.

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Haig, who was a Cavalry Officer to his core and firmly believed that the use of cavalry at the pivotal time would be the key to victory in any battle also believed that the concentration of forces and overwhelming firepower were required to create the opportunity for the breakthrough to be made.

The Allies had long planned a major offensive on the Western Front in the Somme area of Flanders but the German assault on the French fortress town of Verdun in February 1916 had increased its urgency and the Somme offensive would now have to be brought forward as a desperately required diversionary attack to relieve the pressure on the hard pushed French.

Haig was not convinced that his army were ready as most of his troops were not yet battle-hardened and had not yet seen action but Kitchener as Minister of War recognised that something needed to be done. Even so, Haig persisted to voice his concern much to superiors annoyance.

But as time passed the British High Command became more confident of victory. After all, a ferocious artillery bombardment had been battering the German trenches for the best part of a week, but unlike the shallow British trenches which were little more than jump off points for an offensive the Germans were well dug in.

They may have cowered in a myriad of underground tunnels and concrete bunkers as the artillery barrage raged outside, terrified as the ground appeared to move beneath them, driven insane by the relentless ear-splitting noise, but they remained relatively unscathed.

To the waiting British troops witnessing the scene it seemed that no living thing could possibly survive such a bombardment and the rumour soon began to circulate that they would meet little if any resistance.

Unknown to them however, of the 1,437 artillery pieces deployed only a quarter of them were heavy guns capable of penetrating the German defences and over half of the munitions fired were shrapnel shells useless against heavily dug-in troops. Of the few high explosive shells used many did not detonate on impact. Also, the British did not have enough shells and the rate of fire had already begun to ease before the troops were ordered to leave their trenches.

Yet Haig remained confident of a swift breakthrough, unaware that the bombardment had failed even to cut the German wire.

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At 07.30 the troops were summoned to leave their trenches by the whistles of their Officers and as they advanced in regular formation at walking pace, loaded with full packs some could be heard joking and laughing among themselves. One Battalion even passed a football around such was their confidence.

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But the Germans soon emerged from their trenches and the advancing British troops were to become easy prey to the devastating fire of their machine guns.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme was little short of a massacre with the British suffering 57,470 casualties, 21,492 of whom were killed. More than 60% of those Officers who participated were to perish, and some units were virtually wiped out including 1st Newfoundland Regiment who lost more than 600 of the 801 men who set out.

But the battle was not to end there.

Haig believed the first phase of the battle to have been remarkably successful despite none of its first day objectives having been reached and it was to continue for another three months as the British continued to attack often with greater success targeted sectors of the front.

On 15 September, Haig, reassured by intelligence reports that claimed the German Army was close to cracking and that a breakthrough was imminent renewed the offensive once more but again the assault failed to achieve the victory predicted. Even so, it was only in October with the arrival of torrential rain which made any further attacks impossible that the offensive was finally called off.

After three months of the most bitter and sustained fighting the British along with their French allies had advanced just five miles at the cost of 420,000 casualties, including 130,000 dead and the Battle of the Somme was to become a by-word for the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands and the futility of war.

Haig had got his strategy wrong, the battle itself was badly bungled, and those few gains made were never exploited. But he never considered it a failure:

“The results of the Somme fully justify my confidence in our ability to master the enemy’s power of resistance.”

The high number of casualties he treated with fortitude and expected others to do likewise and if they troubled him at all he never left on.

The battle had sapped the Germans strength he believed and had adverse weather conditions not brought it to a halt then there seems little doubt that it would have continued. He remained determined to take the offensive and break the German line but for now his battered, exhausted, and much depleted army needed rest and reinforcement.

On 7 June 1917, a massive mine was detonated under the German held Messines Ridge in a blast so loud that it was heard as far away as London. By the time the smoke cleared more than 10,000 German troops lay either buried and dead under the rubble or so dazed and confused that they surrendered without a fight.

The assault that swiftly followed had achieved all of its objectives as they so often did when the objective was limited in its scope and Haig was delighted at the news for the Battle of Messines was a prelude to the much larger assault he intended to undertake the following month.

The little resistance shown by the Germans at Messines only convinced him further that their morale was low and they were at the point of cracking.

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The Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Paschendaele, began at 03.50 on 31 July, 1917 and it soon appeared that few of the lessons of the Battle of the Somme the previous year had been learned for once again there was a long preliminary artillery bombardment warning the Germans well in advance of what was to come.

This time the exploding shells did more harm than good to the British cause destroying the drainage system which coupled with an uncommonly wet August was to quickly turn the battlefield into an impassable quagmire.

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British troops knee high in mud became stuck and sitting targets, others drowned in a landscape dotted with flooded craters.

It was impossible to stage any kind of effective advance but Haig refused to call the offensive off and for months and months the battle dragged on.

The village of Paschendaele, a first day target wasn’t finally taken until 6 November and once more British losses were heavy sustaining more than 310,000 casualties for only minimal gains.

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To many in Britain it seemed yet another pointless waste of life with men sent to their deaths in the most appalling conditions for no discernible advantage.

Haig did not see it this way and it was all part of his policy to grind the enemy down, after all the combined British and French Armies outnumbered the Germans and they could afford to sustain greater casualties. When the Prime Minister David Lloyd George accused Haig of giving him nothing but “Mud and Blood” he wrote in his diary for that day:

“We lament too much over death”.

Haig was a strict Presbyterian and firm believer in the virtue of self-sacrifice for this not only cleansed the soul but provided the only path to true salvation, and this virtue was best expressed in duty, obedience, and hard work. He was true to these convictions and he expected no less from his men. His faith dictated his attitude to the requirements of war and the demands he made of his army, and no price could be considered too high to achieve ultimate victory.

Lloyd George thought otherwise and now tried to have Haig relieved of his command but his close connections through marriage to the Royal Family meant that he retained the confidence of the King and anyway Lloyd George could not find any senior commander whose views differed greatly from Haig’s own.

In any case, events would soon put an end to the internal bickering as Haig would face the stiffest test of his life.

In early 1918, the German Commander-in-Chief Erich von Ludendorff had written to the Kaiser:

“We must strike at the earliest moment before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British”.

After three years on the defensive and having successfully repulsed numerous major offensives against them at Loos, the Somme, Paschendaele, Ypres, and on the Chemin des Dames the Germans would at last take the war to the Allies.

Their Spring Offensive named Operation Michael but better known as the Kaiser’s Battle, would be their attempt to win the war with one devastating blow.

Reinforced by 600,000 troops from the Eastern Front following their victory against the Russians and armed with new tactics they attacked on 21 March, 1918.

In a short but intense four hour preliminary bombardment they fired over a million high explosive mortar, shrapnel, and gas shells into the already weakened British front line. They followed up this bombardment with small elite squads of storm-troopers armed with a frightening new weapon, the flame thrower, with bulk of the army following behind ready to exploit the gaps made.

The British front-line was quickly breached as it crumbled under the assault and on the first day alone 21,000 troops were taken prisoner with thousands of others killed and wounded.

Sir Hugh Gough, in command of the 5th Army had lost control of the situation and begged to be allowed to retreat before he was overwhelmed.

Haig agreed and indicated that he wanted an orderly withdrawal but in no time at all the British were in full-flight.

All of the ground that had been gained at the cost of so much blood and so many lives on the Somme and at Paschendaele was lost in just a few days. Indeed so rapid had been the German advance that Paris now came under bombardment.

Meanwhile in Germany it was being reported that the stalemate on the Western Front had been broken and that the war was as good as won. Church bells were rung and the Kaiser declared 24 March a national holiday.

Haig knew, as indeed did Ludendorff, that the key to victory was the town of Amiens, a major railway junction and supply depot where the British and French Armies met.

Ludendorff needed to capture both the supplies and then split the British from the French before rolling the former back into the sea.

The French Commander Philippe Petain refused to come to the aid of the hard-pressed British instead insisting that his army would withdraw east to defend Paris but by doing so this would cause exactly the breach that Ludendorff sought.

An emergency conference was called to discuss the crisis.

General Pershing, who was commanding American forces insisted that they were not yet ready for a major combat role and refused to relinquish even elite units such as the Marines to fight under foreign command, whilst Petain refused to budge on his demand that the French Army withdraw to defend Paris.

In an increasingly heated atmosphere where even the usually unflappable Haig became animated he denounced Petain as a defeatist and managed to get him replaced by the more aggressive General Ferdinand Foch who would become the overall Allied Commander by expressing his willingness to subordinate himself to his orders.

But for the time being at least the hard-pressed British would have to fight on without support.

The pressure on the British was intense, they were bedraggled, exhausted, and had been in a steady retreat which to many had appeared more like a rout. But it was at this moment that those characteristics so typical of Haig, and which so frustrated and infuriated people, his stubbornness, his indifference to suffering, and his propensity to behave as if nothing had changed, now became an asset.

The German advance had begun to slow as British resistance stiffened and they plundered the provisions of which they had for so long been deprived and were so desperate.

The likelihood of capturing Amiens had diminished so to renew the momentum of the advance Ludendorff now changed the direction of the attack towards the Channel Ports which he knew the British would have to defend if they were to continue to be re-supplied and hold should an evacuation become necessary.

The Germans attacked with renewed vigour and hard-pushed, with no reinforcements remaining on or any prospect of immediate help, Haig could only call upon the fighting spirit of his men. He now issued his famous order of the day:

“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end”.

The British did hold the line as the German assault faltered.

Undeterred, Ludendorff switched his offensive to other sectors but Operation Michael which had started so brightly was beginning to unravel.

They continued to attack at Amiens but could make little headway and without the supplies there his army began to starve. They had also lost 230,000 men in March and April alone but still they attacked.

With the French still unwilling to commit troops as long as Paris remained under threat, Haig again appealed to General Pershing for support but he continued to insist that the Americans would only fight as an independent army under American command and it was only under intense political pressure and faced with the prospect that the Allies might lose the war before America could become fully engaged that he at last yielded and some American formations were released to stiffen the Allied lines.

After three months of constant fighting both sides were exhausted and for a time there was a lull in hostilities. But on 15 July, Ludendorff launched his last great offensive, this time against the French.

It was to prove a disaster and his troops after some initial success, half-starved and worn out, were easily repulsed.

In five months of fighting they had lost a million men, killed and wounded and taken prisoner.

The German Army was close to breaking point – it had effectively defeated itself.

General Foch was determined to take advantage of the disarray in German ranks and he ordered an immediate counter-attack advancing from the town of Amiens.

The Battle of Amiens was to prove to be Field-Marshal Haig’s finest moment as the lessons of previous failures had at last, it seemed, been learned and the attack Haig launched was a model of meticulous planning.

The British troops, now heavily reinforced were no longer the semi-trained volunteers of 1916 but were a fully professional army, battle-hardened and tough.

Lightly armed and advancing at pace behind a creeping artillery barrage and supported by massed-formations of tanks they made rapid and steady progress and by 8 August, all of the ground that had been lost in the German Spring Offensive had been recaptured with tens of thousands of German troops taken prisoner, and a 15 mile long breach made in the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. It was, according to Ludendorff:

“The Black Day of the German Army”.

All this was but a precursor to the Argonne Offensive the length and breadth of the Western Front that would roll back the German Army. By now the Americans were fully engaged and would play a late but decisive role.

Their enthusiasm for the fight and often reckless courage imbued the Allies with a spirit that had not been seen since the opening months of the war.

The advance was relentless, and the outcome increasingly inevitable but there was still much hard fighting to be done.

Haig had insisted all along that the war could only be won on the Western Front and that all other campaigns such as that in Gallipoli were mere distractions wasteful of men and resources. In this he was to be proved right.

He had also taken a Volunteer Army and turned it into the most effective fighting machine the British had ever known before, leading it to a series of stunning and brilliant victories.

Even Lloyd George, who had tried so hard to have him removed from command felt compelled at the end of the war to note in his diary:

“Haig is a brilliant General, from his boots up”.

These words of praise do not reflect how he is remembered today, as a stubborn and unimaginative man forever associated with the industrialised slaughter of millions of men in the carnage of the Western Front.

During the war the French Army had mutinied and order had only been restored after General Petain vowed that they would undertake no further offensive action; the Italian Army had come close to total collapse following the catastrophe at Caporetto; and the Russian Army engulfed by revolution had simply laid down their arms and gone home.

But the British Army did not yield and neither did its indefatigable Commander-in Chief and when Haig issued his famous order of the day the British Tommy could rest assured that he meant every word of it.

Perhaps then he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Douglas Haig’s reputation plummeted in the decades following the end of the war and the publication of his war diaries and memoirs.

They revealed a man lacking in warmth, undisturbed by sentiment and not given to moments of quiet reflection.

They showed that he rarely, if ever, visited the front-line, was ignorant of the conditions his men were fighting in, and refused to visit the wounded in hospital.

He was also a man who appeared indifferent to death, and expressed no remorse at the number of casualties merely detailing that he thought it a worthy sacrifice. He also never admitted to having made a mistake.

From this description of the man his reputation has never recovered.

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On 19 July 1919, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig was cheered wildly by the huge crowd as he rode down Pall Mall at the head of his army to take the salute at the Victory Parade. He was the hero of the hour and the man who had won the war.

He was later made an Earl by the King, provided with a large annuity, and presented with a £100,000 grant by Parliament.

This caused no little resentment amongst servicemen returning home many of whom were physically and emotionally scarred by the experience of war, often denied a pension, and condemned to many years of unemployment and a life on the dole.

Haig retired from the army in 1921 and was to dedicate the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen, though some have since suggested, perhaps unfairly, that he only did so out of a sense of guilt or obligation to public expectation rather than from any genuine concern.

He established the Royal British Legion spending a great deal of his own money in doing so and organised and attended fund-raising events for wounded ex-soldiers incapable of work.

He was to die unexpectedly of a heart-attack at his London home on 29 January 1928 aged 66, and was given a State Funeral five days later.

Tens of thousands of ex-servicemen lined the route of his funeral cortege to pay their last respects. Whether this was out of a love for the man, a sentimental loyalty to their old Commander-in-Chief, or an acknowledgement of and admiration for his abilities, we cannot know.

It is impossible to know the mind of the individual soldier particularly when perhaps they did not even know it themselves.

Douglas Haig’s reputation plummeted in the decades following his death and the publication of his diaries and memoirs which revealed a man lacking in warmth, undisturbed by sentiment, with little sense of remorse, and not given to quiet moments of reflection. They also showed that he rarely, if ever, visited the front-line, was ignorant of the conditions his men were fighting in, and declined the opportunity to visit the wounded in hospital.

He was a man who appeared indifferent to death and expressed no regret at the number of casualties merely remarking that he considered it a worthy sacrifice. He also never admitted to having made a mistake.

From this description of the man his reputation has never recovered.

But Haig was to have both his defenders and his detractors with General Pershing remarking that:

“He was the man who won the war”.

Winston Churchill who had himself served on the Western Front had a different view and was one of the first men to openly criticise Haig, accusing him of:

“Blocking enemy machine guns with the breasts of brave men”.

Even Lloyd George who had been so full of praise for him at the end of the war later wrote that he was:

“Intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the task”.

Others stated that he had pursued the only strategy that could have resulted in ultimate victory and that he remained committed to this regardless of the intense criticism, and that his vindication lay in having achieved that victory.

Many of the 700,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died entangled in the barbed wire of the Somme or drowned in the mud of Paschendaele might have thought otherwise.

Douglas Haig remains to this day one of the most controversial and conflicted characters in British history.

Was he a brilliant strategist who had learned from his previous mistakes to become the architect of ultimate victory in the bloodiest conflict ever known to man?

Or was he merely a donkey fortunate enough to have been leading lions?

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