The Butcher or the Hero? | David Harrop


At 6.00 hours on the 1st of July 1916 over 100,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers left their trenches and walked in the path of German machine guns, sometimes kicking a football between them as they crossed into no-mans land. 60,000 would become casualties, with roughly 20,000 dying in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day in British military history. The architect of this slaughter would pioneer the development of the tank, deploying them for the first time at the Somme later that year, where the first day’s objectives were still in German hands. But in 1918 he would spearhead the attacks which broke the back of the German army and won the war after the Hundred Days offensive. In retirement he would found and support military widows and wounded veterans’ charities, becoming the figurehead of the Remembrance Day commemorations. This man was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, created 1st Earl Haig in 1919, and he is perhaps the most controversial figure to have emerged from the Great War.

Born to a wealthy Edinburgh family, Haig joined the army as a Lieutenant in 1885 and would serve with merit in India, the Sudan and South Africa. During the Boer War at the turn of the century Haig was appointed to several staff positions where he would become sceptical towards the efficacy of artillery and the machine gun, rightly seeing cavalry as the key to defeating the Boers in their guerrilla war. Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Sir John French was the commander of the highly experienced British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 160,000 seasoned soldiers. The BEF stopped the German advance at the Marne in Autumn 1914 but would be shredded by the growing attritional nature of trench warfare. But it was in 1915 where Haig’s first major commands are seen- with mixed success. The Battle of Neuve-Chappelle thrust Haig into national prominence as the British attack was the first to break through the German lines in the entire war, with Haig latching onto new aerial photography technology. Later that year, after the disastrous losses at the Battle of Loos, Haig would supplant the French as Commander in Chief. It is here that Haig’s skills and flaws are cast under the spotlight.

To support the French in their titanic defence at Verdun from February 1916, Haig set about planning a great offensive in the Somme region. Pressure from the French (the senior Allied partner in terms of military strength) forced the British attack to take place as early as Summer 1916, meaning that extensive reconnaissance and supply building was cut short. This may explain why the initial attacks in July and August were such great slaughters, not due to incorrect or outdated tactics, but due to time constraints reducing the amount of preparations necessary for success. Moreover, Haig would employ tactics far more modern than either the French or the Germans, using the Royal Flying Corps to act as artillery spotters, deploying the tank for the first time in battle in September, as well as adopting the Creeping Barrage whereby an infantry advance was shielded by a wall of friendly artillery fire. Such tactics, when combined, would win later the war. Therefore, the great carnage on the Somme was not simply due to poor leadership; great blame can be put at the feet of the War Secretary Lord Kitchener, whose mismanagement of shell production led to not only shortages, but one third of all shells fired in the initial barrage in late June being duds. This was compounded by a lack of the required shells: high-explosive shells were needed to destroy the German’s underground bunkers, but a lack of such shells meant even after a week-long bombardment, German machine gun positions remained intact.

So, does Haig really deserve to be called “the Butcher”? Over 1,000,000 combatants would become casualties at the Somme alone, with the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele seeing a further 800,000 casualties. The numbers alone do suggest this. In the lead up to the Somme, Haig ignored continuous aerial reports that the German second and third lines were intact and could not be taken, and he knew from his experience that the firing of shrapnel shells would not be able to destroy German dugouts. The Battle of the Somme raged until winter, with minimal gains for unsustainable losses. Was Haig the classic example of “a lion leading a donkey”? The losses caused great resentment at home, with Butcher Haig becoming a recurring caricature in the daily newspapers, and Prime Minister Lloyd George began to plot to replace Haig as overall commander by creating a joint allied command; this was successful as by 1918, French Marshal Foch would become Supreme Allied Commander.

But are these criticisms a fair judgement on a flawed character? Popular history tells the story of the Great War as the brutal slugging game of trench warfare and industrial killing, but it often overlooks the story of 1918, particularly the Allied Hundred Days Offensive after the failure of the German Spring Offensive. It was Haig who persuaded Foch to adopt the strategy of the Continuous Offensive; the idea that the entire German line should be under attack at multiple points, in force, thus breaking it. This strategy would see the German army routed by the British at Amiens, by the French in the Vosges and the Americans in the Argonne. The war became one of movement as soon the new lines established following Ludendorff’s Last Offensive were broken, a type of warfare which Haig had prepared for. The Cavalry Reserve was finally deployed after 4 years of stalemate, and the Germans would be pushed back to the border by November. Had the war continued, it is likely Haig’s men would have crossed the Rhine. Following his brilliant success, Haig became a war hero to many. He had ended the slaughter, which he had intimately been involved in creating; but he was also involved in plans that had been drawn up for a grand allied offensive in Spring 1919, had the Germans not signed the Armistice.

Retiring from the military in 1920 as a nationally divisive figure, he helped set up the British Legion in 1921 as well as the Haig Fund which provided financial assistance to ex-servicemen, and Haig Homes to provide better housing for veterans. Both Houses of Parliaments officially thanked him, he received a grant of £100,000 and was created an Earl. This reputation has been muddied over the years, over-shadowed by his involvement in the bloody battles of 1915-17. His widely acclaimed military successes in 1918 were made somewhat irrelevant by the high human cost of what became a pyrrhic and bitter victory. Dying of a heart attack aged 66 in 1928, his funeral procession was the likes of which Britain hadn’t seen for a commoner since Wellington’s in 1852: the Gun Carriage of the Unknown Soldier pulled his grand coffin through London, followed by three royal princes, and his pallbearers included two Marshals of France (Petain and Foch). Earl Haig’s death was mourned by millions of ex-servicemen for whom he had become a protective and caring ambassador; his funeral would be attended by more people than Princess Diana’s.

Douglas Haig was clearly a stubborn and single-minded man which can be seen as causing unnecessary deaths; despite the horrendous weather conditions making the battleground impassable to infantry, Haig refused to call off attacks at Passchendaele. Yet he was also a highly gifted and respected strategist, who had he been given the freedom he had consistently lobbied for from Kitchener, Lloyd-George, Joffre and Foch, he may have averted the needless deaths of thousands. The Great War has been seen by many historians as the tragic end to the Edwardian Age, with Haig being the epitome of an Edwardian, colonial soldier whose actions during the War can be seen as outdated and costly in a modern perspective. But with the limited resources, technology and doctrine at his disposal, it is fair to say Haig performed better as Commander in Chief than any of his counterparts, in terms of casualties being much lower than the French, Russians, Germans and Austrians. The First World War was new type of war, with new weapons never used on such a scale, with land, air and naval forms of warfare in desperate need of modernisation to adapt to this industrial war. With all of this in mind, it is fairer to say that Earl Haig, despite his numerous drawbacks, was a war hero, not only to the nation he served, but the many he commanded. It was Haig’s armies that spearheaded the final Allied offensive in September 1918 that ultimately won the Great War, and so credit must be given to the man who prevented the killing of countless more men by ending the war in November 1918.


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