Field Marshal Haig: a man much misunderstood?

Field Marshal Haig has gone down in history as the general who callously sent hundreds of thousands of Tommies to their deaths – one of the 'donkeys who led the lions'. But, through their analysis of Haig's diaries, Gary Sheffield and John Bourne have arrived at a rather different view of the war leader

Scottish soldier and Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861 - 1928) visiting the troops during the First World War. (Central Press/Getty Images)

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig has had the unenviable reputation of being the worst British general of all time, a bone-headed “donkey” who threw away the lives of his men in futile attacks. In many ways, the debate has now moved on from such stereotypes. Certainly, a revolution in the historiography of the First World War has occurred over recent years.

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Most historians now agree that by 1918 the British Army had become a highly skilled, technologically advanced force that played a leading role in defeating the Germans. However, Haig’s role is still a matter of dispute. Was he, as the late John Terraine claimed, a “great captain”? Or was Haig, as Tim Travers has argued, a relatively marginal figure in the eventual Allied success? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

For years, the lack of a modern scholarly edition of Haig’s voluminous writings hampered a proper reassessment of his command. The publication of Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters in 2005 gave the opportunity to assess Haig afresh.

General Sir Douglas Haig (left) and Sir Henry Rawlinson are largely to blame for the failure of the battle of the Somme, says historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. (Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

An important item on the charge sheet, made by Denis Winter in his Haig’s Command in 1991, is that Haig falsified his diaries in an attempt to cover up his incompetence. Now, it is certainly true that there are two versions of the diary, one hand-written at the time, one typed by Lady Haig after the war, and there are some differences between them.

Most are trivial – Haig added details or improved his grammar – but some are significant. The only previous edition, edited by Robert Blake in 1952, was flawed in that it was based on the typed diary, and did not differentiate between the two versions. The 2005 edition was based on the original manuscript, with major differences indicated in square brackets, a practice we have followed here. Haig used the typed version to provide more details or to gloss the text with his opinions, as in the entry of 3 April 1918:

Before the meeting broke up, I asked the Governments to state their desire that a French offensive should be started as soon as possible in order to attract the enemy’s reserves and so prevent him from continuing his pressure against the British. Foch and Pétain both stated their determination to start attacking as soon as possible. (But will they ever attack? I doubt whether the French Army as a whole is now fit for an offensive.)

In several instances, diary entries from the two sources are very different, but even here, as Elizabeth Greenhalgh has argued, the changes expand, rather than contradict, the original. The overall authenticity of Haig’s diary is, however, not in doubt. The fact that Haig did not destroy the original manuscript diary undermines the notion of a sinister conspiracy.

In considering the picture of Haig that emerges from his papers, we have to bear in mind that he, and his army, were products of a very different society from today’s. Thus attitudes towards authority, patriotism and the toleration of casualties are poles apart from the modern mind-set. Britain was fighting a war of national survival and Haig should be judged by the standards of his time, not by those of the 21st century.

British troops go over the top of the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, 1916. The Somme was one of the bloodiest clashes of the First World War, causing more than one million casualties over five months. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

As commander of the largest army that Britain has ever put in the field, Douglas Haig had a huge burden of responsibility. The circumstances of the Western Front, where even successful battles produced horrific casualties, can only have increased the pressure. He coped with the strain of high command in a number of ways. One was to impose some psychological distance. A good example is found in his diary entry for 2 July 1916, the day after the notorious “First Day on the Somme”:

A day of downs and ups! … The A(djutant) G(eneral) reported today that the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked…

To a modern eye, this appears appallingly callous. However, it is important to note Haig faced, on a vast scale, the dilemma of all generals in history: their decisions inevitably lead to the death and wounding of their men. To cope with this awesome responsibility, generals have to develop a “mask of command”: the gift of self-control, especially the ability to appear calm in a time of crisis. Haig’s apparent callousness was in fact part of the mental make-up possessed by every successful commander. Generals who dwell on the reality of sending men to their deaths crack up.

In reality, Haig felt deeply for the men under his command. As a Victorian army officer, he was imbued with a profound sense of paternalistic responsibility for his soldiers. While he was not a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, his inner feelings sometimes broke through. In January 1915, he wrote to his brother about the terrible conditions endured by “the poor d—ls in the trenches”. An entry such as that for 18 September 1914 also hints at Haig’s concerns:

I visited some of the wounded. The Ambulance personnel have been much overworked. Dressings are very short. Horse ambulance wagons no use; light motors (like what the French have) most necessary.

The paternal ethos of Haig and the British officer corps was responsible for the creation of a vast organisation dedicated to the welfare of the soldier. This was in part a pragmatic way to maintain military morale, but it also reflected a long-standing tradition that with the privileges of the officer came responsibility for his men.

British former field marshal Douglas Haig, inspects poppies before Armistice Day, October 1922. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is obvious from reading his papers that two things in particular sustained Haig: his family and his religion. In 1905, Haig married the Hon Dorothy (Doris) Vivian, maid of honour to Queen Alexandra, after a whirlwind courtship. It has been implied that Haig married purely to curry royal favour, or even that he sought to distance himself from homosexual patrons. The evidence of the diary and of Haig’s letters to his wife show clearly that the marriage was a real one. Doris’s constant love and support was of vital importance to him during the war. They had four children, on whom Haig doted. This diary entry for 26 November 1914 during a period on leave is typical:

I walked to the War Office with Doris. I Saw General Sclater (Adjutant General) and discussed the class of man sent out as drafts … At 1 o’clock we lunched at Princes Gate with the children, and spent a happy afternoon at the Zoo. The Houses were locked up before we came away, so that they did not see the monkey house, a disappointment … but they saw every other kind of animal very well and fed them.

We can see that Haig spends part of one of his precious days at home working, but in order to maximise their time together Lady Haig walks with him (and patiently waits outside for the meeting to end). Then he enjoys quality time with his young family.

Another charge levelled against Haig is that he saw himself as God’s chosen instrument, that this sense of destiny fuelled a selfish ambition, and made him careless of casualties. Under his mother’s influence, he developed the habit of prayer, a sense of “divine oversight” and an easy familiarity with scripture. The diary is littered with entries like the one for 11 November 1917:

I attended Church of Scotland at 9.30am. Reverend Captain Duncan officiated. Text from 90th Psalm Oh Lord Thou hast been our dwelling place for all generations. A most encouraging sermon at this time.

There is no doubt that Haig drew great strength from his Christian faith, and Duncan’s sermons in particular. Many other senior army officers were also devout. However, Padre Duncan was not a firebrand Old Testament preacher, but rather a sophisticated liberal academic theologian, and Duncan himself categorically denied that Haig was a “religious fanatic”.

Much has been made of Haig’s pre-war dabbling in the realms of spiritualism. However, we have discovered no new evidence on this particular subject, and thus can safely be dismissed as a major influence on the Field Marshal during the First World War.

Haig’s popular reputation stands or falls on his performance as a battlefield commander, but in fact his role was far wider. A typical diary entry (18 January 1918) reads: “Colonel Bacon … arrived as head of the American Mission and I had a long talk with him”.

A British officer stands alongside two of his Japanese counterparts in 1914 in Tsingtao (now Qingdao). Japanese troops played a key role in the capture of that strategic German concession in north-east China. (Photo by Getty Images)

Bacon would have been one of hundreds, if not thousands of visitors Haig met during the war. Haig was in overall control of British military operations on the Western Front, but was also senior British commander in the Allied coalition and theatre commander, responsible for administration and liaising with the government. Today, two or even three individuals would share these responsibilities. Arguably, Haig simply had too much to do.

Much of his time was spent dealing with allies. Haig frequently paints the French in a less than flattering light. On 27 October 1918, he noted that the French…

...are doing their utmost to get control of everything! Consequently, there is much friction in the Balkans and in Palestine and in the fleet in the Mediterranean! It is odd that the French should be so greedy of power! … It seems that Clemenceau and Foch are not on good terms. Foch is suffering from a swelled head, and thinks himself another Napoleon!

However, like many diarists, Haig used his journal to vent his frustration, and his actions with regard to the French belie his words. He was essentially a loyal and co-operative ally, who recognised that co-operation was essential if victory was to be achieved. In 1918, Haig formed a spiky but productive partnership with Foch, the supreme commander, while Haig’s drive and vision were of vital importance in the critical last 100 days of the war.

Haig’s mature attitude to his allies was an indication of the breadth of his vision, but was far from being the only one. In August 1914, he was one of the few British decision-makers who saw that the war was unlikely to be over by Christmas:

I held that we must organise our resources for a war of several years … Great Britain must at once take in hand the creation of an Army. I mentioned one million as the number to aim at immediately.

Although Haig has the reputation of a technophobe, the truth is very different. He was an enthusiastic supporter of air power, tanks, artillery and machine guns. His enthusiasm can be seen in a diary entry for 12 December 1914:

I inspected some trench mortars (which we are making in our Engineer workshops. They are made of steel piping,) about 2 feet long, with a movable support near the muzzle to alter the elevation … They fire a bomb of 2lb weight.

As the war drew to an end, the Allies began to think of the terms on which they were prepared to make peace with Germany. From mid-October 1918, Haig began to be more pessimistic about the possibility of inflicting a decisive defeat. Accordingly, he advocated that the Germans should be offered moderate peace terms. In retrospect, he grossly under-estimated the scale of the Allied victories and their effect on the Germans, but he was influenced by intelligence assessments that proved to be erroneous, or out of date.

A group of wounded German and British soldiers make their way through the streets of St. Quentin. The Battle of the Somme was costly in terms of casualties, particularly for the British army; some 60,000 soldiers were lost in a single day of the July offensive. The first Allied offensive of the Battle of the Somme failed to break through German lines and thereby break the gridlock of the gruelling and costly trench warfare of the First World War. In September 1916 the British army used tanks for the first time on the Somme. A last major German offensive was launched on the Somme in March 1918 but was halted. By October the Battle of the Somme had ended: 650,000 Germans, 195,000 French and 420,000 British soldiers had been killed for an eight mile British advance over a period of four months (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In reality, Germany, and its army, was collapsing. Haig was painfully aware that British strength and influence would decline – and that of the United States increase – the longer that the war dragged on. He also feared the spread of Bolshevism, should existing authority collapse. He reasoned that a lenient peace might avert the prospect of both prolonged fighting and Communist revolution. In the event, the 1919 Versailles Treaty, settled by politicians not soldiers, achieved the worst of all worlds – too harsh for the Germans to be easily conciliated, without taking away their ability to recover and make war.

Douglas Haig, like any other general, made mistakes – and the circumstances of the Western Front meant that his mistakes produced an appalling number of casualties. But he also presided over an army that emerged as a technologically advanced and enormously effective force that won the greatest series of victories in British military history, against a background of changes in warfare so great they amounted to a revolution in military affairs.

Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton. Now retired, John Bourne was the director of the Centre for First World War Studies, also at the University of Birmingham

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The First World War Story’ bookazine, published in 2016