Interpretations of Haig



The Great Haig Debate,    The War Years,   Haig's Reputation in the 1920s,   

Changing Attitudes in the 1930s,   Lloyd George's War Memoirs,   Into the 'Sixties,   

John Terraine,   For Haig,   Against Haig,   Towards a Synthesis,   

Academic Appraisal versus Popular Impression,   A personal Conclusion   Footnotes



Douglas Haig was a committed Christian, and often felt himself ‘helped by a power that is not my own’ (Haig’s Diary).   For the historian Denis Winter this is deeply alarming: ‘an unhealthy development in a man already tending towards delusions of infallibility’ (Winter, 1991, p.165).   For other historians, it is an attractive trait, suggesting humility and love of humanity, and which helps to explain Haig’s confidence and determination.   Absolutely conversely, John Laffin notices that during the battle of the Somme Haig stopped mentioning God in his Diary – ‘My feeling is that he [Haig] felt, perhaps in his deep subconscious, that God let him down’ (Laffin, 1988, p.85).


In a debate where even a man’s faith can be so variously interpreted, and where historians are so disposed to personal conjecture, it comes hardly as a surprise to discover that almost every facet of Haig’s life and achievements are the subject of furious disagreement:


Was Haig – as Duff Cooper explicitly claimed – a genuinely good man and a saint; or the obsessive, psychotically deranged sadist Norman Dixon believes he was? 


Did Haig get his command as a result of hard work and genuine military successes, or because he had the support of the King (on account of his wife) and homosexual superiors (on account of his ‘striking physique and blue eyes’), or because he stabbed Sir John French in the back to get it?


Was Haig a fool who despised the machine gun and argued the efficacy of a cavalry charge even as the guns boomed in the background (Lloyd George, 1935-6, p.323); or was he a great military innovator, who saw early the value of tanks and invented ‘protoblitzkrieg’ tactics?  


Did Haig selfishly resist Lloyd George’s attempts to introduce unity of command, or did he selflessly propose Foch as Supreme Commander because he saw that it was the only way to win the War?  


Did he deliberately mess up the Passchendaele campaign to spite Lloyd George; or did Lloyd George deliberately withhold troops in 1918 to damage Haig?  


Was Haig ignorant and ill-informed, surrounded by sycophants, as he planned – miles from the actual conflict – ‘yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin’ (Blackadder, 1989); or was he a hands-on general, who visited the front line often, sensitively managing the biggest army Britain ever put into the field, controlling the overall strategy while allowing initiative to local commanders?   


And in his great battles at the Somme and Passchendaele, was he was a ‘butcher and bungler’ (Laffin, 1988), or ‘amongst the “Great Captains” of History’ (Phillips, 1999)?   


In the ‘Great Haig Debate’, everything is up for grabs.



The Great Haig Debate

The War Years

The first criticisms of Haig surfaced during the War itself.   In late July 1916, Churchill circulated a paper round his Cabinet colleagues, criticising Haig’s tactics: ‘In personnel the results of the operation have been disastrous; in terrain they have been absolutely barren…   from every point of view the British offensive has been a great failure.’   In 1917, Lloyd George made strenuous efforts to prevent Haig mounting the Passchendaele campaign, and both men knew he would have dismissed Haig if he had been able.   Beaverbrook, also, frequently criticised Haig.  


Yet, at the same time, there was a general willingness in the army to portray Haig as an inspiring, awe-commanding officer who set the tone for his troops.   In 1916, during the battle of the Somme, Basil Liddell Hart, a young Lieutenant in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, wrote in his notebook: ‘In the first half of the War our leadership was flawless…   perfect’.   Even after being gassed and invalided back to England the young Liddell Hart’s confidence was undaunted, as he saw in Haig ‘a genius for pure generalship which has made Sir Douglas Haig fit to rank with any general of past or modern times’ (letter to the Daily Express, 21 December 1916).


And there was public acclaim.   Haig was a consummate self-publicist.   He had had his eight despatches from the field published in the London Gazette during the War, and he re-published these again after the War, with an introduction by Marshal Foch, who assured readers that the despatches were: ‘written with the strictest regard for the truth and scrupulously exact to the smallest details’, and who concluded:

The victory gained was indeed complete… thanks above all to the unselfishness, to the wise, loyal and energetic policy of their Commander-in-Chief, who made easy a great combination, and sanctioned a prolonged and gigantic effort.   

in JH Boraston, Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (1919)


The War Years


Haig’s reputation in the 1920s

The psychological impact of the War on families and communities, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, seems to have put the War largely beyond comment.   Most people seem to have wanted to put the experience utterly behind them, and, when the War was recalled, it received national and spiritual, not personal and questioning, expression (e.g. Remembrance Sunday).   This attitude to the War was mirrored in hymns in which explicitly portrayed the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives as a Christ-like act of redemption:

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Cecil Spring-Rice: I Vow to Thee My Country (1918),


These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
they who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.

JS Arkwright: O Valiant Hearts (1919)


The official records, moreover, appeared completely to vindicate Haig.   Winter (1991) – although his research has been criticised – has claimed that there was a government cover-up in favour of Haig.   Certainly, Haig interfered with the Official History of the War (written by his former colleague James Edmonds) which was passed to him for comment as it was written: ‘The end product of Edmond ’s work was therefore an Official History which presented a fraudulent account of the Western Front, supported by documents mischievously selected’ (Winter, 1999, p.255).   Haig himself kept up the personal propaganda by publishing key passages from his Diary, and he sent copies of a 75-page Memorandum on the Operations on the Western Front to everybody he knew was writing a History of the War.   At the same time, Lloyd George’s plans to publish his own memoirs (which would have undermined Haig’s reputation) sank in a public scandal about how much he was going to be paid.  


There were dissenting voices – for instance CE Montague’s Disenchantment (1922) – but in a world where the written record was overwhelmingly pro-Haig, and where the War itself was an object of veneration, it is hardly surprising that, for almost ten years, most publications about Haig were eulogistic.  Haig was, after all, the commander-in-chief of a victorious army.   Dewar and Boraston wrote a sulky (and dull) apologium – Sir Douglas Haig’s Command (1922) – asserting that attacks on Haig were ‘distasteful… repellent’, and made by ‘those whose métier is to upbraid “brass-hats”, “red-tabs”, “cavalry generals” and so forth’ (p.24).   And John Charteris (1929), who worked for Haig for 20 years and was his Intelligence chief during the War, wrote a personal, but generally positive biography.   At the end of the 1920s, even Liddell Hart (who had invented a strategy he called ‘the expanding torrent’ and consequently had come to criticise Haig as an offensive commander) could still find much to praise about the Commander-in-Chief:

There as hardly been a finer defensive general…   As a great gentleman, also in the widest sense, and as a pattern of noble character, Haig will stand out in the Roll of History, chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, more spotless by far than most of Britain ’s national heroes.

BH Liddell Hart, Reputations (1928)


When Haig died in 1928, some 200,000 ex-servicemen (the equivalent of 200 battalions) filed past his coffin.   Since his death was popularly attributed to the stress of the War, Haig was seen – alongside the ordinary soldiers – as one of its victims, and he was respected for his work for the British Legion.   Daniel Todman, however, has seen this outpouring also as a trigger opportunity – rare in 1920s Britain which allowed the bereaved, the war-crippled and their relatives to come together and remember the War in their own terms, in a sphere which was public but separate, with all the pomp and circumstance they been unable to give their own loved ones.   Feelings are fickle, and a reverence based not on research, but on an emotive response, was always going to be prone to vicissitudes.


Haig's Reputation in the 1920s

Changing Attitudes in the 1930s

Even by the end of the 1920s, attitudes were beginning to change.   The years 1927–1933 saw the publication of what Esther MacCallum-Stewart calls ‘the Canonical War Books’ – Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems, and books like All Quiet on the Western Front (published in English in 1929) and Goodbye to All That (1929) – which emphasised the horror and futility of the War, and presented the ordinary soldier as the victim of callous generals:

'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Siegfried Sassoon, The General


At first attacked in the press as ‘fevered caricatures’ and ‘the Lavatory school’, these texts, MacCallum-Stewart asserts, had such a great and lasting impact on people’s appreciation of the War that they became ‘the definitive experience of the Great War’.   Warner (1991) has suggested that this was the result of the increasing democratisation of English society, and an onsetting disillusionment at the failure of the promised ‘land fit for heroes’ to materialise.   At the same time, led by Liddell Hart (perhaps bitter at being made to leave the army on health grounds), there was a great deal of public criticism of the Army as being unimaginative, restrictive and inefficient.   A society in which the nature of the Great War, and the nature of the Army, were both becoming the subject of fierce reproach, was not one in which Haig’s reputation could long have remained intact.


It must be remembered also that, by the early 1930s, it was becoming clear that the Great War had also failed in its promise to be ‘the War to end all wars’, and interpretations of the conduct of the War (and of Haig) became entangled with public support for the policy of appeasement.   In the 1930s, stopping even so great an evil as Hitler was NOT thought worth the deaths of millions of young men, and Haig – under whose command so many lives has been lost – was bound to come under criticism, even if he did win the War by doing so.  


Books began to appear which criticised Haig.   Basil Liddell Hart had been horrified by the revelations of mistakes made by different generals in their war memoirs, and by admissions made privately to him by James Edmonds, the official historian (admissions Edmonds was careful not to put into the Official History).   In 1930, Liddell Hart published The Real War, which criticised Haig for his ignorance of conditions on the battlefield, for his lack of realism, and for the hell he put the soldiers through:

That an officer who had fought so nobly as Lieutenant JA Raws, should, in the last letter before his death, speak of the “murder” of many of his friends “through incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity of those in high authority”, is evidence… of something much amiss in the higher leadership.

Basil Liddell Hart, The Real War (1930, page 263)


Liddell Hart’s opinion of Haig continued to fall until, in a diary entry in 1935, he could write:

He [Haig] was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple – who, to his overweaning 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.

Diary note (1935)


Changing Attitudes in the 1930s

Lloyd George’s War Memoirs

Alongside these developments, in 1933-6, Lloyd George published his War Memoirs.   Lloyd George was by this time a successful political journalist (the most highly-paid of his day), and all his skills as an orator and a journalist went into writing the book, which was also exceptionally well-researched.   (Lloyd George employed a staff of 3 secretaries to research the book, he was given privileged access to the Cabinet Minutes, and he liaised closely with Liddell Hart over the military details.   The book was also sent to the Prime Minister and to relevant government departments for checking and vetting.)   Lloyd George’s War Memoirs was a monster of a work, designed to establish Lloyd George’s reputation as a war leader… and to destroy Haig’s.   This it did consummately.   Haig, wrote Lloyd George, was:

a second-rate Commander in unparalleled and unforeseen circumstances…   He was not endowed with any of the elements of imagination and vision…   And he certainly had none of that personal magnetism which has enabled great leaders of men to inspire multitudes with courage, faith and a spirit of sacrifice…   He was incapable of planning vast campaigns on the scale demanded on so immense a battlefield…

David Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1935-6, page 2014)


Lloyd George’s Haig resisted new ideas; messed up the introduction of the tank; resisted civilian involvement; was a ‘planomaniac’ who could only think to repeat endlessly the same strategy that had failed innumerable times before; surrounded himself with sycophants and lived in self-delusion; deceived the government about the War; and was absorbed in his own egotism to the point where, when crossed, he unconsciously tried to sabotage the Allied plans.   Above all, Lloyd George’s Haig sent thousands of young men unnecessarily to their deaths.


Lloyd George’s War Memoirs are easy to read and – even though far from the truth on many issues – convincing.   Lady Haig tried to counteract the ‘vandalism’ done to her husband’s reputation, commissioning Duff Cooper’s hagiographic Haig (1935-6), and writing her own eulogy: The Man I Knew (1936).   But neither book carried anything like the authority of Lloyd George’s War Memoirs, and it was Lloyd George’s impressions which hijacked the popular vision of Haig.  


During the Second World War, the reputations of the appeasers Liddell Hart and Lloyd George both fell, but that of Haig did not rise.   It was hard enough to write any history book during the War, and a volume about a commander who lost thousands of men dead and wounded was hardly likely to go down well in war-beleaguered Britain .   Attitudes had changed, permanently.   No BEF slogged it out to be slaughtered in the Second World War – instead, at Dunkirk and Crete , the British evacuated their troops, and D-Day was a very different assault to the first day of the Somme .


Lloyd George's War Memoirs

Into the ‘Sixties

After the War, Haig’s bad press grew worse.   The 1960s saw the popularisation of Owen’s poetry, and the BBC Series The Great War (1964) made available for the first time to the wider public some of the saddest and most horrific images of the War.   The ‘60s saw also the climax of an anti-establishment attitude that was not going to appreciate Haig’s Presbyterian pruderies about nudity, soldiers’ songs, and WAAC girlfriends, or his desire to staff GHQ with men who were ‘gentleman’.  


The ‘60s were, too, the time of CND, anti-Vietnam protest marches, and a wave of urgent pacifism which was also bound to undermine Haig’s stock.   All these issues were prosecuted, moreover, by means of the new medium, again popularised in the 1960s, of satire.   AJP Taylor, whose writing caught the mood of the moment exactly, commented wryly in The First World War, an Illustrated History (1963): ‘Though he had no more idea than French how to win the War, he was sure that he could win it’ (p.80).


Interestingly, AJP Taylor dedicated his book to Joan Littlewood, a communist actress who had worked her way out of poverty and formed the radical avant-garde Theatre Workshop at Stratford .   In 1963, Littlewood – having read Alan Clark’s exposé of the BEF at Loos, The Donkeys (1961) – declared that ‘war is for clowns’, threw over the First World War play she was working on, and wrote instead the musical: Oh What A Lovely War!   It is a cry of satirical outrage against the futility of the War.   Against a background of contemporary songs, and juxtaposed with photos from the War, upper class officer-twits play leapfrog, profiteering industrialists rub their hands in glee, wounded men are left waiting at the station because officers have commandeered the ambulances, and Haig presides over the deaths of thousands of men.   It had nothing to do with history, but it evoked the growing myth of the War as the expression of class-ridden Army stupidity, and a waste of men’s lives.   If Haig had been the object of criticism before, he was now transformed into an object of ridicule and class-anger.


Into the 'Sixties

John Terraine

Ironically, 1963 saw also the publication of the first major attempt to restore Haig’s reputation – John Terraine’s Douglas Haig, the Educated Soldier.   The book is dense narrative, and does not make easy reading, but in it are some of the arguments that Terraine was to develop and present much more energetically and attractively in The Smoke and the Fire (1980).   For Terraine, modern students have been ‘misled by myth and deafened by sixty years of lamentation’ (Smoke and the Fire, p.119).   Historians have not put the facts of Haig’s command into context (particularly, e.g., the contemporary impossibility of communicating with the soldiers during a battle), and they have not made sufficient allowances for the ‘sheer novelty’ of many of the problems he faced – aeroplanes, submarines, the internal combustion engine, wireless telegraphy, poison gas and flame-throwers, ‘mass production, mass logistics and mass administration’: 

The truth is that those ruddy-cheeked, bristling-moustached, heavy-jawed, frequently inarticulate generals rose to challenge after challenge, absorbed weapon after weapon into their battle-systems, adapted themselves to constant change with astonishing success...   But no one cared to make a legend out of that.

John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire (1980, p.173)


And so Terraine attacks, one-by-one, by the steady application of tiresome facts, the ‘myths’ of the War.   Haig did not eschew civilian help; he put Sir Eric Geddes in charge of the railways.   Haig’s GHQ was not a collection of sycophantic nits, but ‘a remarkable fusion of the best available talent, civilian and military, in the country’ (Douglas Haig, p.177).   Haig did not reject the machine gun and cling to the cavalry; he had known about the machine gun since 1898, and saw the value of tanks five months before they were used in battle.   His generals did not cower in châteaux behind the lines; many of them fought in battle, and some of them were killed.   The death toll of the War was indeed terrible, but three times as many people died in the Second World War.   The battle of Passchendaele was not ‘futile’; it fought the Germans to a standstill and ‘when German morale did at last collapse, some nine months later, this was the end of a process which had been begun in Flanders .’ (Douglas Haig, p.373).   And in the battle of the Somme , although Haig may have made a mistake in telling the men to walk in waves, he could hardly have been expected to know how well these volunteers, in their first battle, would acquit themselves:

Denunciation is easy.   When one has said that Haig, his Staff and his chief subordinates were all involved together in a vast and tragic mistake, one has said everything.

John Terraine, Douglas Haig, the Educated Soldier (1963, p.204)


In one passage, Terraine spends a couple of pages listing a selection of the detailed and insightful questions Haig sent to individual commanders in the field in the preparations for Passchendaele.   Taken together, these questions demonstrate Haig’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the battlefield and the plan of attack, but for Terraine, also:

The charge that Haig was careless about the lives of his soldiers, or that he was out of touch with the realities of war, cannot survive the inspection of this and many similar documents that bear his signature...   The foregoing account of Haig’s methods, in the hands of competent, conscientious, scientific subordinates, may serve to correct some part of the widespread impression that the First World War was conducted only by ‘muddling through’ from one blunder to the next.

John Terraine, Douglas Haig, the Educated Soldier (1963, p.318)


It is worth noting that Terraine’s book did not stop the criticism of Haig – in fact, he merely whipped it up: Liddell Hart wrote to a number of people (including the actor who played Haig in Oh What A Lovely War!) providing them with appropriate facts and inviting them to write hostile reviews of Terraine.   The modern historiographical debate about Haig has shown no signs of diminishing, and continues as vicious as ever on both sides.  


John Terraine

For Haig

Since Terraine, an increasing number of historians, including Marshall-Cornwall (1973)[1], Sixsmith (1976)[2] and Warner (1991)[3], have found positive aspects to Haig’s command. In particular:


Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front (1996): although attacked by some reviewers as poorly argued and too polemic, this book argues that ‘the British army gradually improved its techniques and technology’ and that this improvement enabled them to win the war.


Paul Harris and Niall Barr, Amiens to the Armistice (1998): far from being flawed and inept, the BEF is revealed as the world’s most technologically advanced army, deploying huge quantities of tanks, planes, machine guns and artillery – and, by 1918, able to predict scientifically and accurately how many guns and tons of shell per yard of front were needed to penetrate enemy positions.


Albert Palazzo: Seeking Victory on the Western Front (2000): investigates the use of gas as a weapon by the BEF, which he finds to be an institutionally flexible and innovative organisation, quick to adopt, test and adapt new technology.   Palazzo also compares the British strategies in 1918 (to use artillery to suppress German firepower and to try to destroy their morale) very favourably to the German tactics (of protoblitzkrieg using elite corps).


Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (2001): admits that many things were dreadful and badly managed, and particularly stresses the suffering of the PBI; but also demonstrates that the British High Command could and did learn by its mistakes, develop new tactics, and preserve morale.   In particular, Douglas Haig is rehabilitated as a capable and determined warrior, far from the butcher and bungler he has been portrayed as (although Sheffield does admit a strange personality, remarking that ‘he might not be an ideal dinner guest’).


Andrew Weist, Haig, The Evolution of a Commander (2005): acknowledges Haig’s significance in the 1918 campaign, ‘when modern war came of age’.


For Haig

Against Haig

Arguments against Haig have included a number of books of varying quality, including:


Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976): a psycho-historian’s attempt at a post-hoc psychological evaluation of Haig, which suggests that an over-demanding mother turned Haig into an anal-retentive sadist.


Denis Winter, Haig’s Command, A Re-assessment (1991): a poor book, savaged for its sloppy research, and summarized by one writer as ‘a pure blast of bile against the supposed defects of the “red tabs”’.   The book spends many pages explaining how the author could have done much better than Haig if he had been in charge of the battles.


Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior, Command on the Western Front (1992): argue that Haig and Rawlinson failed at the Somme because they could not agree on how to conduct the battle, failed to coordinated their attacks, mis-deployed their troops, and had not thought through the likely problems after the first day.


Against Haig

Towards A Synthesis

Although, all in all, the academic debate in the last decade appears to have moved against Haig’s critics, it has to be said that individual studies by authors like Passingham (2000)[4] and Walker (2002)[5] continue to reveal critical individual mistakes by Haig and his team.   Thus both sides of the debate seem to be right at the same time: Haig was indeed a very good general who indeed caused the deaths of thousands of men.


What can we make of this?   Recently, a number of historians have tried to find a ‘middle way’ between the two sides for and against Haig.   The critical works have been:


Tim Travers, The Killing Ground (1987): a seminal book, which argues that the BEF under Haig was guilty of institutional atrophy and ‘failed to come to grips with the twentieth-century paradigm…   Haig and his GHQ tried to adapt resources, men and technology to the traditional paradigm of war rather than the other way round’.   Yet, at the same time, Travers credits Haig with maintaining the morale of the Army ‘which had complete confidence in the leadership of their Commander’ and with shouldering the burden in 1916 and 1917 when the French ‘would have crumbled’.   The book is an indictment of Haig, not an assassination, and Tavers even concludes: ‘Haig was one of the main architects of the Allied victory’.


John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1978) and The First World War (1998): accepts that Haig was ‘a strange man, a very cold fish’ who seemed ‘to ignore the casualties and to be untouched by the suffering’, repeatedly sending the flower of British youth to death or mutilation.   Yet, Keegan acknowledges that Haig was a capable soldier and a determined leader who deserves credit for taking pressure off the French in 1917.   Keegan suggests that Haig was ‘a good general but a defective person’ and concludes:

The simple truth of 1914–18 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped, against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and provided with rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in heavy casualties among the attackers…   The basic and stark fact was that the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed towards slaughter and that only an entirely different technology, one not available until a generation later, could have averted such an outcome.

John Keegan, The First World War (1998, pp.315-6)


Brian Bond and Nigel Cave (Editors), Haig: A Reappraisal 70 Years On (1999): this collection of essays is ‘unapologetically pro-Haig’, but accepts that he had faults.   Haig is portrayed as unimaginative, fixated on cavalry tactics, and suspicious, even contemptuous, of his European allies.   His conflict with Lloyd George reveals a lack of understanding of the needs of industry back home.   Yet at the same time, Haig had good relationships with the commanders on the ground, allowing them flexibility within the overall plan.   He had a good relationship with the soldiers and was instrumental in the maintenance of morale – as part of which, his use of punishment was wise and effective.   He was sustained by an attractive Christian faith, which placed duty as paramount but did not otherwise affect his leadership.   He had a balanced appreciation of both the advantages and the limitations of the new technology.   Most of all, he understood precisely how the Army worked, and he guided it unerringly towards victory.  


Towards a Synthesis

Academic Appraisal versus Popular Impression

Bond and Cave (1999) lamented that the recent reappraisal of Haig’s reputation ‘has not percolated down to some of the most influential shapers of public opinion, for whom the simplistic myth of “butchers and bunglers”… continues to exert an irresistible appeal’.


Perhaps they were referring to Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s TV series: Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).   Unlike Oh What A Lovely War!, it was entirely comedy, but the rough reviews it has received at the hands of some historians reveal the extent to which they feel it has undone forty years of scholarship.   Blackadder was never meant to be even slightly serious history – nobody was ever suggesting that soldiers made their coffee like Baldrick, from mud, dandruff and phlegm.  Neither did it create the ‘butchers and bunglers’ myth of Haig and the First World War.   However, like much good comedy, it extracted its humour by taking an element of truth to extremes – and the ‘element of truth’ it assumed was the ‘butchers and bunglers’ myth.   Thus it drove the myth deeper into the popular subconscious.   Moreover since, as every preachers know, a powerful way to make a moral point is to move from comedy to pathos, the final episode of Blackadder – with a scene so moving that the actors were emotionally unable to do a second take – secured the myth in people’s beliefs in a way akin to a religious conversion.


In 1988, the late John Laffin’s book, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One, was published.   This, also, pays no account to modern scholarship.   Born to parents who both saw the horror of First World War wounds in the Australian Army Nursing Service, and after a life spent taking ordinary people on battlefield tours of the cemeteries, and researching the war from the soldiers’ standpoint [6], Laffin was not interested by the niceties of ‘context’ or ‘novelty’.   His book starts with identifying ‘the Butcher’s Bill’ in human terms, and then simply describes the error upon disaster upon callousness which caused it:

Haig and other British generals must be indicted… for wilful blunders and wicked butchery.   However stupid they might have been, however much they were the product of a system which obstructed enterprise, they knew what they were doing.  

There can never be forgiveness.

John Laffin, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One, (2003, p 167)


Academic Appraisal versus Popular Impression

A Personal Conclusion

At the end of the day, is not Laffin’s argument unanswerable?   If someone knocked down and killed your child, could you ever bring yourself to appreciate the fact that they were nevertheless driving the car as well as they could – especially if you later found out that their brakes were faulty?   By the same argument, will it ever be possible to appreciate Haig’s conduct of the war in the light of the slaughter of young men, now we know that mistakes were made?


Samuel Hynes, in his book The Soldiers' Tale, Bearing Witness to Modern War (1997) argues that the War was just too big for human minds to grasp: ‘Our imaginations simply can't encompass all those armies on all those battlefields’ (p.xii).   Consequently, he argued, we replace a too-complex and too-horrifying reality for a simplistic and comforting myth.   In the 1920s, it was possible for the general public to accept the notion of a ‘good war’ to save civilisation and democracy; the notion of Haig’s infallibility came as part and parcel of that myth.   However, when it became clear that that myth was not sustainable, public opinion swung round and grasped the alternative myth – that of an unnecessary war, waged by fools.


Ultimately, perhaps it is right that this should be so.   There is a very revealing quote in John Terraine’s Douglas Haig (1963, p.484), from one of Haig’s letters to his wife:  

I have myself a tremendous affection for those fine fellows who are ready to give their lives for the Old Country at any moment.   I feel quite sad at times when I see them march past me, knowing as I do how many must pay the full penalty before we can have peace.

Letter, Haig to Lady Haig, 13 April 1917 (start of Battle of Arras)


It is given ostensibly to prove Haig’s essential humanity.   But (in a way evocative of the Queen’s televised speech before Princess Diana’s funeral) it rather fails to ‘hit the mark’ for our modern ears.   ‘Quite sad at times’ is an inadequate response in the circumstances.   It reminds us that Haig was a man of his time, not ours; as Rupert Brooke evidences, they felt differently about dying for one’s country in those days.   As always, moreover, Army men were a different breed to ordinary people of the time.   And there is no denying that Haig was a singular Army man.   The men had signed up to offer their lives for their country, and he was taking them at their word.   Churchill, as he often does, hits the nail right on the head:

He [Haig] presents to me in those red years the same mental picture as a great surgeon before the days of anaesthetics, versed in every detail of such science as was known to him: sure of himself, steady of poise, knife in hand, intent upon the operation; entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient...   He would operate without excitement; and if the patient died, he would not reproach himself.

Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries (1935)


But, when all this is said, there has to be something different – something we find deeply unattractive – about a man who can stand almost impassively and watch men whom he knows he is sending off to die.    Like Oliver Cromwell from a different era, whilst we might acknowledge his successes, there is little chance that we shall ever find much to like or revere about him or the way he did it.


And perhaps it is better that way.   Perhaps it is a good thing that something in our communal- and individual-psyche prevents us – with John Laffin – whatever the arguments to the contrary – from agreeing that the deaths of all those sons and husbands could ever be ‘acceptable losses’.

  © John D Clare (July 2004)




A Personal Conclusion

[1] General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, Haig as Military Commander (1973): an army officer who fought with Haig and wishes to correct an impression ‘warped by faulty and misleading information’.

[2] EKG Sixsmith, Douglas Haig (1976): a general apologia which finishes with Trenchard’s words: ‘History will relate what the world owes to Haig’.

[3] Philip Warner, Field Marshal Earl Haig (1991): a very warm and positive biography.

[4] Ian Passingham, Pillars of Fire (2000) attributes the victory at Messines Ridge in 1917 to fine planning and good use of airpower, but then finds that Haig threw away the initiative by waiting seven weeks before trying to follow up the initial success.

[5] Jonathan Walker, The Blood Tub (2002) reveals how mistakes, bad planning and lack of co-ordination plagued the Australian attacks on Bullecourt in 1917.

[6] See, e.g., John Laffin, On the Western Front, Soldiers’ Stories from France and Flanders (1986).