Interpretations of Haig
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:
In the ‘Great Haig Debate’, everything is up for grabs.
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).
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:
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.
JH Boraston, Sir Douglas 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:
love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
Spring-Rice: I Vow to Thee My
were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Arkwright: O Valiant Hearts
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
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:
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
Liddell Hart, Reputations
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
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:
a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack
they slogged up to
he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Sassoon, The General
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
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.
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
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.
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:
[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.
George’s War Memoirs
these developments, in 1933-6, Lloyd George published his War
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
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:
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…
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.
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
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’.
‘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’
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
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’:
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.
Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire
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
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.
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:
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.
against Haig have included a number of books of varying quality,
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) and Walker (2002) 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:
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.
Keegan, The First World War (1998, pp.315-6)
Appraisal versus Popular Impression
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’.
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.
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 ,
Laffin was not interested by the niceties of ‘context’ or
book starts with identifying ‘the Butcher’s Bill’ in human terms,
and then simply describes the error upon disaster upon callousness which
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.
Laffin, British Butchers and
Bunglers of World War One, (2003, p 167)
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:
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.
Haig to Lady Haig,
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:
[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
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)
 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’.
 EKG Sixsmith, Douglas Haig (1976): a general apologia which finishes with Trenchard’s words: ‘History will relate what the world owes to Haig’.
 Philip Warner, Field Marshal Earl Haig (1991): a very warm and positive biography.
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
Jonathan Walker, The Blood Tub
(2002) reveals how mistakes, bad planning and lack of co-ordination
plagued the Australian attacks on Bullecourt in 1917.
See, e.g., John Laffin, On the
Western Front, Soldiers’ Stories from