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Remembered Today:

"Haig" The Evolution of a Commander


hazelclark
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Have just started this book which although it is written by an American, is written from a British point of view. I am only part way through it, but what has struck me already, is that he gives a great deal of credit to Haig for the preparation of the BEF and the conduct of the initial battles. He skips over Smith Dorien's involvement in the Retreat from Mons, (which may not be too much of a surprise in a book about Haig) and at one point states that Haig was "firmly in control" at Landrecies where I understood the reverse to be the case.

In any case, the author does seem so far to emphasise aspects of Haig's character and abilities of which I have read little. I am hoping for a rational account of Haig's involvement in the war but so far I am not so sure.

Has anyone else read this book? I couldn't find anything using the Forum search facility.

Hazel C

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Hi Hazel

Mixed bag of reviews on Amazon books, as being neither a whitewash nor a slating for Haigh, general view seems to be that at 161 pages in length, much too short for the subject in question.

At the present Amazon price of £8-50p for the kindle version, this is a no thanks from me.

John

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Hi Hazel

Mixed bag of reviews on Amazon books, as being neither a whitewash nor a slating for Haigh, general view seems to be that at 161 pages in length, much too short for the subject in question.

At the present Amazon price of £8-50p for the kindle version, this is a no thanks from me.

John

Hi John,

I am not much out of pocket as I bought it for $6.50 at the book store. I was looking for a different perspective on Haig and as Gary Sheffield was involved at some stage, thought it couldn't be that bad.

Hazel

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hazel,

Its a good overview of Haig, and IMO pretty balanced. One to start with, and then go onto to the more detailed and recent studies by Sheffield, Harris and Reid.

Don't be swayed by the virulently anti-Haig camp, the man has been badly maligned by people who have a simplistic view of war, and what commanding in war is about. While not a brilliant commander he was much better than he has been portrayed as in the past.

Have a happy 2015.

Cheers

Chris

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Thanks Chris,

I finished the book and thought it was fairly well balanced although somewhat truncated. I have a problem with discussion about Haig (and other Great War topics) because, I think that I am getting a handle on what he was really like, and then someone comes along and refutes what the previous author has written. I thought for instance that Terraine's books, especially "The Road to Passchendaele" were quite rational and even handed, in their discussions of Haig and his command. Then someone else, it may have been Winter, came along and said that the documentation used by Terraine was taken out of context. Anyway, I am still reading on the subject and will attempt to get Harris and Reid as I already have the Sheffield.

Thanks, and all the best for 2015,

Hazel

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Hi Hazel,

Sheffield, Harris and Reid are all worth reading. Also his diaries and letters The Preparatory Prologue: Douglas Haig, Diaries and Letters, 1861-1914 Edited by Douglas Scott, and Douglas Haig , War Diaries and Letters, 1914 -1918 edited by Sheffield and Bourne.

I wouldn't put much credence in Winter's Haig's Command. Denis came with a pre-conceived, anti Haig bias, and deemed to sanctify his views by claiming he had found new information in the Australian War Memorial. So biased was Winter's book , and knowing the man personably, Professor Jeffery Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy decided to check Winter's sources. He found that Denis had distorted or invented a large number of his sources to show Haig in a poor light. Examples he gave included being selective in his quotes, leaving out information in a quote and disregarding other sources that did not support Winter's view, combining different sources together and changing their dates, and actually manufacturing sources that didn't exist where Winter said they were held. In an article on the issue, Grey described Haig's Command as 'a manufactured fraud.' Anyone who has read widely on Haig would agree whole heartedly. Winter also claimed that Haig was a liar because he claimed to have graduated first in his class from Sandhurst, but Denis said there was no evidence to support this. Someone then went to Sandhurst, pulled Haig's file, and the documentation showed Haig did graduate first in his class. In reality Haig was criticised at Sandhurst for taking his studies too seriously. Haig's Command is a shabby attempt to vilify Haig, and in fact, it destroyed Winter's career as a professional historian. His first book Death's Men was good, but, sadly, his work steadily declined after that - largely I think due a health issue.

Haig will always be controversial. Every time I ask someone who criticises him, "Well, how would you have done it?" - they have no answer. I find it ironic that some who have never served in the armed forces, never fought in battle, and never had the awful responsibility of command in war - feel competent to pass judgement on those who have, yet have no suggestions on how to do it better.

I have always found Sir Michael Howard's advice wise : if one wishes to gain a real understanding of an issue - read widely, in depth and in context - and one has to do this with Haig, and the Great War in general.

Cheers

Chris

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Chris - as ever, a balanced and reasoned approach. I liked Death's Men when I first read it, and still refer to it from time to time, but Haig's Command came across as a hatchet job when I read it, many years ago.

It's a shame that Haig (like SAD in the 'good old days') seems to attract such polarisation, with some of his defenders being as one-eyed as his detractors.

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There is a distinct lack of equanimity in accounts of Haig.

And this goes for some of his supporters, too, although not to the same extent, in my view.

There is still a profound sense of shock amongst the British public when it comes to the Great War . The display of Poppies in the Moat, and the impact it had, makes that clear.

The grief remains, although it can hardly be compared with the overwhelming experience of people who experienced the conflict at first hand.

The book we're discusiing succeeeds quite well, I think, in surmounting the visceral feelings that the very name Haig still evokes.

Phil (PJA)

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Phil,

Very true about the casualties and their effect they have had. That is the fundamental issue that distorts discussions on Haig - the view that he, himself, caused them, which is patently absurd. Every army that fought in the Great War, suffered horrendous casualties - several vastly greater than the British. Yet Haig seems to be the only commander to be vilified, although over a million of the soldiers who fought under him turned out to pay their respects when he died, so that must say something.

Fundamentally, I think any reasonable person would recognise it was the nature of the war, with its industrialisation, highly lethal weapons, mass armies, political intransigence and interference, military mistakes and competence (yes competence) at all levels on either side, and the grind of trench warfare with its daily casualty lists from just being in the trenches that contributed to the terrible losses all combatant nations suffered - and in relation to the British casualties, as Salesie once wrote - 'I think the Germans had something to do with it." One cannot just say Haig was the cause - that's simply singling out a scapegoat and ignoring the realities and complexity of the war itself - or just reinforcing one's ignorance on the subject.

Yes Haig had his faults, and he made mistakes, but he also had his strengths and had achievements, and I think Wiest summarises these well. James Marshall-Cornwall's Haig as Military Commander, although dated, is not bad either. I rather like his comment 'Douglas Haig's reputation as a commander has been assailed by many critics, few of whom, however, can be regarded as competent military judges.' Much like Jack Sheldon's quote from Charles Douie's The Weary Road.

Cheers

Chris

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Thanks for posting that, Terry.

I wonder if you share my view that to construct an elaborate series of statistical data on casualtes without much reference to the experience of the French is a bit like Hamlet without the Prince.

The mantra comes to the fore again, on page 17

" It is notable that military casualties of World War II tragically exceeded those of WWI by a large margin. "

Of course they did. That, however, is only true on account of the horrific warfare between Germany and Russia 1941-45. I have a database of hundreds of German war memorials that has been sent to me, and I'm trying to establish a ratio based on the disparity between deaths recorded on memorials for 1914-18 and those for 1939-45. So far, I've analysed 177 samples, and the ratio of 1914-18 against that of 1939-45 is 1 : 2.2. No surprise there, bearing in mind the catastrophe and atrocities of the Nazi Soviet warfare, and the deaths of so many millions of POWS as well as the battlefield carnage. The war on the Western Front, 1914-18, however, was transcendentally bloody and so vastly exceeded that of the Second World War in the West that we still need to endorse its unique notoriety in British folklore, and I feel troubled by the lack of attention to the French experience. It should be noted that the population of Metropolitan France in 1914 was about one fifth that of the Soviet Union in 1941, and, on a per capita basis, the deaths of French soldiers in actual battle ( as opposed to the atrocities that occurred behind the front) were not so very different from those of the Red Army 1941-45 ; this is all the more significant in view of the great support that British armies gave from mid 1916 onward. The Soviet Union enjoyed no such help in its existential struggle in the Second World War.

So that's my big quibble : we need more about the French and their losses, both in absolute and relative terms.

Haig comes over as a superb coalition warrior, who, by his deeds, was infinitely superior to his counterparts in the Second World War. In his comments, however, he displays a remarkable distaste for the French and some of his asides are bitchy in the extreme. Perhaps he needed to let off steam, and these remarks were a form of catharsis for him.

Phil (PJA)

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Whilst not specifically about Haig, this paper by Mark Harrison of Warwick University is worth reading. Myth No 2 is about casualties, however this should be seen in context with the whole article.

http://www.esrc.ac.uk/_images/Myths%20of%20the%20great%20war_tcm8-31600.pdf

TR

A very interesting paper, Terry. It pretty much sums up what I've been "preaching" for some time now (though in a more academically, eloquent summation than I have ever managed to achieve). That said, to my mind this paper actually perpetuates one WW1 myth i.e. the casualty exchange rate. In my opinion, until the several and differing German casualty lists are reconciled (brought into balance) then no one can say what the casualty exchange rate actually was with any degree of certainty.

Cheers-salesie.

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Salesie,

There was a review that you posted some time ago, in which you dealt with the Randle McQuirck article Blood Test Revisited.

Sad to say, I failed to bookmark it, and would like it for my archives.

Would you be willing to post it again ?

Phil (PJA)

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Afer making those comments about lack of reference to the French effort on the Western Front, I took a look at the Blood Test chapter in Churchill's history.

Up until June, 1916, the French inflicted significantly more than five casualties on the Germans for every one that the British inflicted.

From July 1916 until the end when the British shared the burden, or even took the brunt, the French inflicted virtually the same number as did the British.

These, of course, are contentious statistics. If the Germans understated their casualties ( a claim I refute - but let's not go there), then their figures relating to their loss against the French need to be adjusted upwards too.

To be fair to Mark Harrison, he does acknowledge that there is a gap in his paper regarding this.

The book we're discussing had an aura of objectivity that I found reassuring.

He does not make Haig out to be a Marlborough. But he left one with the feeing that he had a dreadful job to do, and that he did it, on balance, pretty decently.

Phil (PJA)

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Salesie,

There was a review that you posted some time ago, in which you dealt with the Randle McQuirck article Blood Test Revisited.

Sad to say, I failed to bookmark it, and would like it for my archives.

Would you be willing to post it again ?

Phil (PJA)

Can't find the thread I posted it in, Phil, so here's my own copy attached (in word format)Blood Test Revisited by James McRandle.doc

Cheers-salesie

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In 2007, there was an international conference at Ypres to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Passchendaele.

I attended, and remember a talk by Robin Prior, and his rather striking comment :

" Haig was not an attritionist. I wish to God that he had been ! "

Phil (PJA)

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