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Haig at the Somme

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squirrel
Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, phil andrade said:

Haig was meticulous in his planning for the Battle of the Somme.  The immense loss of British life that occurred on the first day was not attributable to negligence on his part, even if some of his precepts were flawed.

 

Phil

Agreed. Some should take into account that while Haig and his Staff produced the overall plan for the battles of the Somme, there were many involved in planning how the battles would be fought from Army, Corps, Division and Brigade down to platoon and section level.

As for the OP, how Haig could have been cited for negligence before the battles had been fought escapes me.

Edited by squirrel

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keithmroberts
8 hours ago, specster said:

When others were saying if Haig screwed up at the Somme why was he promoted thereafter

 

The thing is that he didn't "screw up". Haig and his army performed to the best of their ability  and the available resources and military theory  on the first day, and, heavy as casualties were, the battle over its succeeding months demonstrated the way in which he and his team supported and introduced new weapons and techniques,  and arguably laid the foundations for the eventual defeat of the German Army.   The scale of losses was indeed horrendous, but  after the battle drew to a close, it was the Germany Army that had to retreat. 

 

Undoubtedly there were errors, during those months, but who could have done better and how?  I'm not a worshipper of Earl Haig, but I respect his professional approach to the campaign  and his efforts  conducted always under political authority, To justify the suggestions in your post please do give us some reasoning for your attitude. One line insults to the memory of  a man who carried the heaviest burden ever laid upon a British general really are not enough.  Mike's post above makes sense; unless you have already studied the political pressures of 1916 and the Somme battles and have some well thought out reasons for what really are provocative posts in relation to the body of knowledge and research that is available.  

 

I'm sorry specster  if you felt that everyone jumped on you, but your posts provoked the replies that they received.

 

 

Keith

(personal view).

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nigelcave

In so far as this is relevant, I think that it would be fair to say that Haig was born to wealth but not to great wealth; he could certainly live a comfortable life style but it was not one of multiple houses, castles/stately homes and other such (usually) associated trappings of 'great wealth' of the time.

 

As regards evolution of being on the verge of monarchy/deomocratic monarchy, I think this is plain wrong: Britain was/is what was/is described as a constitutional monarchy and had been for over two hundred (arguably longer) years; although what that actually meant in practice was evolutionary (as it is now), as is the nature of the British 'Constitution'. As regards the 'class' system , which would be a better way of looking at the social situation in the UK in 1914, then I am pretty sure it would ave had no impact at all if the issue of 'censure' or court-martial had ever raised its head. Senior officers judged to be incompetent (rightly or wrongly) were Stellenbosched, Limoged or given a Bluey - and I am sure that the Germans must have had a similar term for their officers in the same situation.

 

The point is that it never entered anyone's head that he should be either censured or c-m'd; and it would be extremely difficult to know on what grounds exactly such action would be taken. The Somme Offensive and the planning for same is far too complicated to load everything on to Haig; whilst concentrating on the First Day is, in  military terms, faintly ludicrous for a battle that lasted for over four months.

 

Put it another way: should Pershing have been censured/c-m'd for the monumental cock-up that characterised the opening first four days or so of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September 1918? After all, there was more or less an 8 to 10-1 manpower advantage on the opening day. Admittedly far more ground was won on Day One, but the whole thing had more or less ground to a juddering halt (literally - there was a logistics nightmare of monumental proportions) within a few days of the opening of the attack. Some of the problems were utterly predictable. Should Pershing therefore have been hauled over the coals? I would say not, given all the circumstances that surrounded the reasons for the offensive and its rushed nature; which is not to say that critical errors were not made.

 

In an offensive (as opposed to a single day battle, which could potentially have somewhat different criteria) the whole has to be taken into account.

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michaeldr
10 minutes ago, nigelcave said:

The point is that it never entered anyone's head that he should be ... censured

 

Then how would you characterize WSC's paper of 1st August 1916? [see post 28 https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/yourcountry/collections/the-battle-of-the-somme/churchill-memoranda/ ]

 

 

 

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nigelcave

Quite; but it was the opinion of one cabinet minister and one which was not supported, even, if one may so, by DL-G. It certainly lacked the terms of reference requirements of a commission. It was as much a criticism of the whole offensive as it was of Haig (from the quote he is not necessarily the target per se) and of course it was more than a British offensive, not only in terms of the French army's participation but in the impetus and planning behind the Somme.

 

I would suggest that a commission on the offensive up to, say, 1st August, would certainly have far more targets than Haig and I think bigger ones at that, not least the whole question of munitions supply.

 

When I say that there was any realistic idea of censure/c-m of Haig what I meant was that lots of people might well have had critical to very critical views but officially it was nowhere on the radar and that in any case what WSC had to say, it seems to me, went considerably wider than the role of Haig. I have a feeling that most of those at the top end of government and the army would be thinking that this is WSC preparing the ground for another venture anywhere but the WF; I make no comment on whether he was right or wrong.

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michaeldr
3 hours ago, nigelcave said:

The point is that it never entered anyone's head that he should be ... censured

2 hours ago, nigelcave said:

but it was the opinion of one cabinet minister

 

Sometimes, even a Cabinet Minister can be 'anyone'

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nigelcave

Well, yes, if it goes nowhere at all; and note, so far as I can see, it does not talk about censuring or c/m-ing Haig, which was the original poster's question: it appears to be a critique of the whole thinking behind the offensive and, indeed, its execution - but whose fault this might be would certainly not all fall on Haig's head exclusively or even, necessarily, to a higher degree than, say, the failure in British munitions production, the rushed (from Haig's point of view) nature of the offensive, its location, the changed nature of the offensive (from a Franco-British to an Anglo-French one, at least in terms of length of front attacked and troop numbers engaged, and so forth and so forth. And, from a cabinet point of view, WSC had 'a reputation'. 

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horrocks
Posted (edited)

I venture forth with trepidation, but think that the response to the OP's admittedly slightly brashly and perhaps provocatively articulated question has been met with a bit of a stonewalling from some of the learned members. The debate over the Somme might have rumbled on for a century, and historical interpretations have ebbed and flowed around and within it, but I don't imagine it is one that it is anywhere near concluded. Leaving aside the slightly dogmatic interpretation of the question as relating only to the first day, it is currently, I think, held that Haig was not accountable for the eyewatering casualties, and that it was a matter more of political dynamic that compelled him to commence the offensive before the troops (by his own admission) were adequately prepared, and to continue to relentlessly force the pace until the winter effectively closed the offensive down.

 

There is even a case to be answered for the first day. Whilst it is acknowledged that the Somme battle comprised a sharp learning process that culminated in a more professional tactical approach to subsequent offensives and that the rather simple battalion-level tactics used on 1st July were all that the sum of previous experience in the face of rapid technological advances could offer (this itself is anyway questionable), it is evident that variably imaginative Corps and Divisional leadership, and the differing interpretation of existing training protocols, brought widely different results, most obviously manifested by the success of Colgrave's XIII Corps in the south as contrasted to the disaster of Hunter-Weston's VIII Corps in the north. The ultimate responsibility of a commander is surely to select the right subordinates at Army, Corps and Divisional level, and for his staff to ensure that those commanders are properly deployed, instructed and co-ordinated. Why, just to take a single example, was Hunter-Weston still in post at all, given his performance at Gallipoli the previous year?

 

However, it is when one looks beyond the 1st July into the subsequent offensives that it is surely not unreasonable to question the quality of Haig's leadership, even if one concludes that it was primarily flawed by political pressures. The brilliantly effective breaking of the second line in the Bazentin attack of 14th July by use of a far more concentrated artillery preparation and the imaginative tactic of bringing troops in front of their own line under cover of darkness ready to rush the German lines before they could recover was preceded by, and followed by, extended and repeated periods of piecemeal and ill-coordinated divisional-level actions that left troops going forward with their flanks 'in the air' and exposed to concentrated German artillery response from three directions. This happened time and again between Bazentin and Flers Courcelette a full two months later, which again was a seriously organised, heavyweight, coordinated and effective offensive an a wide front, immediately followed by another round of uncoordinated and piecemeal assaults on the Gird defences. There seems to have been some serious level of disunion between Haig and Rawlinson as to strategy, the former continuing to visualise breakthrough and somehow bringing forward, across the smashed battlefield and in the face of every horror that 20th century technology could bring to bear upon it, nakedly exposed cavalry to disperse beyond the German lines, whilst the latter was apparently intent upon 'bite and hold'. Again, surely the first task of a commander is to be in command and to ensure that his subordinates are not only fully conversant and in agreement with the plans set forward, but that it is also incumbent upon him to ensure that inter-corps and inter-divisional planning is thorough. It is difficult to conclude that this was by any means always the case.

 

The political pressures upon Haig to bring forward the initial offensive without sufficient training and preparation is undoubted, as is that placed upon him to continue to push the offensive forward. What it is not unreasonable to question is whether Haig truly effectively asserted the control over his subordinates that his position dictated should be the case whilst the extended offensive was taking place and, by extension, whether his action, or perhaps more controversially inaction, resulted in far higher losses than might otherwise have been the case?

Edited by horrocks

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lostinspace

My knowledge of the Somme is not the best but wasn't Rawlinson the chief advocate of "bite and hold"?

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horrocks
1 minute ago, lostinspace said:

My knowledge of the Somme is not the best but wasn't Rawlinson the chief advocate of "bite and hold"?

 

Sorry, corrected. Brain is atrophying, slowly. Thank you.

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Jervis

In my view, Haig gets more than his fair share of blame in the main stream media; assuming the political responsibility for the war and its enormous casualties. Almost to counteract this view it appears many defend Haig far too robustly and excuse fundamental errors as minor and part of the learning process.

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Muerrisch
59 minutes ago, Jervis said:

In my view, Haig gets more than his fair share of blame in the main stream media; assuming the political responsibility for the war and its enormous casualties. Almost to counteract this view it appears many defend Haig far too robustly and excuse fundamental errors as minor and part of the learning process.

 

May we have a "fundamental error" to chew on please?

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Jervis

Well the instruction on July 1st to walk towards enemy lines laden down with equipment was a fundamental error. 

 

Haig did not trust the new army to charge at the enemy and maintain their discipline. So instead the he instructed them to walk to the enemy lines. Martin Middlebrook pointed out some of the most effective British units on July 1st deviated from the plan; creeping into no mans land during the bombardment and charging at the enemy as soon as the bombardment ended to catch the enemy unprepared. Units that followed the plan (walking) and the timetable faithfully were ineffective. 

 

Instructing his men to walk was counter intuitive to most new army men, especially since many could see for themselves the wire was not cut. He was effectively asking his men to trust in him and his superior professional knowledge and expertise. (Ironic since he did not trust them). Unfortunately this trust was misplaced and Haig was simply wrong in his key assumptions that the wire was cut and the enemy gunners neutralised. 

 

 

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Don Regiano
55 minutes ago, Jervis said:

In my view, Haig gets more than his fair share of blame in the main stream media; assuming the political responsibility for the war and its enormous casualties. Almost to counteract this view it appears many defend Haig far too robustly and excuse fundamental errors as minor and part of the learning process.

 

I think you make a fair point.  The pendulum  seems to have swung quite far in the direction of the "whitewash" brigade and away from the "donkeys" brigade.  Both viewpoints suffer from the problems of all generalisations.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in between and reflects the relative merits of those in command, as well referenced by Horrocks in his comparison between what happened in the north and south of the battlefield on 1 July 1916..   Of course, it is easy for us with the benefit of hindsight and sat in the comfort of our homes 100+ years after the event to make adverse comment and it is impossible to appreciate fully the extraordinary difficulties facing all concerned.  However, here is another little cameo for your delectation - the communications between Brig Gen W L Williams and Lt. Col. M Magniac in the Sunken Lane after the initial disastrous attack by 1 Lancs Fusiliers, which I think offers an insight into the mind set of at least one (the first message).  To be fair, the command was rescinded, albeit 35 minutes after the ordered time of the start of the second attack.  Magniac was killed less than a year later.  As for W L Williams ... well, I can't find him on CWGC.

 

 

 

 

1LF messages 1.7.16 p1.jpg

1LF messages 1.7.16 p2.jpg

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nigelcave

We are drifting here, I think: if we want to start another thread on the Somme and Haig in general, fine - but to get back to the original post, the answer is, as mentioned by others, no.

 

As regards the pros and cons of Haig and his detractors and supporters, I think that in general there is a media via out there now amongst most military historians.

 

As regards instructions for the men to walk and to be laden down with equipment, this one has been dealt with several times, I suspect, on this Forum as well as elsewhere.

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Ghazala

I read a review recently by John Lewis-Stempel of Andrew Roberts book...

 

Elegy - The first day on The Somme by Andrew Roberts

 

Historians have a spent a century picking over the haunting bones of the Somme. Now it’s the turn of Andrew Roberts. Let’s be honest about Somme historiography; it either comes drenched in pitying tears or in posturing outrage (as penned by the late unlamented Alan “Lions led by Donkeys” Clark), but both occlude. Roberts has played it straight with a clean and lucid overview so that one can actually see and understand what happened on that day.

The first day on the Somme was a disaster. But why was it a disaster? The landscape can take some blame. On reaching the Somme region British troops had been delighted at its beauty after the dank and the dykes of Flanders. Cruelly, it was the land itself that killed them. Its chalk geology enabled the Germans to dig trenches and bunkers virtually impervious to British artillery shells — even 1,627,824 of them during a week. Some German dug-outs, as one dramatic photograph shows, were 60ft deep. The London Tube had less substantial entrances. When the British shelling stopped, the Germans just popped back up the stairs, and gripped the triggers of their murderous 500rpm Maxim machine guns. 

Field Marshal Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), looms over the Somme like a stern sky god, and Roberts does not duck the 19,240 dead-men question: Did Haig bungle? Haig suffered from over-ambition and chronic micromanaging; risibly, he planned for the Ulster Division to gain 3,000 yards by 10.08am. 

Haig, however, was also a prisoner of politics. The timing of the Somme offensive was called by the French who, with German fingers around their jugular at Verdun, needed the British to launch a pressure-relieving attack further along the line. As Haig lamented, this left Tommies unready and “untrained for the field”. As a result tactics were basic, the men lumbering forwards under 66lb of kit in flat lines. The view from the German side? Unteroffizier Paul Scheytt: “The English came walking as though they were going to the theatres . . . we just fired into them.” Attack. Slaughter. Repeat. 

It is the chill comfort of the tomb but the men of the Somme — and the battle went on until November 18 — did not die in vain. Until the Somme the Germans scoffed at the British as Blut-scared wusses. After the Somme, one Berliner noted, the mood changed to admiration. On the Somme, the British grasped how to win, and after July 1 the BEF embarked, as Roberts says, on “a profound revolution” in both artillery and infantry tactics. 

The Great War was always going to be a slugfest, and the British volunteers had proved they could take it.

 

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nigelcave
18 minutes ago, Ghazala said:

risibly, he planned for the Ulster Division to gain 3,000 yards by 10.08am. 

Didn't they more or less do that? Not for long, of course, but interesting that of all the failed divisional attacks the reviewer should pick on the 36th Division, which had early success foiled by a well practised and rehearsed German defence.

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paulgranger

'risibly' is a good example of criticism in hindsight. At the time, it couldn't be known that events would unfold as they did. The attack was launched with the best planning and preparation available, so I do not see anything 'risible' about it. 

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Don Regiano

It's the repetition.  I repeat, it's the repetition.

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specster
11 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

 

May we have a "fundamental error" to chew on please?

Historians, the Media and citizens were damning Haig for 50 years and then some intellectuals decide he was not so bad after all, and a ton of people want to reinvent him as a great General doing his duty at the time.  Rawlinson  was in my eyes even more at fault on July 1....So many people here want to put a feather in Haig's  hat.  For what?  assenting to good ideas his subordinates came up with?  Did Haig think up the creeping barrage?, or the tank, or all the tactics the French had been using to some effect?  Does assenting to good ideas make a man a great general or does losing 50000 men in one day when he could have seen the futility of the early attacks and stopped them.  Both Haig and Grant were called "Butchers".  Grant's July 1 was Cold Harbor...he called an end to a frontal assault on an entrenched enemy within 2 hours.  When asked after the war, he said that Cold Harbor was his one regret.....even tho called a "Butcher" he was elected President....That to me is much more telling than Haig getting a promotion 

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nigelcave

Hmmm.

 

One thing is for sure, they were not damning him in his lifetime.

 

The 'bad' public phase runs more or less (allowing for DL-G) from the mid 1950s to the early 80s; the swing back from the early start of John Terraine; and then the re-evaluation that has broadly arrived at a view of him as a general who did his best, had his faults, did grasp opportunities, could be stubborn - to both good and bad effect.

 

1. The vast bulk of the casualties on the first day of the Somme came early on in the day. There would certainly have been no clear idea of what was going on by the end of two hours and certainly not sufficient to have called off the offensive.

2. The extent of the casualty figures were unknown for some time.

3. What was the extent of the front at Cold Harbor? The Somme was well over twenty miles and included considerable French success as well as on the right of the British line.

4. Haig was NOT commanding the Fourth Army, Rawlinson was.

5. It was a Franco-British offensive

 

Well that's the job of a general - to look at new ideas, see if they work, get them applied. I mean what dazzling new technology to war did Joffre bring, Petain, von Moltke, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Pershing, Liggard, Bullard - or Eisenhower r Montgomery ... Generally speaking, they were good/adequate commanders who saw what worked, generally allowed innovation and there you go.

 

However, I feel this is a point where almost nothing anyone can say with whatever evidence is likely to shift your position; which, of course, is fine. But it leads to a pretty pointless discussion on a forum such as this.

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Robert Dunlop
15 hours ago, nigelcave said:

As regards instructions for the men to walk and to be laden down with equipment, this one has been dealt with several times, I suspect, on this Forum as well as elsewhere.

It has indeed. Here is one such post:

 

Robert

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PhilB

Quote:-

It was not, in my opinion, an infantry training issue (or lack thereof) that was significant on July 1. Even highly trained troops cannot sustain an advance into killing zones where machine guns are unsuppressed and enemy artillery is not subdued - whether the advance be conducted at the run, at the walk, in waves or in blobs.

Robert

 

Whenever I read discussion of the role of command in the worst day in the British Army's history, I'm reminded of the lines in Albert and the Lion:-


The Magistrate gave 'is opinion
That no one was really to blame

 

Is that really the case?

 

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nigelcave
8 minutes ago, PhilB said:

Quote:-

Is that really the case?

  • 

Well, fingers can be pointed in various directions, including individuals, circumstances, politics, the quality of the German defence and so forth. The question then is how much that given factor was responsible, and so it goes on. In reality it is not clear cut; if it were the issue would have been settled years ago. And, problematically, it involves focussing on one day (admittedly disastrous on much of the BEF's front) in an offensive that was always planned to last at least several weeks and probably longer.

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Muerrisch

 

Could we please add Shot at Dawn so as to get the latest weary reiteration of all sides of the discussion over and done with for a year or two?. As a little seasoning, include Angels of Mons and crucified Canadians and women snipers at Gallipoli.

 

Shake gently, stir, and sit back to taste the same dreary stodge.

 

 

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