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Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: A2 Coursework


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I realise I am new to the forums, but I thought it best to ask this question here...

I also realise that Field Marshal Haig was one of the most contraversial figures to emerge from the Great War, and that history has often subjected him to such connotations as the "Butcher of the Somme"...which perhaps for some, with regards to his position as Commander-in-Chief of all British and Empire forces on the Western Front, may be understandable. The Somme was a battle which formed the centre around a bleak chapter in the history of the British Army, responsibility for which, was traced back to Field Marshal Haig...

Anyway, for my Independent Historical Study (I am currently an A Level student) I intend to examine how and why Sir Douglas Haig came to become associated with such connotations as above, and most importantly, the extent to which he was deserving of them.

There are very strong views on this topic, both for and against, but intend to be as objective and impartial as possible...

...of course, your own views, thoughts and opinions would be greatly appreciated, as would any texts, articles and biographies you could possibly provide.

I look forward to your replies...

Thanks in advance...

Regards,

Matt

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armourersergeant

Good luck on your venture,

I have wondered and changed my mind on this man so often for the last twenty years in my dealings with the first world war. I think your task is both worthy and massive. I have found that what ever eveidence you think you have found to be true can often be refuted by another good source.

I have recently order a book that covers his official dispatches that should arrive soon. if you need anything along these lines just e-mail me and i'll do a look up. i will refrain from giving my opinion to you as it will likely change at a later date.

one bit of advice try with all the contreversal 'eveidence' to get a source, i have found that often Myths are created about the generals that can not be traced to a source and build up over the years until they become accepted facts.

Good luck

Arm.

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Matt,

There are so many books/articles/comments available on DH,

My best advice- read it all and then come to your own conclusions as so many have over the years.

Bob.

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The academic debate has generally run in favour of Haig over the past few years, although the standard 'pro-Haig' biography was written 40 years ago: 'Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier' by John Terraine. Key texts I would look at were I writing a piece of A2 coursework would be:

'Haig's Command' by Denis Winter

'The Killing Ground' by Tim Travers

'Forgotten Victory' by Gary Sheffield

'Western Front' by Richard Holmes

'British Butchers and Bunglers of the First World War' by John Laffin

'Haig: A Reapparaisal 70 years on' A collection of essays edited by Prof. Brian Bond and Nigel Cave.

This will give you a spread of opinions and comprises a reasonable A-Level coursework bibliography. They offer a variety of opinions, some better argued than others! It is important that you do not simply summarise the views of each author but try to weigh them up against one another.

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Matt

To Mark's list I would add Duff Cooper's original Biography of Haig. I also suggest John Terraine's Essays on Leadership & War published by the Western Front Association.

Good reading and Good luck!

Tim

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Jonathan Saunders

Matt,

It might be worth a quick look through WAR MEMOIRS by Lloyd George. This will be biased against Haig but may give you the original cause/source for much of the prejudice that subsequently materialised. Of course to what extent this prejudice was justified is another matter.

I find Haig a very political and contradictory individual and would suggest you be careful to look at his actions from all sides including whether the benefit of a particular decision by him was really of benefit to the war effort and the army in general or to Haig himself.

Good luck - its a big challenge. Try and find a focus and keep to it otherwise this has so much scope it could become uncontrolable!

Sigs

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Read every thing you can but it's hard for me to consider Winter and Lafin's book history, more polemics. Lloyd George denigrates Haig but is a primary source. It's a fascinating and difficult subject.

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Thanks for your help everyone!

Another thing, my teacher informed me that, recently, re-enactments of the Battle of the Somme have been made placing modern-day Generals in the same situation as Haig, in an effort to conclude whether or not he really used all he could, to the best of his ability. In most cases, the Generals of today proved little better achieveing a breakthrough, and in almost all cases, the German lines held firm...

Were any of you aware of such re-enactments with modern-day British Generals?

Regards,

Matt

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Your comment on re-enactments by modern day Generals is interesting. I am not aware of these, but I am not surprised. A consistent theme amongst the Haig critics has been that they have been quick to condemn yet none have ever come up with workable and realistic alternatives. The simple fact was that there was no magic formula for a quick low casualty victory, any battle with the powerful German Army would inevitably be bloody and costly.

Tim

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My suggested bibliography deliberately includes some polemical and tendentious works. One of the assessment criteria for A2 History Personal studies (sorry to use nasty education-speak) is the ability of the candidate to evaluate the worth of different types of sources.

A few years ago I restaged 3rd Division's attack at Serre on 13th November 1916. The Divisional Commander was played by a serving British officer, his ADC by a Sandhurst lecturer and leading expert on World War One. Other parts (Brigade commanders etc) were played by experienced wargamers and military historians. They were fed the actual reports received by the Divisional and Brigade HQs during the battle (courtesy of the PRO)and asked to make decisions based on them. The general consensus in the debrief afterwards was that they had combined to make a worse hash of it than the original commanders. The exercise clearly showed the fog of war in which WW1 commanders operated, lacking effective instantaneous communication, and the difficulty of imposing their will on the battlefield and changing orders to meet the developing situation. As someone (Denis Winter I think) put it 'running a First World War battle was like writing a letter with the pencil tied to the end of a snooker cue' .

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Jonathan Saunders

As I remember a few years ago there was a tv programme involving Julian Thompson and others but I cant remember whether they had been ranking army officers or historians.

They "refought" certain battles and the Somme may well have been one of them, I really cant remember.

However it has little relevence to Haig as I see it as it has nothing to do with factors such as Haig insisting on a breakthrough against bite and hold, the value of continuing the diversionary attack at Gommecourt and was Haig to blame for that, what control Haig actually had over the battle - was he at fault for this, mines blown 10 mins before an advance, orders to "walk" across No Mans Land with full pack, later did he misuse tanks against the advice of experts, why declare it was always going to be a battle of attrition when he obviously was expecting a breathrough on 1 July, and so the questions go on and these could not be replicated by modern day generals in a tv studio.

Matt I think yr theme is very interesting and worthwhile but as I said earlier, try and narrow it as much as possible and make it as easy on yr self as possible. Once again, good luck with yr project.

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Matt, good luck, its a big but worthwhile challenge

One thing I would definitely add to those so far is Keith Simpson's excellent essay "The Reputation of Sir Douglas Haig" in the collection "The First World War and British Military History" pub Clarendon Press Oxford 1991. (pp. 141-162). It is a very good study of the historiography of Haig until 1991.

Brian Bond's outstanding book of essays "The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History" pub Cambridge UP 2002 may be worth skimming through if it falls within your scope. This gives the wider perspective of the impact of the war poets, Oh What A Lovely War and Blackadder amongst others on how Haig and his generals are viewed by the public and mass media today.

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Signals-I think that the programme you are referring to was 'Game of War' presented by Angela Rippon (of all people) with Paddy Griffith and Arthur Harman as the umpires. Unfortunately the format didn't really work. This was partly because they used chess-like pieces to mark the positions of forces on the map instead of, say, model soldiers. The problem was that the different pieces were indistiguishable from a distance and made the battle very difficult to follow. I must admit I don't remember a First World War battle featuring. There is a new high-tech equivalent called 'Time Commander'. The first two episodes have featured ancient battles but I don't know if any modern ones will feature later. I saw parts of the first one and the main weakness as far as I was concerned was that the 'commanders' had far more command, control, communication and battlefield intelligence, courtesy of the computer, than their historical forebears would have enjoyed. The all-pervading Fog of War and 'friction' ,as Clausewitz called it, were absent. This seemed to defeat the whole object of the exercise.

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I have conducted my own unscientific survey of what the modern public thinks of Haig by asking a couple of men near the Haig statue in Whitehall in of course a foreign accent, " That's Hiag isn't it?" The replies have been uniformly along bllody butcher lines.

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... later did he misuse tanks against the advice of experts

I don't think this thread is the place for a fully blown argument over "Haig - good bloke or not" but I would like to comment on this point. Just three things to say:

1. There were no experts on tank warfare. No one knew how they would perform, what the enemy would do, how to use infantry with them. The notion that it might be better to use tanks en masse was totally unproven then, even if it seems sensible to you and I today. Then again what if Haig had waited until 1917 when he had 1000 of them and they proved useless against German artillery?

2. In the white heat of the Somme, it surely would have been a very strong man not to grasp at any edge in weaponry or tactics that might help.

3. How much longer could the tanks have been kept secret? Perhaps waiting to deploy en masse would have coincided with the enemy developing an effective counter-measure even before they had encountered a tank.

It's easy to be critical in retrospect but faced with the complexities and dilemmas of 1916 I think Haig made if the not the "right" decision, at least an understandable one.

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Jonathan Saunders

I agree with some of what you say Chris, but not all. In 1916 Swinton and those working with the tanks had most knowledge and were most informed about the capability of tanks at that stage, hence my use of the word "expert", but it is a fair comment you make about whether there were any real experts when tanks had not been tested in battle.

The point I was trying to make to Matt is you have to question everything if you are going to do yr subject matter justice. Some will say Haig was right to use tanks and others will say he purposely misused tanks against better advice and judgement because of the awful mess he had already made in conducting the Somme offensive. What Matt has to do is evaluate the evidence on this matter and others and come to his own conclusion for the purpose of his study. Matt's subject is about as controversial as you can get so there is no black and white answer.

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Matt,

like you I too am new to this subject, the only difference being that I am probably 2x your age.

I have read Middlebrooks book 'TheFirst dayof the Somme' and Allenby by Gardner and have just completed Winters 'Haigs Command...a reassessment'. and can recommend them all, I am currently reading 'The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919' the 1952 edition by Robert Blake.

I hope you find it as interesting and fulfilling as I do.

You will also see that there are a lot of parallels with modern society and the way things work today ie Spin lies and propaganda to mention just three.

I would pay particular attention to the phrase .'Haig was a product of the times ..' when you finally judge him.

I am sure we would all be interested to keep track of your studies and hear what you have to say on the subject .

Good Luck

John Jarman

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Just to add to Chris's post on the use of tanks.

My understanding was that Haig was entusiastic about any new technology which might help him with the war effort, including tanks.

The problem in 1916 (as now) was that they were very expensive to produce. At the time they were unproven, the Treasurey was reluctant to give the go ahead for mass production of an untried weapon, on the other hand there were not enough available by September to give them a fair trial in battle. Haig's advisers wanted to wait until they had sufficient numbers to be decisive, but the Treasury was blocking further production, there was also the secrecy angle which Chris mentioned.

Haig was trapped in the horns of a dilema. Commit them prematurely to prove their usefulness, yet in the knowledge that there were not enough to achieve much and the secret would be out, or do nothing and risk having the project scrapped on grounds of cost.

Tim

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  • 2 weeks later...

A book that is of particular interest to me is "Forgotten Victory" by Gary Sheffield. This is a detailed reappraisal of the British Army's performance in the Great War, and part of the book comprises a "rehabilitation" of Sir Douglas Haig and his experience as Commander-in-Chief. With regards to my own personal opinion, I believe the condemnation and malignment Haig has received by popular contemporary history is both unnecessary and unappreciative of the monumental tasks facing Haig (no one in British history had ever commanded an army as large). Sheffield's book is classed as "revisionist", but in I would personally judge it to be a "reappraisal". Sheffield dismisses the popular quote of "lions led by donkeys" as a "mere caricature"

Sheffield also raises the key issue of Haig's role in the Anglo-French counter-attack against the Ludendorff Offensive (Operation Michael). It was under Haig that the Allied armies inflicted a series of crippling defeats upon the German Army, enough to cause 'Operation Michael' to ground to a halt.

Sheffield writes:

One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig's army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 'Hundred Days' campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

I also have the biography of Haig, entitled "Field Marshal Earl Haig" by Philip Warner.

It is an area of much controversy, but that often ensures an abundance of primary and secondary sourcework. I have managed to get hold of Haig's despatch describing the Somme offensive, as well as the ultimate Allied victory in 1918. Thank you for all your help, I am sure it will prove most valuable.

Best regards,

Matt

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I would pay particular attention to the phrase .'Haig was a product of the times ..' when you finally judge him.

I intend to take the most objective view possible, but my personal opinion is with the pro-Haig camp, with authors such as Sheffield...

Haig was a cavalry officer, whose skills had been proven with distinction in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), which involved a conflict of mobility and an ever changing front line.

The Western Front could not have been more different.

Regards,

Matt

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I agree with some of what you say Chris, but not all. In 1916 Swinton and those working with the tanks had most knowledge and were most informed about the capability of tanks at that stage, hence my use of the word "expert", but it is a fair comment you make about whether there were any real experts when tanks had not been tested in battle.

The point I was trying to make to Matt is you have to question everything if you are going to do yr subject matter justice.  Some will say Haig was right to use tanks and others will say he purposely misused tanks against better advice and judgement because of the awful mess he had already made in conducting the Somme offensive.  What Matt has to do is evaluate the evidence on this matter and others and come to his own conclusion for the purpose of his study.  Matt's subject is about as controversial as you can get so there is no black and white answer.

Since I've been writing on this very subject recently (Chapter One), I think I should add a little to the discussion.

Haig had several meetings with Swinton about the use of tanks. He also sent the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Butler, to virtually all the demonstrations of tanks in Britain before they came to France. He also sent a bright youngish GSO2 by the name of Hugh Elles to find out more about them. This was soon after becoming C-in-C and after reading Winston Churchill's memorandum on their possibilities (Variants of the Offensive). He read Churchill's paper on Christmas Day 1915 and made sure he was kept informed thereafter. He may have been excessively keen to use tanks but what commander wouldn't wish to make use of any new weapon to give every possible advantage (as already stated)?

Hugh Elles, for the unitiated, ultimately became the Tank Corps commander and no-one I'm aware of has said he bungled the job...

Two other points: 'purposely misused tanks' - how could any serious historian argue that Haig 'purposely misused tanks'?! This would be the ultimate of all conspiracy theories since it seems to suggest that Haig was an agent of the Germans intent on trying to lose the war! If so, he was frankly c**p at it as the British Army won the war...

Secondly, "the awful mess he had already made in conducting the Somme offensive" wasn't seen as such in early-mid 1916 when the tanks were being trialled 'cos the battle hadn't started - and, anyway, that's a with-hindsight opinion based on the events of the first day. Whilst the Somme Offensive was proceeding I would suggest there was no 'black and white' answer to the question of whether it was going to be the FINAL muddy graveyard of the German Army.

Finally, Matt, I think you chose the right path - shades of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Blimey, a literary reference an' all! Where will it all end?!

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Jonathan Saunders
Two other points: 'purposely misused tanks' - how could any serious historian argue that Haig 'purposely misused tanks'?! This would be the ultimate of all conspiracy theories since it seems to suggest that Haig was an agent of the Germans intent on trying to lose the war! If so, he was frankly c**p at it as the British Army won the war...

Secondly, "the awful mess he had already made in conducting the Somme offensive" wasn't seen as such in early-mid 1916 when the tanks were being trialled 'cos the battle hadn't started - and, anyway, that's a with-hindsight opinion based on the events of the first day. Whilst the Somme Offensive was proceeding I would suggest there was no 'black and white' answer to the question of whether it was going to be the FINAL muddy graveyard of the German Army.

Bryn, As you have quoted me I feel I should clear up any misunderstanding. The quote in context and not in isolation, was "Some will say Haig was right to use tanks and others will say he purposely misused tanks against better advice and judgement because of the awful mess he had already made in conducting the Somme offensive."

I dont see how that can be construed as suggesting Haig was an agent of the Germans in any shape of form - which is obviously complete nonsense as you yr self point out. In fact I think in the above context "purposely misused" is implicit in saying that Haig employed tanks against the advice and judgement of those better judged to comment on how and when tanks should be deployed, and by so doing, for the want of a better expression, he was trying to get himself out of a hole. It is of course open to opinion as to whether Swinton or Elles were better placed to comment. This is on the presumption that you are saying Elles advised Haig that available tanks should be spread between Flers and Courcelette on the 15 Sept offensive . As Swinton was against the introduction of tanks at that stage and in the manner they were employed, there is subsequent argument he was right to resist their introduction at that time.

Regarding how the Somme offensive was progressing in Sept 1916 (yr ref to mid-16 confused me as it did not appear in my post), then in my opinion and broadly speaking, achieving the ground that was supposed to be the second objectives for the first day, two months later, having sustained huge casualties in the process, would suggest a mess had been made of the offensive. I think it unlikely I would ever change my mind on that although no doubt others see it differently.

In responding to Chris my intention was not to be abrasive but to "suggest" to Matt that you have to look at Haig from both angles ... I think I used the term "question everything". For example we both know following 15 Sept Haig ordered 1000 tanks. Some will say this proves Haig embraced technology and could see the value of tanks and others will say he was simply trying to justify his use of tanks in circumstances in which they had failed when he had been advised against using them. What evidence exists to argue for/against both these arguments of thought? Well thats Matt's job and good luck to him.

I dont really want to get into a you said this scenario as this forum is far too friendly and useful for such pranks but I hope you are now clear of what I was or wasnt suggesting in my earlier post. I think it a shame that most PALS will not debate Haig on the forum as he is, if nothing else, the most difficult character to analyse.

I look forward to meeting you on a future PALS get-together when no doubt you can clear up the great tank debate for me.

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armourersergeant

I have some observations to make about the Haig debate and something that Matt will probably find difficult to overcome.

1... to use Lloyd-George as a referecne is difficult as subsequent dealings with him in say the Maurice affair shows that he was defeinately not adverse to downright lies.

2...to go against Haig now adays in academic or semi-academic circles is often seen to be 'Mad'

3...Haig was responsible for the deaths of thousands however which way you cut the bread and the fact that he held the job over the two worst years of casualties and now one else did will always mean that we will never know how anyone else would have done. We can only guess. You could say they should have given Monash a chance but he could easily have made a pigs ear of it!!

4...however hard you try it is difficult to remain objective. It is also difficult when we in this age of modern technology and rapid communications to look at a subject that took place in an era where not just conflict but communications were slower and more primitive. We have an outlook that realises that things can change rapidly. They did not and yet we try to judge them by our times.

5...Haigs own political agender often clouds the issue, he claims like many not to like the politicians and yet was not adverse to using the back door as a way of advancing his career over the backs of others. This is the only bit that probably rings true in 'Oh what a lovely war'. He wanted the job and and did what he had to to get there and whilst i am not suggesting he would use lives to get his 'ambition' he can not be seen as a 'white knight'. Like many of his fellow Generals they had careers to safe guard, when perhaps they shpould have been safe gaurding their soldiers. Rawlinson trying to blame others for his mistakes is one point which i find disgusting.

6...If Haig had not used tanks in 1916 but kept them until 1917 and they had been a great success would we know be chastising him for the fact he did not use them in 1916, and the countless lives he may have saved by using them.

I am in the undecided camp and probably will still be for some years but these points often cause me to wonder if we will ever get a true idea. Hindsight is the killer of all battle analysis. IMO

Arm.

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3...Haig was responsible for the deaths of thousands however which way you cut the bread and the fact that he held the job over the two worst years of casualties and now one else did will always mean that we will never know how anyone else would have done. We can only guess. You could say they should have given Monash a chance but he could easily have made a pigs ear of it!!

Wasn't it the superb fighting ability of the German Army which was responsible for the deaths of thousands?

Tim

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