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Western Front tactics in 1917


Mat McLachlan
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Turning then to your summary:

In my opinion, the reason why Carlyon, and as far as I can see anyone else, can't come up with any alternatives in 1917, is because there simply wasn’t any, no matter what was tried, given the omnipotent strategic considerations of total war, the end result would always be small gains in ground traded for high casualties (just as in 1916). No matter what was tried tactically/operationally the simple fact of the matter is until stage 4 was reached (and I don't believe that was reached until the summer of 1918) no victory was possible...
I agree with your conclusion that victory was not possible until stage 4 was reached. It is not correct to say that there were no other alternatives in 1917. Nivelle's offensive was based on a fundamentally different alternative. He believed, based on his experience in the latter stages of the Battle of Verdun, that the German line on the Chemin des Dames could be completely ruptured. He actually forced the various levels of the Staff to plan for such a rupture and for the rapid exploitation within days. Spears' gives a very good analysis of this in his book 'Prelude to Victory' but to gain a more complete picture it is necessary to examine French sources relating to GQG and the various Commanders and Staff Officers who were involved. I cannot say that my understanding of this example is complete by any means. From the detailed reading I have done so far, there is a huge contrast between what Nivelle planned for, and the way that planning was carried out, and what Haig is accused of planning for day one of the Somme or Third Ypres for example. The end result of Nivelle's offensive is well known of course, and bears out your point completely. But it was a very significant alternative strategy.

Robert

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Robert, a very insightful and thorough reply, but once again I believe you search for a devil in the detail that resides elsewhere. Being a highly pragmatic man, and not an academic by any stretch of the imagination, I start at the end-result and work backwards from there - for me, this makes much more sense of events, in that I never lose sight of the actual outcome and helps me to conclude so that's why such and such happened! As opposed to the more academic approach which, in my opinion, can put as much emphasis on theory and what-ifs as it does on the end result, and thus blur the realities.

In my opinion, an example of such an academic approach is your last posting: When I said no alternatives in 1917, I think it's pretty clear, given the overall context of that particular post, that I meant alternative tactics that would give victory in the field. As you say, the end result of Nivelle's offensive bore out my point completely that no matter what was tried, tactically or operationally, no victory in the field was possible. So why confuse a train of thought by considering Nivelle's offensive as a significant alternative when the end result was pretty much as had gone before? Or do you mean its significance lies in the fact that its disastrous end-result almost caused the French army to implode completely and thus lose the war for the allies in 1917 - in effect, almost bringing stage 3 to an end in 1917, but allowing the Germans to take advantage of stage 4?

Perhaps another example of what I believe, with sincere respect, to be your academically inclined thinking in rigorously scouring the detail is: If we agree in essence on the true nature of total war, and Haig’s understanding of this, why complicate the point by talking about others who reached the same conclusion. If the point is valid, surely the rest is just window dressing?

Now, I will not address your response line by line, for that would embroil me in too much detail and I don't want to lose focus on my main assertion that the omnipotent strategic point of total war makes battlefield considerations irrelevant (unless an aid to increase the attrition of the enemy). But I will make a couple of points:

1) I have no problem at all in grasping the concept that strategic and tactical considerations can be held by a commander in juxtaposition - indeed it was one of my main points that Haig fully understood the strategic implications of total-war when many of his contemporaries didn't. And this did not mean I would expect him to ignore the run-of-the-mill tactical/operational considerations and not make contingency plans for what ifs - he was, after all, a field commander - it simply meant that I believe his strategic understanding drove his tactical/operational thinking much more than his contemporaries.

2) Even though Plumer endorsed the campaign for Passchendaele Ridge for the reasons given in your post, and these obviously seem to be for tactical/operational reasons, I can't see how this is evidence that Haig thought the same. In my opinion, Haig had a far greater understanding of the strategic implications of total-war than his subordinates (and the way it impinged greatly on tactics/operations), so could this not be a prime example of his greater understanding?

Also, airing Plumer's view does not explain Haig's statements to the effect that, "we must not make the same mistake as the Germans did in Flanders in 1914."

However, Robert, in fairness to you, I have admitted that I'm not convinced yet that Haig's reasons for continuing with 3rd Ypres, and the tactical/operational "upgrading" of Cambrai, was totally strategic in thought and that further research is needed. But I still can't see anything in your reply that makes me inclined to lessen my suspicions.

I'm really enjoying, Robert, what seems to be a battle between pragmatism and academia (or am I being a pillock when saying this?)

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie, I quite understand your point about adopting a 'pragmatic' approach, or perhaps an approach that can be described as looking at the wood rather than at the trees. It is a very important perspective to adopt. Too often the detail can obscure the obvious.

Being a highly pragmatic man... I start at the end-result and work backwards from there - for me, this makes much more sense of events, in that I never loose sight of the actual outcome and helps me to conclude so that's why such and such happened! As opposed to the more academic approach which, in my opinion, can put as much emphasis on theory and what-ifs as it does on the end result, and thus blur the realities.
Don't confuse the approach that I adopt with the 'academic' approach that you describe. You have the luxury of being able to look at the historical outcomes with hindsight, and then disregard (or not) the potential causes of those outcomes. Given your desire to be pragmatic, however, I would venture you would not adopt the same approach if your life or your house or whatever depended on only one of several outcomes in the future. Especially where you had some degree of control over the processes by which the outcome could be determined. Then your pragmatic approach would proactively pursue the course of action that would guarantee the most favourable outcome. What I am seeking to do is to understand what the generals were doing at the time, and the rationale for this if possible.

So why confuse a train of thought by considering Nivelle's offensive as a significant alternative when the end result was pretty much as had gone before? Or do you mean its significance lies in the fact that its disastrous end-result almost caused the French army to implode completely and thus lose the war for the allies in 1917 - in effect, almost bringing stage 3 to an end in 1917, but allowing the Germans to take advantage of stage 4?
You have hit the nail on the head! Even more significant is the fact that Haig (along with many of Nivelle's Army Group Commanders) recognised that Nivelle's approach was highly likely to produce the near disaster that eventuated. So all alteratives were not alike. None were going to enforce a victory more quickly, on that we are agreed. Some alternatives could lose the war more quickly! Many historians believe the war could have been won at signficantly less cost to the British, which is another facet of the same debate.

Robert

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I believe [Haig's] strategic understanding drove his tactical/operational thinking much more than his contemporaries.
salesie, I would be more cautious on this point. Many contemporaries may have talked about a quick war, but if you look carefully at what they actually did, it bears more resemblance to the realisation of a long war. Several actually adopted the same view.

Even though Plumer endorsed the campaign for Passchendaele Ridge for the reasons given in your post, and these obviously seem to be for tactical/operational reasons, I can't see how this is evidence that Haig thought the same.
It is not evidence that Haig thought the same. It is evidence that Haig's statements about defeating the German Army should not be taken to mean that he thought Third Ypres would deliver that total defeat. This is an interpretation that is often ascribed to Haig and his planning for, and continuation of, Third Ypres.

Also, airing Plumer's view does not explain Haig's statements to the effect that, "we must not make the same mistake as the Germans did in Flanders in 1914."
No, it does not. But I did not intend that it should. You can read into this statement that Haig meant "we must keep going at all costs because the Germans are so near to collapse that they will be completely defeated, just like we would have been in the First Battle of Ypres if the Germans had just kept on a little longer". I would not. There is too much evidence to the contrary, quite apart from the fact that Haig would not have had any sense that total defeat was facing the Entente in late 1914. Local defeat, yes. But not total defeat. IMHO.

Robert

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Robert, hindsight is often seen as a negative concept when studying history because it is often said that the characters of the time we're studying had no such luxury. However, as you know, a few in the past, a very rare breed indeed, did posses foresight, and had the opportunity and the strength of will to have their way (usually against severe pressure to change). And it seems to me that the "pragmatic" approach I advocate is an effective way of spotting these "prophets" and their "methods", and in doing so perhaps help us to understand the process of making the "right decision" for the future? To this end it would seem we think alike?

However, back to 1917:

The biggest conundrum for me vis-à-vis Haig in late 1917 is his diary entry of 15th October i.e. "...it is stated in a note by the DMI War Office that the morale of the troops in the field gives no cause for anxiety to the German High Command. I cannot think why the War Office Intelligence Department gives such a wrong picture of the situation except that General Macdonogh is a Roman Catholic and is (perhaps unconsciously) influenced by information from tainted (i.e. catholic) sources."

Leaving aside the religious connotations (though in my opinion significant in themselves), Haig seems to believe the morale of the German troops in the field is giving the German High Command real cause for concern in late 1917. Apparently, Charteris' assessments in the summer of 1917 put the collapse of German army manpower/morale squarely in the autumn/winter of 1917, whereas Macdonogh's assessments put this collapse firmly in the spring of 1918 (both assessments done before Russia's collapse).

But what compounds the conundrum for me is Macdonogh's eerily prophetic report of 13th October 1917 i.e.

"Effect of Military Operations on the Political Situation in Germany

1. There can be no doubt that there is at the present moment a serious political crisis in Germany. As proofs of the existence of this crisis may be cited the fall of Von Bethmann-Hollweg, the so-called 'Peace Resolution" passed by the Reichstag on 19 July, the formation of the Fatherland (or National) party which has been created to combat the Peace Resolution, and the recent attacks on Helfferich (the Vice-Chancellor), Michaelis (the Chancellor), Admiral Von Capelle (Secretary of State for the Navy) and General Von Stein (Minister for War), which are likely to result in the resignation of the three former officials.

2. The following extracts from moderate papers show how bitter the feeling is at present: The 'Vossische Zeitung' describes Admiral Von Capelle's attack on the Independent socialists as 'a deplorable, illegitimate trick on the part of the Government. Michaelis, as head of the Government, is responsible for the unhappy affair, which follows the unfortunate Helfferich incident.' The 'Vorwdrts', in an article entitled 'Michaelis before the end', says The assertions of Von Capelle have in an unspeakable manner converted the Reichstag into a theatre of the wildest scandal.' The 'Kolnische Volkszeitung' says 'Crisis is undoubtedly again in the air, a vote of want of confidence against the Chancellor being spoken of, and his fall, as well as that of the Vice-Chancellor, hinted at ... We must get the better of this critical unrest, which is in such crying contrast to our brilliant military position.' The 'Kolnische Zeitung' says 'The National Party is working against the Government. Unity is the need of the hour.'

3. The causes of the crisis may be summed up in the one word disillusion-ment. The German people feel that they have been misled by the predictions of the result of the U-boat campaign, by the forecasts of the harvest, by the promises of large quantities of grain and oil from Roumania, by the assertions that America would remain neutral, and above all by the prophecy of a brilliant strategical success after the retreat from the Somme, of the impossibility of a serious British offensive on account of the diminution of our munition supply through the action of the submarines, and more recently of the early collapse of the British offensive in Flanders. All these promises and predictions were either made by the Government or were published in the officially inspired Press, and all have been proved false. The result is a widespread feeling of deep distrust which shows itself in political ferment.

4. The following statements by a German of considerable standing who was a witness of the crisis that resulted in the fall of Von Bethmann-Hollweg, are noteworthy: 'Consternation and chaos reigned in the Government Departments in Berlin. It was fully expected that bureaucracy had seen its last day ... A panic ensued and the fate of the German Empire was looked upon at that moment as almost sealed. Had a German Kerensky arisen, the Reichstag and the whole nation would have been behind him, perhaps for all time. Anything might happen in Germany now. The people have the power in their hands and intend to use it. Something has gone wrong in Germany. Another year of rationing, further disappointments in the U-boats, more heavy casualty lists, and the breaking strain will be reached.'

5. It is true that the July crisis was tided over by the intervention of Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, but the repeated heavy blows which the British Armies have dealt in the Western Theatre, combined with the unscrupulous efforts of the Pan-Germans to identify the Higher Command with their opposition to the Reichstag Majority, have undoubtedly begun to sap the confidence of the German people in their military leaders. Further crises are imminent and, apart from the pressure which the Entente can exert by maintaining a united front as regards war-aims and by repeating calmly and dispassionately through the medium of our leading statesmen the reasons for our refusal to treat with the present leaders of Germany, we can by maintaining at full strength our military pressure on the German Armies in the Western Theatre hasten the crises and accentuate internal dissensions. On the other hand, if this pressure is relaxed or transferred against one or other of Germany's Allies, the Higher Command may be enabled to restore confidence in the invincibility of the German Armies, to unite the warring factions and to reconcile the German people as a whole to the necessity of another year of war, supported by the conviction that by holding out they can win the peace that has been promised them. They may even be enabled to win this winter an easy, spectacular victory similar to those of the Serbian and Roumanian campaigns in the winters of 1915 and 1916, by allowing them to withdraw troops from the Western Theatre and to concentrate them by means of their superior railway communications against one of our weaker allies before we could take the necessary steps to prevent a disaster.

6. But if our military pressure at full strength is maintained, the feelings of apprehension will increase, the infallibility of Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff will be further questioned, and pacifist tendencies will be strengthened. The German Government will then be faced with one of two alternatives. They may attempt a coup d'etat and dissolve the Reichstag, or they may throw over the Pan-Germans and endeavour to conciliate the Reichstag Majority. If he coup d'etat is attempted, the resulting unrest will undermine the war spirit more quickly than we can dare to hope for at present, while, if a Moderate policy is adopted, we can depend upon the Pan-German to use their control of the heavy industries and agrarian interests to force a conflict with the rest of the nation. In either case, therefore, a struggle between the bulk of the nation and a powerful and aggressive minority would be inevitable, and although it is not suggested, in spite of the recent revelations concerning the German Navy, that the majority would attempt a revolution, it is conceivable that, if the minority could not be brought to reason, the weapon of the general strike might be used.

7. To sum up, although it may be argued that the German armies cannot be decisively beaten in the field, the German nation is very vulnerable politically. The best weapon to take advantage of this weakness is military pressure for it will more than anything else accentuate the internal dissen-sions and contribute more rapidly than any other measure to the undermin-ing and final breaking of the German war spirit which is our foremost war-aim.

G. M. W. Macdonogh, DMI

General Staff,

War Office 13-10-17.

Secretary War Cabinet,

Please circulate to War Cabinet.

W. R. Robertson, GIGS

14.10.17. "

Is this the note Haig refers to in his diary? I'm not sure - although it states, it may be argued that the German armies cannot be decisively beaten in the field (at the moment?) it does not mention German High Command anxieties directly, but it does clearly state that the military pressure must be maintained not only to accentuate Germany's eventual collapse but also to avoid her diverting troops in the winter to achieve a morale boosting victory elsewhere as in 1915 & 16 (unfortunately the soon to be total collapse of Russia gave Germany a morale boosting "victory" without diverting any troops from the west). It also mentions a twelve-month prediction for Germany's collapse (moving on from spring 1918). On one hand this report disagrees with Haig's own assessments of German army morale in late 1917, but on the other it clearly agrees with his process of maintaining the military pressure.

It seems to me there is enough "backing" for Haig's doctrine in this report to make it "untainted" in Haig's eyes, so his diary entry probably referred to Macdonogh's earlier reports dealing specifically with manpower/morale assessments, but by the autumn of 1917 the errors of Charteris' assessments had been highlighted and his methods of assessment had been brought more in line with the war office's (not just assessing prisoner reports from active areas, who could be expected, just as in the BEF, to show signs of lower morale).

So, more research is needed to show that by continuing well into the winter "closed season" in 1917 with major offensives, whether the reason was Haig still believing German army collapse was possible in late 1917 or to maintain the military pressure to avoid movement of German troops away from the west in order to accentuate eventual German collapse, or a combination of the two? Or the other reasons so often given i.e. to deflect attention away from the French, or to draw reserves away from Cambrai (though in my opinion the French connection is extremely weak in concept)?

Can anyone help?

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie, there was a need for the BEF to take the pressure off the French Army immediately after Nivelle's offensive. By the late summer, however, this need was significantly less, just as you rightly suggest IMHO. October saw the successful execution of the Battle of Malmaison for example. And this was over and above the French involvement alongside the British in Third Ypres.

As to the discrepancies between Macdonogh and Charteris, I can't help out (no need to keep quoting them. If you click on the hyperlink to the right of the word 'Post' in the top right hand corner of any post, it will pop up a URL for you. Just paste this in the new thread and anyone who has not seen the previous can always hyperlink through to it)

post-1473-1201379048.jpg

From what I know of Macdonogh, he did a terrific job in the opening months of the war but had major problems in relationships with French and Wilson. He is someone that I have wanted to study in more detail, as is Charteris.

Why does the Macdonogh/Charteris issue trouble you so? I totally agree that a person's religion, gender, sexual preferences, ethnicity, etc should have no bearing on anyone's judgement of character or performance. I shudder when I read what is written in many diaries and anecdotal accounts from this period. Fox's book 'GHQ (Montreuil)' was the worst example - truly awful. But I sense there is something deeper with this issue and it puzzles me. On the one hand, you want to draw back from an analysis of cause and effect, concentrating on effect. My impression is that on this issue, however, you are suggesting that Charteris did play a role in determining what Haig did? Or have I misunderstood? Apologies if this is the case.

Robert

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Robert, I never draw back from analysing cause and effect, otherwise how could I analyse anything? But I do change the emphasis of my research to effect and cause.

The only way I can explain my interest in this is to say that I didn't have a definitive answer when starting out but I did have an itch; I have a similar problem with objectives when writing fiction, my stories never end up as I plan them at the outset, and this particular "project" started out in my head with a different story in mind i.e. a few months ago, I read Haig's final despatch for the first time and my immediate thought was: the crafty old sod, he's written this despatch to fit events and make it look as if he fought the war all along as part of his master-plan, he's trying to say it all went splendidly to plan. Of course, as time went on it was as if Haig and his bloody four-phase doctrine was haunting me, almost everywhere I looked I saw little snippets of information, sometimes apparently unconnected, that brought these thoughts back to the forefront of my brain, and slowly a more elaborate picture formed in my mind. Then it struck me, that this may just be a story not covered in any depth before, and my urge to explore and write it developed.

What truly sparked my interest, though, was discovering Haig's diary entry saying that the DMI's intelligence reports were tainted by Catholicism - I admit to being somewhat shocked and annoyed, and immediately to mind came the rhetorical question of how many men died because Macdonogh was a bloody Catholic? But I soon realised that this was an emotional knee-jerk reaction, and further research showed the situation to be far more complex - though as far as I'm concerned it's still a black mark on Haig's stewardship of his men. And, along the way I've formed my opinion on the omnipotent strategic meaning of total-war.

So you see, my core interest is not Charteris/Haig or Haig/Macdonogh or even Macdonogh/Charteris (though key relationships in this story) it's Haig's relationship with his four-phase doctrine and how it impinged on the way he fought a total-war as C-in-C.

Cheers - salesie.

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Thank you, salesie. Your explanations have made things much clearer. Working backwards from effect to cause provides additional insights. I am reminded of one of Terraine's major contributions. After several books had appeared that accused generals of being donkeys, living is chateaux, not learning, etc, etc, Terraine basically said '...but we won'.

Of course, as time went on it was as if Haig and his bloody four-phase doctrine was haunting me... may just be a story not covered in any depth before, and my urge to explore and write it developed.
I understand. This background helps. I would strongly recommend that if you are truly interested in pursuing this issue of the four-phase doctrine, that you include a wider range of sources, especially from before the war. I have outlined some above. The conceptual approach encompassed in the four-phase doctrine was not unique to Haig. Nor were the logical consequences, in terms of how to approach the execution of a major war. It is true that Haig retro-fitted what happened in his post-war analyses, but that is to be expected and is evident in many post-war analyses.

though as far as I'm concerned it's still a black mark on Haig's stewardship of his men.
This comment is still a little unclear to me. Are you referring to Haig's ignoring of Macdonogh's intelligence summary? Or Haig's believing in Charteris' summary? Or both? Presumably, by 'stewardship of his men', you mean that Haig caused more men to die in Third Ypres that would have been the case if he had believed Macdonogh/not believed Charteris?

Robert

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Robert, please don't take this the wrong way, but are you a schoolteacher or tutor or the like? The reason I ask is that you seem to have developed the irritating habit of treating my recent posts as a teacher-pupil relationship - and I get the impression you're beginning to patronise me? (If you are a professional teacher I would be happy to accept that you do it subconsciously)

You see, I managed to figure out all on my own that pre-war research of Haig is essential, especially as I now believe that Haig DID NOT retro-fit his final despatch (my initial reaction was that he did) and that my further research makes me believe he did in fact form his 4-phase doctrine pre-war - otherwise, how could this tie-in with my main interest of how it impinged on him fighting a total-war as C-in-C? (A point I thought I made perfectly clear not just in my last post but in others).

As for the Catholic remark being a black mark against Haig - if, and I emphasise if, Haig did in fact allow this prejudice to influence his planning, and I don't mean just 3rd Ypres, then black mark is not strong enough, after all it wasn't just any old Catholic's work he seemed to dismiss out of hand, it was the Director of Military Intelligence himself he regarded as tainted - however, my thoughts on this have tempered a little because at the moment other research is leading to me to the opinion that Haig's own ego ruled his thoughts more than religious prejudice i.e. Haig was happy with Charteris because Charteris told him what he wanted to hear, and Charteris was happy to work for Haig because he knew exactly how to provide the "right" information for his chief. And, when Macdonogh's work was more in line with his own thoughts he didn't seem to regard it as tainted by religion (as in Macdonogh's report backing on-going military pressure and in the DMI warning where and when the German spring offensive would begin - mind you, even Charteris managed to figure the last one out but without the same degree of accuracy as the DMI). My research continues...

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie, thank you for your further clarification on the retro-fitting issue.

It seems that the issue relating to Macdonogh vs Charteris comes down to the degree to which Haig actually acted on the intelligence that he thought was 'right'. Here is Haig's interpretation of the ongoing campaign of Third Ypres on October 5th, 1917:

"In my opinion when we have gained the Passchendaele ridge as far north as Stadenberg the Enemy will be forced to withdraw from Dixmude front and Foret d'Houthulst, because he can't risk his troops being cut off in that area. The river from Contemarcke to Dixmude is unfordable except at the bridges. My view is first capture the Passchendaele-Stadenberg ridge..." (the emphasis is in the original).

When the German contigency plans are examined, Haig's prediction is remarkably accurate. Had the weather held and/or the British had taken full possession of the ridge earlier, this is what the German Army would have done. This is not about a sudden and huge collapse of the whole German Army.

Later, on the 13th October, Haig wrote about:

"a conference at Cassel at noon with Generals Plumer, Gough, their Staff Officers, Kiggell, Nash, Birch, Charteris, Davidson... I said that our immediate objective was the mass of high ground about Passchendaele. Once this was taken the rest of the ridge would fall more easily."

Note that this report is entirely consistent with Harington's description of the immediate Mission of Second Army, which Plumer concurred with. This was not about the imminent and total collapse of the German Army.

Whatever Haig may have written about Macdonogh, or his conclusions, the key question, IMHO, is what did Haig do? Irrespective of what Haig thought, what he did was keep Third Ypres going until early November. Let's discount for a moment Haig's own interpretations of what he was trying to achieve with the attacks in October and November. Given the appalling conditions, continuing Third Ypres is deemed to be evidence that Haig believed Charteris not Macdonogh. In the short-term, Haig allowed the planning for Cambrai to proceed. It could be argued that this too was based on the same wrongly-placed belief.

Much more significant, however, is an analysis of the other things that Haig did at the same time. Everything else points to the fact that plans were being formulated for 1918, even as far ahead as 1919. These actions were consistent with Macdonogh's perspective.

Robert

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Robert, I'm at a loss to understand why you seem to repeatedly address strategic matters with extremely narrow tactical/operational considerations i.e. you mistakenly, in my opinion, use the following as examples of strategic intentions:

"In my opinion when we have gained the Passchendaele ridge as far north as Stadenberg the Enemy will be forced to withdraw from Dixmude front and Foret d'Houthulst, because he can't risk his troops being cut off in that area. The river from Contemarcke to Dixmude is unfordable except at the bridges. My view is first capture the Passchendaele-Stadenberg ridge..." (the emphasis is in the original).

When the German contigency plans are examined, Haig's prediction is remarkably accurate. Had the weather held and/or the British had taken full possession of the ridge earlier, this is what the German Army would have done. This is not about a sudden and huge collapse of the whole German Army.

Later, on the 13th October, Haig wrote about:

"a conference at Cassel at noon with Generals Plumer, Gough, their Staff Officers, Kiggell, Nash, Birch, Charteris, Davidson... I said that our immediate objective was the mass of high ground about Passchendaele. Once this was taken the rest of the ridge would fall more easily."

Note that this report is entirely consistent with Harington's description of the immediate Mission of Second Army, which Plumer concurred with. This was not about the imminent and total collapse of the German Army."

Robert, there are no strategic implications at all in your examples only very narrow tactical/operational considerations. The imminent collapse of German army manpower/morale announcing the end of phase 3 and the commencement of phase 4 was a major strategic consideration, and would have been held alongside any tactical/operational considerations (in juxtaposition). Also you seem to have completely missed the strategic discussions at the conference at Cassel. The following are examples that show a clear strategic significance:

At a meeting with the War Cabinet, June 1917, Haig told them:

"Germany was nearer her end than they seemed to think, that now was the favourable moment for pressing her and that everything possible should be done to take advantage of it by concentrating on the Western front all available resources. I stated that Germany was within 6 months of the total exhaustion of her available manpower, if fighting continues at its present intensity." Source, R Blake (ed) The Private Paper of Douglas Haig 1914-1919, London, 1952, p240.

Charteris's comment on Haig's statement is noteworthy:

"D H gave the definite opinion that if the fighting kept up at its present intensity for 6 months, Germany would be at the end of her available man-power. This is going rather further than the paper I wrote to DH on the 11th June (ia/35273). It depends on Russia . But my words were 'It is a fair deduction, given a continuance of the effort of the Allies, etc., etc. That includes Russia, but it does not differ materially from DH's bolder statement. Source, Charteris, At GHQ, op. cit., p233.

As late as 2nd October 1917, when 3rd Ypres had been in progress for a couple of months, in my opinion Haig was still clinging to the belief that the Germans were close to collapse as per Charteris' intelligence assessments. At the Cassel conference he expressed the view that:

"Continued defeats, combined with the long duration of the war, had tended to lower the enemy's morale. The time may come shortly when the enemy's troops will not stand up to our repeated attacks, or when he may not have sufficient fresh troops immediately available to throw into the battle. The enemy failed to take advantage of his opportunities on 31st October 1914, and did not push forward when his repeated attacks had exhausted the British forces on the Ypres front. We must be careful not to make the same error." Source, The Haig diaries OAD 645 Record of a conference held at 2nd Army HQ, Cassel, at 11am 2nd October 1917.

Yet, by October 8th he seems to have changed his mind, seems to have come closer to Macdonough’s assessment. From the Haig diaries, OAD 652, 8th October 1917, He wished to send,

"...as many officers and men as possible on leave between the cessation of this offensive and the commencement of the next. The armies have undergone almost superhuman exertion and hardships during the last few months, and unless the demands made on them during the winter are reduced to a minimum they cannot be expected to respond fully to the further heavy calls entailed by a renewal of the offensive next year."

I think it's pretty clear that a near collapse of the German army was a prime motivator in Haig's mind when he set 3rd Ypres on its way on 31st July 1917, and even in very early October it also seems clear that it was still at the forefront of his thinking, not least of all in not making the "same mistake" as the Germans at 1st Ypres did. But Haig had seemingly realised by 8th October that the hoped for collapse of the Germans was not going to happen in 1917 by making it plain his armies needed a rest after the exertions of 1917 in order to be in the best condition possible for the fighting in 1918. So why continue for several more weeks with no hope of any significant tactical success? In my opinion the reason has to be strategic.

I suspect that Macdonogh's report, 13th October (posted in full earlier), was a prime motivator in his apparent change of mind – I strongly suspect that Haig’s “tainted” diary entry was before he’d seen this report, but by the time Gough informed Haig on the night of 16-17 October that tactical success was not possible, or would be too costly under such conditions, and advised that the attack should now be abandoned' and Haig replied, "But, my dear Hubert, we have no alternative. We must continue." Source IBID, Haig had seen Macdonogh’s report and realised the strategic significance of continuing with 3rd Ypres (though realising imminent collapse had gone, he had to maintain the military pressure and, at around the same time, he fully endorsed the upgrading of Cambrai from a raid-in-force to a full-scale assault).

Obviously, the last paragraph is simply me thinking aloud, but I can see a strong circumstantial case for its validity (and therefore warranting further research). However, there is extremely strong evidence to show that Haig believed stage 4 was very close to materialising as late as 2nd October 1917.

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie, I am sorry that my reply was not stated clearly enough. We are agreed that Haig started the war with a long-term strategic view. He believed it could only be won by wearing the Germans down over many years. Macdonogh stated in late 1917 that it would take longer before the German Army was defeated. Haig wrote that he disagreed with Macdonogh. Charteris presented a different view. These things we are agreed on.

The issue at stake is whether Haig believed that the war would end in 1917, and whether he acted accordingly. In other words, did Haig so believe Charteris' view that Haig continued Third Ypres in the expectation that the campaign would end the war in 1917.

It is very clear that Third Ypres was started as a campaign, not just a single battle. This is consistent with Haig having a longer-term view of how to win the war. There appear to be two reasons why he continued Third Ypres until November, despite the appalling conditions:

1. Haig was driven by a strategic imperative. He believed Charteris. Therefore, Haig had to keep pushing because the German Army would collapse.

2. Haig was driven by a tactical/operational imperative. He, like his senior Army Commander Plumer, wanted the high ground taken before the campaign was closed down. I have provided evidence that this was the case.

If the strategic imperative was the only reason for Haig's decision to continue Third Ypres, based on Charteris' inaccurate assessment, then:

a. Haig did not need to continue Third Ypres to achieve defeat in 1917. Haig had already demonstrated with Lens, and then subsequently with Cambrai, that he could shift the point of attack if needs be.

b. Leaving aside the decision to continue Third Ypres, which is the point under discussion, everything else that Haig did (not said) showed that he believed Macdonogh's assessment. It is not correct, IMHO, to say that Haig changed his mind in October because he saw Macdonogh's assessment. Haig was already writing about the limited tactical/operational goals for Third Ypres before Macdonogh's report was released. You mentioned the decision to encourage leave in preparation for the Spring of 1918. This is but one of a myriad of examples where it is clear that Haig was not preparing to shut the war down in late October 1917.

Why then did Haig appear to disagree with Macdonogh and support a view that the war would be over much sooner?

One answer is that he employed Charteris to say what he wanted to hear, he wanted to hear that the war would be over soon, Charteris said this, Haig 'heard' it, and acted on it. I don't agree, for the reasons stated above.

An alternative explanation lies in the political context in which Haig was making these statements. He knew that the Entente would face the full might of the German Army in the Spring. He knew that he was being starved of necessary reinforcements. There was a war weariness, both within and without the military. Haig was, IMHO, deliberately using a short-term expediency, ie stating 'the war will be over soon', to gain the necessary military resources, especially manpower, to continue the longer term strategy.

Robert

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Robert, it's good that we seem to agree that Haig did not retro-fit his final despatch and that he did in fact start the war with a long-term strategic view. I'm still puzzled though about the following in your last post:

1) Macdonogh's reports, throughout 1917, differed significantly with Charteris' views vis-à-vis the point at which German manpower/morale could be expected to collapse. However, when the basis for Charteris' "flawed" reports were "corrected", in the autumn of 1917, they came pretty close to Macdonogh's calculations - so it's not true to say there were any significant differences in late 1917. Which, in my opinion makes Haig's diary entry of 15th October all the more puzzling - perhaps a little hissy-fit at being proven wrong?

Also bear in mind that by this time, Haig was under increasing pressure, not least from Lord Derby, to be rid of the "incompetent" Charteris - and, of course, when it emerged in very late 1917 that Charteris had refused to acknowledge in his pre-assault reports the arrival of three German reserve divisions at Cambrai even Haig couldn't save him.

2) You say that Haig's desire to send as many men on leave as possible in the winter of 1917/18 is evidence that Haig was NOT planning to shut the war down in late October - when you say shut-down, do you mean go into winter mode and reduce operations to a minimum? Or do you mean victory? Because I think it's pretty clear that by October 8th he was planning to "shut-down" and reduce operations to a minimum for the winter - but later changed his mind.

3) In June 1917, you reckon that Haig told the War Cabinet what they wanted to hear because he knew he would face the full force of a German spring offensive in 1918 and was being starved of men? I think your timing's out a little here, Robert, by a good few months in fact!

Cheers-salesie.

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salesie, thank you for the additional details about the duration of the discrepancies between the assessments from Macdonogh and Charteris. I was not familiar with the timings of Macdonogh's reports but your clarification does not come as a surprise.

The key question remains: did Haig conduct the Third Ypres campaign, particularly with respect to its duration, according to Charteris' "flawed" reports?*

My point remains the same, that Haig continued to think about and plan for continuation of the war in 1918, and even in 1919. In response to your question 2. (apologies for the lack of clarity), I am saying that Haig was not staking everything on victory in 1917, i.e. he was not planning to end the war in 1917. The issue of men going on leave is but one example of how there was long-term planning as well as short-term operational planning for Third Ypres.

Re point 3, I was not thinking specifically about the June 1917 meeting with the War Cabinet. Leaving aside the question about timing, Haig was not, IMHO, telling the likes of LG and War Cabinet what they wanted to hear. He appears to have been telling them what he wanted them to understand in order to make them take the political decisions necessary to support the total war effort. A significant role of GHQ (as it was for GQG) was to conduct a form of PR campaign at the political level. Charteris played a role in this, as did some of the Army and Corps Commanders.

In summary, Haig's reaction to Macdonogh's reports must be seen primarily in a political context, not primarily in a military planning context.

Robert

*Please note that "flawed" is not in double-quotes because I do not believe your interpretation of his reports. It is because I have not seen the base material from which Charteris developed his reports. Charteris' book is familiar to me but this is not what I am referring to.

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Robert, sorry but I'm still puzzled.

I accept that by October 8th 1917, contrary to his earlier beliefs and only six days after his talk of not making the same mistake as the German's in 1914, Haig had realised by then that phase 3 would not end in 1917 and was planning for 1918; his words of October 8th make that plain, but please take note of the last sentence, its relevant part highlighted here:

"...as many officers and men as possible on leave between the cessation of this offensive and the commencement of the next. The armies have undergone almost superhuman exertion and hardships during the last few months, and unless the demands made on them during the winter are reduced to a minimum they cannot be expected to respond fully to the further heavy calls entailed by a renewal of the offensive next year."

I contend at this point that Haig was planning to shut-down the war to a winter "closed season" as in 1915 & 16 - so why would he continue with 3rd Ypres well beyond the point of diminishing returns, and why would he sanction a full scale offensive at Cambrai? Surely, by his own words, by not reducing to a minimum the demands made on his men during the winter of 1917 he would run a grave risk for 1918? Why would he change his mind and take such risks if the reason was not of overriding paramount importance?

Now, for Haig's meeting of June 1917 with the War Cabinet, whose context you initially wished to move on several months and you now seem to want to turn it into a generalised PR/Political point. And, I'm sorry, Robert, but I have to say, your latest reply makes a bit of a monkey out of this debate i.e. if as you say in your last post, "He appears to have been telling them what he wanted them to understand in order to make them take the political decisions necessary to support the total war effort." then the logic of that point surely shows that in June 1917 Haig believed precisely what he told the War Cabinet i.e. that the German army's manpower would be exhausted in six months and victory secured in late 1917, and not the other way round? In other words, trying to get the politicians to understand what he understood to be true - which is precisely my point about this meeting!

Finally, one of my main points is that Haig did at certain crucial times regard Macdonogh's reports in a political context (tainted by Catholicism is highly political and not just religious bigotry). Intelligence reports must form the basis of any military plan, otherwise how could any plan be formulated - when a C-in-C brushes aside a DMI's reports in favour of his "own" man's, on what appear to be highly dubious grounds, some would say that's verging on the criminal not the political.

Cheers-salesie

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I contend at this point that Haig was planning to shut-down the war to a winter "closed season" as in 1915 & 16
salesie, I agee.

so why would he continue with 3rd Ypres well beyond the point of diminishing returns, and why would he sanction a full scale offensive at Cambrai? Surely, by his own words, by not reducing to a minimum the demands made on his men during the winter of 1917 he would run a grave risk for 1918? Why would he change his mind and take such risks if the reason was not of overriding paramount importance?
These are the crucial questions. The possible answers are:

1. He thought that the war was about to end in 1917, as a result of Charteris' reports.

2. It was not "winter 1917" when Third Ypres was shut down and when Cambrai was launched.

3. The risks of capturing Passchendaele Ridge were worth the effort, given that the battle would not proceed beyond the capture of the ridge and that his key commander Plumer, whom everyone respects as one of the best if not the best commander, was clearly in favour for tactical and operational reasons.

4. You have suggested the risk was 'grave'. Haig, the man on the spot, did not.

Now, for Haig's meeting of June 1917 with the War Cabinet, whose context you initially wished to move on several months
This is not correct. I made no reference to the June meeting with the War Cabinet. You have made this specific connection but I was only thinking in general terms about the need for GHQ to have a communication strategy with respect to Lloyd George and the War Cabinet.

Robert

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...then the logic of that point surely shows that in June 1917 Haig believed precisely what he told the War Cabinet i.e. that the German army's manpower would be exhausted in six months and victory secured in late 1917, and not the other way round? In other words, trying to get the politicians to understand what he understood to be true - which is precisely my point about this meeting!
salesie, Haig was trying to get the politicians to deliver what he needed. Haig was not necessarily saying what he thought was true. I would contend that Haig was not just planning for the next six months, given the long-term planning about the American Army, new advances in tank design, etc, etc.

Finally, one of my main points is that Haig did at certain crucial times regard Macdonogh's reports in a political context (tainted by Catholicism is highly political and not just religious bigotry). Intelligence reports must form the basis of any military plan, otherwise how could any plan be formulated - when a C-in-C brushes aside a DMI's reports in favour of his "own" man's, on what appear to be highly dubious grounds, some would say that's verging on the criminal not the political.
Thanks for the point of clarification on the political connotation re Catholicism. Having grown up outside England, this issue is not so readily apparent.

I don't agree that Haig planned according to Charteris' views and did not plan according to the meaning of Macdonogh's reports. Given that Haig did plan for the longer-term future, he was in effect agreeing with Macdonogh's reports by his actions, but not by his words. It is sad that he could not acknowledge this, but it was not criminal IMHO.

Robert

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Robert, your replies are becoming increasingly non sequitur with every post, and, consequently, effective debate is becoming nigh-on impossible.

You use extremely narrow tactical/operational statements by Haig to "prove" he had no strategic intent with 3rd Ypres, but when examples with clear strategic implications are given you attempt to write them off as generalised PR/Political stunts and/or say that Haig didn't mean what he actually said. Yet, you say that you agree Haig held a strategic view throughout the war and held this strategic oversight in juxtaposition with the tactical/operational considerations.

Your argument seems to be rapidly turning into an oxymoron i.e. although Haig held a strategic view throughout the war, but as far as 3rd Ypres is concerned, his statements containing no strategic implications at all prove no strategic intent on Haig's part, but his statements with clear strategic implications also prove no strategic intent.

And, if I took your political argument as fact, Robert, I would have to conclude that David Lloyd George, as an elected politician, had no choice but to hold back troops for 1918. After all, according to you, his C-in-C never shared his long-term plans with him, only made reports and statements for political expediency that the C-in-C himself never truly believed, and ultimately these statements proved to be false (as they would undoubtedly do if the C-in-C never believed in them in the first place). If I managed to persuade my bosses to give me as many resources as they could muster, I'd break my back trying to deliver what I'd promised - but for some reason you reckon that in 1917, with 3rd Ypres, that Haig didn't.

Robert, in my opinion, your argument has become nonsensical in whichever context I ponder it - tactically, operationally, strategically or politically!

Cheers-salesie.

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Like a lot of people I'm sure, I have found this thread really interesting and I can say without hesitation that I've learnt a great deal from it. Unfortunately, I only found it a couple of weeks ago and by then I think it was on page 14 or 15. I mention this because I have found it very difficult to "catch up," to come to terms with some of the points that have been expressed, particularly in the more recent posts. It seems though as if it's losing a little of its momentum so I thought I would join in and hopefully others, once they've seen my somewhat prosaic offering, will do likewise

I agree, of course, with Salesie's view of total war and like him I was gobsmacked to read IS Bloch's comments on how war would develop in the twentieth century. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I interpret the ongoing debate between Robert on the one hand and Salesie on the other as a difference of opinion regarding the sort of victory that was possible during WW1. Robert seems to be arguing that that if operations had been conducted differently, then a purely military victory might well have been possible. Salesie, however, disagrees with this and has argued that given the nature of total war, a victory of this type was/is impossible. In a total war where the warring sides are evenly matched in terms of manpower and weaponry, a war of attrition is inevitable and the concept of "small gains for high casualties" would continue until the will of the German armed forces and Germany's civilian population disintegrates. This "wearing away" process by military, social, political and economic means and the ultimate and total collapse is central to Salesie's argument I think and, in his opinion, is central to the long term strategy pursued by Douglas Haig on The Western Front.

Salesie in particular seem to credit Douglas Haig with qualities that really are quite remarkable. He suggests that DH formulated his "four stage strategy" prior to the commencement of WW1 and that once he had assumed command, he began to put it into practice. In other words, everything Douglas Haig did as C in C can be explained by reference to stage three of his four stage plan and was designed to achieve ultimate and total victory. In other words, the blood baths of The Somme and The Salient were part of this overall plan and the horrendous lossed incurred were simply the price the allies had to pay for victory. In other words, there was no alternative, total war had rendered this form of conflict inevitable.

If this is true DH was indeed a remarkable man. Focussed ? Certainly. Cold blooded ? Who knows but that is one possible interpretation. There is ample evidence to support the view that he was an extremely religious man. Did God give him the strength he needed to carry out his campaign ? Perhaps. One thing is certain though: if all of the horror of the Great War was planned and carried out in accordance with some carefully conceived plan that had never been put to the test before, then DH had to have possessed a super-human character simply to live with himself on a day to day basis.

There is another aspect of this argument that bothers me: Haig's reluctance to embrace what Tim Travers "How The War Was Won" called "newer weapons". He was referring to weapon systems such as aircraft, tanks, gas, machine guns, Lewis guns and mobile trench mortars that were becoming available in greater and greater numbers. Of course, he used these weapons but he never saw tham as "battle winning" devices and clung to the belief that the only way to win was through the use of massed infantry supported by artillery.

It strikes me as peculiar that a person who it is claimed understood the nature of modern (total) war and the means by which that conflict could be won, ignored to a very large extent weapon systems that might have very well tipped the balance in the allies favour and, at the same time, reduced the casualty lists.

In the final analysis, "we won" but I'm afraid I still have to be convinced that Haig was the visionary some claim him to have been.

Kind regards,

Harry

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Interesting comment from C S Forester`s "The General" on a Corps HQ conference. Though he doesn`t explain what, in military strategic terms, the screwdriver is!

post-2329-1201618581.jpg

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Interesting comment from C S Forester`s "The General" on a Corps HQ conference. Though he doesn`t explain what, in military strategic terms, the screwdriver is!

[/quote)

I like it Phil. Perhaps the "screwdriver" he refers to are the "newer weapons" that I mentioned above. The tendency it seems was to throw more and more men into the attack after and during bigger and bigger artillery bombardments. Maybe CS Forester was suggesting that perhaps the better use of these other weapons and even a more imaginative battle plan might have paid dividends in the short term. I stress the short term because I find a great deal of Salesie's total war argument attractive.

Kind regards,

Harry

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It is said that when your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

But did DH only have one tool ? I think I'd better rephrase that.........!!!!!! Was his range of tactical options and weapon systems that limited ?

Kind regards,

Harry

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C.S. Forester's comments are pretty typical when it comes to WW1 - on the face of it, an extremely insightful statement into the Generals' approach to the problem, to which members of the ee-aw brigade can readily agree - but, as Phil says, no actual definition as to what military alternative would compile Forester's "screwdriver".

This is why in my initial post in this thread I asked did anyone at the time, or in the ninety years since WW1, come up with a rational alternative of how that war could have been fought - something of a rhetorical question though, because I knew the answer was a resounding NO.

Harry, your summary of the debate vis-à-vis total-war making a purely military victory impossible seems pretty much spot-on from my point of view, though the debate does seem to have become "stuck in the mud" of 3rd Ypres and Haig's strategic intent with that battle. And, your mention of Haig's interaction with the new, battle winning weapons is a valid point to raise.

My contention is that total-war only comes about when both sides are evenly matched in military power, in economic might, in social-cohesion and, not least, in having an ongoing supply of manpower. Therefore, in a total-war situation, the learning curves in tactics and in the development of new war-fighting inventions and the way these weapons are used is a two-way street - the two sides learn from each other at a pretty equal rate; if you like, similar to Newton's third law i.e. action and re-action are equal and opposite. This military balance will obviously continue until outside factors exert an influence - until the re-action is no longer capable of matching the action, in Bloch's words "its resolution would lie in the grim and indifferent hands of famine and social upheaval."

In the case of WW1, it was almost inevitable that Germany would lose - the German Empire could never hope to match, in a protracted war, the power of the British Empire, with it's overall economic superiority and Britain's greater social-cohesion forged through centuries of unity not decades, and, of course, its Royal Navy's ability to totally blockade the continent. Germany could never really hope to win, but, of course, Britain could have lost - if it hadn't been willing to make the sacrifices it did.

But, I think we need to look at WW2 to provide the final "proof" of total-war's strategic omnipotence over military action alone. By 1939, the doctrine of "all arms" fighting was already well-established and developed to even higher levels up to 1945, and from a British/American perspective, the casualty rates are not commonly viewed as being as horrendous as WW1 - but when we look at Russia we see a different picture. No matter what the tactics used, no matter what modern weapons were integrated/employed, the Eastern Front was always highly attritional (in some cases much more than WW1). If the Russians had not been willing to and capable of bludgeoning the Germans, it is my opinion that Britain and America's casualties would have been much greater than WW1's in order to secure total victory.

In my opinion, far from lessening casualties, the new (for WW1) battle winning weapons systems only served, in essence, to increase the true human cost of total-war.

Cheers-salesie.

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In my opinion, far from lessening casualties, the new (for WW1) battle winning weapons systems only served, in essence, to increase the true human cost of total-war.

Thank you Salesie for an extremely clear and persuasive response. Of course the "newer weapons" we have both referred to were never used to their full potential ( perhaps because of DH's "love affair" with the tried and trusted massed infantry/artillery option ) so we'll never know what might have happened during Third Ypres had the whole range of options been utilised to their full capacity.

I found your reference to WW2 interesting. It seems to me that the Manhattan Project, and the anxiety shown by the allies during the race to be the first to develop atomic weapons is significant in the present context. In a sense, these were one of the "newer weapons" that were developed between 1939-45 and they most certainly possessed both a tactical military and strategic war winning impact in the conflict with Japan.

I would welcome though your comments on Haig himself. What sort of man was he in your opinion ? We all have periods in our lives when we decide on a course of action knowing that we may ultimately be called upon to pay the price. In Haig's case, however, the price was simply astronomical and I would guess that few people could have retained their sanity and sense of purpose in such circumstances.

Kind regards,

Harry

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