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The Road to a Revisionist Damascus


Greenwoodman

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It's the post. The thread is very good.

George, I didn't feel able to reply. Where do I start? It's enough to make you want to pack it all up and take up knitting.

Ah - thanks to Squirrel for getting you to clarify that. When you said the thread was the one you most disagreed with ever I was interested to learn why. As to the post in question - no arguments with you there!

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Churchill's verdicts on Haig : "He may have been - indeed he almost certainly was - unequal to the task, but no-one else was perceived as his equal or superior." Phil endorses that view as follows: "If that`s true, and I suspect it is literally true, it may stand as a criticism of the British top brass as a whole. Phil also asserts that "we often read that there was no-one among them who was perceived as being a potential C in C? " But when asked by Chris to reference this can only come up with returning to the Churchill quote given by Ron.GAC

I`ve just realized that I`ve been misinterpreted there. What I meant to be literally true was that no-one else was perceived as Haig`s equal. That`s not to say that no-one was - simply that, at the time, they were not percieved to be. And if that was the perception, then it does stand as a contemporary criticism of the top brass as a whole by those who held the perception - not a criticism that I`m supporting!

On the question of references, I`d simply say that I`m sure I`ve read a number of times the same type of remark, not least on this forum, but I don`t keep notes of everything I`ve read in case someone asks for a reference. I like my WW1 readings to be a hobby not a chore. Everyone`s at liberty to do as Wully did and say "I`ve `eard different" I won`t take them to task!

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My first impression of Sir Douglas Haig was a very negative one.

As an impressionable apprentice in the early eighties, my foreman,a man who was about to retire(so he would have had a father and uncles who fought during the Great War),despised Haig with a passion.He always referred to him as the butcher,a waster of human life, and that he solely, was responsible for the countless deaths incurred on the Western Front.

I didn't know too much about the Great War at the time,and thought his opinions were generally accepted facts.His opinions have always been in the back of my mind.

Why would he have such opinions? Were they given to him by a generation of people that knew Sir Douglas Haig better than us? Im not sure of the answers.

My interest in the Great War over the years has allowed me to build, a completely different picture of Haig.One episode speaks volumes for me,and that was his funeral.If those who fought directly under Haig had despised and blamed him,then why did so many attend his funeral? Surely these soldiers are far better qualified to judge Haig than we are?(Although we have the benefit of hindsight).

My knowledge of Sir Douglas Haig is limited and very general,but my opinion of him, is a far cry from the early eighties.

I would like to know more,then my views could have more substance.Can anyone recommend a good book on him out of the countless ones printed.

Im sure the Haig debate alone would keep this forum going.Not sure we will ever arrive at a point where everyone agrees.

Thanks for listening,

Anthony.

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Hello again

The most obvious successor to Haig, and quite possibly a successful one, was Plumer. There is some indirect and circumstantial evidence that he may have been approached but declined to allow his name to be considered, either as CinC France or as CIGS. There is a reference to him in a book about the 1914 Curragh incident when one of his contemporaries says of him: "Plumer is a good judge of what to avoid."

Whenever the name of Monash is mentioned in this connection I am reminded of the experience of the French Army when appointing a new and promising CinC with a good track record to date - Nivelle - over the heads of many senior men. The near-catastrophe of his 1917 offensive showed the danger to the British Army which replacing Haig, whether by Plumer, Monash or anyone else, might have caused.

Geraint:

I note your views and respect them because of your family's experiences, but I think you are hard on Haig if you attribute wholly to him the mistakes also made by the Army, Corps and Divisional commanders, not to mention the success of the Germans' defensive tactics. Did your two grandfathers serve on the Western Front, or any other great-uncles or more distant kin? Did they survive? If so, was this not also because Haig and others learned from their mistakes and changed their tactics?

Both of my grandfathers fought on the Western Front and survived, so my family's history is mercifully free from the tragedies shared by so many others. If they had been killed or maimed I would still be here (both my parents were born before 1914) but I might have a more personal view of the scale of the slaughter.

Ron

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Ron, If I may add to what you have said.

A soldier's life in action also depended on, perhaps to an even greater extent, on the Brigade, Battalion, Company and Platoon commanders and their interpretations of Haig's orders passed through Army, Division and Corps.

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......

I would like to know more,then my views could have more substance.Can anyone recommend a good book on him out of the countless ones printed.

...........

Thanks for listening,

Anthony.

With a subject as controversial as Haig I am not sure it would be possible to define a ' good ' book. I can recommend Bourne & Sheffield's Edited version of his diaries. That way you get what the man himself said. Very reasonable nowadays in PB. After that, I would recommend anything you can lay your hands on that way you will get a variety of opinions and hopefully arrive at your own conclusion. Have a search through ther Book Review sub forum some very good reviews.

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Thanks Tom, i will check the book reviews.

Anthony.

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Anthony, for Haig's evolution as a professional soldier and military thinker, you can't do better than 'The Preparatory Prologue: Douglas Haig, Diaries & Letters 1861-1914,' by Douglas Scott. For an account of him as C-in-C of the BEF John Terraine's 'The Educated Soldier' is essential, as are the two books by his Intelligence chief John Charteris - and to balance these more positive takes on Haig in the Great War, try Gerard De Groot's more sceptical 'Douglas Haig 1861-1928.' Avoid, however, Dennis Winter's grotesque, factually inaccurate and venomous 'Haig's Command.' The two most recent biographies are 'Architect of Victory' by Walter Read, and the rather more critical - though largely fair - 'The Good Soldier' by Gary Meade. Often neglected because it is so old and so much has been written after it, is Duff-Cooper's 1935/6 two volume biography 'Haig' - it is still, in my view, a valuable source of material and insights not found elsewhere, and is particularly instructive if read in conjunction with later works; it also remains the most elegantly written book on Haig. For a personal glimpse of the man, try 'Twenty Five Years With Earl Haig' by his long-time orderly Thomas Secrett - Haig's nephew, Douglas Scott, notes that although Secrett's book contains some tall tales, it is nonetheless a shrewd assessment of Haig's character. Another personal perspective comes from Haig's son, the present Earl Haig, in 'My Father's Son.'

ciao,

GAC

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GAC,

Thanks for that.There is plenty of books there for me to contemplate.I dont think any one book would be sufficient to gain a good understanding of Sir Douglas Haig.

Thanks,

Anthony.

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I would second 'The Preparatoty Prologue: Douglas Haig, Diaries & Letters 1861-1914,' by Douglas Scott. It shows a different side to that normally percieved of Haig. I always think it is goodf to see what fromed the man before he became CIC and this is his own words obviously.

However I would disagree about reading Dennis Winters book. Read both sides of the spectrum. Its good for a laugh! No seriously read both sides of the fence, the two camps of writing will have extremes in them.

regards

Arm

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Arm,

Thanks,i will bear that in mind.

Anthony.

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However I would disagree about reading Dennis Winters book. Read both sides of the spectrum. Its good for a laugh! No seriously read both sides of the fence, the two camps of writing will have extremes in them.

Normally I would agree with the idea of familiarising yourself with contrary views, Arm. The reason I rejected the Winter book is not because it is critical of Haig, but because in order to hammer home his dislike of his subject Winter resorted to distorting and doctoring historical sources in order to construct a picture of Haig as arch villain. Chief amongst these is a spiders-web of a conspiracy theory about the Haig diaries being forgeries - except for the copies in the Australian archives which Winter hangs his theory on. I've noted elsewhere that Winter's book, along with Laffin's 'British Butchers and Bunglers', were the last gasp of the 'Donkey's' school of Great War historiography - and fittingly, perhaps, for it's last hurrah, Winter's is the most extreme in its deliberate deployment of the falsehoods of that genre. And with the best will in the world I can't think of a pro-Haig book that even approaches Winter's in terms of extremism. A closer look at Winter's volume is probably a worthwhile exercise, given that it marks a key moment in the historiography which this thread has been discussing.

Examples of deliberate falsehoods and omissions of inconvenient facts can be found scattered throughout Winter's book, leaving his reputation as an historian in tatters. Winter confined his research on Haig's command on the Western Front to copies of documents held in Australian archives. In other words, he discounts the records held by the NLS (the entire Haig papers), the National Archives, Kew, and every other British archive holding relevant primary material. Not only that. In his Introduction, Winter boasts of "the relative scarcity of secondary sources or learned articles cited in the bibliography." So, having confined himself to the Australian archives for his research on a British general, Winter not only rejects British archival sources but also the preceding historiography. Rejecting the previous bibliography so comprehensively reveals a quite breathtaking academic arrogance - an arrogance that his resulting book abjectly fails to justify. Only Winter, we are told, can interpret the Australian archives in such a way as to finally reveal the truth about Haig to the world. But not content with such a restrictive approach, Winter goes further, and fills his book with deliberate distortions, untruths and half-truths which even the most cursory research would reveal.

Winter starts this process right at the beginning, by suggesting that Haig lied on his CV about having won the Anson Memorial Sword at Sandhurst. The evidence that Haig won the Anson Sword purely by merit - the best out of that intake of 129 gentleman cadets at Sandhurst that year - is unimpeachable - yet Winter plants his blatant falsehood on this right at the start of his book, thus setting a benchmark for what is to come. I kept some of the reviews on Winter's 'Haig's Command' when it first appeared in 1991. The selected quotes on the book's cover from John Keegan and Norman Stone tell only a - appropriately in tune with the tone of the book - skewed part of the story. A recent thread on Winter's book contains links to some of the full comments on the book by the historians quoted (read it HERE). One review that I have from 1991 is worth setting out here, I think, not only for what it says about the Winter book in particular, but for the picture it paints of a certain historiographical approach which Winter's book epitomises. Basically, the evolution of the historiography is what this thread has been all about, so what this review has to say is of direct relevance. It's from Donald Cameron Watt, and appeared in the 'Sunday Times' book section:

There is one kind of graduate student whom academic supervisors know and dread. The student becomes devoured by the idea that everyone who has written on their theme before them is wrong. Their thesis ceases to be a site on which to construct a personally designed building but becomes, instead, an arena in which all their predecessors and the subject of their study must do battle. The great R H Tawney referred to such students as exponents of the "gladiatorial school" of historical research.

Denis Winter belongs to that school. But he has added to his obsession (the villainy of Field Marshal Earl Haig) the conviction that disfigures so much amateur historiography - that when other historians disagree, or the archives that are so selectively plundered do not support the writers' belief, the subject must be the victim of a conspiracy or a cover-up. Winter's conviction of this began with Earl Haig himself and the official historians of the first world war and has continued across those generations to this very day. Apparently, he thinks the innocent civil servant who heads the Cabinet Office historical section, the professional historians of the army historical branch, not to mention the trained archivists of the Public Record Office, the National Library of Scotland and half a dozen other major collections of private papers in Britain, are still conspiriatorially linked in denying him the final startling proof he desires of Haig's vanity and villiany.

The defense of Haig's military reputation can probably be left to the one student of his work whom Winter, perhaps wisely, does not mention in his book, John Terrain. For myself, I have never felt quite happy with Terraine's arguments. Books such as C S Forester's 'The General' struck too deeply into my imagination at an impressionable age. I am still half-convinced that a bolder admiral than du Robeck, or a more adventurous commander than Sir Ian Hamilton, might have broken through the Dardanelles, opened the route to southern Russia, and perhaps rolled back the armies of Austro-Hungary, thus sparing us Passchendaele, if not the Somme. But it did not happen; and I do not feel the need, as Winter apparently does, to suggest that Kemal Ataturk's reputation, in the defence of Gallipoli, was invented by a British colonial historian writing in 1931 at the behest of the Foreign Office. How does Winter think Ataturk ever emerged as the leader of the Turkish nationalists in 1918-19, if he were just one of a dozen Turkish divisional commanders?

It is one of the hallmarks of Winter's sort that they pass only too easily from the task of discovering historical reality to writing the scripts for Soviet-style show-trials. In such a task it does matter whether they paint a consistent picture or not. Thus the architect of modern Turkey becomes an unimportant ninny. And Sir James Edmonds, the first official British historian of the western front, who was an unimpressed contemporary of Haig's at Camberley Staff College, becomes an egregious toady to Haig as soon as Winter turns to his official history.

In doing so, Winter shows himself curiously ignorant (as in so many other things important to his story but peripheral to his obsession) of the by-no-means secret grounds on which the Cabinet Office, or rather its secretary, Lord Hankey, initiated a series of official histories of the first world war and the terjms which were binding on the authors commissioned to write them. They were to form the basis for the study of the experiences of the war as a guide to preparations for another, and the organisation of policy if it should happen. The official historians were bound to consult the memories of those whose actions they were examining. They knew, as Winter apparently does not, that written records are faulty, that they are frequently not composed clearly or with the historian in mind, that they often omit what is common ground to both writer and recipient, and that a simple question from the author may bring clarity to obscurity.

The pity is that, hidden in Winter's book are the makings of a fascinating psychological study of Haig, a study of an intelligent, desperately ambitious soul, more than a little insecure and uncertain, voluntarily entombed in a mould for which certainty, unquestioning decisiveness and a capacity for carrying unbearable strain and responsibility are regarded by all as essential. Winter thinks Haig was far from up to the job, but he has not begun to explain why Haig wanted it, how he held it down and how he got away with it. Such a book might have helped our understanding. Al we get instead are mumbles about the Establishment "looking after its own" - the usual cop-out.

Winter should know that the calling of a historian is a noble one, and not to be confused with that of a public prosecutor of those who have gone on to face a much more personal and final judgement.

So, I wouldn't encourage anyone asking for recommendations for books on Haig to turn to Winter, which is why I referenced books by the likes of De Groot for a more critical view of Haig's performance - books by responsible historians with some academic integrity, not old-school sensationalist class-warriors like Winter. Winter, I'm afraid, has been as comprehensively exposed for writing deliberate falsehoods and manipulating sources about Haig as David Irving was for deliberately misinterpreting archival sources on the Third Reich. To anyone coming fresh to Haig studies, I'd say read Winter's book by all means - but only after you've built up your own picture through reading the pro and con historiography referenced in my earlier post. Only then will Winter's deliberate falsehoods be immediately apparent to you and, as Arm says, might at least give you a laugh!

ciao,

GAC

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I agree. Leave Winter until last and then borrow it from the library. It is not worth wasting any money on at all.

Cheers

Chris

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I bought Winter's book but have never managed to finish it - I just get too angry and sad to cope with it.

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I started my WW1 reading with Clark, then read Winter and followed that with Wolff. I then started at one end of the shelf in the Library and read to the other.Moved downtown to the Central Branch and very near the end of their section on WW1, found the Forum and salvation. I have acquired a few books since then, I was on the dole when I started and looking for something to occupy my mind. I started lurking here on the forum as a confirmed B&B man and only slowly and reluctantly changed my mind. Read everything you can lay your hands on, and don't be afraid to form opinions. Vent them here on the Forum and be prepared to defend them when you can but also to change your mind when you can't.

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GAC,

Thanks for your comprehensive account on the reasons why i should avoid Winters book.

If an author deliberately sensationalises or omits evidence to promote their own views, and the respect for that Author by his/her peers is nil,then their credentials as an impartial historian are doubtful.This leads me to conclude that the material they write is not worth the paper that its written on.

Crunchy,Squirrel,

Thanks for your opinions.

I think this is one book i wont be reading.

Anthony.

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Some of you may be familiar with A C S Ensor's book, "A Subject Bibliography of the First World War".

At least in the first edition, Alan Clark's "The Donkeys" is listed among the books about animals.

Ron

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Greenwoodman,

Thanks for that.

Anthony.

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For other reviews of Winter and refutations of his allegations see the following:

Hussey, John Haig's Ride up the Menin Road at First Ypres on 31st October 1914: Did He Invent the Whole Story?

Bulletin Military Historical Society August 1995, pp. 20-29

a detailed refutation of allegations made by Denis Winter in "Haig's Command a reassessment"

Prior, Robin and Wilson, Trevor Review of Denis Winter "Haig's Command: A Reassessment"

Journal of the Australian War Memorial No. 23 (October 1993) pp. 54-57

Hussey, John The Case Against Haig, Mr Denis Winter's Evidence

Stand To! , No. 36 (Dec 1992) pp. 15-17

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Ron Clifton's comment about the Ensor attribution reminds me that when I started collecting a helpful dealer advised be to scour all shelves in bookshops adding thet he had once found a copy of Junger's Copse 125 in the gardenong section of another dealer's shop! In addition it would be wrong to consider Duff Cooper's biography of Haig as unworthwhile. John Terraine noted it merits particularly in the inroduction to The Educated Soldier

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Prior and Wilson's review of Winter's book is devastatingly blunt, given they are not regarded as being pro-Haig. Three and bit pages (A4 size) of demonstrating Winter's distortion of sources and unsubstantiated claims includes comments such as " Winter's lapse in jingo history is necessary for the conspiracy theory which he is about to unveil" and it concludes with " A book like Haig's command [sic] is more than an impediment to the exploration of the real issues. It helps to preserve historical writing of the Great War in its ridiculously protracted adolescence"

For Winter, it destroyed his creditability as a serious historian which he had built up with Death's Men and the The First of the Few. His current plight is quite sad.

Chris

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Anthony,

I would endorse Greenwoodman's advice to start with Wiest's Haig: The Evolution of a Commander. He recommended it to me, along with others, and I think it is a good introduction to the subject. The hardback is only 117 pages of A5 size and provides a very good overview before getting into the more lengthy discussions by Terraine, de Groot and Mead. It also has a very good Bibliographic Note at the end which provides a discussion of the various books about Haig and their merits.

Cheers

Chris

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