Douglas Haig Butcher Of The Somme Essay
He is the aloof Scotsman with a reputation as cold as his bronze statue at the Cenotaph in London.
Few military leaders in history are as scorned and loathed as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1918, a position that also put him in charge of the Canadians fighting as subjects of the British Empire.
In the popular view, Haig remains the general not fit for purpose, a callous man whose only talent seemed to be throwing brave young soldiers into the maw of the remorseless German war machine entrenched on the western front in futile attempts to break through the line.
Haig’s charge sheet is long and bloody. On the western front the total number of dead and wounded in the British army — which included Canadians — was nearly one million. He oversaw the battles of Passchendaele and the Somme, which remain in the collective conscious of the English-speaking world as embodiments of the horror of war.
The 1916 Somme Offensive alone left 420,000 British dead or wounded, which earned Haig a nickname that endures: “The butcher of the Somme.”
But does Haig deserve the burden of the butcher’s bill?
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The popular narrative of the incompetent butcher is unfair, says Gary Sheffield, author of The Chief, a 2011 biography of Haig.
“Haig should be remembered as a general who delivered victory under very, very difficult circumstances,” he says from England. “One of my colleagues once said that Haig won the First World War but the British never forgave him for it.”
Canadian military historian Tim Cook concurs.
“There is a sense that Haig has been treated poorly by history, and there is a re-evaluation going on,” he says in an interview from Ottawa.
Shockingly high casualty rates, grappling with coalition warfare, war technology that favoured defence, turning a small citizens army into a mean fighting force to take on the mighty Germans — Haig had no easy task, Cook and Sheffield say.
Haig was born in 1861 in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, into a wealthy family of whiskey distillers. His education was standard upper class: Oxford University then Royal Military College Sandhurst, the elite officers’ school.
In the final years leading up to the Great War, Haig helped reform the army and prepare it for possible future conflicts on the continent. These included effectively writing the British army doctrine, creating a reserve force called the Territorial Army and organizing the British Expeditionary Force, which would be sent to France in August 1914.
“These are actually not exciting jobs but really important jobs and Haig puts his stamp on the army,” says Sheffield.
Broad-shouldered and blue-eyed, he was a talented polo player and caught the eye of Dorothy Vivian, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Alexandra. They married after a brief courtship and the union solidified his position in royal circles. Ambitious and driven, Haig’s star was on the rise.
But he was also odd. The historian John Keegan wrote that as commander-in-chief on the western front Haig believed he was in direct communication with God, who had apparently told him he was playing a major part in a divine plan for the world.
His Presbyterian faith provided him with strength all his life, says Prof. Peter Simkins, president of the Western Front Association in England.
“He believed in duty, obedience, loyalty to empire and was a devout Christian,” says Simkins.
When Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, Haig led the 1st army corps into northern France to drive the Germans off French soil. It was a small, inexperienced citizens’ army.
By December 1915, the war was going badly for the allies. The temperamental John French, who commanded the western front, had to be replaced. Casualties were mounting and the British and French wanted to bring the war to a quick end. Haig was appointed.
Stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland, the front was a 740-kilometre ribbon with both sides dug into deep trenches behind barbed wire to avoid the new weapons of the era, machine guns and shells that favoured a defensive position, not offence.
“No one could figure out how to break through, not the French, not the Germans, not the British,” he says. “The western front was simply a very cruel battlefield.”
Haig, however, was a strong believer in the offensive. His first major battle was the Somme Offensive in 1916.
The objective was to break the stalemate by seizing the high ground on the river Somme, push the Germans back and relieve the pressure on French troops fighting at Verdun, where the German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, was making good on a grim promise to make “the French army bleed white.” French dead at Verdun was 351,000.
On July 1, 1916, the attacking British troops met strong artillery and machine-gun fire from German defenders. Haig used tanks for the first time in the war. But 30 per cent of British shells were defective and failed to explode, Sheffield notes.
For Newfoundland, the scars of Beaumont Hamel on the opening day of the offensive remain. At 9:15 a.m. on July 1, the Newfoundland Regiment marched down an exposed slope toward the enemy and was met with machine-gun fire. The few who reached the German line discovered the barbed wire had not been cut down as expected by the previous five-day artillery bombardment. In half an hour it was over. The regiment was nearly wiped out — 710 dead or wounded out of about 800. Not one fired a shot.
Haig called off the offensive in November 1916. The allies advanced 25 kilometres — at a cost of 430,000 British dead and wounded.
Even after the catastrophic losses on the Somme, Haig continued war by attrition, sending waves of soldiers to attack nearly impenetrable German defences, barely budging the front line and appearing to yield nothing but body counts.
The Somme continues to cast a shadow in Britain. One of the most famous jibes against Haig was from the 1980s cult comedy series Blackadder, when a British army captain played by Rowan Atkinson warns his men they will all get killed in the trenches because Haig “is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”
The Germans fared no better, losing an estimated 660,000 men on the Somme.
The “technology of destruction vastly outstripped that of communication and mobility,” wrote Max Hastings, the military historian, author of Catastrophe! Europe Goes to War 1914. “Defenders could always reinforce a threatened sector more quickly than the attackers could advance across it.”
The Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, was desperate to get rid of Haig and reduce the carnage, but he didn’t have a viable alternative.
“There wasn’t an obvious alternative candidate who would have combined the single-minded professionalism of Haig with his capacity to remain relatively calm at moments of crisis,” Simkins says. “Besides, Lloyd George’s political power base was ultimately not firm enough for him to remove Haig from his post.”
Then came Passchendaele.
As Keegan wrote damningly of Haig: “On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.”
Haig wanted to break through to the northern coast of Belgium from where German U-boats were targeting British ships. He ordered soldiers to attack on July 31, 1917.
But by the time the Canadian Corps, led by Gen. Arthur Currie, arrived on the scene in October, the Germans still held Passchendaele ridge and 240,000 British soldiers had died trying to take it. Rain and shellfire had reduced the battlefield to a bloated morass of mud, craters, water and dead bodies. Haig ordered the Canadians to take the ridge. Currie refused. “I will not waste 16,000 good soldiers on such a hopeless objective,” he famously said. But Haig needed a victory to salvage the faltering campaign.
Currie’s prediction was almost spot on — 15,654 Canadians died but they captured the ridge on Nov. 10. It would take another year before the Allies took the coast.
Haig did the right thing, says Cook.
“If they had shut down the campaign at the beginning of October when the rain began, imagine the shocking effect on morale,” he says, adding the French army was in mutiny and there were mass executions to maintain order. “They had to salvage something out of it. It was the Canadians who did it.”
The beginning of the end for the Germans came during the 100 Days Offensive starting in August 1918. Under Haig’s command, the Allies achieved a series of successes against Germany, which ended the war.
By then, the British Army was unrecognizable. It had been transformed into a mighty fighting force because the commanders, including Haig, adapted and learned. By early 1918, the British Army was the best equipped on the western front.
“The war of 1914 is very different to the war of 1916 and it’s very different from 1918,” says Cook. “It’s almost a different war, different weapons, different tactics.”
When the war ended, Haig had a stellar reputation. In his remaining years, he established the Royal British Legion and raised money for needy veterans.
Addressing undergraduates at the University of St. Andrews in 1919 he said: “We were doing battle for a form of higher civilization in which man’s duty to his neighbour finds a place more important than his duty to himself . . . ” according to Modris Eksteins’ book Rites of Spring. He visited St. John’s, N.L., in 1924 to unveil the National War Memorial. He died a national hero four years later and his funeral was a national day of mourning.
His reputation began to falter in the 1930s when Lloyd George and Winston Churchill published memoirs criticizing Haig. The war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon wrote prose damning the officer class.
With the rise of fascism, the general view was the Great War hadn’t achieved anything and Haig’s reputation began to sink rapidly, says Cook.
In the 1960s the spirit of the times was anti-war and anti-establishment. Haig was a relic of an era best forgotten. After the 1969 musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War, Haig’s reputation collapsed. It hasn’t recovered since.
Hamida Ghafour is a freelance writer based in The Hague and the author of The Sleeping Buddha.
Haig's Reputation as the Butcher of the Somme Essay
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Haig's Reputation as the Butcher of the Somme
In the run up to the war, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was appointed the Director of Military Training. In an effort to create a reserve standard army which could double up as a 'home front' defence force, plus a fighting unit for use abroad, he managed to achieve this by pushing for legislation that lead to the creation of the TA (Territory Army) and the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) which were to be later used in the war effort in the 'war to end all wars'. Haig is most famously renowned for his involvement in the "hundreds of dead" soldiers "strung out like wreckage" in the thickened barbed wire of the failed attack of the Somme, after a…show more content…
His apparent lack of emotion leads me to how he may deserve the label of being "the butcher of the Somme". This reveals when he says "the nation must be taught to bear losses." This heartless attitude bears resemblance to the rule of Bloody Mary as Queen of England when she persecuted Protestants in an attempt to bring England back to the Roman Catholic faith. He is also inferred to be a butcher as he did not stop the men from going over the top when he saw that his particular plan of action was not working in its current state
Even though the Somme was a terrible disaster, it served in a positive light to be a learning curve for the British Battalions/Sections/Corps/and generals. With the benefit of hindsight, it showed the Allies that their was a serious, inadmissible problem in their ranks because how such a mass scale massacre of men could happen after such a well planned offensive from high up the ranks to Haig himself is a clerical atrocity. Firstly, the barbed wire pounding was a good idea in theory however it only served to in practice make the wire entangle so that it was "thick" to the point that "daylight could barely be seen through it". But, it could be argued that because Haig suggested the idea after being prompted