Earl Haig, the Commander in Chief of British forces 1915-18 and founder of the British Legion, died on the 29th of January, 1928.
Earl Haig’s name wasn’t really Earl, it was Douglas and he only became known as Earl after he was granted an Earldom by the King and Parliament, in 1919, after the First World War. It was for his actions during the so-called ‘Great War’ that he is mostly famous – or infamous, depending upon your viewpoint – at a time when the future 1st Earl of Haig was known as Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Haig was Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force for most of World War One and one of the leading military commanders of any nation engaged in that conflict. Significantly, he has been recognised as the architect of the controversial and bloody strategy of attrition that resulted in the excessive casualties for which that war is famous. Crucially, and more recently, he has been execrated for that strategy having resulted in such vast numbers of dead and wounded in exchange for little material gain. That is, other than bringing the War to a close – as the American General, John Pershing, was to say afterwards, Haig was “the man who won the war.” Perhaps this extract from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon sums up the contradictions of Earl Haig’s reputation:
“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
After the War, Haig was publicly lauded as the leader of a victorious army, but he was also loathed by those who gave him the nickname ‘the Butcher of the Somme’. Nevertheless, despite the insult, he remained a popular figure long after the War and his funeral, for example, was declared a day of national mourning. In his ‘War Memoirs’, published long after Haig was dead and gone, Lloyd George criticised the Earl for lacking the personal magnetism of a great commander, but it was well known that he was essentially a shy man, and so much so that he never addressed his troops and indeed was not often seen by them. In contrast to the Welshman, military historian John Terraine likened Haig to the legendary, historical figures of the Dukes of (hazard a guess…) – Marlborough and Wellington.
Haig has often been portrayed as an inept commander who, contrary to the qualities of competence, integrity and humanity that he surely had, exhibited callous disregard for the lives of his soldiers. It’s as if his tactics are seen as being of the ‘last man standing’ variety, in that the Allies had more men and would therefore outlast the Axis. And, sometimes, it’s as if he gets all the flack ‘on behalf of’ an outdated generation of British generals, hostile to change and technological advance. Haig’s critics argue that he was “unimaginative”, but that’s balderdash (appropriate use of then contemporary colloquial term). Consider that Haig introduced tanks, in 1916, and that the British Tank Corps was the world’s first such force. Consider that Haig’s army was the most mechanised force in the world by 1918. Consider that Haig’s army was supported by the world’s largest air force. And consider that, despite Haig being strongly criticised for failing to appreciate the usefulness of artillery, the Royal Artillery expanded by over five times during the War. Surely, all that demonstrates some degree of imagination or at very least an ability to listen and understand. Look at it this way; no German general was of sufficiently greater imagination to have wrested victory from Haig’s grasp.
Douglas Haig was born in Edinburgh on the 19th of June, 1861. Douglas attended Clifton College and then studied at Brasenose College, Oxford, between 1880 and 1883, where he studied Political Economy, Ancient History and French Literature. He passed his exams at Oxford, but left without a degree, perhaps in order to avoid becoming too old to enrol for officer training at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, which he did in 1883. He graduated the following year and a year after that, was commissioned into the 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars. Later, in 1896, he gained a special nomination to attend a year long course at the Staff College in Camberley. Haig’s first active service came in 1898, when he served as acting Chief of Staff and was attached to the cavalry forces of the Egyptian Army during the Omdurman Campaign.
Haig also served in the Boer War, being involved in the Colesberg operations and becoming Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division. Haig was mentioned in despatches four times during his service in South Africa and that brought him to the attention of the likes of Major-General John French and Kitchener, both of whom would have important roles later on, in World War I. After the turn of the Century, in 1901, Haig became the Commanding Officer of the 17th Lancers and, in 1902, was also appointed Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII. In 1904, Haig left the Lancers and returned to India where Lord Kitchener was Commander-in-Chief. At that time, Haig, who had been a Captain for ages and ages, had reached the rank of Major-General; the youngest in the British Army at that time.
Haig returned to Britain in 1906, to take up the post of Director of Military Training on the General Staff. The next year, Haig took up the post of Director of Staff Duties in the War Office and, in 1909, he went back to India once more; this time as Chief of the Indian General Staff. He returned to Blighty in 1912, to be appointed GOC Aldershot Command, and in 1914, he once more became Aide-de-Camp to a King; George V. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Haig was appointed Commander of I Corps and helped to organise the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French. Following the defensive successes at the Battles of Mons and Ypres (the first time), Haig was promoted to full General and, in December 1914, the I Corps was expanded into the British First Army, of which Haig was given command. Then, in December of the following year, after French had fallen out of favour, partly down to Haig’s influence, the Scotsman became Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. Then he and his army won the War.
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, died on the 29th of January, 1928 and, at his request, was buried in Dryburgh Abbey, near his estate of Bemersyde, with a simple headstone, not unlike far too many of his men who were buried on the battlefields of France.