IT IS A TRUISM of history that reputations rise and fall with the changing values and prejudices of society. There can be few better examples of this axiom than the historical legacy of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the Scot who led the British armies to final victory in the Great War. When he died at the relatively early age of 66 in 1928 the newspapers of the time were filled with many tributes. He lay in state in London before a funeral in the capital which, in the twentieth century, was only eclipsed in scale among the nation’s war leaders by that of Winston Churchill. Later, when Haig’s body was moved to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh before final burial in Scotland, over 70,000 filed past to pay their last respects.
This high reputation endured for many decades. True, in the 1930s the wartime Prime Minister, Lloyd George, opened up the first cracks with a scathing attack condemning Haig as lacking “those highest qualities which were essential in a great commander in the greatest war the world has even seen. It was far beyond his mental equipment”. But Lloyd George and Haig had never got on and each man felt a degree of contempt for the other. The former Prime Minister’s criticisms could easily be dismissed as a petulant attempt to settle scores when his old adversary could not respond.
As Walter Reid makes clear in his new biography it was only from the 1960s that the new orthodoxy of Haig as butcher and bungler really developed. The most damning indictment came in Alan Clark’s flawed but influential The Donkeys of 1961. The image of courageous soldiers led by incompetent generals of blinding stupidity soon became fixed in the public mind especially with the popularity of the war poets, the film adaptation of Oh, What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth, where Haig is hilariously identified with Stephen Fry’s buffoon commander General Melchett. The veneration of the past was now turned on its head. Undergraduates at his old Oxford college defaced his portrait in the college hall with the inscription, ‘Murderer of 1 million men’ while in a recent Scottish debate in Parliament on the fate of deserters during the First World War, one MSP argued that it was Haig rather the condemned soldiers who deserved to be shot at dawn.
Few would go quite as far as this venomous attack, but there can be little doubt that in the public mind Haig and his fellow commanders remain discredited as effective military leaders despite achieving a resounding victory in 1918. Reid’s book is the latest in a series of studies which attempt to stand back from current prejudices and examine the evidence again in an impartial fashion. His is not an original or a pioneering contribution because the rehabilitation of Haig has been going on quietly among a number of writers since John Terraine and others published a generation ago. All the sources used have been available for some time and Reid has also been able to make full use of the meticulous scholarship of the Great War produced over the last few decades. This forms, of course, the vital historical context without which any convincing evaluation of Haig’s role as commander is impossible. But where Reid adds value is in the clarity of his prose and hence the accessibility of his text and his measured judgements which, while not suggesting that Haig and his colleagues were flawless, demonstrate that the present image of the man is little short of a grotesque caricature. Yet, most scholars of the period would regard Reid’s conclusions as entirely predictable and hardly earth-shattering, such is the yawning gap between academic history and popular beliefs. Indeed, over twenty years ago one historian asserted that the more balanced view of his generalship was now a settled issue and the discredited stereotype only endured in the popular media. But it is precisely in relation to widely-held but erroneous views that Reid’s book is of considerable value because it effectively brings the fruits of recent research to a wider audience.
In addition, Walter Reid steers a careful path away from the more extreme claims of some revisionists. Haig was not a paragon and although he presided over the greatest victory in terms of scale ever won by the British Army, he was not by any means the best general the nation has produced. For an intrinsically conservative man, he was easily carried away by over-optimism which could cost thousands of lives. Lloyd George and others thought him devoid of imagination, especially regarding the martyrdom of the army during the endless trench warfare of attrition. He has been criticised also for not showing either in his public manner or private diaries any apparent concern for the horrors of war or for the terrible human suffering that came with them, though Haig’s reserved personality as ‘the dour Scot’ makes any final judgement on his innermost thoughts and feelings difficult to establish. Reid exonerates him from complete responsibility for the enormity of the Somme when the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties, a third of them killed on the first day of the battle. But Haig was certainly too ambitious in the targets he gave his divisional commanders and must bear some of the responsibility for the carnage.
However, there is another side to the story. If Haig was sometimes culpable then there were few, if any, alternatives who could replace him. Both the British military élite and the vast majority of the politicians regarded him as the only top soldier capable of delivering the final triumph. The stereotypical picture of operations on the Western Front as long rows of men struggling towards barbed wire fortifications and unrelenting machine gun fire reflects not Haig’s mistakes but the military orthodoxy of the time which was shared by all the combatant nations. Furthermore, after 1916 the stereotype no longer fits: a military technique evolved along much more sophisticated lines which laid the foundations for the tactics of the Second World War rapidly developed. Above all, Reid is most convincing when he argues that Haig and his fellow commanders have not been given the credit they deserve for the successes of 1918 which first held back the German offensives of that year and then turned defence into the decisive attacks which pulverised the opposition and quickly forced Germany and her allies to sue for peace. This campaign, both in scale (Haig had a force of 1.8 million men under his command) and impact, was undeniably one of the greatest feats of British arms but it is now hardly remembered. Instead, the Somme and Passchendale still dominate popular memory of the Great War.
ARCHITECT OF VICTORY: DOUGLAS HAIG
pp496 ISBN 1841585173