Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Was Douglas Haig Promoted Because He Was Well Connected?

King George V and Sir Douglas Haig Sometime After the Battle of the Somme

Not according to Haig biographer, Gary Sheffield, who has stated:

Haig was a thoughtful, hard-working and professional soldier, though by 1899, after 14 years in the army, he had only achieved the rank of captain. But thanks to an outstanding performance in the Boer War, Haig moved up the army hierarchy where he excelled in a number of demanding posts. [Editor's note 2.] He impressed Richard Haldane, the great reforming war minister, who would have seen through a well-connected duffer. [Editor's note 2.] Haig's reputation was enhanced on the battlefield in 1914–15, meaning he was the obvious candidate to take command on the Western Front when Sir John French's credit was exhausted. Like many officers, Haig had connections with the British royal family including King George V, but this was a minor factor in his rise.

Source:  BBC

Note 1.  In South Africa, Haig became chief of staff to General French, who would later command the British Expeditionary Force, and whom he would replace in 1915..

Note 2. Haldane's statement about Haig's abilities was quite specific: "Haig had a first-rate General Staff mind." It raises the question whether his estimation included Haig's ability for supreme command. 


  1. Haig was one of the few officers who attended the Staff College early. The British Army has always been cursed with poor staff work. Regimental duty as a Quartermaster and Adjutant did not prepare me to command and administer large bodies of troops. Haig worked hard to enter the Staff College, but had failed a part of the exam for entrance. he retook and the exam and prevailed on Secretary of War and Chief of the Army to appoint him to an open position. His first job after leaving the College was in the Sudan on the Sirdar's Staff in the reconquest of the Sudan. His performance as French's Chief of Staff earned him command of his own column during the closing stages of the war. He was a passionate reformer and served as Military Member of the Esher Committee. he helped Haldane reorganize the the Militia, Volunteers, and Yeomanry into the Territorial Army. He rose to command of the I Corps. When he assumed command of the BEF in 1915.
    Haig was well connected. he was heir to the Haig whisky dynasty, his wife a Lady in Waiting to the Queen and he was an equerry to George V. He had literally rescued French's career when that officer's finances put him heavily in debt and Army Regulations demanded such officers resign or be dismissed. He paid French's debt. There is no record French ever repaid him. But as he noted, French was abysmal when it came to staff work. What eventually cost French his command was his mishandling of the reserves at Loos. They were too far back to intervene effectively to complete the initial success. Haig himself would face the same criticism as the war went on. lack of effective communications and the condition of the battlefields did much to damage both French and Haig.

  2. It doesn't overly matter if he was well connected. Most military commanders who rise to the highest level must be at least politically astute and have network connections to powerful people both in and out of uniform. Outstanding performance in the field in addition to these attributes are generally pathways to the highest rank up to and including in the present era. Powerful connections should never shield incompetence once an officer achieves this high rank but they are most likely important factors in getting there.

  3. Connections allow access that others may not have. Haig had married a Royal Lady-In-Waiting
    in the briefest of courtships and had been invited to correspond privately to George V after the BEF arrived in France. In Oct, Haig told the King directly that no one had confidence in French.
    In Dec Haig replaced French after the King had consultations with the Prime Minister and Sec State for War. Haigs connections certainly were significant in his selection and gave him an inside when compared to his peers.