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

Saturday, December 19, 2015

100 Years Ago: Douglas Haig Named Commander-in-Chief of British Forces, 19 December 1915

At the end of the Great War and into the 1920s, the reputation of Douglas Haig (1861–1928), commander-in-chief of the victorious British Army in Europe, was as high as Dwight Eisenhower's would be in 1945. No lesser figure than John J. Pershing called Haig the "man who won the war." Ardent pacifist and nurse Vera Brittain wrote of the inspiration Haig's Order of the Day gave her and everyone at  her hospital in the dark hours of April 1918. Two hundred thousand of his former troops passed by his coffin in tribute when he died in 1928. 

Then the legend was shattered. The memoirs and poems of the veterans started appearing, telling a different story from the official sources that had been used to shape public opinion about the war effort. The survivors of the trenches told of ill-considered strategy and mindless attritional war. David Lloyd George then skillfully applied what seemed to be the coup de grâce in his War Memoirs, when the former war leader accused Haig of being "a second-rate commander" lacking "imagination and vision."  Since then there has been no end to the critics of Douglas Haig. They focus especially on his conduct of the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

There have been others, however, including some highly respected historians — who take exception to much of the negative commentary about Haig's leadership. They point out that the Somme and Passchendaele are not the whole story, that the eventually victorious 1918 campaign must also be considered. Historians will probably re-fight this great "Haig Debate" as long as the war is remembered. However, at the time of his appointment to supreme command he was, undoubtedly, the best qualified man to replace Sir John French, who had been found wanting as commander of the BEF during the first year and a half of the Great War.

Some key points in Haig's career:

As a cavalry and staff officer he had distinguished himself in India, the Sudan Campaign, and the Boer War.

He was the key military adviser to War Minister Sir Richard Haldane, during the post-Boer War modernization of the British Army, which included the planning for the deployment of an expeditionary force to Europe.

He was given the plum assignment of the Aldershot army base, which included command of the 1st and 2nd divisions, the I Corps of the BEF, should it be deployed.

In the early actions his units successfully, if luckily, closed the gap and held the line at the First Battle of Ypres and had a minor success at Neuve Chapelle. The failure his First Army at the Battle of Loos was eventually (with Haig's help) laid on French's doorstep.


Other (not necessarily flattering) pertinent matters:

Connections: He was highly esteemed by both the late King Edward VII and his son, reigning King George V.  His wife, Vivian, had also been a lady-in-waiting to the queen.

Luck: Of his only two feasible rivals for succeeding Field Marshal French, James Grierson, had dropped dead in transit to France in 1914 and Horace Smith-Dorrien, something of hero in the 1914 campaign, had incurred the wrath of French in the spring of 1915 and was sent home.

Infighting: Haig proved skillful in letting his disappointments in his superiors, French and War Minister Kitchener, be known at the highest levels, without suffering much blowback himself.


  1. I more come down on the pro-Haig side myself with reservations.

    However, was there any thought to Allenby being made head of the BEF? Too far down the totem pole perhaps? I know he was also on the Western front from the beginning and was head of an army before going to fight the ottomans, but otherwise I am not that versed in his early war days.

  2. Pro Haig?
    In Churchill’s devastating judgment, Haig “wore down alike the manhood and the guns of the British army almost to destruction.” Keegan is also merciless: “On the Somme, [Haig] had sent the flower of British youth to death or muti­lation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors in the slough of despond.”

    Of the final assault that carried the ruined, pointless little village of Passchendaele, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller, wrote, “To persist…in this tactically impossible battle was an inexcusable piece of pigheadness on the part of Haig.”
    20,000 killed in one day on the Somme!
    Passchendaele cost the Brit. army 400,000 casualties.
    In 1917, his leadership came close to a German victory on the Western Front.
    He was not the 'man who won the war.'

    1. As Bill said - I largely feel Haig has received a bad wrap. He was not nearly as reticent to try new things as if often portrayed. Hell, he was one of the earliest, biggest, proponents of tanks.

  3. I was anti-Haig as a boy at first. However reading official histories and several memoirs and newly published histories I feel Haig got a bad rap. On the Somme, when he reviewed Rawlinson's plan he made mention of the fact that the men were too heavily burdened and that he felt Rawlinson should use extended waves and send the men over in fighting order, without packs, just arms, ammunition, bombs, water and a day's ration plus the iron ration. He did not order Rawlinson to change the pace of advance and or the formation. Haig was a cavalryman and Rawlinson an infantryman. I have read he was very reticent and did not communicate well orally preferring to write instead of speaking. As far as Passchendaele, the delay in following up Plumer's early success could be attributed to Gough. The German successes in the Spring of 1918 the government particularly George, starved the BEF of troops holding thousands of men in England. forcing him to reorganize the BEF. also having to send troops to bolster the Italians deprived him of troops at a critical moment. He correctly divined that the Germans were at the very end of their rope. He was the only commander who thought the war might end in 1918 rather than 1919 as Foch, Pershing and other thought. Overall he did his best as a commander trying to adapt to a war none of the commanders of the opposing armies believed possible.

    1. Haig was a modern general, more political than technical. He did some dumb things which he attributed to instructions from God. He was misled by sychophants. He neglected to educate himself. (The mud was how deep?) After Passchendaele, he should have been replaced.
      My candidate would've been Sir John Monash, the smartest general on the Western Front. He understood tanks and airplanes, was an imaginative tactician, was a very thorough planner and logistician, and he was loved by his men. King George liked him. Unfortunately, many senior officers did not like him; his parents were German Jews. Rommel and Guderian credited Monash with inventing the blitzkrieg, combined arms attacks with tanks and aircraft. After he became a corps commander, one could argue that Monash never lost battle.