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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army

by  Gary Sheffield
Aurum Press Limited, 2011
David Woodward, Reviewer

King George V and General Haig

One of Haig's first serious biographers was his chief intelligence officer, John Charteris, who published Field Marshal Earl Haig in 1929, the year after the death of the commander-in-chief of the BEF (December 1915 to April 1919). Wellington commanded only 67,000 men in 1815 at Waterloo; a century later Haig led a force of 1,000,000 men to victory over the German Empire. Charteris suggested that "when the final record is written, the final judgment given, Haig will stand out alone and without rival as the greatest of the great soldiers who led the armies of their country to battle in the gigantic conflict waged in France and Belgium." (p. 397) 

A "final judgment" on Haig, however, appears to elude the biographer, in part because the public's image of the war has evolved over time, with Haig serving as a barometer of how the war is perceived. Haig died a national hero, but soon after the nation mourned his death, trench poets and memoirists such as Siegfried Sassoon created an image not of a necessary and heroic struggle, but one of futility and needless bloodshed. "Haig's reputation, which had risen so high," writes Gary Sheffield, "had the furthest to fall." (p. 3) And fall it did, reaching a low point during the Viet Nam War and its aftermath, a conflict considered by many to be an equal exercise in futility. Even today Haig is demonized in popular culture. A recent copy of Discover Britain (formerly Realm) includes the following quote attributed to Haig as he watched a tank demonstration in 1916: "The idea that cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous."

John Terraine did his mightiest to rescue Haig's reputation, which was being savaged by the "butchers and bunglers" school of thought. He wrote numerous books, including a study of Haig's command (1963) and an account (1981) of the last hundred days of the war when the BEF breached the Hindenburg Line. It is fair to say that Terraine had more success with historians than he did with the general public, which largely remained wedded to a hostile version like the one found in Denis Winter's Haig's Command: A Reassessment (1991), a study noteworthy for its polemical approach and questionable documentation. A scholarly work by Gerard De Groot (1988) was much more balanced, but it virtually ignored the BEF's successful offensive from early August to the Armistice that played a major role in Germany's defeat. This was also true of Tim Travers's The Killing Ground, a work of immense scholarship. Winter, Travers, and De Groot were followed by Andrew Wiest, Walter Reid, and Gary Mead, all of whom found more to applaud than criticize in Haig's command. Two British historians, Gary Sheffield and J.P. Harris, the latter the author of Douglas Haig and the First World War (2009), are the latest to try to put Haig's command into scholarly perspective. Sheffield comes well prepared to the task. He has written extensively about the Western Front, and he and John Bourne recently edited and published Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914–1918 (2005).

Sheffield notes that he "deliberately refrained" from reading Harris's biography until he had the first draft of his manuscript in hand. There is much that these two formidable historians agree upon. Sheffield rightly gives Haig credit for making the BEF into a first-rate fighting machine by 1918. So does Harris, who praises Haig for keeping the throttle wide open as the BEF advanced to victory during the last hundred days of the war. They both recognize that Haig was quick to embrace the new military technology: smoke, gas, tanks, and aircraft, for example. They also attempt to put Haig in the context of the war that he had to wage, a war that could only be won by defeating the German Army, with Berlin concentrating its forces in France and Flanders, not in the outer theaters. Modern weaponry, mass armies and strong defenses made the cost of victory extraordinarily high.

At the same time Harris and Sheffield recognize Haig's failings as commander-in-chief. He was frequently overly optimistic about the results he expected his offensives might achieve; this breakthrough mentality contributed to his ignoring the cautious and less costly tactics of the French Army; he mishandled his artillery on the Somme by spreading it too thin; he frequently mismanaged battles by failing to achieve "joined-up" operations because of poor liaison between divisions, corps, and armies. Sheffield makes a case for continuing the Passchendaele offensive into November, while Harris argues that he recklessly endangered the Allied cause, both politically and militarily. Sheffield also justifies Haig's continued belief in horse soldiers. "Far from being an egregious folly, a romantic throwback to the days of Napoleon," Sheffield contends, "Haig's plan to use a cavalry-based all-arms force to exploit success and fight its way forward was a sensible response to the tactical situation." (p. 173)

Sheffield's work is highly recommended. His biography is well researched, judiciously argued, and especially well written. He concludes, "Douglas Haig might not have been the greatest military figure Britain has ever produced, but he was one of the most significant—and one of the most successful." (p. 380) One can be assured that this will not be the final word on Haig, as his command of the BEF continues to serve as a barometer of how one views World War One.

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of The Journal of the World War One Historical Society


  1. Excellent book review essay. Darn. Another good book for my reading list which is already terribly long.

  2. This is a good discussion of the historiography of Haig as British commander.
    What does Sheffield makes of Haig diplomatically? After all, he had to work with multiple allies who only won the war with a combined effort.

  3. I agree with William--this is another book I must get and read.

  4. Grant’s reputation has had similar ups and downs.