Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General
Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the architect of “the greatest tragedy…of the British national military history” in World War I.
On the morning of July 1, 1916, 110,000 British infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties.
Under Haig the British forces suffered unimaginable losses in the battle of the Somme, attributed by many to his misunderstanding of the new forms of weaponry used in the conflict: he is known to have said that the machine gun was an overrated weapon and was later quite dismissive of the role that tanks could play on the battlefield.
‘Lions led by donkeys’
A German army commander once described the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’. He admired the courage of ordinary British soldiers, but felt that many lives could have been saved had their generals performed their jobs more effectively. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was the most senior officer in the army. He was the Commander in Chief from 1915 to 1918. He, too, has been criticized for the way he managed the war and has been nicknamed, the ‘butcher of the Somme’ after the disastrous battle of the Somme in 1916 when tens of thousands of troops died.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: World War I’s Worst General
Military History |
Published: May 11, 2007 at 4:25 pm
Haig waged the ensuing political battle with customary remorselessness and prevailed in the bureaucratic trenches. He got everything he wanted in the way of men and materiel for what became known as Third Ypres or Passchendaele, a battle remembered for, among other things, terrain so wet the entire world seemed to consist of nothing but mud and shell holes filled with vile water. Indeed, in no land battle in history did so many men die by drowning.
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.”
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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.”
This is the key to Haig’s failure as a general. Every virtue becomes a flaw when pushed to excess. Daring becomes impetuosity. Prudence becomes irresolution. Will and resolution become stubbornness and pigheadedness. Haig evidently believed that will and resolve could carry any obstacle. Even mud and machine guns. Third Ypres was the battle that gave rise to the story of Haig’s chief of staff being driven to the front and, as he viewed the muddy wasteland, breaking into tears and saying, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”
“It gets worse,” his driver said, “farther on up.”
Fussell, among others, finds that story a little too good, and some of Haig’s defenders consider it a slander to imply the field marshal and his staff were so blithely unaware of actual battlefield conditions. One wonders why they protest: It would seem worse if they actually had known and kept sending men up to the front, where in a literal quagmire the Germans, in Churchill’s memorable phrase, “sold every inch of ground with extortion.”
The indictment against Haig and his “pigheaded” insistence of fighting Third Ypres at a cost of more than 250,000 British casualties is not simply one of losses, though that would be enough. What secures Third Ypres’ status as one of history’s great military blunders is the fact that while Haig thought it a victory, the battle nearly lost the war for the Allies.
In late 1917 and early 1918 the Germans moved troops from Russia to the Western Front and began preparing for their own great offensive against a British army that had been so badly mauled it was compelled to reduce the number of battalions in a division from 13 to 10. The country was now, in Churchill’s chilling phrase, “driving to the shambles by stern laws the remaining manhood of the nation. Lads of 18 and 19, elderly men up to 45, the last surviving brother, the only son of his mother (and she a widow), the father, the sole support of the family, the weak, the consumptive, the thrice wounded—all must now prepare themselves for the scythe.”
There was no alternative. The men who should have been defending the line against Ludendorff’s great spring offensive were, in the words of that grim trench ditty, “Hanging in the old barbed wire.”
Haig needed reinforcements. There were troops available back across the channel, but Lloyd George wouldn’t send them for fear that Haig, like a teenager with a new credit card, would simply spend to the limit. And Haig had given him every reason for believing this. If there was deep mistrust between civilian and military leadership, Haig was to blame for it. Swathed in sublime self-confidence, he always promised great success and, as events unfolded, changed the definition of success. So he felt contempt for the politicians, and they for him. The politicians were in the right but didn’t have the courage to act on their convictions and fire Haig. The compromise—letting him keep his command but denying him the reserves he needed—was the worst of many bad alternatives.