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
The “country gentleman” meme is especially apt in Haig’s case. The man had a thing for horses, which is understandable in one who had been a cavalry officer during the infancy of the internal combustion engine. But Haig’s attachment to the horse was abiding and stubborn, and he went so far as to argue that the machine gun was an overrated weapon—especially against the horse.
Generals, the cynics like to say, are always fighting the last war. To the extent this is true, they can be excused, as they can’t possibly have any direct experience of the next war. But Haig continued to believe in the cavalry long after the war that he was actually fighting—World War I—had proven mounted soldiers absurdly vulnerable and obsolete.
Haig envisioned a vital role for the horse in his masterpiece, the Somme offensive. That battle is generally, and incorrectly, remembered as one decided through attrition. (It failed even on that score, since the Allies lost more men than the Germans.) Haig, popular thinking goes, attacked and kept on attacking—even when the ground his men gained, yard by bloody yard, was useless by any military measure—in order to wear down the Germans. Attrition is never an inspired strategy and is usually the refuge of a commander who cannot come up with anything better. And Haig was, if anything, unimaginative. As Paul Fussell writes in his indispensable volume The Great War and Modern Memory, “In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention…Haig had none.”
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Still, in his defense, it’s clear Haig honestly believed a massive frontal assault by British infantry would punch a hole in the German line, through which his cavalry would then charge to glory. On several occasions mounted troops were brought up in anticipation of the breakout that, of course, never occurred.
Critics of Haig are remorseless on this point—the man was so confident in his outdated ideas that he never allowed actual battlefield experience to challenge them. His fantasies of cavalry charges across open country were matched by his insistence on sending infantry against the enemy in neat ranks at a slow walk, the better to maintain control. Andrew Jackson had demonstrated the flaw in this method of attack during the War of 1812, and the American Civil War had truly driven the point home on a dozen different occasions. But if Haig had ever heard of Cold Harbor, he plainly did not believe its lessons applied to British soldiers. And the Confederates who had cut down 7,000 Union troops in 20 minutes didn’t even have machine guns.
When the horrific 142-day ordeal of the Somme was finally over, the feeling in the British government was “no more Sommes.” The politicians, it seemed, had learned something, but Haig had not. He wanted to fight another battle, very much like the Somme, only bigger, and on terrain that was even less well suited for the offensive. This time, at the notorious Ypres salient in Flanders, he believed he would get it right and win the war. The cavalry, of course, would carry the day.
By the summer of 1917, frontal assaults had failed disastrously up and down the Western Front. After its last attempt at piercing the German line, the French army had broken and mutinied. Haig had no new tactics to offer, and the only technological advance that showed any promise was the tank. However, there may have been no terrain along the entire 300-plus miles of the Western Front less suited to tank warfare than the wet, low-lying ground of Flanders.
But Haig and his staff were sublimely confident, and as Churchill dryly points out, “hopes of decisive victory…grew with every step away from the British front line and reached absolute conviction in the Intelligence Department.” However, Haig’s civilian bosses in London were skeptical. The new prime minister, Lloyd George, wanted to fight defensively on the Western Front while waiting for the Americans, now in the war, to begin arriving in Europe in decisive numbers.