Field Marshall Haig

Essay on Leadership and War

(John Terraine. First published in Stand To! Number 26, Summer 1989 and originally uploaded to the old Wesstern Front Assocaition website 19 May 2008)

The Seventieth Anniversary of the First World War

1918, the 'year of victory' was 'Haig's year' if it was anybody's. In 1988, when the seventieth anniversary was being celebrated, some further extraordinary outbursts of feeling against him were seen, including a biography by G. de Groot (1) which pretended to take a 'middle course' between critics and supporters but in fact was another very tendentious attack.

Lord Haig, the Great War and The Western Front

There are good reasons for talking about Lord Haig at any time: first, because his name is more firmly identified with the British share of the Great War - especially the Western Front, which was always the main front - than any other; secondly, because that brief monosyllabic name remains as it has been for eight decades, an acid test of approaches towards the war, thirdly (and largely for that reason), because more controversy surrounds Haig than any other British general in our history.

Haig’s Greatest Critic : Lloyd George

This controversy was not long in coming - it began in the 1920s - and what distinguished it from the very first was the venom with which it was conducted and which continues to this day. This found its most vitriolic expression in the War Memoirs of Lloyd George, (2) speaking with all the authority of the wartime Prime Minister. His index entry on Haig runs to about two and a half pages, and reads like the headings of a ruinous indictment:

misrepresents French attitude to [Passchendaele] offensive; misleads Cabinet about Italian Front; misrepresents attitude of generals to Passchendaele; prefers to gamble with men's lives than to admit error; completely ignorant of state of ground, etc. In the Memoirs themselves Lloyd George summed it up: 'I never met any man in high position who was so utterly devoid of imagination.'

More colloquially, as quoted by his son, the second Earl Lloyd George, Haig was '....... brilliant to the top of his army boots, father said'.

Lloyd George wrote with great scorn and passion; what he said seemed to acquire 'expert' military corroboration from the writings of Captain (later Sir Basil) Liddell Hart and others - and it is in fact, in Liddell Hart's files, which I was able to read when I was preparing my book Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier, (3) that I found the sharpest anti-Haig statement that I have ever encountered.

In May 1936 Liddell Hart wrote this down on a piece of paper and filed it away:

If one wished to make a case against Haig, rather than a balanced estimate of hit; qualities and defects, it would be easy, from the diaries and letters in conjunction with the historical records, to show that he was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple - who, to his overweening ambition sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his end by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal. As Liddell Hart himself said, this was a 'case against', rather than a balanced judgement. It nevertheless seems to have been composed in a slate of rare excitement - an excitement which has communicated itself to other writers down the years.

Summarising the ant-Haig arguments

I have, in another book, The Western Front, (4) tried to summarise anti-Haig arguments as follows:

Insensitive, unreceptive, obstinate and above all unimaginative - how could such a man be expected to do anything but blunder from slaughter to slaughter? critics would ask.

If, of course, it should prove to be the case that he was not any of those things, then one might have to take another look at the slaughter, and many fine theories might go astray; if it should also prove to be the case that no general in any country at that time was able to avoid similar slaughter under those conditions, while the best achievements of any of them are fully matched by Haig's, then one might find oneself drawn to the more sober conclusion of Sir Winston Churchill that 'He might be, surely he was, unequal to the prodigious scale of events; but no one else was discerned as his equal or his better.'

And I firmly believe this to be the truth. So we now arrive at the question, how did such violent emotions arise and persist about this particular British commander, if no contemporary appeared - as Churchill said - as his equal or better? I would suggest that the answer to that really depends on where you start from, and perhaps the best thing to do is to start by establishing what category of general we are talking about.

There are, I think, three basic categories:

there are the generals who, for various reasons - a long peace, or a secondary command, or mere public ignorance or their own lack of talent - emerge from a long career with no particular distinction and fade away into general oblivion;

there are generals who, deservedly or otherwise, are associated for evermore with humiliating disasters and surrenders - like the unfortunate Whitelocke who was cashiered in 1807 for having been forced to capitulate at Buenos Aires, or Elphinstone in Afghanistan in 1842, or Townshend in Kut in 1916 or Percival in Singapore in 1942:

and then there are generals who win great victories in major wars.

Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Wellington and Field-Marshal Lord Haig

In an article on British generals in the British Army Review in April 1981 I said 'It was Field-Marshal Lord Slim who pointed out that the general has no other duty comparable to that of obtaining victory.' I remarked that the next question is evidently 'What kind of victory?' and I went on: The toughest assignment in modern British military history (i.e. since the creation of our first real Regular Army, the New Model) has been high command in war against the main body of a main continental enemy.

Three British officers have undertaken such a task and brought it to a successful conclusion: the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Wellington and Field-Marshal Lord Haig.

So that is our category; that is where Haig belongs. Perhaps before we go any further, a little potted biography may be in order. Haig was born in 1861. He was at Clifton College from 1875 to 1879 where, we are told, he '...... did not distinguish himself either at work or at athletics.' He went to Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1880 and passed all the requisite BA examinations, but lacked the residential qualification to take the degree. In 1882 and 1883 he played polo for Oxford against Cambridge. He went to Sandhurst in 1884 and passed out first in order of merit with the Anson Memorial sword. Sandhurst's highest honour. He was commissioned into the 7th Hussars in 1885 aged 24 - rather old for a new subaltern. In 1886 he played polo for England against America; England won 14-2, 10-4. He became adjutant of the regiment in 1888 which shows that he took his profession seriously from the first. He went to the Staff College in 1896-97. He was now 36 years old and still a captain; as I said in Douglas Haig '... it could hardly be said, as he emerged from the Staff College, that Fortune had recklessly lavished her attentions on Douglas Haig.' But six years later, in 1904, he was a major general. This was a dramatic change in the tempo of advancement - what caused it? The answer is very simple; active service, the true test of the soldier; active service in the Sudan Campaign 1898 and in the South African War, 1899-1902. When the wars were over, Haig became: Colonel, 17th Lancers, 1902; Inspector General of Cavalry in India, 1903; assistant to Mr. Haldane at the War Office, 1906; Chief of Staff India, 1909; Commander, Aldershot Corps, 1912; Commander, I Corps, BEF August 1914; Commander, First Army, December 1914; C in C, December 1915. He came home in April 1919 and commanded Home Forces until that post was abolished in 1920. Thereafter he held no further active command or official post, but in 1921 he became the founder of the British Legion, and spent the remainder of his life in its service. He died in 1928. With these biographical details in mind, the argument about Haig is very much a matter of where you start.

Somme and Passchendaele


The whole case against Haig could be boiled down to two words: Somme and Passchendaele, the costliest battles fought under his command or by the British Army at any time.

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 cost the British Army 420,000 casualties in four and a half months, 57,000 on the first day alone, the worst single-day disaster in British history until 85,000 British troops went into murderous captivity on 15 February 1942 in Singapore. But the Somme itself was the costliest battle in our history.

At Passchendaele (Third Ypres, 1917) the BEF lost nearly a quarter of million casualties in three and a half months. This was a lot less bad - but the unspeakable conditions of much of the battle ruled out any gratification. In each case, huge losses, great suffering, small apparent gains, profound disappointment. And that is the usual starting point for discussing Haig. I propose to take a different one. I propose to go backwards: to begin at Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, the day the war ended. What was the position of Haig's army on that day? It amounted to nearly two million men of the British Empire - the largest land force in the Empire's history. And they had just reached the end of a 'Hundred Days' Campaign' as glorious and decisive as that of 1815 which concluded the Battle of Waterloo - but infinitely less known. It was, in fact an unparalleled achievement in the history of the British Army. revealed by the stark statistics: between 8 August and 11 November the British took 188,700 prisoners, 2,840 guns; all other allies together took 196,700 prisoners, 3,775 guns - that is to say, the British took just under 50% of the prisoners and just over 40% of the guns. And this was done in nine successive victories which were largely instrumental in bringing the war to an end in 1918 - and a consummation that Haig was determined to bring about.

Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet or Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria and Waterloo

These victories should be as famous as Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet or Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria and Waterloo. Instead, they are forgotten and unknown, so I will list them now: The Battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918 ('the black day of the German Army'); The Battle of Albert, 21 August (the day on which Haig told Churchill 'we ought to do our utmost to get a decision this autumn'); The Battle of the Scarpe, 26 August; The Battles of Havrincourt and Epehy, 12 September (the approaches to the HindenburgLine); The Breaking of the Hindenburg Line, 27 September - 5 October (35,000 prisoners & 380 guns taken, the British Army's greatest feat of arms in all its history); The Battle of Flanders, 28 September; The Second Battle of Le Cateau, 6 October; The Battle of the Selle, 17 October; The Battle of the Sambre, 1-11 November.

These were Haig's victories, handsomely acknowledged by Marshal Foch:

Never at any time in history has the British Army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive ....

The victory was indeed complete, thanks to the Commanders of Armies, Corps and Divisions, thanks above all to the unselfishness, to the wise, loyal and energetic policy of their Commander-in-Chief, who made easy a great combination and sanctioned a prolonged and gigantic effort.

Haig's own comment was characteristic:

'It would be impossible to devise a more eloquent testimony to the unequalled spirit and determination of the British soldier, of all ranks and Services.'

I would suggest that this is the only proper starting-point for a true estimation of Haig. The cost of defeating the German Army has never been light. The cost of 1918, the Year of Victory, was 853,361 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force, of whom 111,475 were killed (13.06%). Some 350,000 of these casualties (of whom about 46,000 would have been killed) were incurred during the period of the 'Hundred Days of Victory'.

There was great public rejoicing at the ensuing Armistice, bringing the war to a victorious end, but this covered deep private grief and there can be little doubt that the sense of victory was to some extent blurred by the sense of cost. In later years the cost has overshadowed the whole concept of the war. This is not, after all, too surprising (though I think it has been grossly overdone).

The 1914-1918 war was an unprecedented experience for Britain, and I fear that it can really only be expressed statistically - which makes for bad digestive processes. It is certainly the misuse of statistics mainly by arbitrary selection that has been the factor most damaging to Haig. The 'Great War' (as we continue to call it) cost the military forces of the British Empire just over a million dead, and the United Kingdom between 750-800,000 (1.7% of the total population, 13.6% of enlistments).

Britain's most recent experience of war had been in South Africa which had cost her just under 22,000 dead in the three years 1899-1902, of whom only 5.774 had fallen on the battlefield. The Crimean War, sixty years past, had also cost 22,000 dead by all causes, in one year.

The last 'Great War' - against the French Revolution and Napoleon - had lasted just over twenty years and had cost 20,284 sailors dead in battle and 25,569 soldiers: i.e. less than 50,000 all told in battle (but in those very different times, we have to add 266,000 by disease). All those figures reflect the British tradition of making war on the principle of limited liability.

Haig's war was not like that, and he knew it wouldn't be. We need to go back now to 1906, when Mr. Haldane, the new Secretary of State for War, summoned Haig to the War Office to take part in the most effective Army reform in our history, Haldane tells us: After surveying the whole Army, I took it upon myself to ask Lord Haig, who was then in India, to come over to this country and to think for us. From all I could discover even then, he seemed to be the most highly equipped thinker in the British Army. (5) Haig thought to some purpose; he had no doubt, in 1906, that the antagonism between Britain and Germany was coming to a head. He had no doubt that the purpose of Army reform should be to prepare the British Army for Continental war. And he had no doubts about what sort of an army would be needed for that; in October 1906 he wrote to Haldane's private secretary, Sir Gerald Ellison, saying: 'Our object in my opinion should be to start a system of finance suited to the "supposed situation", i.e. a great war requiring the whole resources of the nation to bring it to a successful end.' These were prophetic words, whose meaning began to become apparent ten years later. 'The whole resources of the nation' - in other words, Haig saw what very few saw, or would admit, that 'limited liability' was defunct. The liability henceforth, would be unlimited. He underlined the point in the same letter: 'The Swiss system seems to me to be exactly what is wanted "to root the Army in the people......" '. And a month later according to Lord Esher, Haig was saying he wanted 'to be able ..... at the end of twelve months to place an Army of 900,000 men in the field, and keep it there for five years.' It is not possible to overstate the visionary - indeed, revolutionary - quality of ideas like these at the time. A war 'requiring the whole resources of the nation' - unheard of! A system 'to root the army in the people' - unknown since the Middle Ages! '900,000 men in the field' - unthinkable! 'For five years' - inconceivable! And this was the man Lloyd George said was devoid of imagination! Lloyd George, be it noted, was at that time pronouncing that Germany was a friendly nation much to be admired! Be that as it may.

These were the ideas that caused Haig to argue for a Territorial Army of twenty eight divisions, complete and self-contained in all respects. Haldane supported him, but finance dictated that the Territorial Army would be cut back to fourteen division: Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the Citizen Army, the beginning of preparedness for the manpower demands of modern, total war. No one had an earlier or better understanding of the Citizen Army than Haig.

This was his first profound perception of the coming war. Having thus foretold a continental war with a continental army and identified the continental enemy, Haig had little difficulty in grasping and pondering the next fundamental. He perceived that Britain would be entering, once more, a coalition war and that her army would be fighting on French soil beside a French Army which would be greatly superior in numbers. In other words, Britain would be the junior partner in the land war which meant that she would have no option but to concede the last word on strategy to the French High Command. This control remained in French hands throughout the war, which was something that many important people could not then or ever after understand or accept. Few contrasts, I think, are more revealing than that between Lloyd George's pathetic lament to his friend Winston Churchill in January 1915, when he asked: 'Are we really bound to hand over the ordering of our troops to France as if we were her vassal?' and by contrast what Haig said to his French Liaison officer about a year later, just after he had become Commander-in-Chief; he wrote in his diary: I pointed out that I am not under General Joffre's orders, but that would make no difference, as my intention was to do my utmost to carry out General Joffre's wishes on strategical matters as if they were orders. It was a remarkable statement, revealing beyond all shadow of doubt Haig understanding of the disciplines of coalition war. It stemmed from a realisation that the great army which he now commanded nearly a million strong - was still occupying only about forty miles of front while the French held about 400 miles; that French casualties had been enormous (in fact the amounted to just under two million, while British casualties, including Gallipoli, were just over half a million); and that such comparisons are very bad for coalitions - there is no treaty which says that one ally should do all the dying - and that keeping France in the war was the main objective of the Alliance.

This was a fundamental perception indeed, and a permanent one; it reached its full value in March 1918 when, in a moment of fearful crisis, Marshal Foch became Allied Generalissimo at Haig's instigation. It was a perception which evolved from the fact that, from the first, Haig had penetrated to the great simplicities of the terrible event. At the very outbreak, in August 1914, he said: Great Britain and Germany will be fighting for their existence. Therefore the war is bound to be a long war ... we must organise our resources for a war of several years. In March 1915 he expressed with equal clarity the great strategic simplicity: 'We cannot hope to win until we have defeated the German Army'.

This meant, of course, the main body of the German Army which, since Germany held the initiative, would be deployed where the Germans decreed: on the Western Front, whatever the circumstances. There it would have, sooner or later, to be met and beaten. This was what the French had been trying to do, at enormous cost, in 1914 and 1915; it was what the Russians did on the Eastern Front between 1941-45 with losses which were appalling. In 1916 it became something that the British were going to have to attempt, whatever the cost. Haig understood that.

He was one of very few who did, cither then or at any other time. He went to war, then, better equipped than any other British officer (with the exceptions of Lord Kitchener and Sir William Robertson and a handful of others) to understand the strategic constraints which would govern the war. War, however - and modern war especially - does not consist only of strategy The Great War was from the beginning the greatest war of technical innovation ever fought - the introduction of the new elements of air warfare and submarine warfare alone display that fact. But they were not alone.

The internal combustion engine added mechanical transport, motor cycles, armoured cars and, above all, tanks. Electronics transformed communication: vast networks of field telephones became the first tool of command: wireless telegraphy and later radio telephony appeared and made constant development, with jamming, scramblers and radio interception all coming into use. This was, above all, an artillery war; gunnery reached new degrees of sophistication (and involved enormous numbers of guns), with complex techniques of aerial observation, sound-ranging, flash-spotting and calibration, requiring the use of unheard-of instruments like microphones, galvanometers and oscillographs. Gas, flamethrowers, deep mining, smoke, all found their place in the battle plans. To all of this Haig lent, as his diaries show, an attentive and receptive eye and ear. Under his command I Corps and the First Army were innovators (in the BEF) of many important techniques: aerial photography; trench mortars; artillery timetables; light railways; battle rehearsals ... and much more besides. His attitude towards tanks is most revealing of all. Without even having seen them, he detected in them the possibility of 'decisive results', and after their debut, which many thought equivocal, to say the least, he sent his Deputy Chief of Staff to London to demand 1,000 tanks without delay.

I need hardly add, he never got them. He summed up his attitude towards the technicalities of the war after a meeting between Ministers and Generals to discuss new weapons at the end of 1915; he said: I thought the meeting was good for the generals as well as for the Government. Generals after a certain time of life, especially French, are apt to be narrow-minded and disinclined to take advantage of modern scientific discoveries. The civilian Minister can do good by pressing the possibility of some modem discovery.

Technology and Organisation

The war of technology was also a war of organisation. It was called - without affection - a Staff Officer's war, and so it was, because armies of millions require an enormous apparatus of administration. As early as 1916 the BEF contained a 'population' larger than any single unit of government except London in all England. Haig's attitude to this feature was equally broad-minded: .... with the whole nation at war, our object should be to employ men on the same work in war as they are accustomed to do in peace. Acting on this principle I have got Geddes at the head of all the railways and transportation, with the best practical civil and military engineers under him. At the head of the Road Directorate is Mr. Maybury, head of the Road Board in England. The docks, canals and inland water transport are being managed in the same way, i.e., by men of practical experience. To put soldiers who have no practical experience of these matters into such positions, merely because they are generals and colonels, must result in utter failure.

Haig - the Modern General

Haig was, in fact, a modern general, fighting Britain's first modern war. Modem wars are costly wars; they consume lives by the million, on and off the battlefield, and it was the shock of this consumption of soldiers' lives that prompted the unthinking execration of Haig - as though one man could halt or change an industrial revolution! What, then, was Haig's own view of the great battles of attrition in 1916 and 1917 with which his name is so fatally connected? He certainly had no illusions about their nature; in his Despatch (6) of 21 December 1918, The Advance to Victory, he says: The strain of those years was never ceasing, the demands they made upon the best of the Empire's manhood are now known. Yet throughout all those years, and amid the hopes and disappointments they brought with them, the confidence of our troops in final victory never wavered. Their courage and resolution rose superior to every test, their cheerfulness never failing, however terrible the conditions in which they lived and fought. By the long road they trod with so much faith and with such devoted and self-sacrificing bravery we have arrived at victory.

Haig’s Final Despatch, March 1919

His Final Despatch, March 1919 (leaving no doubts about his feelings), develops the thought: ... neither the course of the war itself nor the military lessons to be drawn there from can properly be comprehended, unless the long succession of battles commenced on the Somme in 1916 and ended in November of last year on the Sambre are viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement..... If the operations of the past four and a half years are regarded as a single continuous campaign, there can be recognised in them the same general features and the same necessary stages which between forces of approximately equal strength have marked all the conclusive battles of history.Haig’s Theory of the Necessary Stagesof War Haig had taught his theory of the necessary stages of war in India in 1909 and never departed from it: 1.

The manoeuvre for position 2. The first clash of battle 3. The wearing-out fight 4. The decisive blow It is, of course, the third stage - what he called 'the wearing-out fight' (in other words the three years of attrition during which four-fifths of Britain's casualties were incurred) - which has commanded so much unfavourable notice for so long. Haig's own view of it is quite clear: In the stage of the wearing-out struggle losses will necessarily be heavy on both sides, for in it the price of victory is paid. If the opposing forces are approximately equal in numbers, in courage, in morale and in equipment, there is no way of avoiding payment of the price, or of eliminating this phase of the struggle. In former battles this stage of the conflict has rarely lasted more than a few days, and has often been completed in a few hours. When armies of millions are engaged, with the resources of great Empires behind them, it will inevitably be long. It will include violent crises of fighting which, when viewed separately and apart from the general perspective, will appear individually as great indecisive battles.

To this stage belong the great engagements of 1916 and 1917 which wore down the strength of the German Armies. So Haig made no attempt to avoid responsibility for the war of attrition; he never tried to claim credit for victory, and blame something or someone else for the hard part - e.g. subordinates, Allies, the Government, the troops, bad luck, etc. Instead, he insisted: If the whole operations of the present war are regarded in correct perspective, the victories of the summer and autumn of 1918 will be seen to be directly dependent upon the two years of stubborn fighting that preceded them. This, it seems to me, is the wisest statement written about the Great War. A great pity that it was totally disregarded during the peace, so that everything had to be painfully learned again the second time. In conclusion, what is Haig's place in our military history? At the beginning of this essay I put him very firmly in the top bracket, the category of Marlborough and Wellington - commanding against the main body of the main enemy in a continental war.

There are, of course, some important differences: Marlborough and Wellington were both Coalition Commanders-in-Chief (Marlborough for many years, Wellington in 1815 for a Hundred Days), and that is a position of very special responsibility. Haig was not a Coalition C-in-C, though he did have French Armies under his command on two occasions, and he also had American and Portuguese troops under him, besides the varied forces of the British Empire. But it was, of course, in the scale of Haig's war that the chief differences lie. Furthermore, in the armies commanded with such distinction by Marlborough and Wellington, the actual British force was always a contingent rarely rising to as much as 30 per cent.. Haig's armies did actually themselves engage the enemy's main body. In 1916 the BEF fought ninety-five and a half identified German divisions (forty-three and a half twice, four three times, which makes a divisional total of 143). In 1917, in the Battles of Arras, Messines, Lens and Third Ypres, the BEF engaged 131 identified divisions. When the Germans attacked the British front in March-April 1918, they used 109 divisions - fifty on the first day alone.

Haig’s Final Offensive

In Haig's Final Offensive, the BEF encountered ninety-nine German divisions (some twice, some three times, some even four times). This was the 'main body' indeed. Never, at any time, in any war, has a British army performed such feats as these. Sir Winston Churchill, in a memorable phrase, described the year 1940 as 'the finest hour' of the British people. Objective assessment must equally describe 1918 as 'the finest hour' of the British Army, and to no-one was that fact more due than to its admirable Commander-in-Chief.

Article by John Terraine


1. de Groot, G. J.: Douglas Haig 1861-1928 (Unwin Hyman 1988)

2. Lloyd George, David: War Memoirs (Nicholson and Watson 1933-36)

3. Terraine, John: Douglas Haig - the Educated Soldier (Hutchinson 1963, Leo Cooper 1990)

4. Terraine, John: The Western Front (Hutchinson 1964)

5. Haldane, R. B., Lord: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton 1929)

6. Boraston, J. H. (ed.): Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches (Dent 1919)