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Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig

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The Earl Haig
Haig in 1917
Born(1861-06-19)19 June 1861
Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, Scotland
Died29 January 1928(1928-01-29) (aged 66)
21 Prince's Gate, London, England
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchBritish Army
Years of service1884–1920
RankField Marshal
Commands heldBritish Expeditionary Force (1915–19)
First Army (1914–15)
I Corps (1914)
Aldershot Command (1912–14)
Chief of the General Staff in India (1909–12)
17th Lancers (1901–03)
3rd Cavalry Brigade (1900)
Battles/warsMahdist War
Second Boer War
First World War
AwardsKnight of the Order of the Thistle
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Member of the Order of Merit
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order
Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire
Mentioned in Despatches
Complete list

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE (/hɡ/; 19 June 1861 – 29 January 1928) was a senior officer of the British Army. During the First World War he commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front from late 1915 until the end of the war. He was commander during the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, the Third Battle of Ypres, the German Spring Offensive, and the Hundred Days Offensive.[1][2][3]

His military career included service in the War Office, where he was instrumental in the creation of the Territorial Force in 1908. In January 1917 he was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, subsequently leading the BEF during the final Hundred Days Offensive, when it crossed the Canal du Nord and broke through the Hindenburg line. This campaign, in combination with the Kiel mutiny, the Wilhelmshaven mutiny, the proclamation of a republic on 9 November 1918 and civil unrest across Germany, led to the armistice of 11 November 1918. It is considered by some historians to be one of the greatest victories ever achieved by a British-led army.[1][2][3]

He gained a favourable reputation during the immediate post-war years, with his funeral becoming a day of national mourning. However he also had some prominent contemporary detractors and, beginning in the 1960s, has been widely criticised for his wartime leadership.[4][5][6] He was nicknamed "Butcher Haig" for the two million British casualties under his command.[4] The Canadian War Museum comments: "His epic but costly offensives at the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917) have become nearly synonymous with the carnage and futility of First World War battles."[7]

Major-General John Davidson, one of Haig's biographers, praised Haig's leadership, and since the 1980s many historians have argued that the public hatred of Haig failed to recognise the adoption of new tactics and technologies by forces under his command, the important role played by British forces in the allied victory of 1918, and that high casualties were a consequence of the tactical and strategic realities of the time.[1][2][3][8][9][10]

Early life[edit]

Age 23 in 1885, in his hussar's uniform

Haig was born in a house on Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.[11] His father, John Richard Haig, an alcoholic, was said to be "in trade", though as head of the family's successful Haig & Haig whisky distillery, he had an income of £10,000 per year (£1,160,000 in 2018), an enormous amount at the time.[12] His mother, Rachel (daughter of Hugh Veitch of Stewartfield),[13] was from an impoverished gentry family.[14] The family home was Haig House in Windygates, Fife.[15]

Haig's education began in 1869 as a boarder at Mr Bateson's School in St Andrews. Later in 1869, he switched to Edinburgh Collegiate School, and then in 1871 to Orwell House, a preparatory school in Warwickshire. He then attended Clifton College.[16][17] Both of Haig's parents had died by the time he was eighteen.[18]

After a tour of the United States with his brother, Haig studied Political Economy, Ancient History and French Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, 1880–1883. He devoted much of his time to socialising – he was a member of the Bullingdon Club – and equestrian sports. He was one of the best young horsemen at Oxford and quickly found his way into the University polo team.[19] While an undergraduate he was initiated as a Freemason in Elgin's Lodge at Leven No. 91 at Leven, Fife, taking the first and second degrees of Freemasonry.[20] In 1920 the Earl of Eglinton encouraged Haig to complete his Masonic progression, and he returned to his lodge to take the third degree,[20] subsequently serving as Worshipful Master of the lodge from 1925 to 1926.[21] He became an officer of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.[20]

Although he passed his final exam at Oxford (a requirement for university applicants to Sandhurst), he was not eligible for a degree as he had missed a term's residence owing to illness, and if he had stayed for longer he would have been above the age limit (23) to begin officer training at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which he entered in January 1884. Because he had been to university, Haig was considerably older than most of his class at Sandhurst. He was Senior Under-Officer, was awarded the Anson Sword and passed out first in the order of merit.[22] He was commissioned as a lieutenant into the 7th (Queen's Own) Hussars on 7 February 1885.[23]

Plaque marking Earl Haig's birthplace, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh


Junior officer[edit]

Early in his military career, Haig played polo for England on a tour of the United States (August 1886). He would remain a polo enthusiast all his life, serving as Chairman of the Hurlingham Polo Committee from its reorganization in May 1914 until 1922. He would also be President of the Army Polo Committee and founder of the Indian Polo Association.[24][25]

Haig then saw overseas service in India (sent out November 1886), where he was appointed the regiment's adjutant in 1888.[26] He was something of a disciplinarian,[27] but also impressed his superiors by his administrative skill and analysis of recent training exercises. He was promoted to captain on 23 January 1891.[28]

Haig left India in November 1892 to prepare for the entrance exam for the Staff College, Camberley, which he sat in June 1893. Although he was placed in the top 28 candidates (the number of places awarded by exam) he was not awarded a place as he had narrowly failed the compulsory mathematics paper. He concealed this failure for the rest of his life[29] and later (circa 1910) recommended dropping the mathematics paper as a requirement.[30] The Adjutant-General Sir Redvers Buller refused to award Haig one of the four nominated places, citing his colour blindness, despite Haig having his eyesight rechecked by a German oculist and despite glowing testimonials. It has been postulated that Buller was looking for a rationale to give a place to an infantry officer.[31]

Haig returned briefly to India as second-in-command of the squadron which he had himself commanded in 1892, then returned to the United Kingdom as Aide-de-camp to Sir Keith Fraser, Inspector General of Cavalry.[32] Fraser was one of those who had lobbied for Haig to enter the Staff College, and he was finally nominated in late 1894, a common practice in the day for promising candidates. While waiting to take up his place, he travelled to Germany to report on cavalry manoeuvres there, and also served as staff officer to Colonel John French on manoeuvres. The careers of French and Haig were to be entwined for the next twenty-five years, and Haig helped French write the cavalry drillbook, published 1896.[11]

Haig entered Staff College, Camberley in 1896, where he was apparently not popular with his peer group. For example, they chose Allenby as Master of the Drag Hunt, despite Haig being the better rider.[33] Haig impressed the Chief Instructor, Lt-Col G. F. R. Henderson, and completed the course, leaving in 1897. Some writers (e.g. Travers 1987) have criticised Camberley for its old-fashioned curriculum, which especially influenced Haig, as he was an absorber of doctrine rather than an original thinker. Haig was taught that victory must come from defeating the main enemy army in battle, and that as in Napoleonic warfare, attrition (the "wearing out fight") was merely a prelude to the commitment of reserves for a decisive battlefield victory; traces of this thought can be seen at Loos and the Somme. Great emphasis was placed on morale and mobility, and on Murat's cavalry pursuit after Napoleon's Jena campaign of 1806. Although the American Civil War was studied, the emphasis was on Stonewall Jackson's mobile campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, rather than on the more attritional nature of that war.[34]

Mahdist War, 1898[edit]

In early January Haig was picked by Evelyn Wood (by then Adjutant-General) as one of three recent staff college graduates requested by Kitchener for a campaign in the Mahdist War in the Sudan.[35] He may have been picked to keep an eye on Kitchener, as Wood invited him to write to him frankly and in confidence. Haig needed little encouragement to (privately) criticise his superiors – he was especially critical of Kitchener's dictatorial habits.[36] Kitchener's force was Anglo-Egyptian, and Haig was required to formally join the Egyptian Army, most of whose officers were British. The plan had been for him to train and take command of an Egyptian cavalry squadron, but this did not happen as Kitchener did not want a command reshuffle with combat imminent.[37] Unlike many British officers, Haig believed that the Egyptians could make good soldiers if properly trained and led.[38] Still without a formal position but accompanying the cavalry, Haig saw his first action in a skirmish south of Atbara (21 March). In his report to Wood about the skirmish, Haig commented on the lack of British machine guns. While later criticized for his failure to optimize the use of machine guns, Haig made a special trip to Enfield to study the Maxim Gun, and throughout the campaign commented on its worth.[39]

Four days later he was made staff officer of brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Broadwood's cavalry brigade. Haig distinguished himself at his second action, the Battle of Nukheila (6 April) – where he supervised the redeployment of squadrons to protect the rear and then launch a flank attack, as Broadwood was busy in the front line. He was present at the Battle of Atbara (8 April), after which he criticised Kitchener for launching a frontal attack without taking the Dervishes in flank as well.[40] During the latter action Haig risked his life rescuing a wounded Egyptian soldier whilst coming under enemy fire,[41] an act which moved several officers present to believe Haig should receive the Victoria Cross.[41] After Atbara, Kitchener was given reinforcements and Haig received a squadron of his own, which he commanded at Omdurman (in reserve during the battle, then on a flank march into the town afterwards). He was promoted to brevet major on 15 November 1898.[42]

Second Boer War, 1899–1902[edit]

Haig returned to the United Kingdom hoping for a position at the War Office, but was instead appointed (May 1899) brigade major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot.[43]

Haig had recently lent £2,500 (in a formal contract with interest, worth £400,000 in 2024) to the brigade commander, John French, to cover his losses from South African mining speculations. The loan allowed French to maintain his commission.[44] Haig was promoted to the substantive rank of major on 26 June 1899.[45]

Haig was soon appointed Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General (September 1899)[46] and then Assistant Adjutant General (i.e. chief staff officer) of French's brigade-sized force as it was sent off to the Boer War.[47] He took part in French's first battle, Elandslaagte (18 October, near Ladysmith). French and Haig were ordered to leave Ladysmith as the four-month siege began, to take charge of the new Cavalry Division arriving from the United Kingdom. The two men escaped on the last train to leave Ladysmith (2 November 1899), lying down as it passed through enemy fire.[48]

As in the Sudan, Haig continued to be sceptical of the importance of artillery, basing his opinions on interviews with enemy prisoners.[49] After Major-General French's Colesberg Operations to protect Cape Colony, Frederick Roberts, newly arrived as Commander-in-Chief, appointed his protégé Colonel the Earl of Erroll, over French's protests, to the job of Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division, with Haig, who had been promised the job (and the local rank of lieutenant-colonel), as his deputy. Cavalry played a leading role in this stage of the war, including the relief of Kimberley (15 February 1900), which featured a spectacular British cavalry charge at Klip Drift. Haig was briefly (21 February 1900) given command of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, then made AAG to the Cavalry Division at last after Erroll was moved to a different job. French's Division took part in the capture of Bloemfontein (13 March 1900) and then Pretoria (5 June 1900). Haig privately criticised Roberts for losses to horses (exhaustion and lack of feeding) and men (typhoid) and thought him a "silly old man".[50]

After Roberts had won the conventional war, Kitchener was left in charge of fighting the Boers, who had taken to guerrilla warfare. The Cavalry Division was disbanded (November 1900) and French, with Haig still his chief of staff, was put in charge of an all-arms force policing the Johannesburg area, later trying to capture the Boer leader de Wet around Bloemfontein. In January 1901 Haig was given a column of 2,500 men with the local rank of brigadier-general, patrolling Cape Colony, and chasing Commandant Kritzinger. As was standard policy at that time, Haig's actions included burning farmsteads as part of the scorched earth policies ordered by Lord Kitchener as well as rounding up Boer women and children to be placed in concentration camps.[51]

Throughout the war Haig's sister, Henrietta, had been lobbying Evelyn Wood for her brother to have command of a cavalry regiment of his own when the war was over. French, probably not wanting to part with a valuable assistant, recommended Herbert Lawrence for the vacant command of the 17th Lancers, but Roberts, now Commander-in-Chief back in Britain, overruled him and gave it to Haig (May 1901). As the 17th Lancers were in South Africa at the time Haig was able to combine that command with that of his own column.[52]

As the war drew to a close Haig had to locate and escort the Boer leader Jan Christiaan Smuts to the peace negotiations at Vereeninging. Haig was mentioned in despatches four times for his service in South Africa (including by Lord Roberts on 31 March 1900,[53] and by Lord Kitchener on 23 June 1902[54]), and appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in November 1900.[55] He was also promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel on 17 July 1901.[56]

Following the end of the war, Haig left Cape Town with 540 officers and men of the 17th Lancers on the SS German in late September 1902.[57] The regiment was supposed to stay in South Africa but in the end returned home sooner than planned, and arrived at Southampton in late October, when they were posted to Edinburgh.[57] Haig was appointed an aide-de-camp to King Edward VII in the October 1902 South Africa Honours list, with the brevet rank of colonel (thus keeping this rank instead of reverting to the substantive lower rank).[58]

Inspector-General of Cavalry, India[edit]

Haig continued as the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers until 1903, stationed in Edinburgh. He was then appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry in British India (he would have preferred command of the cavalry brigade at Aldershot, where French was now General Officer Commanding (GOC)), but had first to spend a year on garrison duty at Edinburgh until the previous incumbent completed his term).[59]

Haig's war service had earned him belated but rapid promotion: having been a captain until the relatively advanced age of thirty-seven, by 1904 he had become the youngest major-general in the British Army at that time. He was present at the Rawalpindi Parade 1905 to honour the Prince and Princess of Wales' visit to India. At this time a great deal of the energies of the most senior British generals were taken up with the question of whether cavalry should still be trained to charge with sword and lance (the view of French and Haig) as well as using horses for mobility then fighting dismounted with firearms. Lord Roberts, now Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, warned Kitchener (now Commander-in-Chief, India) to be "very firm with Haig" on this issue (in the event Kitchener was soon distracted, from 1904, by his quarrel with the Viceroy Lord Curzon, who eventually resigned), and wrote that Haig was a "clever, able fellow" who had great influence over Sir John French.[60]

Marriage and children[edit]

On leave from India, Haig married Hon Dorothy Maud Vivian (1879–1939) on 11 July 1905 after a whirlwind courtship (she had spotted him for the first time when he was playing polo at Hurlingham two years earlier). She was a daughter of Hussey Vivian, 3rd Baron Vivian and Louisa Duff.[61]: 562 

The couple had four children:

Haig had used his leave in 1905 to lobby for a job at the War Office, but the proposal was rejected by H. O. Arnold-Forster the Secretary of State for War as too blatantly relying on royal influence.[64]

War Office[edit]

The Boer War had exposed Britain's lack of a general staff and modern reserve army. In August 1906 Haig was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office.[65] Haldane later wrote that Haig had "a first rate general staff mind" and "gave invaluable advice"[66] Although both men later claimed that the reforms had been to prepare Britain for continental war, they created a small professional army within a budget, with conscription politically impossible.[67]

The reforms reorganised the militia, yeomanry and volunteers into the new Territorial Force. Haig was intolerant of what he regarded as old-fashioned opinions and not good at negotiating with strangers.[68] Haig had wanted a reserve of 900,000 men, but Haldane settled for a more realistic 300,000.[69] Haig's skills at administration and organising training and inspections were better employed in setting up an Expeditionary Force of 120,000 men in 1907. As an intimate of Haldane Haig was able to ensure high priority for cavalry, less for artillery, contrary to the advice of Lord Roberts (now retired as Commander-in-Chief). Haig's records of his time supervising artillery exercises show little interest in technical matters.[70]

In November 1907 Haig was moved sideways to Director of Staff Duties.[71] He required commanders to take the staff officers assigned to them (rather than choose their own by patronage) and also assigned staff officers to the new Territorial Army. He supervised publication of "Field Service Regulations", which was later very useful in expanding the BEF, although it still stressed the importance of cavalry charging with sword and lance as well as fighting dismounted. At this time he was also completing a separate work, "Cavalry Studies",[72] and devoting much time to cavalry exercises.[73] He was also involved in setting up the Imperial General Staff (larger colonies were to have local sections of the General Staff, with trained staff officers), for which his work was praised by Haldane.[74]

Chief of Staff, India[edit]

By 1909 it seemed likely that an Anglo-German War loomed and Haig was reluctant to accept appointment as Chief of the General Staff in India.[75] He passed the Director of Staff Duties job to his loyal follower Brigadier-General Kiggell, to whom he wrote with "advice" every fortnight. Haig, who had been knighted for his work at the War Office, was promoted to lieutenant-general in November 1910.[76] In British India he had hoped to develop the Indian General Staff as part of the greater Imperial General Staff, and to organise despatch of the British Indian Army to a future European war. The latter was vetoed by Viceroy Lord Hardinge. An Indian Corps would serve on the Western Front early in the conflict, and Indian troops were also used in comparatively small formations the Middle East.[77]


Haig left India in December 1911, and took up an appointment as General Officer Commanding Aldershot Command (1st & 2nd Divisions and 1st Cavalry Brigade) in March 1912.[78]

In the Army Manoeuvres of 1912 he was decisively beaten by Sir James Grierson despite having the odds in his favour, because of Grierson's superior use of air reconnaissance. At dinner afterwards Haig abandoned his prepared text, and although he wrote that his remarks were "well received", John Charteris recorded that they were "unintelligible and unbearably dull" and that the visiting dignitaries fell asleep. Haig's poor public speaking skills aside, the manoeuvres were thought to have shown the reformed army efficient.[79]

First World War[edit]


Outbreak of war[edit]

Map of the Western Front in 1914.

During the Curragh Mutiny (March 1914) Haig urged caution on his chief of staff John Gough, whose brother Hubert Gough was threatening to resign rather than coerce Ulstermen into a semi-independent Ireland. Haig stressed that the army's duty was to keep the peace. Sir John French was forced to resign as CIGS, after putting in writing a promise that officers would not be required to coerce Ulster; Haig respected Hubert Gough's principled stand but felt French had allowed himself to be used as a political tool by H. H. Asquith.[80]

Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914, Haig helped organize the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French. As planned, Haig's Aldershot command was formed into I Corps. In a letter to Haldane (4 August), Haig predicted that the war would last for months if not years; Haig wanted Haldane to return to the War Office and delay sending the BEF to France until the Territorial Army had been mobilised and incorporated.[81]

Haig attended the War Council (5 August), at which it was decided that it was too dangerous to mobilise forward in France at Maubeuge near the Belgian border, as British mobilisation was running three days behind that of France and Germany. There were no other contingency plans – Haig and Kitchener proposed that the BEF would be better positioned to counter-attack in Amiens. Sir John French suggested landing at Antwerp, which was vetoed by Winston Churchill as the Royal Navy could not guarantee safe passage. A critical biographer writes that Haig was "more clear-sighted than many of his colleagues".[82]

In his much-criticised memoirs 1914, French later claimed that Haig had wanted to postpone sending the BEF, which may be partly true, in view of what Haig had written to Haldane at the time. Haig was so angry at this claim that he asked Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey to correct French's "inaccuracies". However Haig also rewrote his diary from this period, possibly to show himself in a better light and French in a poor one. The original manuscript diary for early August does not survive but there is no positive evidence that it was destroyed; and it has been pointed out that it is just as likely that the extant typed version was prepared from dictation or notes now lost.[83] Hankey's notes of the meeting record that Haig suggested delaying or sending smaller forces, but was willing to send forces if France was in danger of defeat or if France wanted them (which it did). Haig predicted that the war would last several years and that an army of a million men, trained by officers and NCOs withdrawn from the BEF, would be needed.[82]

Haig had been appointed aide-de-camp to King George V in February 1914.[84] During a royal inspection of Aldershot (11 August), Haig told the King that he had "grave doubts" about the evenness of French's temper and military knowledge. He later claimed that these doubts had gone back to the Boer War but there appears to have been an element of later embellishment about this; Haig (who had criticised Kitchener, Roberts and others) had in fact praised French during the Boer War and had welcomed his appointment as CIGS in 1911.[85]

Mons to the Marne[edit]

Haig with Major-General C. C. Monro (commanding 2nd Division), Brigadier-General J. E. Gough (Haig's Chief of Staff), and Major General Sir Edward Perceval (commander of 2nd Division's artillery) in a street in France, 1914.

Haig crossed over to Le Havre.[86] The BEF landed in France on 14 August and advanced into Belgium. Haig was irritated by Sir John French, who ignored intelligence reports of German forces streaming westwards from Brussels, threatening an encirclement from the British left. Although II Corps fought off the German attack at Mons on 23 August the BEF was forced to withdraw after Lanzerac ordered a retreat exposing their right flank as well.[87]

The retreats of I and II Corps had to be conducted separately because of the Mormal Forest. The two corps were supposed to meet at Le Cateau but I Corps under Haig were stopped at Landrecies, leaving a large gap between the two corps. Haig's reactions to his corps' skirmish with German forces at Landrecies (during which Haig led his staff into the street, revolvers drawn, promising to "sell our lives dearly") caused him to send an exaggerated report to French, which caused French to panic. The following day 26 August, Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps engaged the enemy in the Battle of Le Cateau, which was unsupported by Haig. This battle slowed the German army's advance. However, a critical biographer writes that too much has been made of the "moment of panic" at Landrecies, and that the 200-mile (320 km) retreat, over a period of 13 days, is a tribute to the "steady and competent leadership" of Haig and Smith-Dorrien.[88]

On 25 August the French commander Joseph Joffre ordered his forces to retreat to the Marne, which compelled the BEF to further withdraw. Haig was irritated by the high-handed behaviour of the French, seizing roads which they had promised for British use and refusing to promise to cover the British right flank. He complained privately of French unreliability and lack of fighting competence, a complaint which he would keep up for the next four years. He wrote to his wife that he wished the British were operating independently from Antwerp, a proposal which he had rejected as "reckless", when Sir John French had made it at the War Council on 4 August.[89]

The retreat caused Sir John French to question the competence of his Allies resulting in further indecision and led to his decision to withdraw the BEF south of the Seine. On 1 September, Lord Kitchener intervened by visiting French and ordering him to re-enter the battle and coordinate with Joffre's forces. The battle to defend Paris began on 5 September and became known as the first Battle of the Marne. Haig had wanted to rest his corps but was happy to resume the offensive when ordered. He drove on his subordinates, including Ivor Maxse, when he thought them lacking in "fighting spirit". Although Sir John French praised Haig's leadership of his corps, Haig was privately contemptuous of French's overconfidence prior to Mons and excessive caution thereafter.[90]

First Battle of Ypres[edit]

On 15 October, after two weeks of friction between British and French generals, Haig's I Corps was moved to Ypres in Flanders as part of the "Race to the Sea".[91] In the belief that the German northern flank was weak, Haig was ordered to march on Ghent, Bruges and Courtrai in western Belgium but the new German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn was trying to do the opposite and roll up the Allied northern flank. I Corps marched headlong into a thrust westward by fresh German forces and the result was the First Battle of Ypres. German forces, equipped with 250 heavy guns (a large number for this early stage in the war), outnumbered I Corps by two to one and came close to success. At one point Haig mounted his horse to encourage his men, who were retreating around Gheluvelt, although the town had just been recaptured by a battalion of the Worcesters before Haig's ride.[92] Haig cemented his reputation at this battle and Ypres remained a symbolic piece of ground in later years. Haig was also influenced by the fact that the Germans had called off their offensive when they were on the verge of success, concluding that attacks needed to be kept up so long as there was any chance of success.[93]

After a fortnight of intense fighting I Corps had been reduced from 18,000 men to just under 3,000 effectives by 12 November.[94] After six days of bickering between British and French generals, I Corps was relieved by French troops; Haig being very suspicious of the pro-French sympathies of Henry Wilson.[95] Following the success of the First Battle of Ypres, French, who had been ordered by his doctor to relieve the strain on his heart, recommended Haig for immediate promotion to general. Haig travelled to London on French's behalf to consult Kitchener about the plan to expand the BEF and reorganise it into two armies.[96]

At this point it was thought that the war would end once the Germans were defeated by the Russians at Lodz and the difficulties of attacking on the Western Front were not yet appreciated. A failed attack by Smith-Dorrien's II Corps on Messines–Wytschaete (14–15 December) was blamed on poor GHQ staff work, and on 18 December, Haig met French, who said he wanted to sack the BEF chief of staff Murray, whose performance had been unsatisfactory throughout the campaign and promote his deputy Henry Wilson. Haig thought that Wilson had "no military knowledge" and recommended Quarter-Master General "Wully" Robertson for the vacancy. This was also the view of Lord Kitchener, so Robertson received the promotion.[97] Haig received promotion to general on 16 November 1914.[98]


Spring offensives[edit]

French, Joffre and Haig (left to right) visit the front line during 1915. Henry Wilson is second from the right.

Like French, Haig wanted to push along the North Sea Coast to Ostend and Zeebrugge but Joffre did not want the British acting so independently.[99] Germany had recently sent eight infantry divisions to the Eastern Front, so French and Joffre, thinking that the war would be won by the summer, agreed that a French offensive in Artois and Champagne, should be accompanied by a British offensive at Neuve-Chapelle to be conducted by Haig. At Neuve Chapelle, Haig wanted a quick bombardment and his subordinate Henry Rawlinson a longer and more methodical one. Shortage of shells meant that only a thirty-five-minute bombardment was possible but the small front of the attack gave it the concentration to succeed.[100]

Haig displayed great interest in the potential of aircraft and met Major Trenchard of the Royal Flying Corps to organise photographic air reconnaissance and a map of German lines was obtained; aircraft were also beginning to be used for artillery spotting.[101] Four divisions attacked at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 10 March and penetrated to a depth of 1,600 yards (1,500 m) but no progress was made on subsequent days, as the Germans brought in reinforcements. Casualties were around 12,000 on each side.[100] Rawlinson had wanted to end the offensive after the first day and Haig felt that reserves should have been committed quicker. On Rawlinson's suggestion Haig came close to sacking Major-General Joey Davies until it was found that Davies had followed Rawlinson's orders; Haig reprimanded Rawlinson but thought him too valuable to sack. This may have made Rawlinson reluctant to stand up to Haig thereafter.[102]

French and Joffre still expected victory by July. Whilst the Germans attacked Smith-Dorrien at the Second Battle of Ypres (April), new Allied offensives were planned by the French at Vimy and by Haig at Aubers Ridge (9 May). It was believed on the British side that the lessons of Neuve Chapelle had been learned – reserves were ready to exploit and mortars were ready to support attackers who had advanced beyond artillery cover – and that this time success would be complete not partial. The attack was less successful than Neuve Chapelle as the bombardment was over a wider front and against stronger defences; Haig was still focussed on winning a decisive victory by capturing key ground, rather than amassing firepower to inflict maximum damage on the Germans.[103][104] Attacks (at Festubert, 15–25 May) as a diversion, gained 1,100 yards (1,000 m) over a front of 4,400 yards (4,000 m), with 16,000 British casualties to around 6,600 German losses.[105] Sir John French was satisfied that the attacks had served to take pressure off the French at their request but Haig still felt that German reserves were being exhausted, bringing victory nearer.[106]

Lack of shells at these offensives was, along with Admiral Fisher's resignation over the failed Dardanelles Campaign, a cause of the fall of the Liberal Government (19 May). Haig did not approve of the Northcliffe press attacks on Kitchener, whom he thought a powerful military voice against the folly of civilians like Churchill (despite the fact that Kitchener had played a role in planning the Gallipoli expedition and was an opponent of the strong General Staff which Haig wanted to see). French had been leaking information about the shell shortage to Charles à Court Repington of The Times, whom Haig detested and which he likened to "carrying on with a whore" (possibly a deliberately chosen analogy in view of French's womanising). French also communicated with Conservative leaders and to David Lloyd George who now became Minister of Munitions in the new coalition government.[107]

Haig was asked by Clive Wigram (one of the King's press staff) to smooth relations between French and Kitchener. At Robertson's suggestion, Haig received Kitchener at his HQ (8 July – despite French's attempt to block the meeting), where they shared their concerns about French. The two men met again in London (14 July), whilst Haig was receiving his GCB (awarded on French's recommendation after Neuve Chapelle) from the King, who also complained to him about French. Over lunch with the King and Kitchener, Haig remarked that the best time to sack French would have been after the retreat to the Marne; it was agreed that the men would correspond in confidence and in response to the King's joke that this was inviting Haig to "sneak" like a schoolboy, Kitchener replied that "we are past schoolboy's age".[108]

Haig had long thought French petty, jealous, unbalanced ("like a bottle of soda water … incapable of thinking … and coming to a reasoned decision"), overly quick to meddle in party politics and easily manipulated by Henry Wilson.[109] Haig was increasingly irritated by French's changes of orders and mercurial changes of mood as to the length of the war, which French now expected to last into 1916.[110] Haig still thought Germany might collapse by November, although at the same time he was sending a memo to the War Office recommending that the BEF, now numbering 25 divisions, be equipped with the maximum number of heavy guns, ready for a huge decisive battle, 36 divisions strong in 1916.[111]


The war was not going well – besides the failure at Cape Helles (landing 25 April), Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers (Serbia was soon overrun). Allied attacks in the west were needed to take pressure off the Russians, who were being flung out of Poland. The original plan was to attack in July. At Joffre's insistence the offensive was planned next to the French Tenth Army at Loos.[112]

Haig inspected the Loos area (24 June) and expressed dissatisfaction with the ground. French and Haig would have preferred to renew the attack at Aubers Ridge.[113] French was dissuaded by Foch, who felt that only a British attack at Loos would pull in enough German reserves to allow the French to take Vimy Ridge. French wrote to Joffre saying he was willing to go along with these plans for the sake of Anglo-French cooperation, but then wrote to Joffre again suggesting an artillery bombardment with only limited British infantry attacks. Kitchener, who had been invited to tour the French Army, listened sympathetically to Joffre's suggestion that in future Joffre should set the size, dates and objectives of British offensives, although he only agreed for the Loos attack for the moment. It is unclear exactly why Kitchener and then Haig agreed to go along with Joffre's wishes – possibly the disastrous plight of the Russians, but it may be that a promise that poison gas could be used may have persuaded Haig. The French then postponed the attack as they picked new attacking ground in Champagne and arranged for extra shelling at Vimy, in both cases because of the very reasons – German-held villages and other obstructions – to which the British generals had objected.[114]

Only 850 guns were available, too few for concentrated bombardment over a frontage far wider than at Neuve Chapelle.[115] There was also argument over the placement of the reserve, XI Corps (Haking) with the 21st and 24th Divisions (inexperienced New Army divisions), which Haig wanted close to the front. Haig had persuaded himself that decisive victory was possible, and it may be that French wanted to keep control of the reserve to stop them being thrown into battle needlessly.[116] French tried in vain to forbid Haig to discuss his plans with Kitchener (on the grounds that Kitchener might leak them to politicians). Battle began (25 September) after Haig ordered the release of chlorine gas.[117]

The attack failed in the north against the Hohenzollern Redoubt but broke through the German first line in the centre (Loos and Hill 70). The reserves were tired after night marches, to reach the front in secrecy and were not available until 2 pm, but were thrown into battle without success on the second day, although it is not clear that they would have accomplished much if available on the first day, as Haig had wanted.[118]

Haig replaces French[edit]

Haig wrote a detailed letter to Kitchener claiming "complete" success on the first day and complaining that the reserves had not been placed as close to the front as agreed and that French had not released control of them when requested. Haig strengthened his case by reports that captured enemy officers had been astonished at the British failure to exploit the attack and by complaining about the government's foot-dragging at introducing conscription and the commitment of troops to sideshows like Salonika and Suvla Bay.[119]

The failure of Loos was debated in the British press. Kitchener demanded a report and Lord Haldane was sent to France to interview French and Haig.[120] French in turn demanded a report from Haig, in particular his claim to have penetrated the German lines. Lord Stamfordham, the King's Secretary, telephoned Robertson to ask his opinion of French and Robertson conferred with Haig – who was pushing for Robertson to be appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff – before giving his opinion. The King also discussed the matter with Haig over dinner on a visit to the front (24 October). Haig again told him that French should have been sacked in August 1914. Four days later the King, whilst inspecting troops, was injured when thrown by one of Haig's horses and had to be evacuated to England on a stretcher, which embarrassed Haig. French had his orders releasing the reserves published in The Times (2 November), with an article by Repington blaming Haig. Haig demanded a correction of French's "inaccuracies", whereupon French ordered Haig to cease all correspondence on this matter, although he offered to let Haig see the covering letter he was sending to London in his report but French's fate was sealed. Haig met with the Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith on 23 November and Bonar Law (Conservative Leader) the next day. Rumours were rife that French was to be sacked.[121] Matters had been delayed as Kitchener was away on an inspection tour of the Mediterranean and French was sick in bed. Kitchener returned to London (3 Dec) and at a meeting with Haig that day, told him that he was to recommend to Asquith that Haig replace French.[122]

Haig's appointment as Commander-in-Chief BEF was announced on 10 December and almost simultaneously Robertson became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London. Haig and Robertson hoped that this would be the start of a new and more professional management of the war. Monro was promoted to GOC First Army in Haig's place, not Rawlinson whom Haig would have preferred, and for reasons of seniority Haig was forced to accept the weak-willed Launcelot Kiggell, not Butler as chief of staff BEF in succession to Robertson.[123] Haig and French, who seemed ill and short of breath, had a final handover meeting (18 December, the day before the formal change of command), at which Haig agreed that Churchill – recently resigned from the Cabinet and vetoed from command of a brigade – should be given command of a battalion.[124]


Prelude to the Somme[edit]

Haig, King George V and General Henry Rawlinson at Querrieu, 1916

For the first time (2 January) Haig attended church service with George Duncan, who was to have great influence over him. Haig saw himself as God's servant and was keen to have clergymen sent out whose sermons would remind the men that the war dead were martyrs in a just cause.[125]

Robertson and Kitchener wanted to concentrate on the Western Front, unlike many in the Cabinet who preferred Salonika or Mesopotamia. Haig and Robertson were aware that Britain would have to take on more of the offensive burden, as France was beginning to run out of men (and perhaps could not last more than another year at the same level of effort) but thought that the Germans might retreat in the west to shorten their line, so they could concentrate on beating the Russians, who unlike France and Britain might accept a compromise peace. Haig thought that the Germans had already had plenty of "wearing out", that a decisive victory was possible in 1916 and urged Robertson to recruit more cavalry. Haig's preference was to regain control of the Belgian coast by attacking in Flanders, to bring the coast and the naval bases at Bruges, Zeebrugge and Ostend (a view also held by the Cabinet and Admiralty since 1914) into Allied hands and where the Germans would also suffer great loss if they were reluctant to retreat.[126][127]

Lloyd George visited Haig at GHQ and afterwards wrote to Haig, to say that he had been impressed by his "grip" and by the "trained thought of a great soldier". Subsequent relations between the two men were not to be so cordial. Haig thought Lloyd George "shifty and unreliable".[128] Haig had thought that the German troops reported near Verdun were a feint prior to an attack on the British but the Verdun Offensive began on 21 February.[129] In March 1916 GHQ was moved from Saint-Omer to Montreuil, Pas-de-Calais. For his residence Haig commandeered Beaurepaire House a few kilometres away.[130]

The statue of Field Marshal Haig, standing outside the theatre in Montreuil-sur-Mer

Haig decided that Verdun had "worn down" the Germans enough and that a decisive victory was possible at once. The Cabinet were less optimistic and Kitchener (like Rawlinson) was also somewhat doubtful and would have preferred smaller and purely attritional attacks but sided with Robertson in telling the Cabinet that the Somme offensive should go ahead. Haig attended a Cabinet meeting in London (15 April) where the politicians were more concerned with the political crisis over the introduction of conscription, which could bring down the government and Haig recorded that Asquith attended the meeting dressed for golf and clearly keen to get away for the weekend.[131]

Memorandum from Haig to the Adjutant General, Lieutenant General Sir Nevil Macready, asking his opinion on possible dates for launching the Somme offensive, 22 May 1916

The French had already insisted on an Anglo-French attack at the Somme, where British and French troops were adjacent, to relieve the pressure on the French Army at Verdun, although the French component of the attack was gradually reduced as reinforcements went to Verdun. Haig wanted to delay until 15 August, to allow for more training and more artillery to be available. When told of this Joffre shouted at Haig that "the French Army would cease to exist" and had to be calmed down with "liberal doses of 1840 brandy". The British refused to agree to French demands for a joint Anglo-French offensive from the Salonika bridgehead. Eventually, perhaps influenced by reports of French troop disturbances at Verdun, Haig agreed to attack on 29 June (later put back until 1 July). This was just in time, as it later turned out that Pétain at Verdun was warning the French government that the "game was up" unless the British attacked.[132]

The government was concerned at the volume of shipping space being used for fodder and wanted to cut the number of cavalry divisions. Haig opposed this, believing that cavalry would still be needed to exploit the imminent victory. The Cabinet were mistaken, as most of the fodder was for the horses, donkeys and mules which the BEF used to move supplies and heavy equipment. Discussing this matter with the King, who thought the war would last until the end of 1917, Haig told him that Germany would collapse by the end of 1916.[133] This round of planning ended with a sharp exchange of letters with the Cabinet, Haig rebuked them for interfering in military matters and declared that "I am responsible for the efficiency of the Armies in France". Lloyd George thought Haig's letter "perfectly insolent" and that the government "had the right to investigate any matter connected with the war that they pleased".[134]

Stretcher bearers recovering wounded during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916. Photo by Ernest Brooks.

From 1 July to 18 November 1916, Haig directed the British portion of the Battle of the Somme. Although too much shrapnel was used in the initial bombardment for 1 July, Haig was not entirely to blame for this – as early as Jan 1915 Haig had been impressed by evidence of the effectiveness of high explosive shells and had demanded as many of them as possible from van Donop (Head of Ordnance in Britain).[135]


Portrait of Haig at General Headquarters, France, by Sir William Orpen, May 1917

On 1 January 1917, Haig was made a field marshal.[136] King George V wrote him a handwritten note ending: "I hope you will look upon this as a New Year's gift from myself and the country".[137] Lloyd George, who had become Prime Minister in December 1916, infuriated Haig and Robertson by placing the BEF under the command of the new French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 (which Haig had been required to support with a British offensive at Arras) and the subsequent French mutiny and political crisis, discredited Lloyd George's plans for Anglo-French co-operation. During the second half of 1917, Haig conducted an offensive at Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres). Haig hoped to liberate the North Sea coast of Belgium from which German U-boats were operating, provided that there was assistance from the French, support from Britain and that Russia stayed in the war.[138]

The Admiralty, led by John Jellicoe, believed that the U-boat threat could jeopardise Britain's ability to continue fighting. Another objective was to commit German resources to Belgian Flanders, away from the Aisne sector in France, where the French mutiny had been worst, to give the French Army time to recover.[138] Haig was also worried that the Russian Revolution would result in Russia and Germany making peace and forming an alliance. If this happened the German troops located on the Eastern Front would be transferred to the west by late 1917 or early 1918, making a decisive victory much more difficult to obtain.[139]

The Third Battle of Ypres caused the British far fewer casualties than the Battle of the Somme and the substantial success of the occupation of the ridges around Ypres, the first stage of the offensive strategy and inflicted comparable losses on the Germans, who were far less capable of replacing losses and which contributed to their defeat in 1918. When he asked the Canadian Corps commander, Arthur Currie, to capture Passchendaele Ridge during the final month of the battle, Currie flatly replied "It's suicidal. I will not waste 16,000 good soldiers on such a hopeless objective" and then did as he was told.[140]


By the end of 1917, Lloyd George felt able to assert authority over the generals and at the end of the year was able to sack the First Sea Lord Admiral Jellicoe. Over the objections of Haig and Robertson, an inter-Allied Supreme War Council was set up.[141] When the council was inaugurated (11 November), Lloyd George attributed the success of the Central Powers to unity and scoffed at recent Allied "victories", saying he wished "it had not been necessary to win so many of them". His speech angered several leading politicians, Carson repudiated it and Derby assured Haig of his backing.[142] Haig and Pétain objected to a common command, arguing that coalitions work better when one power is dominant, which was no longer the case, now that British military power had increased relative to that of France.[143]

Lloyd George got his wish to send British forces to Italy, after the Italian defeat at Caporetto in November. Plumer was moved to Italy with five divisions and heavy artillery, which made renewal of the Ypres offensive impossible.[144] Haig knew that manpower was scarce in the BEF and at home and wrote to Robertson (28 October) that an offensive at Cambrai would stem the flow of reinforcements to Italy;[145] Robertson delayed the despatch of two divisions.[146]

Plans for a III Corps attack at Cambrai had been proposed as far back as May. Haig had informed the War Office (5 June) that "events have proved the utility of Tanks" and had initially (18 July) approved preparations as a deception measure from Passchendaele and approved the operation more formally (13 October) as the First Battle of Passchendaele was being fought.[147] The plan was to trap German troops between the River Sensee and Canal du Nord, with the cavalry to seize the St Quentin Canal crossings, then exploit north-east. The first day objective was the high ground around Bourlon Wood and Haig was to review progress after 48 hours.[148]

The Third Army attacked at Cambrai (6.20 am on 20 November) with six infantry and five cavalry divisions, 1,000 guns (using a surprise predicted barrage rather than a preliminary bombardment) and nine tank battalions of 496 tanks (325 combat, 98 support) on unbroken ground, an area held by two German divisions.[147] On the first day the British penetrated 5 miles (8.0 km) on a 6 miles (9.7 km) front with only 4,000 casualties, limited on the first day by blown bridges and the shortness of the November day. The 51st (Highland) Division was held up at Flesquieres village, which fell the following day. Haig's intelligence chief Brigadier-General Charteris, told him that the Germans would not be able to reinforce for 48 hours and James Marshall-Cornwall, then a junior intelligence officer, later an admiring biographer of Haig, alleged that Charteris refused to have reported fresh German divisions shown on the situation map as he did not want to weaken Haig's resolution.[149]

Haig visited the battlefield (21 November), inspecting the fighting at Bourlon Wood through his binoculars. He thought the attacks "feeble and uncoordinated" and was disappointed at the lack of grip by corps and division commanders and encountering 1st Cavalry Division, which had been ordered to fall back, resisted the temptation to countermand the order. At around 9 pm he decided to continue the attack on Bourlon Wood, a decision which has been much criticised but which made good military sense at the time and was supported by Byng, although the political need for a clear victory may also have been a factor.[150] The offensive continued but with diminishing returns. Bourlon Wood fell on 23 November but German counter-attacks had begun. Haig arrived at a Third Army planning meeting (26 November) and ordered further attacks the following day but then had to bow to Byng deciding to go onto the defensive, having achieved a salient 4 miles (6.4 km) deep and 9 miles (14 km) wide. Haig complained that the lack of an extra two divisions had prevented a breakthrough, a view described by one biographer as "self-deception, pure and simple".[151]

Some of the gains were retaken after 30 November, when the Germans made their first counter-offensive against the British since 1914, using new Sturmtruppen tactics. GHQ intelligence had failed to piece together warnings. British casualties had mounted to over 40,000 by 3 December, with German losses somewhat less.[149] One biographer argues that the initial success at Cambrai helped to save Haig's job but another view is that the ultimate disappointment did more damage to Haig's political credibility than Passchendaele.[152][153]

Aftermath of Cambrai[edit]

Lloyd George was particularly angry at the embarrassing Cambrai reverse. Haig wrote to Robertson that Lloyd George should either sack him or else cease his "carping criticism". Haig's support amongst the Army, the public and many politicians made this impossible and a plan that Haig be "promoted" to a sinecure, as generalissimo of British forces was scotched when Lord Derby threatened resignation.[154] Asked to provide a statement to the House of Commons, Haig attributed the German success to "one cause and one alone … lack of training on the part of junior officers and NCOs and men", a verdict supported by the court of enquiry which, at Derby's instigation, Haig ordered, although the enquiry also criticised "higher commanders" for failing to enforce defensive doctrine.[155]

In a later report to Robertson Haig accepted the blame, stating that the troops had been tired as a result of the attack on Bourlon Wood.[153] Although Haig defended Charteris,[156] he was required to dismiss him. Robertson had arrived at Haig's Headquarters with orders (signed by Derby) for his dismissal, in case Haig refused to do as he was asked. A common criticism is that Haig only accepted intelligence from Charteris (who told him what he wanted to hear) and did not cross-check it with other intelligence.[157]


Political manoeuvres[edit]

Over lunch at 10 Downing Street with Derby and Lloyd George in January, Haig predicted that the war would end within a year because of the "internal state of Germany".[158] Haig left the War Cabinet with the impression that he thought the Germans would launch small attacks on the scale of Cambrai.[159] Haig also recommended that the British should draw in German reserves by renewing the offensive around Ypres, which did not meet with political approval.[160][161] By now Haig's 1917 offensives were being criticised in the press and in Parliament, where J.C. Wedgwood openly demanded a change of command.[162][163] The purge of Haig's staff continued, with the removal of Maxwell (Quartermaster-General) and Lt-Gen Launcelot Kiggell as BEF Chief of Staff.[164]

In January the Cabinet Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts and the Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey were sent to France to take discreet soundings among the Army Commanders to see whether any of them were willing to replace Haig – none were.[165] At the Supreme War Council at Versailles Haig and Pétain complained of shortage of troops, but Haig's political credibility was so low that Hankey wrote that they "made asses of themselves". It was agreed that an Allied General Reserve be set up, under Foch with Henry Wilson as his deputy; Haig was reluctant to hand over divisions and argued against a common command, claiming that it would be "unconstitutional" for him to take orders from a foreign general, and that he did not have the reserves to spare. Milner thought Haig's stance "desperately stupid".[166]

Lloyd George proposed that the CIGS be reduced to his pre-1915 powers (i.e. reporting to the Secretary of State for War, not direct to the Cabinet) and that the British military representative at the Supreme War Council in Versailles be Deputy CIGS and a member of the Army Council (i.e. empowered to issue orders to Haig). He offered Robertson a choice of remaining as CIGS with reduced powers or else accepting demotion to Deputy CIGS at Versailles – either way, Lloyd George would now have been able to cut him out of the decision-making loop. Derby summoned Haig to London, expecting him to support him in backing Robertson. In a private meeting with Lloyd George, Haig agreed with Robertson's position that the CIGS should himself be the delegate to Versailles, or else that the Versailles delegate be clearly subordinate to the CIGS to preserve unity of command. However, he accepted that the War Cabinet must ultimately make the decision, and according to Lloyd George "put up no fight for Robertson" and persuaded Derby not to resign. Haig thought Robertson egotistical, coarse, power-crazed and not "a gentleman" and was unhappy at the way Robertson had allowed divisions to be diverted. Henry Wilson now became CIGS, with Rawlinson as British military representative at Versailles.[167] Although Haig had been suspicious of Henry Wilson, they gradually established a warily respectful relationship.[168]

German Michael offensive[edit]

By March 1918 Germany's Western Front armies had been reinforced by the release of troops from the Eastern Front.[169] At this point British troops were tired and weakened, and British divisions had been cut in size from 12 battalions to 9.[170] Allied intelligence did not fall for German deceptions that they might attack in Italy or the Balkans, but thought that the main attack might fall in the Cambrai-St Quentin (Third Army) sector.[171] Haig inspected the Fifth Army (7–9 March) and noted widespread concerns, which he shared, at lack of reserves. As late as 17 March, Cox, who had replaced Charteris as Intelligence Chief, predicted that the German Offensive was not yet immediately imminent. By 20 March deployment of German trench mortars had been reported by deserters, and British artillery began some spoiling fire.[172]

Germany launched an attack, "Michael" (21 March 1918), with a force larger than the entire BEF and enjoying superiority of 5:1 over the 12 divisions of Hubert Gough's Fifth Army, which were spread thinly over line recently taken over from the French.[173] Haig was initially calm on 21 March, as owing to the communications of the time GHQ was "an information vacuum" where news often took over a day to reach him, and spent much of the day entertaining foreign dignitaries including the US War Secretary. The Third Army retreated as planned from the Flesquieres Salient, freeing up a division. With three-quarters of the 50-mile front under attack, the British troops fought hard and the Germans failed to reach their first day objectives.[174] However, lacking reserves Gough had to retreat behind the Crozat Canal. 22 March saw the Fifth Army retreat to the Somme; Haig still anticipated further German attacks in Champagne or Arras. The Germans did not initially realise the importance of Amiens as an objective.[170]

Haig did not speak to or visit Gough until 23 March. That day Haig arranged for reserves to be sent down from Flanders. Formal orders were issued to the Fifth Army to maintain contact with the Third Army to their north and the French to their south.[175] After initial optimism, Tim Travers has written of "panic" setting in amongst senior officers like Herbert Lawrence and Tavish Davidson at GHQ on 23 March,[176] and there is evidence that a retreat towards the Channel Ports may have been considered.[177]


Haig had a GHQ Reserve which was massed in the north, 72 hours' march away, to protect the Channel Ports. The French Commander-in-Chief, Pétain, agreed to place two French armies under Fayolle as a reserve in the Somme valley, but could not agree to Haig's request to send 20 French divisions to Amiens.[178]

24 March was "probably the most traumatic day (Haig) had endured since" First Ypres in 1914. Half of BEF supplies came into Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe and passed by train through Amiens, making it a major choke point.[179] Planning that winter had left open the question of whether the BEF would retreat southwest or form "an island" around the Channel Ports through which Haig's armies drew the other half of their supplies. A retreat on the ports does not seem to have been decided until some days after 21 March.[180]

This is one of the occasions where doubt has been cast on the authenticity of Haig's diary. For example, Haig's typed diary – probably based on notes prepared in April – describes Pétain as "almost unbalanced and most anxious", claiming that after attending a Cabinet meeting in Paris, where he had been ordered to "cover Paris at all costs",[181] he threatened to retreat on Paris, leaving the British right flank uncovered. Tim Travers argues that Pétain said at the meeting that he would only retreat on Paris if Haig retreated on the Channel Ports, and that Major-General Clive reported from the meeting that Pétain had come away satisfied that Haig would not break contact. In a postwar exchange of letters with Haig Pétain denied that he had ordered a retreat on Paris or had threatened Haig that he might, a recollection which Herbert Lawrence appears to have supported.[182] It has been suggested that Haig and Lawrence may simply have misunderstood his intentions, and that any factual errors in Haig's diary were honest if mistaken recollections.[176]

Haig's letter of 25 March, sent via Weygand, asked for 20 French divisions to cover the southern British flank as the BEF fought its way back "covering the Channel Ports".[183] The letter is ambiguous and does not specifically mention a retreat "to" the ports. Sheffield argues that orders to Third Army were not a precursor to retreat but "a means to an end", pointing to orders for, if needs be, a counterattack onto the northern flank of the German attackers,[176] and also argues that although GHQ had a duty to consider contingency plans, unlike in 1940, evacuation was never actually likely.[184] Wilson claimed that Haig suggested Pétain be appointed Allied generalissimo (which is not consistent with Haig's later claim that Pétain was unwilling to help the British) and that he proposed Foch over Haig's objections.[185]

At the Doullens Conference (26 March), Haig accepted the appointment of Foch to coordinate reserves of all nationalities wherever he saw fit. In his typed diary Haig claimed much of the credit for Foch's appointment and to have insisted that he have wider powers over Pétain than Clemenceau had wanted to grant him.[183] Milner, who represented the British government at Doullens, recorded that Clemenceau was unhappy with Pétain's recent efforts, but claimed that he himself had persuaded Haig to accept the appointment of Foch; Haig's official biographer Duff Cooper gave Haig the credit but commented that the idea had probably occurred to several participants simultaneously.[186]

After a German offensive near Arras ("Mars", 28 March[187]) was beaten back, between 29 and 31 March the Germans pushed on Amiens. A Canadian brigade took part in an action at Moreuil Wood. Attacks on 4 April (Villers-Bretonneux, east of Amiens) and 5 April on the Third Army front were beaten back by British and Australian forces, although contingency plans were still being prepared to cover Rouen and Le Havre in case Amiens fell.[188]

German Georgette offensive[edit]

To ALL RANKS OF THE BRITISH ARMY IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS Three weeks ago to-day the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel Ports and destroy the British Army. In spite of throwing already 106 Divisions into the battle and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has as yet made little progress towards his goals. We owe this to the determined fighting and self-sacrifice of our troops. Words fail me to express the admiration which I feel for the splendid resistance offered by all ranks of our Army under the most trying circumstances. Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. (Signed) D. Haig F.M. Commander-in-Chief British Armies in France, 11 April.

Lloyd George demanded Haig sack Gough, and when Haig was reluctant he was given a direct order to do so by Derby.[173] Haig offered to resign; Lloyd George wanted to accept, but the other ministers, and Henry Wilson, thought there was no obvious successor.[184]

During the second major German offensive, "Georgette" in Flanders (9 April), Haig issued his famous order (11 April) that his men must carry on fighting "With Our Backs to the Wall and believing in the Justice of our Cause" to protect "the safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind".[189] Just as "Michael" had swept over the Cambrai and the Somme battlefields, won at such cost by Haig's own offensives in previous years, this one swept over Passchendaele although not Ypres itself. The offensive threatened Hazebrouck, "the Amiens of the north", a key railhead through which supplies were brought from the Channel Ports.[190]

Foch had earlier refused to send 4 French divisions to Flanders but now redeployed Maistre's Tenth French Army to the Somme sector, freeing up British forces.[190] At Beauvais (3 April) Foch had been given power of "strategic direction", although his powers were still largely based on persuasion rather than command[187] and he was given the title of Generalissimo (14 April) to give him more clout over Pétain, who was still reluctant to release French reserves. Eventually, later in the year, Pétain would simply be placed under Foch's command, although Haig and Pershing retained their right of appeal to their own governments. During a renewed attack (17 April) Foch drew attention to the valour of the British at First Ypres and refused to send further French reinforcements so as to keep a strategic reserve. 24 April saw a further unsuccessful German attack at Villers-Bretonneux near Amiens, featuring the first tank-to-tank combat. Haig was suspicious of Foch's request to move British divisions to the French sector to free up French reserves, worrying that this might lead to "a permanent Amalgam" of French and British forces. Milner agreed but at a meeting on 27 April meeting the dispute was smoothed over, and British IX Corps moved to the French sector.[191] On 30 April Ludendorff called a halt to the Flanders offensive.[192]

Although some American divisions were now serving with the British forces, Haig thought Pershing "very obstinate and stupid" for refusing to integrate US troops (1 May) with Allied units (an ironic complaint in view of his reluctance to integrate British troops with French).[191] At Abbeville (2 May) it was agreed that in the event of renewed attack British forces would retreat south if necessary and abandon the Channel Ports rather than lose touch with the French. Contingency plans were made (11 May) although it is unclear that they would ever have been executed.[193]

The near-debacle of March 1918 was an object of political controversy. Repington wrote that it was "the worst defeat in the history of the Army". Bonar Law claimed in a House of Commons debate (23 April) that Haig and Pétain had agreed the extension of the British line, which was not wholly true as in January 1918 the Supreme War Council had ordered a longer extension than Haig and Pétain had agreed between themselves in December 1917, only leaving them to sort out the details.[194] Lloyd George was accused (in the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918 in the House of Commons, after Maurice's public accusation three days earlier) of having hoarded troops in the UK to make it harder for Haig to launch offensives. Lloyd George misled the House of Commons in claiming that Haig's forces were stronger (1.75 million men) at the start of 1918 than they had been a year earlier (1.5 million men) – in fact the increase was caused by an increase of 335,000 in the number of labourers (Chinese, Indians and black South Africans), and Haig had fewer combat infantry (630,000, down from 900,000 a year earlier), holding a longer stretch of front.[195] Haig had opposed Maurice in taking his concerns into public, but was disappointed at how Lloyd George was able to get off the hook with a "claptrap speech".[196] Maurice believed he had saved Haig from dismissal.[197]

German Bluecher offensive[edit]

By late spring the BEF had taken just over 300,000 casualties. Battalions had had to be brought in from the Middle East. Haig spent time touring his forces in May.[198] Haig's wife reported rumours that he was to be brought home as Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces; when Wilson denied the rumours to Haig, Haig recorded that "no one has been chosen yet!" to replace him.[199]

A third major German offensive against the French on the Aisne ("Bluecher"), starting on 27 May, overwhelmed Hamilton-Gordon's IX British Corps which had been sent there to refit after being involved in "Michael" and "Georgette". At a conference at Versailles (1 June) there was friction between Haig, who was worried that the Germans would attack his sector again, and Foch, who demanded that the US divisions trained by the British be moved to his sector to release French divisions. Foch moved French forces down from Flanders, but there was further friction at a meeting in Paris about Foch's request to move British reserves south.[200] Haig threatened to appeal to the British government if he felt Foch was demanding too many British troops,[197] so it was agreed that Haig and Foch should meet more frequently, and in time they developed a good working relationship.[187]

Cooperation improved when the Germans launched their "Gneisenau" Offensive on 9 June, to widen the "Bluecher" salient westwards. Lloyd George and Milner gave their full support to Foch on moving four British divisions.[201] They told Haig that he should consider himself subordinate to Foch for the time being.[202]

With another German attack imminent, Herbert Lawrence was asked (Haig was on leave in England) to send d Divisions – he sent only two. Haig thought this was breaching an agreement of 1 July that covering Paris and the Somme was to take priority. Wilson consulted the War Cabinet then told Haig to "exercise his judgement" about holding the British line. Haig felt that they would take credit for Foch's victory but might dismiss him if disaster befell the British forces.[201] The German "Peace Offensive" began against the French at Rheims on the same day. Haig eventually agreed that the French could use XXII Corps if necessary "for exploitation".[203]

The Turn of the Tide and the Hundred Days[edit]

King George V, French President Raymond Poincare and Haig at GHQ at Montreuil, 7 August 1918

In July and August the Germans were defeated at the Second Battle of the Marne and Amiens. The latter victory was described by General Erich Ludendorff as "The Black Day of the German Army" after mass surrenders of German troops. On 11 August Haig, contrary to the wishes of Marshal Foch, insisted on a halt to the Amiens offensive and launched a new attack by Byng's Third Army on 21 August between the Scarpe and the Ancre. As with his previous offensives in 1916 and 1917, Haig encouraged his subordinates to aim for ambitious objectives, in this case a thrust from Albert to Bapaume, and this time with more success than in previous years, and more than the government were expecting: on 21 August Haig was visited by Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions, who told him that new equipment was being produced ready for what the government expected to be the war-winning offensive in July 1919.[204] On 10 September Haig, on a brief visit to London, insisted that the war could end that year and asked Lord Milner (Secretary of State for War) to send all available men and transportation.[205] Milner afterwards shared with Wilson his scepticism and his concerns that Haig would embark on "another Passchendaele".[206]

Haig's forces continued to enjoy much success, but when they began to advance towards the Hindenburg Line Haig received a supposedly "personal" telegram from the CIGS Henry Wilson (31 August), warning him that he was not to take unnecessary losses in storming these fortifications. Haig, surmising that the War Cabinet were not forbidding him to attack but might dismiss him if the assault failed, telegraphed Wilson back that they were a "wretched lot" (Wilson replied that the government were worried about needing to retain troops in the UK because of a police strike) and wrote that attacking the Germans now would be less costly than allowing them time to regroup and consolidate.[205] When the Third and Fourth Armies reached the Hindenburg Line (18 September) Haig received a congratulatory note from Wilson saying "you must be a famous general", to which he replied that he was not (as this would have meant currying favour with Repington and the Northcliffe Press) but "we have a number of very capable generals". Milner visited GHQ, and warned him that manpower would not be available for 1919 if squandered now.[206]

Haig and Ferdinand Foch inspecting the Gordon Highlanders, 1918

There is some dispute over how much direct operational control Haig maintained at this time, Tim Travers in particular arguing that he allowed his Army Commanders (Plumer, Byng, Horne, Birdwood and Rawlinson) a very free hand, whilst at the same time Ferdinand Foch, whose role had initially been confined to advice and deployment of reserves, was exerting ever-greater influence over strategy. Haig was irritated that Foch insisted that Plumer's Second Army remain part of an Army Group commanded by the King of the Belgians, so that the French and Belgians could take credit for liberating Brussels.[207]

Sir Douglas Haig with his army commanders and their chiefs of staff, November 1918. Front row, left to right: Sir Herbert Plumer, Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Henry Rawlinson. Middle row, left to right: Sir Julian Byng, Sir William Birdwood, Sir Henry Horne. Back row, left to right: Sir Herbert Lawrence, Sir Charles Kavanagh, Brudenell White, Percy, Louis Vaughan, Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, Hastings Anderson.

Germany first requested an Armistice after the penetration of the Hindenburg Line at its strongest point, St Quentin/Cambrai, on 28 September, and the almost simultaneous capitulation of Bulgaria,[208] and discussions continued for a month until the ceasefire on 11 November. Haig urged moderation, suggesting that Germany only be asked to give up Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine, and warning that humiliating terms might lead to a militarist backlash. Haig suspected Wilson, a staunch Unionist, of wanting to prolong the war as an excuse to subdue southern Ireland by bringing in conscription there.[209] In the end the collapse of Austria-Hungary encouraged the politicians to demand stricter terms (although less strict than Foch or Pershing would have liked) and Germany was required to evacuate the Rhineland as well.[207] However, once Germany had accepted the strict armistice terms, Haig suggested Germany be split into independent states at the peace treaty.[210]

The forces under Haig's command achieved impressive results: whereas the French, American and Belgian armies combined captured 196,700 prisoners-of-war and 3,775 German guns between 18 July and the end of the war, Haig's forces, with a smaller army than the French, engaged the main mass of the German Army and captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns – around half of these prisoners were captured by British cavalry. British daily casualty rates (3,645 per day) were heavier during this period than at the Somme (2,950) or Passchendaele (2,121),[211] because British forces were attacking across the line, instead of being rotated through a single offensive.[212] The military historian, Gary Sheffield, called this, the so-called Hundred Days Offensive, "by far the greatest military victory in British history".[2]

Executions during the First World War[edit]

As commander-in-chief, one of Haig's responsibilities was to give the final signature to the death warrants of British and Commonwealth soldiers (but not Australian – these went to the Governor-General of Australia) who had been first sentenced to death by Field General Court Martial. Although the book Shot at Dawn (1983), which began the campaign for pardons, says that it is "quite incorrect" to hold Haig solely responsible, as he was part of a legal process, by the late 1990s Haig was perhaps best known to the general public because of publicity which implied him to be a brutal disciplinarian – this was not the view of contemporaries.[213] Of the 3,080 men sentenced to death in all theatres,[214] 346 were executed, 266 (77%) were for desertion, 37 for murder and 18 for cowardice.[215] Just over 250 of the executions took place during Haig's time as Commander-in-Chief, but only executed men's records survive, so it is hard to comment on the reasons why men were reprieved.[216]

Promotion of army dentistry during the First World War[edit]

During the war, Haig suffered from toothache and sent for a Parisian dentist. Consequently, within months the British Army had hired a dozen dentists and, by the end of the war, there were 831. This led to the formation of the Royal Army Dental Corps in 1921.[217]

Later life[edit]

Field Marshal Haig unveiling the National War Memorial in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Memorial Day 1 July 1924)

Lloyd George arranged a ceremonial reception for Marshal Foch on 1 December; Haig was asked to travel in the fifth carriage with Henry Wilson but not invited to the reception. Feeling that this was a snub and an attempt to win votes for the imminent election, Haig declined to attend at all.[218] In November 1918 Haig refused Lloyd George's offer of a viscountcy, partly as he felt it was another snub, as his predecessor Sir John French had been awarded the same rank on being removed from command of the BEF, and partly to use his refusal to bargain for better state financial aid for demobilised soldiers. Haig held out despite being lobbied by the King,[219] until Lloyd George backed down in March 1919, blaming a recently sacked pensions minister. Haig was created Earl Haig, Viscount Dawick and Baron Haig, of Bemersyde in the County of Berwick, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and a grant of £100,000.[210][220]

In January 1919, disturbances broke out among troops at Calais, as men returning from leave were expected to return to full army discipline and key workers with jobs to go to (who had often been the last to enlist) were – contrary to Haig's advice – given priority for demobilisation. Haig accepted the advice of Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, that exercising his right to shoot the ringleaders was not sensible.[221] For much of 1919, Haig served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain, a key position as a General Strike seemed likely.[222] Haig kept a low profile in this job and insisted the Army be kept in reserve, not used for normal policing.[223] His military career ended in January 1920. Lord Haig arranged for his Dispatches to be published in 1922 as the General Election loomed, although in the end his nemesis Lloyd George was ousted for unrelated reasons.[224]

Haig in Newfoundland

After retiring from the service, Lord Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen, making many speeches (which did not come easily to him) and answering all letters in his own hand.[225] Haig pushed for the amalgamation of organisations, quashing a suggestion of a separate organisation for officers, into The British Legion which was founded in June 1921. He visited South Africa in 1921, Newfoundland in 1924, and Canada in 1925 (visits to Australia and New Zealand were being planned when he died) to promote ex-servicemen's interests. He was instrumental in setting up the Haig Fund for the financial assistance of ex-servicemen and the Haig Homes charity to ensure they were properly housed; both continue to provide help many years after they were created.[225]

An avid golf enthusiast, Haig was captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, from 1920 to 1921.[226] He was president of The British Legion until his death and was chairman of the United Services Fund from 1921 until his death.[227]

Lord Haig maintained ties with the British Army after his retirement; he was honorary colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers (having been honorary colonel of the 17th Lancers from 1912), The London Scottish, the King's Own Scottish Borderers,[228] and Royal Horse Guards.[229] He was also Lord Rector and later Chancellor of the University of St Andrews.[230]


Haig's grave (right) next to his wife, with the standard military headstone used in the First World War

Haig died in London from a heart attack on 29 January 1928, and was given an elaborate funeral on 3 February.[231][232] "Great crowds lined the streets ... come to do honour to the chief who had sent thousands to the last sacrifice when duty called for it, but whom his war-worn soldiers loved as their truest advocate and friend."[231] The gun-carriage that had carried the Unknown Warrior to his grave in 1920 took Haig's body from St Columba's Church, where it had been lying in state, to Westminster Abbey. Three royal princes followed the gun-carriage and the pall-bearers included two Marshals of France (Foch and Pétain).[231] The cortege was accompanied by five guards of honour: two officers and fifty other ranks from each branch of the British armed forces (Royal Navy, the Irish Guards, and the Royal Air Force); fifty men of the 1st French Army Corps; and 16 men from the Belgian Regiment of Grenadiers.[231] After the service at the Abbey, the procession re-formed to escort the body to Waterloo station for the journey to Edinburgh, where it lay in state for three days at St Giles's Cathedral.[231]

Haig's body was buried at Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish borders, the grave being marked with a plain stone tablet in the style of the standard headstones of the Imperial War Graves Commission issued to British military casualties in the First World War.[233]

The Earl Haig Memorial, an equestrian statue in Whitehall commissioned by Parliament and sculpted by Alfred Frank Hardiman, aroused some controversy and was not unveiled until just before Armistice Day in 1937.[234]


Post-war opinion[edit]

After the war Haig was praised by the American General John J. Pershing, who remarked that Haig was "the man who won the war".[235] His funeral in 1928 was a huge state occasion. However, after his death he was increasingly criticised for issuing orders which led to excessive casualties of British troops under his command on the Western Front, earning him the nickname "Butcher of the Somme".[6]

Earl Haig statue, Edinburgh Castle. The statue was commissioned by Sir Dhunjibhoy Bomanji of Bombay (now Mumbai).[236] It was once in full public view near the Castle entrance, but is now relatively hidden away in a back courtyard at the entrance to the National War Museum.[237]

Criticism of Haig occurred in the memoirs of politicians. Winston Churchill, whose World Crisis was written during Haig's lifetime, suggested that greater use of tanks, as at Cambrai, could have been an alternative to blocking enemy machine-gun fire with "the breasts of brave men".[238][239] Churchill also wrote that although the Allied offensives up until August 1918 had been "as hopeless as they were disastrous", "Haig and Foch were vindicated in the end".[240] Churchill admitted to Lord Beaverbrook that "subsequent study of the war has led me to think a good deal better of Haig than I did at the time. It is absolutely certain there was no one who could have taken his place."[241][242] Churchill's essay on Haig in Great Contemporaries, written after Haig's death, was slightly more critical, noting the government's refusal to offer Haig employment after 1920, his emphasis on the Western Front and his lack of the "sinister genius" possessed by the truly great generals of history.[243]

Haig's death mask, Edinburgh Castle

Lloyd George was more critical in his War Memoirs, published in 1936. He described Haig as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task", although "above the average for his profession—perhaps more in industry than intelligence". Lloyd George's biographer John Grigg (2002) attributed his vitriol to a guilty conscience, that he had not intervened to put a stop to the Passchendaele Offensive. John Terraine, writing of the "shrill venom" with which Lloyd George sought to "exculpate himself", called the memoirs "a document as shabby as his behaviour at Calais".[244]

B. H. Liddell Hart, a military historian who had been wounded during the First World War, went from admirer to sceptic to unremitting critic. He wrote in his diary:

[Haig] 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 ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.[245]

John Laffin, an Australian military historian who had served in the Second World War, commented unfavourably on Haig:

"Haig and other British generals must be indicted not for incomprehension but for wilful blunders and wicked butchery. However stupid they might have been, however much they were the product of a system which obstructed enterprise, they knew what they were doing. There can never be forgiveness."[246]

Other historians[edit]

Earl Haig Memorial, Whitehall, London

One of Haig's defenders was the military historian John Terraine, who published a biography of Haig (The Educated Soldier) in 1963, in which Haig was portrayed as a "Great Captain" of the calibre of the Duke of Marlborough or the Duke of Wellington. Terraine, taking his cue from Haig's "Final Despatch" of 1918, also argued that Haig pursued the only strategy possible, given the situation the armies were in. Gary Sheffield stated that although Terraine's arguments about Haig have been much attacked over forty years, Terraine's thesis "has yet to be demolished".[1]

Australian historian Les Carlyon wrote that while Haig was slow to adapt to the correct use of artillery in sufficient quantities to support infantry attacks and was generally sceptical that the science of such doctrine had much place in military theory, he was fully supportive of excellent corps and field commanders such as Herbert Plumer, Arthur Currie and John Monash, who seem to best grasp and exercise these concepts, especially later in the war. Carlyon also wrote that there was a case to answer, for his support of more dubious commanders such as Ian Hamilton, Aylmer Hunter-Weston and Hubert Gough.[247]

Tactical developments[edit]

Critics, including Alan Clark and Gerard De Groot, argue that Haig failed to appreciate the critical science of artillery or supporting arms and that he was "unimaginative", although de Groot added that he has had the misfortune to be judged by the standards of a later age.[248] Paul Fussell, a literary historian, wrote in The Great War and Modern Memory that,

although one doesn't want to be too hard on Haig ... who has been well calumniated already ... it must be said that it now appears that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant—especially of the French—and quite humourless ... Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm.[249]

Military historian John Bourne wrote that this was not the case. Haig, although not familiar with technological advances, encouraged their use. He also rejected claims that Haig was a traditionalist and focused only on cavalry tactics.[250] Cavalry represented less than three per cent of the BEF in France by September 1916, whilst the British were the most mechanised force in the world by 1918, supported by the world's largest air force. The Tank Corps was the world's first such force and some 22,000 men served in it during the war. The Royal Artillery grew by 520 per cent and the engineers who implemented combined arms tactics grew by 2,212 per cent. Bourne wrote that this hardly demonstrates a lack of imagination.[251] Other historians, notably John Keegan, refused to accept that the British Army underwent a "learning curve" of any sort; despite this example, Bourne wrote that there "is little disagreement among scholars about the nature of the military transformation".[252] Popular "media opinion" had failed to grasp that under Haig, the British Army adopted a very modern style of war in 1918, something that was very different from 1914, 1916 and 1917.[253]

There is no consensus on the speed of a learning curve. Tim Travers wrote that there was no one "villain" but the pre-war regular army. Travers blamed the management of early campaigns on the ethos of the pre-war officer corps, which was based on privilege, with a hierarchy intent on self-preservation and maintaining individual reputations. As a consequence the army was poorly positioned to adapt quickly. Travers wrote that initiative was discouraged, making advancement in a learning curve slow and that the ethos of the army was pro-human and anti-technological. The offensive spirit of the infantry, quality of the soldier, rapid rifle-fire and the idea of the soldier being the most important aspect of the battlefield prevailed. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and the power of artillery were ignored, which caused costly tactical mistakes in the first half of the war. The tactics that Haig pursued (a breakthrough battle deep into enemy territory) were beyond the mobility and range of artillery, which contributed to operational failures and heavy losses. Travers also criticised Haig and enemy commanders for seeing battle as perfectly organised and something that could be planned perfectly, ignoring the concept of fog of war. Travers wrote that top-down command became impossible in the chaos of battle and lower levels of command were relied upon. Owing to the lack of attention at this level in the early years of the war, a command vacuum was created in which GHQ became a spectator.[254]

Bourne considered this to be too harsh. Haig progressed along with other commanders of the Edwardian era from battalion, brigade, division and corps command, to the army group and commanders-in-chief of the First World War. The advances in operational methods, technology and tactical doctrine were implemented by these officers, Haig among them. Bourne also wrote that it was difficult to reconcile the commanders of 1918 with the dogma-ridden, unprofessional, unreflecting institution depicted by Tim Travers.[255][256]

Biographers Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) state:

As a result of his determination to accomplish great victories Haig too often disregarded key factors such as weather, and the condition of the battlefield, placed his objectives beyond the range which his artillery could cover and incorporated in his schemes a role for cavalry which this arm was helpless to accomplish. These shortcomings, it needs to be stressed, were not at all peculiar to Haig. ... But the outcome, too often, was British operations directed towards unrealizable objectives and persisted in long after they had ceased to serve any worthwhile purpose. The consequence was excessive loss of British lives, insubstantial accomplishment, and waning morale.[257]


Haig has been criticised for the high casualties in British offensives, but historians like John Terraine argue that this was largely a function of the size of the battles, as British forces engaged the main body of the German Army on the Western Front after 1916.[258] Although total deaths in the Second World War were far higher than in the First, British deaths were lower, because Britain fought mainly peripheral campaigns in the Mediterranean for much of the Second World War, involving relatively few British troops, while most of the land fighting took place between Germany and the USSR.[211][259] When British forces engaged in Normandy in 1944, total losses were fewer than on the Somme in 1916, as Normandy was around half the length and less than half the size but casualties per unit per week were broadly similar.[260] David French wrote that British daily loss rates at Normandy, in which divisions lost up to three quarters of their infantry, were similar to those of Passchendaele in 1917, while average battalion casualty rates in 1944–45 (100 men per week) were similar to those of the First World War.[261]

John Terraine wrote:

It is important, when we feel our emotions rightly swelling over the losses of 1914–18, to remember that in 1939–45 the world losses were probably over four times as many ... the British task was entirely different, which is why the (British) loss of life was so different: about 350,000 in 1939–45 and about 750,000 (British deaths, 1 million including the Empire) in 1914–18 ... – ... The casualty statistics of the Great War ... tell us ... virtually nothing about the quality of ... British generals. The statistics show that ... the British losses in great battles were generally about the same as anyone else's.

He also wrote that British perceptions were coloured by the terrible losses of 1 July 1916, during which the British Army sustained 57,000 casualties, but that it should also be remembered that the British never suffered anything like the losses of June 1916, when the Austro-Hungarian Army experienced 280,000 casualties in a week, or of August 1914, when the French Army lost 211,000 men in 16 days, or of March and April 1918, when the Germans lost nearly 350,000 men in six weeks, or 1915, when Russia suffered 2 million casualties in a year.[262]

Total British First World War deaths seemed especially severe as they fell among certain groups such as Pals Battalions (volunteers who enlisted together and were allowed to serve together) or the alleged "Lost Generation" of public school and university-educated junior officers. British deaths, although heavy compared to other British wars, were only around half those of France or Germany relative to population.[263]

Alleged falsification of records[edit]

Denis Winter wrote that Haig protected his reputation by falsifying his diary to mislead historians. Barring a few disputes over contentious meetings, such as the War Council of early August 1914 and the Doullens Conference of March 1918, "the overall authenticity of Haig's diary is, however, not in doubt", not least because of the frequency with which its contents have been used to criticise him and because the facts do not appear to have been distorted.[264] John Bourne wrote that (given the low regard in which Haig had come to be held by the general public) "Winter's perceived conspiracy would appear to be one of the least successful in history. The falsification of his diary seems equally inept, given the frequency with which its contents are held against the author's competence, integrity and humanity, not least by Winter himself."[265]

Winter also wrote that Haig and the British Government had conspired with the Official Historian, Brigadier J. E. Edmonds, to show Haig in a better light in the Official History. These claims were rejected by a number of British and Australian historians, including Robin Prior and Correlli Barnett. Barnett's comments were supported by John Hussey and Jeffrey Grey of the University of New South Wales, who wrote that:

A check of the documents cited in the Heyes papers, collected for [the Australian Official Historian] C. E. W. Bean in London in the 1920s, and in the correspondence between Bean and the British Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, not only fails to substantiate Winter's claims but reinforces still further Barnett's criticisms of (Winter's) capacity as a researcher ... includ(ing) ... misidentification of documents, misquotation of documents, the running together of passages from different documents ... and misdating of material..(including) misdat(ing) a letter by seventeen years ... to support his conspiracy case against Edmonds.[266]

Donald Cameron Watt found Winter

curiously ignorant of the by-no-means secret grounds on which the Cabinet Office, or rather its secretary, Lord Hankey, initiated a series of official histories of the first world war and the terms which were binding on the authors commissioned to write them.[267]

Winter wrote that Edmonds did not canvass the opinion of veterans, which was untrue – some volumes were sent to 1,000 or more officers for their comments, as well as being checked against unit diaries down to battalion level – in some cases entire chapters were rewritten (or in the case of Passchendaele, the volume was rewritten several times in the 1940s, during disputes about the roles of Haig and Hubert Gough, who was still alive). Winter quoted, out of context, Edmonds' advice to his researchers to write a draft narrative first, then invite interviewees to comment over lunch: Andrew Green, in his study of the Official History, wrote that this was done deliberately, for memories to be jogged by the draft narrative and that senior officers were more likely to be frank if approached informally.[268] Winter doubted that Haig had passed out of Sandhurst at the top of his year or been awarded the Anson Sword, but this was refuted by S. J. Anglim,[269] who consulted the Sandhurst records.[270]

In popular culture[edit]

Haig appeared as himself in the films Under Four Flags (1918) and Remembrance (1927).

Haig has commonly been portrayed as an inept commander who exhibited callous disregard for the lives of his soldiers. Sometimes the criticism is more against the generation of British generals which he is deemed to represent, a view aired by writers such as John Laffin (British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One) and John Mosier (Myth of the Great War). Alan Clark's book The Donkeys (1961) led to the popularisation of the controversial phrase 'lions led by donkeys' to describe British generalship.[271] A critical biographer finds "no evidence of widespread contempt for Haig; the claim that ordinary soldiers universally thought him a butcher does not accord with their continued willingness to fight".[272]

Haig was played by Sir John Mills in the 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War, in which much of the dialogue is taken from Clark's The Donkeys. He is portrayed as being indifferent to the fate of the troops under his command, his goal being to wear the Germans down even at the cost of enormous losses.[273]

In the 1989 BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, Haig, played by Geoffrey Palmer, makes an appearance in the final episode. Referring to the limited gains made during the 1915–1917 offensives, Blackadder says: "Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin".[274]

In the 1985 Australian television mini-series Anzacs, Haig was played by actor Noel Trevarthen. Haig was portrayed as a cold and aloof man whose scepticism about the fighting abilities of the Australian and New Zealand troops arriving on the Western Front in 1916 was aggravated by the conduct of the Australians behind the lines. The series also portrayed British Prime Minister Lloyd George having a strong dislike of Haig and wishing to see him removed from command in 1917.


Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT) 31 July 1917[61]: 1720 
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) 3 June 1915[275]
Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) 3 June 1913[276]
Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) 27 September 1901[277]
Member of the Order of Merit (OM) 3 June 1919[278]
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) 15 August 1916[279]
Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) 25 June 1909[280]
Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) 1904[61]: 562 
Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) 12 December 1911[281]
Delhi Durbar Medal (Silver) 1911[282]
Queen's Sudan Medal [283]
Queen's South Africa Medal, clasps: Paardeberg, Driefontein,
Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Belfast, Relief of Kimberley, Elandslaagte
King's South Africa Medal, clasps: South Africa 1901, South Africa 1902 [285]
1914 Star and clasp [286]
British War Medal [286]
World War I Victory Medal [286]
Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour (France) 24 February 1916[287] (Grand Officer – 15 May 1915)[288]
Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold (Belgium) 24 February 1916[289]
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Italy) 14 September 1916[290]
1st Class of the Order of Prince Danilo I (Montenegro) 31 October 1916[291]
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Karađorđe's Star with Swords (Serbia), Military division 10 September 1918[292]
Grand Cordon with Paulownia Flowers of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan) 9 November 1918[293]
1st Class of the Order of Michael the Brave (Romania) 20 September 1919[294]
4th Class of the Order of St George (Russia) 1 June 1917[295]
Army Distinguished Service Medal (United States) 1918[296][297]
Obilitch Medal in Gold (Montenegro) 31 October 1916[291]
Croix de Guerre (France) 21 April 1917[298]
Croix de guerre (Belgium) 11 March 1918[299]
Knight Grand Commander of the Order of Rama (Kingdom of Siam) 16 November 1918[300]
Khedive's Sudan Medal with clasps: The Atbara, Khartoum (Khedivate of Egypt) 1898[283]

Honorary degrees[edit]

Date School Degree
1919 University of Edinburgh Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[301]
11 July 1919 University of Aberdeen [302]
8 May 1919 University of Glasgow Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[303][304]
25 June 1919 University of Oxford Doctor of Civil Law (DCL)[305]
1920 University of Leeds Doctor of Laws (LL.D)[306]

Freedom of the City[edit]


The Argentine football club Club Atlético Douglas Haig, founded in 1918, is named after Haig.[315]

In August 1920, the Great Central Railway gave the name Earl Haig to one of their newly built 4-6-0 express passenger locomotives. It carried the name until October 1943.[316][317]

Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto was also named after Haig.[318] A species of cottage tulip, "Marshal Haig", is also named after him.[319] The Hundred of Haig, a cadastral unit in South Australia, was named after Haig in 1918.[320] In the early 1920s, several years before his death, a new road of council houses in Kates Hill (now in West Midlands) was named Haig Road.[321] Other roads named in honour of Haig include Haig Avenue in Southport, Merseyside (and the football ground of Southport F.C. that was situated there);[322] Haig Avenue in Mount Roskill, Auckland];[323] Haig Road in Katong, Singapore;[324] and General Haig Street in New Orleans.[325]


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Further reading[edit]



External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Chief of the General Staff (India)
Succeeded by
Preceded by General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Aldershot Command
Succeeded by
New command General Officer Commanding I Corps
August – December 1914
Succeeded by
New command General Officer Commanding First Army
Succeeded by
Preceded by Commander-in-Chief British Expeditionary Force
Succeeded by
Sir John Asser
(as GOC British Troops in France and Flanders)
Honorary titles
Preceded by Colonel of the 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own)
Regiment amalgamated
Preceded by Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards
Succeeded by
New title
Regiment formed
Colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers
With: Sir Herbert Lawrence
Succeeded by
Preceded by Colonel of the King's Own Scottish Borderers
Succeeded by
Academic offices
Preceded by Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl Haig
Succeeded by