Few figures in British military history are more maligned, more ridiculed or more hated than Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. His name is a byword for military incompetence; his most infamous action, the Somme, a byword for useless slaughter. To contemporary eyes, even his appearance invites ridicule, the great bushy moustache immediately evoking images of the most famous piece of satire against him; Blackadder Goes Forth’s General Melchett.
And yet, when Haig died in 1928, he was mourned as a national hero. More people turned out for his state funeral than would later do for Princess Diana. Prior to then, he made numerous tours of Britain and was feted as the saviour of his country everywhere he went. He was elected Rector of the University of St. Andrews. He was a welcome guest of honour at the opening of war memorials, where despite his post-war reputation, there are no reports of any opprobrium being directed at him. He worked tirelessly to improve the lot of veterans discharged after the First World War, in the opinion of his doctor, working himself to death, a capacity in which he gained genuine love and popularity from his veterans.
How was this forgotten? How did this beloved national figure become caricatured as a callous incompetent, clinging to decrepit forms of cavalry warfare, ceaselessly throwing men against the wire in pursuit of a hopeless victory, refusing to recognise even something as obvious as the power of the machine gun on the battlefield?
In discussions about the slaughter on the Western Front, that Britain and her allies actually won the Great War is often ignored. There are of course different components, all of which must come together to create a victory, but Haig’s leadership on the Western Front cannot be considered a minor part of this. This is not to say that every General of the First World War was a great captain: mistakes were made on the Western Front, often by Haig himself, and I mean to address these. Outside of the Western Front, the Gallipoli Campaign was an unmitigated leadership disaster, and I mean to discuss the reasons behind this. However, my primary purpose here is to rescue Douglas Haig’s reputation from the mire of ill-informed ridicule and hate that has swamped it since David Lloyd George published his memoirs. A rational analysis of the facts, not war poetry and not television comedies, shows that Douglas Haig in particular and the commanders of the First World War in general were competent soldiers, whose leadership and willingness to adapt to the conditions on the Western Front were vital in securing the allied victory in 1918. Haig’s post-war work also remains something we can respect today, with his instrumental role in the formation of the British Legion standing out most.
Douglas Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861. He was not of a noble family: his father John was a self-made, wealthy-but-alcoholic head of a whisky distillery. Perhaps as a consequence of his father’s habits, for the rest of his life Haig was notoriously abstemious when it came to drink. After education at Clifton and Brasenose College, he entered Sandhurst in 1884. He passed out first in his class and was awarded the Anson Sword, and was commissioned into the 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars in 1885. After a year at Staff College, he spent time under the command of Kitchener in the Sudan in 1898, before deploying to South Africa for service in the Second Boer War in 1899.
The British commanders of the First World War have been accused of failing to “learn the lessons” of the South African War, as well as other conflicts like the American Civil War or the Russo-Japanese War, where trench fighting had been a significant part of warfare. However, by the late 19th Century, the American Civil War was far from current in military affairs, having been fought largely with muzzle-loading weapons while armies had now adopted breech-loaders. The American Civil War was studied at Staff College; however, used to small armies operating in colonial wars, the British emphasis was on the highly-manoeuvrist campaign in the Shenandoah Valley led by Stonewall Jackson. The Franco-Prussian War indicated that well-trained, well-motivated infantry supported by rapid artillery fire could overcome entrenched enemy positions, though at cost. The same seemed true during the Russo-Japanese War. The Civil War, in contrast, had been an artillery-poor war, with the ratio of guns-to-men lower than even the Napoleonic Wars, hence the ghastly casualties at battles like Antietam, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. As Major General E.D. Swinton’s The Defence of Duffer’s Drift indicates, even well-made trenches, of the sort the Boers frequented in the South African War, could be overcome by the proper application of shrapnel shells followed by an infantry assault.
Haig has inevitably faced criticism for being a cavalry officer in charge of a largely infantry army, as if having served in what was intended to be the decisive arm should disqualify him from high command. In fact, as will be shown, cavalry remained a hugely important arm of decision even amid the trenches of the Western Front, and indeed there were times when its deployment could have been decisive. Likewise, the Boer War gave nothing to indicate that the days of the horsed soldier were numbered: the Boer commandos were mounted, and cavalry forces had been extremely effective in patrolling the veldt while hunting them down. Furthermore, actions such as the engagement at Klip’s Drift showed that even infantry dug in and equipped with modern rifles could hardly resist a properly-planned and -supported charge of cavalry with swords drawn: a charging horse was a surprisingly difficult thing to hit. Haig was already thinking of a combined arms approach to cavalry operations even during his first deployment to the Sudan: he remarked of his first taste of action; “we felt the want of machine guns” amid the scrub. Haig even made a visit of the Enfield factory prior to his Sudan deployment to study the mechanism of the Maxim machine gun. So much for the tradition-bound technophobe of popular legend.
The summer battles of 1914 seem a thing apart from the rest of the First World War, with German regiments marching into battle with the colours at their heads and the band playing; French officers leading bayonet charges in white gloves with swords; and cuirassiers in Waterloo-pattern armour charging the guns atop huge horses. The British Expeditionary Force, in contrast, avoided most of these bizarre deferences to a slowly-dying order, but it still fought a war of manoeuvre. In his capacity as the General Officer Commanding of the BEF’s I Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig performed excellently, especially considering the deficiencies in leadership above him. The Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French, had retired to Valenciennes on August 23rd. Consequently, he took no part in the Battle of Mons, the BEF’s first action on the continent. With no coordinating authority above them, communications between Haig and the commander of II Corps, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, were fraught with difficulty. To this end, the Battle of Mons was primarily fought by II Corps, as was the Battle of Le Cateau: separated by the Forest of Mormal, it was almost impossible for Haig to support Smith-Dorrien, and French inexcusably refused to overturn his own retreat orders and order him to support II Corps. When Haig sent a despatch to GHQ asking for an update on the situation and whether he should support Smith-Dorrien, French was too paralysed to give him an answer
Haig proved to be a much more clear-sighted leader during the Great Retreat than Sir John French, who was overly concerned with the state of his own army at the expense of the big picture: focusing only on the three corps in front of the BEF at Mons, French paid no attention to the German First Army pushing southwest, which threatened to overcome the British left, and indeed forced the BEF to retreat. Likewise, on the eve of the First Battle of the Marne, French was on the point of withdrawing the BEF behind the Seine, claiming it needed at least two weeks to rest and refit, before Lord Kitchener personally intervened to stop him. Without it, the “Miracle of the Marne” may have been for the Central Powers, not the Entente. Haig, in contrast, was aggressive during the retreat, offering I Corps’ help to General Charles Lanrezac during the French Fifth Army’s counterattack at Guise. He informed Lanrezac that his aerial reconnaissance had spotted an exposed German flank, and was eager to help exploit it. French countermanded the offer, a poor decision, since the Battle of St. Quentin was a success that panicked General Karl von Bülow into ordering General Alexander von Kluck to swing his First Army east in support of him, abandoning the attempt to encircle Paris and thus offering his flank to Maunoury’s Sixth Army. Lanrezac was incensed by French’s refusal to help (he would later prove to be an even worse coalition General), since French’s determination to continue the retreat regardless would have opened a huge gap between him and Maunoury.
Thus, Sir John French was not the finest of commanders during the Great Retreat. Haig, in contrast, succeeded in keeping his entire corps together in a 200-mile retreat march, a tribute to his leadership. At the First Battle of the Marne, Haig was aggressive within the confines of the intelligence he had access to (a rumour that reached that the French had suffered a heavy defeat inevitably encouraged him to check his progress somewhat). While French was determined to sit out the battle, Haig was driving between his division and brigade commanders close to the front line to encourage them along, pointing out that a vigorous advance might prove decisive for the war. This was not commanding from a chateau thirty miles behind the lines.
Haig’s next major action, and indeed, the last action before manoeuvre ended on the Western Front until 1918, was the First Battle of Ypres. I Corps was deployed to Ypres with orders from French to advance and begin the clearance of the Belgian coast. In contrast to his later reputation, Haig was sceptical of French’s optimism, and indeed, I Corps found itself in the path of the German advance. General Erich von Falkenhayn was determined to seize the vital communications hub at Ypres, which brought with it the possibility of cutting the BEF off from its Channel ports and reopening mobile warfare in the Germans’ favour. Thus throughout the late autumn of 1914, there was a real possibility of the Entente losing the war, and Haig’s contemporaries remarked with wonder on how he carried out his role with great competence, integrity and coolness. He was constantly mobile, feeding fresh troops into the fray to “putty up” the line against German attacks. As a tribute to the BEF’s professionalism and Haig’s willingness to keep going, the German attacks were ultimately unsuccessful despite the BEF having to give ground, and great loss of life on both sides. Despite his reputation as an inveterate attacker, Haig at one point ignored an imprudent order from Sir John French to counterattack, well aware that the situation would make such an attack catastrophic. He ordered I Corps to dig in instead. The battle finally ended on November 22nd with the Entente still in possession of Ypres.
The First Battle of Ypres had a profound effect on Haig: he was well aware of how desperate his own situation had been and knew that had the Germans not terminated the offensive when they did, he probably would have been defeated. To this end, in future he resolved to continue to press the offensive lest decisive results escape him. As we will see, this could have catastrophic effects. Haig’s reputation was greatly enhanced by his role in the defence of Ypres, but he was quick to think of the wellbeing of his men: “Our troops have had and are having terribly hard times,” he wrote to Sir Evelyn Wood, and to his wife Dorothy; “my 1st Corps have fought splendidly but our losses have been very great. I hope soon my men will be relieved.” So much for the uncaring General of popular legend, a myth that will be demolished further.
By Christmas 1914, the stalemate in France was total: in a desperate series of movements intended to outflank the other side, from their positions of the River Aisne to the marshes at the Belgian coast, the Germans and the Entente now faced each other from miles of trenches and wire entanglements. As already shown, the problem of trenches was not a new one and was recognised, but here the situation was unprecedented in the whole history of warfare: armies larger than ever before were crammed into a confined battlefield and so had the strength to hold the entire line. This time there were no flanks to turn or indirect approaches to take. Every attack would have to be a frontal one. This was the true cause of the carnage of the Great War: not incompetent Generals, the mere disparity between manoeuvre and firepower: the destructive power available to the armies of the Great War was immense, but only from fixed positions. It would not be until 1917 and 1918 that mobile firepower in the form of tanks, creeping barrages, and man-portable machine guns became available.
Furthermore, the nature of communications at the time, which consisted of hardwired telephones, radios that were too big to carry, runners, men on horseback, and even carrier pigeons, signal flags and heliographs, meant that messages to bring up reserves could take hours to get back to headquarters. From this comes the myth of “Chateau Generalship”: command from far behind the lines was necessary because chateaus were prominent road features that were easy for runners or drivers to reach, and were wired into the local telephone network. The closer a General got to the front, the less of his force he could control. It has been said that a General in a trench exercises as much influence as a rifleman. Egalitarian though it may be to demand that the General suffers the same privations as his men, it is not a recipe for military effectiveness.
The nature of communications also meant that any attacker would rapidly leave behind his means to call in support, and so would be facing enemy counterattacks with only what he could bring with him. Even if a message got back to headquarters, by the time the General could react and give new orders, the decisive moment would have passed. In contrast, the enemy would often have intact telephone wire and trench railways to race reserves to the front. The balance of firepower and communications therefore heavily favoured the defender, and allowed him to bring up reserves and counterattack far faster than the attacker could continue his advance. As John Keegan concluded; “the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed towards slaughter...only an entirely different technology, one not available until a generation later, could have averted such an outcome.”
This was the situation faced by Haig and the Entente Generals as 1915 dawned, and it cannot be said that they did not try to adapt to it. The BEF’s first test in the trenches was the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Planned in support of French operations, Haig’s new First Army was set the objectives of erasing the German salient in the village of Neuve Chapelle and gaining the Aubers Ridge six miles away to threaten the city of Lille, a key German logistics hub. In the event, it took another offensive before Aubers Ridge was taken, but at this stage there was nothing to indicate that a determined offensive would not gain all the apparently-modest objectives set.
The requirement to fight at Neuve Chapelle is but one example of the inherent grand strategic problem British commanders faced on the Western Front: until the millions-strong New Armies arrived on the field, Britain was very much the junior partner in the Entente, and offensives were determined by French strategic requirements: Sir John French had in fact wanted to fight in Belgium to clear the coast. Furthermore, commanders faced the Catch-22 of needing to wait to train up the New Armies before launching decisive attacks, but also having to demonstrate that the war could be won on the Western Front. Since the mass of the German Army was deployed in France and Belgium, it was obviously Germany’s centre of gravity, the destruction of which would knock Germany and so the entire Central Powers alliance out of the war. However, the deadlock on the Western Front was already clear, and so Britain’s civilian leadership was searching for alternate means to defeat the Central Powers, such as campaigns in the Balkans or the Dardanelles. Even if these campaigns were successes, the effect they would have on Germany would be negligible. Thus, French and Haig had to demonstrate that success on the Western Front was possible to prevent resources from being frittered away from the vital area of the war.
Again contrary to received wisdom, none of Haig’s offensives were wild Hail Marys in which men were unthinkingly flung against the wire. The planning for Neuve Chapelle was meticulous. For all the claims of Haig’s Luddism, he enthusiastically supported his air commander, Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard, and the Royal Flying Corps made dozens of reconnaissance flights over the German lines, building up a detailed picture of trench lines.
The planning for Neuve Chapelle also reveals one of Haig’s weaknesses as a commander, namely his refusal to impose his will on his subordinates. Haig saw his role as an army commander to set broad objectives and leave detailed planning to the men on the spot. He would then combine and de-conflict the plans they gave him. This is generally considered to be best practice today in the form of Mission Command. Sir Henry Rawlinson, GOC of IV Corps, however, preferred to delegate even further downward to his divisional commanders, and he much preferred a limited attack rather than Haig’s more ambitious aims. We shall discuss Rawlinson’s preference of the “step-by-step” approach later. For now, suffice to say that it would have its merits in years to come, but it cannot be used as an excuse for Rawlinson watering down his commander’s plans. Compromising Haig’s plan is the fault of Rawlinson, but it is equally the fault of Haig in failing to rein in his subordinates and make his will known.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle opened on March 10th with a 35-minute hurricane bombardment of 100,000 shells. The barrage then lifted to bombard the rear of the German positions to hold up counterattacks while the British advanced. The rudimentary German defences were totally smashed up, and in the course of one morning the attackers seized the entire village and flattened the salient. However, Rawlinson dragged his feet in reinforcing gains, ordering the attacking brigades to consolidate and refused to release the reserve to continue the attack until he received information that the front was clear. Consequently it was not until late afternoon that the advance was renewed, and the problems of the defender’s advantages became apparent: German reinforcements had been brought up, and the attacks foundered against new lines. A problem recurrent at Neuve Chapelle and later battles was Haig being misled by optimistic reports from forward commanders. Coupled with his own natural optimism, this led him to continue the offensive even at the cost of great casualties. By March 13th, however, it was clear that the opportunity for breakthrough had been lost, and again, in spite of his reputation, Haig terminated the offensive after 13,000 British casualties for 12,000 German.
The difficulties faced on the Western Front were now obvious: the problem lay not with breaking in to enemy positions, but holding them against counterattacks. The difficulties of communications prohibited quick reinforcement to exploit gains. Nevertheless, several valuable lessons were learned: defences could indeed be broken open by methodical artillery preparation, and reports indicated that breakthrough had been within the First Army’s grasp had reserves just been committed quickly enough. Thus, these lessons were put into effect for the next major British offensive in May, again aimed at securing Aubers Ridge. More authority was delegated to junior commanders who were ordered to be as far forward as possible. They were amply supplied with flags and signal lamps to summon the reserve forward after they outran their telephone lines. Mining was also used for the first time, with the Royal Engineers tunnelling under German lines to blast them open at H-Hour. Optimism was high. Even Rawlinson believed in a “very reasonable prospect of success.”
Alas, the Germans too had learned the lessons of Neuve Chapelle, and the enemy always holds the casting vote over a battle plan. Their defences had been hugely strengthened, with multiple depth positions. The hurricane bombardment at Neuve Chapelle had succeeded in cutting the German barbed wire, but at this point the wire had been strung on to wooden posts, which were smashed to pieces by shrapnel shells and the wire blown out of the way. Now the wire was attached to metal pickets securely screwed into the ground. When struck by shrapnel, the wire would simply spring back into position. Consequently, the hurricane bombardment was insufficient and the attack on May 9th is arguably a greater stereotype of First World War battles than the Somme is: the first attack was repulsed with heavy casualties. A second bombardment followed by another attack made no further gains. Haig ended the battle in the evening with over 11,000 casualties. The Germans had suffered 902.
With Horace Smith-Dorrien’s Second Army still under pressure at the Second Battle of Ypres, First Army’s offensive was resumed again, this time at Festubert. A 1.9-mile advance was made in ten days, again running into the problems of communications with the reserves and the defender’s advantages. However, a key difference to earlier battles was the artillery barrage, which in comparison to the bombardments at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge, which had each lasted less than an hour, went on for sixty hours. Festubert also marked the beginnings of a shift to an attritional strategy, seeking long “wearing-out fights” to grind down the enemy until it could be certain that a breakthrough could be made. Given the circumstances of fighting, there was little alternative but to try to grind down the enemy’s reserves and try to outlast him. The depth of the advance was just enough to convince Haig and other commanders that longer and longer artillery barrages were the key to success. In fact they wasted shells, gave the enemy time to position reinforcements, and were generally not dense enough to fully destroy the enemy trenches. It would not be until 1917 and 1918 that guns and shells would be available in quantity, and targeting techniques had improved to the point that hurricane bombardments would be destructive enough to break the line.
Haig and the other “Westerners” have often been criticised for failing to seek alternative means of victory, whether at the tactical level in continuing to pursue breakthrough, or at the strategic level in failing to consider the possibility of opening other fronts. These criticisms are unwarranted. Germany was the largest – economically, militarily and industrially – of the Central Powers, so the war would continue as long as Germany remained undefeated. Campaigns such as the fight against its African colonies or the war against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East were sideshows. Sideshows important to the security of the British Empire’s colonies, but sideshows nonetheless. Furthermore, geography required that Germany be met on the Western Front: transferring troops via the Barents Sea to help Russia was a political impossibility while French soil remained under German occupation, and the pre-war plan of Sir Jacky Fisher to land the BEF on Germany’s Baltic Coast would have inevitably run into disaster after the transports became exceedingly vulnerable in the shallow littoral.
The Gallipoli fiasco is perhaps emblematic of incompetent Generalship in the First World War. From a strategic point of view, an attack on the Ottoman Empire made some sense: it would relieve pressure on the Russians on the Caucasus front and potentially even knock Turkey out of the war entirely through a naval attack on Constantinople. This would open a new supply route through the Bosporus to Russia and potentially even win new allies in the Balkans in support of Serbia against Austria-Hungary. Small wonder then that “Easterners” like Lloyd George and Winston Churchill seized at the chance to knock the props out from under Germany and stab at its soft underbelly.
Among those who would have to carry out the operations, however, there was deep scepticism: Kitchener’s report to the Cabinet on the Russian request for support was lukewarm and his suggestion of the Dardanelles as the site of an offensive was half-hearted at best. However, this was enough for the bullish Winston Churchill to seize on who, in his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, was determined that the Royal Navy see action. With Kitchener and Sir John French refusing to commit ground forces, Churchill convinced his colleagues that the straits could be forced with naval power alone. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, who had inspected the Turkish defences himself before the war, immediately objected that the gun on both sides of the straits could do catastrophic damage to an invading fleet, not to mention its vulnerable logistics train. To this end, he refused to commit any modern battleships to the operation and the Dardanelles task force consisted solely of obsolete pre-dreadnoughts. Under unwarranted pressure from Churchill, the naval commander, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, suffered a mental collapse and was replaced by John de Robeck. The French Navy shared the view that forcing the straits with seapower alone was impractical.
The attempt on March 18th the force the straits was disastrous: minesweepers were forced back by fire from the forts on either side of the passage, and so three Entente battleships were sunk by an undetected minefield. Interestingly enough, damage to their communications from the naval bombardment had rendered many of the Ottoman forts ineffective, and had the battleships kept up their fire, the day may have gone differently. Indeed, Commodore Roger Keyes, commanding the minesweepers, was all for pushing on regardless of loss. Nevertheless it was decided that there was no chance of forcing the Narrows without the use of land forces to neutralise the Ottoman mobile batteries either side of the straits. Under pressure from Churchill, Kitchener had reluctantly dispatched the Royal Naval Division and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to the Mediterranean with the objective of securing the Gallipoli Peninsula once the naval attack had destroyed the Ottoman defences. Thus, inexperienced troops were thrown in with little warning to make an amphibious assault on a contested shore, or in other words, the most difficult of military operations to both plan and execute.
The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force’s commander was General Sir Ian Hamilton. He had had a distinguished, even heroic service in the Second Boer War, but he was now 62 and unlike Haig and others, who had spent their years since the South African War at the teeth-end of preparations for a war with Germany, his work had been mostly administrative. If Kitchener was unprepared to commit his best troops to the operation, then he was certainly not going to commit his best Generals. With only the sketchiest of briefings from Kitchener, he arrived at the area of operations on March 13th.
With the improvised commanders present and the improvised force ready, an improvised plan was quickly thrown together. Haig, at this point still a junior army commander and thousands of miles away on another front, pointed out the obvious flaw of landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula: even if it was taken, the Ottoman guns on the eastern shore would still control the straits. Kitchener had in fact expressly forbidden a landing on the eastern shore lest the Expeditionary Force be swallowed up in the vast Turkish hinterland. Thus the only choice was Gallipoli, where there were only two practicable sites for landings: the aptly-named Cape Helles at the tip of the peninsula, and what became known as Anzac Cove several miles north. Throughout the whole campaign, neither landing site ever came close to supporting the other. The element of surprise had been lost with the attempt to force the straits. The only plan likely to have been successful would have been to seize the entire length of the Peninsula and the eastern shore, and not enough troops were available for such an operation, nor was there any willingness to commit such a number. All Hamilton could hope for was that the Ottomans would bungle their response to the landings and allow him to seize beachheads deep enough on the first day to seriously threaten their possession of the Peninsula.
It was not to be. The landings at Cape Helles began on April 25th, and throughout a wretched summer, autumn and winter, never got more than four miles inland before the evacuation in January 1916. The Anzacs further north were no more successful, despite heroic gallantry on their part that was the coming-of-age of their nations. What should have been abandoned after the failure of the naval operation dragged on for nearly a year with very few bright spots among the leadership (perhaps the most infamous being Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford, an officer whose career since the Boer War had been purely ceremonial and fell asleep aboard his command ship as his men waded ashore at Suvla Bay). An evacuation was ordered after the horrific storms of December in which men froze to death in their trenches. By January 9th 1916, the last British soldier had left Gallipoli in an evacuation that proved to be the best coordinated part of the campaign: despite everything stacked against them, the British had successfully broken contact under pressure and evacuated via the sea, two of the most complicated operations an army can carry out, and not a single life was lost in the withdrawal.
Kitchener tried to resign as Secretary of War in the aftermath, but was talked out of it by Asquith. Churchill left the government in disgrace, reactivated his commission and joined the Tommies in Belgium. If nothing else, Gallipoli proves that any military operation, once committed to, must be seen through with the proper commitment of force – and indeed, commanders – to achieve its aims. It also demonstrates the huge risk of politics dictating strategy: the government was desperate for a quick-fix that did not exist and Churchill was determined that the Navy see action. Kitchener and Fisher should have done all they could to shut the idea down, particularly after the naval operation failed.
The Western Front would thus be where the fate of the war was decided. The BEF’s next major offensive would be at the mining town of Loos in support of a French effort in the Champagne region. Haig and French were unhappy about the offensive plan, which promised a difficult advance over flat ground broken with slag heaps, miners’ villages and winding gear, all of which provided good observation for the German defenders and conspicuous points on which to bring down artillery fire. They knew that their heavy artillery was insufficient to break the line and sufficient guns would not be available until 1916. Nevertheless the French were insistent, and with the Gallipoli adventure now in full swing, the Western Front strategy was now very much on trial. So too was French’s status as Command-in-Chief: his role in the Shell Scandal, where he had gone far over the heads of his superiors to criticise the government’s munitions procurement, had deeply dented his integrity. Speaking very poor French, he had done little to win the admiration of his allies. He was lethargic, unoptimistic, and on the day of the battle itself, ill. For both military and political reasons, many among both the frocks and brass hats were beginning to think that he needed to go.
Haig’s uncharacteristic pessimism towards the offensive was allayed by the delivery of five thousand cylinders of chlorine gas to the First Army. Haig had been impressed by the effect of the German use of gas at the Second Battle of Ypres, which had nearly let them carry out a decisive advance, and for all his supposed technophobia was keen to exploit this new advantage to break the deadlock. However, the effectiveness of chlorine gas was chiefly moral, and it could be neutralised with the simple expedient of a wet cloth worn over the nose and mouth. Commanders on both sides had been misled by the effectiveness of gas at Ypres, which had sowed panic among the defenders and caused many of them to believe they had been poisoned when they were in fact just out of breath from having run to escape. In fact, since chlorine is denser than air, those who suffered the least were those who stood fast on the parapet, breathing slowly while the gas swirled below them. Throughout the whole war, only 4.3% of British fatalities were caused by gas, as opposed to 24% of non-chemical casualties that resulted in death. Nevertheless, no matter how ineffectual or abhorrent chemical warfare may be, one cannot accuse Haig of failing to seek new methods to break the stalemate.
Key in understanding the development of the Battle of Loos is the handling of the reserves. I and IV Corps would make the main assault, while XI Corps remained under the control of French at GHQ until it was needed. Haig, with the failure to bring up reserves in time at Neuve Chapelle in mind, wanted XI Corps to be just four miles behind the lines on the morning of the attack. French’s concept of the battle, however, was entirely different from Haig’s: the First Army commander wanted to rapidly exploit gains to achieve breakthrough. The Commander-in-Chief envisioned a methodical, step-by-step battle in which there would be plenty of time to consolidate gains before launching the next attack. We shall discuss whether the step-by-step approach had merit later on, but the divide between the commanders would have tragic effects on the day of the battle.
After a four-day bombardment, the gas was released at 05:50 on September 25th. Remarkable gains were made despite heavy casualties, including the formidable Hohenzollern Redoubt and Loos village itself. It seemed apparent to everyone from First Army headquarters to forward observers on the ground that the line was broken. At 07:00 Haig demanded the release of the reserve. However, in preparation for the battle, French had moved his headquarters to less than twenty miles behind the front lines and did not have a telephone link to the First Army. An officer had to be sent by car with the request, and Haig did not hear until after 10:00 that the divisions of XI Corps were moving up. Between 11:00 and 11:30 French personally visited First Army HQ and agreed that the divisions would pass to Haig’s command, but then rather than use the telephone, he then drove to XI Corps’ headquarters to personally give the order to release the divisions, which was only given at 12:10. Precious time was wasted as French raced around when he should have been next to a telephone. The two reserve divisions did not arrive at the front until the early evening, and they were forced to make an exhausting night march through the shattered battlefield terrain to reach the new British lines in preparation for an attack on the German second position next morning. The wire was uncut and the line reinforced, and both divisions fell back with savage losses by 13:00 on the 26th. The fleeting chance of a breakthrough had been lost.
The Battle of Loos continued until October 14th, with close to 60,000 British casualties and 25,000 German. Among the dead were three of the six Major Generals who had commanded the divisions on the first day. Like French, they had tried to get far too far forward and had been killed by German shelling. French’s actions on the day, particularly in his handling of the reserve, show that the place of a First World War General was not close to the front, but at a communications hub where he could effectively coordinate the deployment of forces. Loos was the final straw: Sir John French was browbeaten into resigning as Commander-in-Chief and was given the non-job of coordinating home defences. General Sir Douglas Haig took command of the BEF on December 19th.
The deep professionalism that Haig had demonstrated earlier in his career now came into play: fundamental improvements were slowly but surely made to the BEF’s infrastructure, organisation, tactics and equipment. In commanding the largest army in British history in one of its worst wars, he shouldered an immense burden of work that would have broken lesser men, as it broke Sir John French. A man of deep religious convictions, it is possible that his strong commitment to Presbyterianism and his unshakeable faith in God allowed him to keep going. We should in no way take this to mean that Haig was some kind of bible-thumping fundamentalist who would dismiss all his failures as God’s will. That is the argument of the most arrogant type of atheist who no doubt imagines himself clever for sneeringly questioning whether a religious man looks both ways before crossing the road. Furthermore, Haig’s faith was nothing uncommon: Herbert Plumer and Henry Horne are both examples of other pious Generals.
Connected to his faith, Haig was acutely aware of the value of padres – military chaplains – in maintaining morale among the troops. In January 1916 he expanded their duties from rear-area religious and welfare duties to allowing them to minister in the trenches. While it is likely that the padres’ ready supplies of cigarettes and chocolate appealed more to Tommy than their sermons, it is indisputable that they were a hugely important source of pastoral comfort and reassurance to inexperienced men in a hellish war.
Thus, in sharp contrast to the stereotype of a General who fought his men until they collapsed and then shot them at dawn for not being able to go on, Haig was acutely aware of the need to sustain morale and keep his men well-treated. It is often claimed that Haig never visited the injured. In fact he made several visits to Casualty Clearing Stations early in his command and was so deeply affected by the losses that his senior medical officer advised him never to go again for the sake of his mental health. While sitting for his official portrait, he suddenly burst out to the painter; “Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They’re the fellows that are out saving the world, and they’re getting killed every day.” The trenches were horrible places to live and the Generals knew it: they rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a battalion spent on average 10 days a month in the trench system and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month. While iron rations of bully beef and biscuits were monotonous, behind the lines in reserve and rest areas, fresh food was abundant, with a daily ration of meat, a rare luxury indeed for civilians at home. The standard ration never dropped below 4,100 calories, and most men found they gained weight while in the Army. This was more than the German ration but less than the French, though French rations were of such poor quality that despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they contained a pint of wine daily, they were a significant factor in the French Army Mutinies of 1917. British observers remarked that while French officers would act with incredible gallantry in battle, behind the lines they would often leave welfare to their NCOs. For British officers, their role was unambiguous: officers took care of their men, keeping them active, well-trained, well-fed, and entertained. A paternalistic class divide between the officers and men is often given as the reason behind this. For whatever reason, the attention paid to welfare meant that the British Army was the only army on the Western Front not to suffer a serious collapse in morale or a general outbreak of indiscipline, as nearly destroyed the French Army and brought the German Army to its knees.
It cannot be said that Haig was loved by his men, as might (extremely arguably) be said of Montgomery. Nor would any soldier passionately declare that they would rather see him in a fight than a reinforcement of ten thousand men any day, as a Redcoat once said of Wellington. Nevertheless, he was respected, and in turn respected his men. His valet, Sergeant Secrett, remarked that Haig, notably inarticulate even among his own class, “managed to convey to Tommy the fact that he respected him.” He was not loved, for “he was too remote – but that was not his fault. The show was too big.” While this all may create the image of Haig as a well-meaning but ineffectual bungler – an upper-class twit, one might even say – he was in fact a powerful force in the retraining and re-equipping of the deskilled and unprepared BEF. In the hugely-expanded British Army, trained men to both lead and pass on skills to enthusiastic but unprepared volunteers were spread thin, and while Haig did his best to promote best practise, and some standard doctrine manuals were distributed, until 1917 training was very much a matter of divisions doing their own thing. As stated previously, the British pre-war system of command was one of broad objectives and delegating authority to the man-on-the-spot, and Haig would have rebelled at closing doors for his subordinates. Additionally, for all his supposed antipathy to technology, the BEF was being rebuilt as a trench-fighting army under Haig’s watch: the numbers of battalion Vickers guns were increased from two to four in mid 1915, with eight Lewis guns introduced to each battalion in late 1915 and a further eight in spring 1916. By the Battle of the Somme every platoon was equipped with a Lewis gun. Additional new weapons that saw expanded use under Haig’s command were the Stokes mortar and the Mills bomb.
A coherent Entente strategy was developed in December 1915 at the Chantilly Conference. With the Central Powers operating on interior lines, it was obvious that incessant pressure would have to be kept up simultaneously on every front to prevent them from switching reserves from one front to another. To this end, joint French, British, Italian and Russian offensives were planned. The French General and de facto Entente commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre proposed a joint Franco-British offensive on the River Somme, where the two armies met. Other than this the ground had little to recommend it for an attack: it had long been a quiet sector, which had allowed the Germans to build up a formidable three-line system of defence. They also held the high ground, a depressingly-common state of affairs. For his part, Haig favoured an offensive around Ypres: it was closer to the BEF’s supply ports, and if successful could have the effect of clearing the Belgian coast and so reducing the danger to Britain’s shipping from U-boats. It may be that Joffre had recognised that attrition would be the only means of winning and that the ground taken was of secondary importance to the number of enemy killed while taking it. Haig, however, was still thinking in terms of breakthrough and so hunted for strategic objectives that could be seized with rapid advances.
Was Haig irresponsible for continuing, even at this late stage, to seek a breakthrough? After all, his immediate superior Sir John French had envisioned a “step-by-step” battle at Loos, and his immediate subordinate Henry Rawlinson had thought the same about Neuve Chapelle. The answer is no, and as we have seen at will continue to see, even in trench warfare there were opportunities where a properly-handled reserve could have made major gains. Rawlinson had circulated a theory of the “step-by-step” or “bite-and-hold” battle as early as February 1915, which envisioned rapidly seizing a “bite” of trench, which he believed could be done without much loss, then holding it against enemy counterattacks while the artillery was moved up and the logistics train rearranged for the next “bite”. While superficially attractive, the idea had a number of problems: having seized the wolf by the jaws and wrenching them open, the attackers would now be forced to expend every effort in keeping them from snapping closed. They would also be vulnerable to attack from all sides. The key would be to mass sufficient artillery to smash up the defences, and then switch fire to support the infantry against counterattacks. The Royal Artillery had neither the guns nor had developed the skills to create such conditions in 1916. Furthermore, as we have seen, holding ground against counterattacks was far from cheap in lives, and so had bite-and-hold been adopted, Haig would have had to explain to politicians back home why was carrying on costly offensives with no end in sight and even less gains than were made in real life. It also would have never got past the French, who wanted the Germans off their territory as soon as possible. In 1917 and 1918, bite-and-hold would be adopted as an extremely effective operational method, but it needed to be carried out on the broad fronts advocated by Haig in order to keep the German reserves tied down so success could be exploited elsewhere. The BEF of 1916 had neither the men nor the skill to carry out such offensives.
The Chantilly strategy was completely thrown out of kilter by the German offensive at Verdun in February 1916. The French Army was not, as Falkenhayn hoped, bled white by the battle, but the need to commit troops to the Verdun salient seriously reduced the French commitment on the Somme. It would now be a predominately British operation, and now it was even more politically necessary that the British fight. The BEF could not stand by while French troops died in their thousands at Verdun. If they did so, the awful bloodletting may have forced the French to accept a compromise peace with Germany, and it would have earned Britain the eternal hatred of France. The Battle of the Somme was now inevitable.
Though he had favoured Flanders, Haig’s planning for the Somme was by no means dilatory. Extensive aerial reconnaissance was made, though bad weather hampered many flights, but the clear spells allowed for the German gun positions to be spotted and neutralised, which was key in XIII Corps’ success on the first day. Haig planned for varying degrees of success: if the enemy’s defences broke down, he envisioned seizing Bapaume and then working northwards behind the German lines to clear the Germans from the re-entrant south of Arras. In the event of the defences holding, rather than stereotypically continue to butt his head against the proverbial brick wall, he planned to consolidate a position on the Pozières heights before switching to Second Army’s front around Ypres and preparing for a new offensive. Given the huge logistical difficulties posed by the Somme offensive, immediately switching the attack to Ypres was probably infeasible, but it shows that Haig was rather more than the donkey obstinately committed to a failed battle plan. He did not believe he could do it all in one day: in fact, he noted in his orders that the infantry advance would be heavily dependent on artillery preparation, and they were well aware that the German third position was well outside their artillery range. However, if the second position was taken, he believed that would be enough to begin a mobile battle. He was not irresponsible to plan for a major success: he had no desire to let a major breakthrough escape him again, and had he not planned for it, he would be popularly remembered as even more incompetent.
Cavalry was key to Haig’s concept of operations: whereas before they had been held back, waiting to exploit a breach that never came, they were now integrated into all-arms groups of horsemen and infantry that would operate in close support of the attacking divisions. Once the line was taken, these mobile troops would advance to head off advancing the German reserves and buy time for the British reserve divisions to move up and exploit the breach. To this end, these all-arms groups were formed into the Reserve Corps, later renamed the Reserve Army, under Hubert Gough. This was a bold, imaginative response to the problems of trench warfare, one that might even be described as manoeuvrist, and as we will see, it may even have worked.
However, Haig and Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army was to make the main attack, had fundamental differences over the conduct of the battle. Rawlinson was wedded to bite-and-hold, and imagined a halt after taking the high ground to consolidate and receive the counterattack. With the reserves at Loos no doubt in mind, Haig put Gough under Rawlinson’s command, who promptly stripped it of its infantry divisions and issued orders that the cavalry would only be committed “if the Enemy’s resistance breaks down”. This was fundamentally at odds with Haig’s concept of operations and demonstrates how serious unity of command is. It is a mark against Haig that he allowed this to happen. He seems to have believed that Rawlinson was the best man for the job, but it is my belief that he should have sacked him. Haig’s artillery plan was also flawed: the bombardment was far too long, which allowed the Germans to prepare reserves, and was spread far too thinly. On the south of the battlefield, XIII Corps, supported by French guns, had a much more successful first day as the barrage had smashed up the German defences as expected. On the rest of the front, wire was found uncut, parapets still functional and dugouts still occupied. The bombardment was impressive but generally ineffective, and to make it more successful would have required pressing into use guns that did not yet exist.
The Battle of the Somme opened on July 1st, and the story is well-known: Third Army’s diversionary attack on Gommecourt was repulsed, and in the northern sector of Fourth Army’s front, there was nearly total failure despite many acts of incredible heroism by the enthusiastic Kitchener Volunteers. Some were cut down crossing No Man’s Land. Others were repulsed after desperate fighting with Germans that had survived in the first position. To make a depressing contrast, the French Sixth Army seized nearly all of its first-day objectives, aided by its much greater supplies of heavy guns and the use of fire-and-movement tactics while crossing No Man’s Land. While even making it to the German parapet with this method could take hours, it was with far lower casualties than the British, showing that they had absorbed the lessons of the still-ongoing Battle of Verdun. Alas, while owing to pre-war conscription French soldiers at least had the rudiments of military training that could be built on, there had been no time to train the enthusiastic but inexperienced Kitchener volunteers so thoroughly. The story of men walking across No Man’s Land only happened in a few areas – some battalions ran, others moved in column, still others dug saps into No Man’s Land to get closer to the enemy on Z Day. One corps commanders was perceptive enough to order his men to move into No Man’s Land before H-Hour to get as close as possible. Nevertheless, butcher’s bill at the end of the first day came to 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 died.
Yet despite everything, there might still have been triumph: on the south of the battlefield, aided by the French guns, XIII Corps took every single one of its first-day objectives. The successful aerial reconnaissance meant that this was one of the few sectors where the German guns had been neutralised. A creeping barrage had also been employed. Casualties had been heavy, however, from which we must conclude that even with a successful bombardment, the Battle of the Somme would not have been a great gain for low cost, especially since the adversary was the well-trained, well-motivated German Army. The enemy always has the casting vote on a battle plan, so the blame for casualties cannot be pinned on Haig.
Committing the Reserve Army on XIII Corps’ front on the afternoon of the first day might have produced greater gains: the German second position could have been taken by the divisional reserves, and the situation screamed for Gough’s cavalry to be deployed to head off the German reserves while other divisions moved up to exploit. Gary Sheffield has suggested that with a bit of hard fighting, High Wood and Delville Wood three miles away could have been taken on July 2nd, positions that in reality took months and thousands of lives to capture. This would have taken the British past the formidable Thiepval position, which steadfastly resisted attack on the first day and for many more to come. From this high ground, the Official History remarked, the Germans may well have been forced “to retire on a broad front and take up a new position, which could not be made as strong as the one abandoned.” The first day on the Somme may have been redeemed, but unforgivably Rawlinson did nothing. Haig at GHQ was receiving only intermittent, confusing reports, and was in no position to order him to act. There was a golden opportunity that was not taken. Had it been grasped, we might now be able to convince ourselves that the casualties on the first day of the Somme were worth it. Yet in this reality, where no matter how inevitable the casualties may have been or how necessary the battle was, we must bitterly conclude that they were not.
Haig has been criticised for not calling off the offensive in view of the casualties. Reading his diary cannot help but create the impression that he did not care about the losses. However, Haig was a notably inarticulate man, so we should not take this as proof of much. Furthermore, he could not simply “switch off” the battle: he was committed to an offensive, and he had known as well as any Private soldier on the ground that there would be casualties. Pockets of men were known to have been trapped behind enemy lines, and they could not be abandoned. Furthermore, Haig was bound by coalition demands: when he wisely terminated the attack on the north of the battlefield to focus instead on the success in the south, Joffre was absolutely incensed. One can only imagine how he would have reacted if Haig had declared that he was ending the Somme offensive after one day of nasty fighting, while French troops were still dying in equally-incredible numbers in the counterattack at Verdun.
Further pushes were made on the Somme throughout the summer, in which a number of impressive tactical successes were made. These show the “learning curve” the BEF was climbing, and include things like concentrated hurricane bombardments, platoons making increased use of a greater variety of weapons systems, and of course, the tank. The situation on the other side of the wire is often overlooked, but it was clearly having effects: on July 2nd, Falkenhayn declared a policy of surrendering not one foot of ground, and that any losses should be retaken with immediate counterattacks. On July 11th, the Germans went on to the defensive at Verdun and the Somme became the priority for Germany’s increasingly-demoralised reinforcements.
In the aftermath of the battle, Haig made the not particularly-effacing step of downplaying his plans for a breakthrough, insisting that the Somme had always been envisioned as a wearing-out battle. Despite this, his planning for the battle cannot be faulted, and he deserves credit for skilfully managing the attritional battle after the first day. Among the more impressive actions was the seizure of part of High Wood by the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division on July 14th, where all-arms cavalry groups, support by machine guns and a five-minute hurricane bombardments, successfully swept the Germans from part of the wood with only eight fatalities and less than a hundred wounded. The German losses were far greater and 38 prisoners were taken. It is a validation of Haig’s all-arms cavalry concept, and had the cavalry been followed by infantry, the entirety of High Wood might have been taken, which would have outflanked Delville Wood and put the British in sight of the German third position. Alas, they were not, and both woods would exact a terrible toll on the British infantry in the months to follow.
From mid-July to mid-September, a state of semi-open warfare began on the Somme, with the British slowly adapting. Insightful officers like Major General Ivor Maxse, the man responsible for the training that had led to much of XIII Corps’ success on the first day, strongly pushed for more integrated firepower at the platoon level. To this end, platoons were now going into the assault with far greater numbers of Mills bombs, Lewis guns and rifle grenades, making use of tactics strongly reminiscent of modern fire-and-movement. The learning curve was slowly being climbed, but as explained, conditions were such that the only way artillery could be coordinated with infantry assaults was with rigidly-defined timetables that inherently were thrown off by enemy resistance. Facing growing criticism from politicians at home over high casualties for little gains, Haig reached towards a new weapon that might break the deadlock once and for all: the tank.
Conceived by Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton in 1914 and supported by Winston Churchill as one of the few brilliant ideas he had amid a huge mire of ludicrously impractical schemes, 49 tanks were present for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. However, deficiencies of 1916 engine technology in propelling such heavy vehicles meant that only 36 crossed the start line on September 15th. Swinton had warned against the tanks being deployed in “driblets”, but it is difficult to see what else Haig could have done. Even the tank’s most enthusiastic developers had little idea of what sort of doctrine to use in deploying them, and so there is no guarantee that any offensive with massed tanks would be any more successful than what occurred on that day. Furthermore, every day that the tank was not used, more men died for limited gains, and here was a weapon that might lead to spectacular success. It is easy to imagine that had Haig not used tanks at Flers-Courcelette and sent his infantry in yet again without the support of these wire-crushing, strongpoint-destroying monsters, he would now be criticised for holding them back when casualties could have been reduced. In the event, 2,500 yards depth of front were taken before breakdowns bogged the offensive down. Flers-Courcelette was another tactical victory, but the hoped-for breakthrough remained as far away as ever.
For the rest of the summer until the middle of November, the BEF slowly worked its way northward behind the German positions. By the end of the Battle of the Somme, the BEF had seized a front 20 miles wide and six miles deep, for 419,654 casualties. German casualties were marginally higher. From an attritional perspective, however it may stick in the throat, it may be judged a strategic success (“victory” is a little too charged a term to use here). The Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria bitterly remarked; “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield”. By forcing the Germans on to the defensive at Verdun, the city and the French Army had been saved. Deeply disturbed by the British willingness to go on at the Somme, the new German command duumvirate of Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg chose to make a 20-mile withdrawal to the prepared positions of the Hindenburg Line. German despatches reflect a horror at the possibility of “Somme fighting” breaking out along the line. If the Somme was not a British victory, then it was very much a German defeat. Finally, the BEF was learning. Hurricane bombardments were now back in vogue, and creeping barrages were used with increasing frequency. Platoons were now being entirely restructured, going from homogeneous groups of riflemen with a few grenades to complex, all-arms groups of machine gun, bomber, and rifle grenade sections. In all likelihood, a battle like the Somme was inevitable, but it was also an essential precondition to victory in 1918.
1916 ended with Haig’s promotion to Field Marshal. After surviving an unforgivably venal attempt by David Lloyd George to strip his Generals of their authority and put them under French command to increase his own standing, planning for the New Year began. Joffre had been replaced on December 12th over the casualties at Verdun by General Robert Nivelle, an immensely self-confident gunner who spoke excellent English, quickly winning the hearts of French and British politicians. Nivelle planned for victory: following British diversionary attacks at Arras, the German line on the River Aisne would be drenched in artillery fire, followed by a creeping barrage of unprecedented depth which he believed would break the German lines within 48 hours. The British and French armies would then link up and chase the Germans to the frontier. Haig was sceptical of Nivelle’s optimism, but he did expect at least some success. He had also at last received French support for an offensive around in Flanders.
Nivelle’s ambitious plan was complicated by two things: his inability to keep it to himself, boasting about it to great acclaim at several dinners in Paris, and the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. The German front was shortened by 25 miles and freed up 14 divisions. This also threw off the artillery deployment and fire plans but Nivelle adamantly refused to modify his strategy. Consequently, French troops would be marching into poorly-reconnoitred lines that were far deeper and stronger than any they had had to break before. The Arras diversionary attack would also go ahead as planned.
The planning for Arras reflects how much the British Army had learned from the horrors of the Somme. In February 1917, the Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action manual was published, which reorganised platoons into four specialist sections – riflemen, including a sniper; bombers with hand grenades; rifle grenades; and a Lewis light machine gun section, which was now to be considered the single most important element of the platoon. There were also substantial improvements to the artillery: the opening bombardment at Arras made use of 2,800 guns, or one gun for every 12 yards of front compared to one gun for 20 yards in July 1916. Sound-ranging and flash-spotting were also now among the Royal Artillery’s means of detecting and neutralising German guns to protect the infantry as they crossed No Man’s Land. Finally, a series of colour-coded objective lines – black, red, blue, brown and green – were used to coordinate the artillery timetables for creeping barrages. Coordinating it all was Haig, who once again was promoting best practice across the whole BEF.
The Battle of Arras opened after a four-day bombardment on April 9th 1917. Dramatic gains were made across the front despite the attack being launched in a snowstorm: XVII Corps made a three and a half mile advance to Fampoux, taking all of its objectives and making the deepest advance of any army on the Western Front since 1914. On the north of the battlefield, the Canadian Corps led by Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng made their legendary capture of Vimy Ridge. Within a day, a depth of ground half that of what had taken months to gain on the Somme had been seized, with minimal casualties and nearly nine thousand prisoners taken. After two days, the British paused to consolidate.
Alas, it soon began to fall apart as the usual difficulties reared their heads again: the German commander, Falkenhausen, had placed most of his infantry too far forward, which had been overcome in the first assault, and his reserves had been placed too far back. The British First, Third and Fifth Armies were therefore faced with a state of semi-open warfare in which carefully-planned artillery timetables were useless. Ludendorff and his defence expert Colonel von Lossberg, “the fireman of the Western Front”, realised that British junior officers were still too inexperienced to adapt to these new conditions and so confronted them with fast, mobile reserves. Haig had wanted to shut down the battle after April 11th as the Nivelle Offensive began, but it soon became apparent that the offensive had been a disaster and so all needed to be done to keep the pressure off the French. Another grim attritional slog ensued after the shining hopes of the first day, and the Battle of Arras finally ended on May 16th with little more ground gained since the first day at a cost of nearly 160,000 casualties.
The Nivelle Offensive had begun further south on April 16th, and it was a catastrophe. Nivelle could not have picked a stronger line to attack – the Chemin des Dames ridge – and the bombardment had done little to break the new, immensely-strong concrete defences of the Hindenburg Line. The poilus advanced in high spirits, believing that this would be the push that would win the war. To a degree they were successful: 20,000 prisoners and 147 guns were taken in four days, with a four-mile advance. This was an impressive result in comparison to previous years, but by April 25th, the French had taken 96,125 casualties. Nivelle had confidently told his medics to prepare for ten thousand casualties. They had planned for fifteen thousand, but now the French medical services collapsed under the strain. The offensive ended on May 9th with 187,000 casualties, including 29,000 killed. To make matters worse, mutiny soon spread through the French Army. A toxic mix of futile offensives, poor rations, inflammatory socialist propaganda, and finally drink, led to unrest racing through the French Army’s rear areas. Those in front line positions were generally unaffected, and the lines held, but for the foreseeable future a major French offensive was out of the question. Until large numbers of American troops arrived in France, the burden of the offensive fell on the British.
Haig now had the chance to put his long-hoped-for Flanders offensive into action. With the BEF’s new tactics and equipment, a modest advance of seven miles might be made, driving the Germans from the high ground around Ypres and from there threatening the vital communications hub of Roulers. There seemed to be a prospect of clearing the Belgian coast and so dramatically reducing the U-boat threat to Britain. It seems that Haig envisioned a “step-by-step” battle to achieve these objectives, making full use of the BEF’s new methods of attack. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Haig’s concept of operations, and nor was this the stereotypical “haroosh” attack aiming for massive gains without regard for practical realities. The basic plan was sound.
What was not sound was Haig’s control over the detailed planning, and once again his greatest weakness as a commander reasserts itself: he failed to properly grip the man he chose to lead the offensive, Hubert Gough. Gough interpreted Haig’s objectives as meaning that a rapid breakthrough was the priority, and planned for a 6,000-yard advance to the German third position on the first day alone. Worse, Haig strongly suggested, but did not order, that Gough first seize the Gheluvelt plateau as an essential precondition to the main attack. Gough, however, believed that such an attack would do nothing but create a vulnerable minor salient on his right flank. Consequently, he made the attack on the plateau part of the main attack. Thus, the British Fifth Army went into action with insufficient men on its right flank and so was unable to rapidly secure the high ground there, which had terrible consequences as the battle wore on. Finally, Gough’s artillery plan was flawed. The German defences consisted of networks of concrete pillboxes rather than trenches, which rapidly flooded in the low-lying Flanders countryside. He therefore believed a long bombardment was necessary. Instead these already-discredited techniques did little but further destroy the battlefield’s drainage, creating the sea of mud that came to characterise the later battle.
The Third Battle of Ypres began at 03:50 on July 31st 1917. The new platoons skilfully threaded their way through the German defences and some three thousand yards of ground were gained on the first day. Impressive enough, but far from Gough’s ambitious objectives. Gheluvelt remained in German hands. In the afternoon, the infamous rains began, and by August 2nd it had forced a halt in operations. Men had to be sent forward on duckboards over the seas of mud. Muck had to be hosed off shells before they could be fired. Contrary to popular belief, Haig was acutely aware of the conditions his men were fighting in: “A terrible day of rain. The ground is like a bog in this low lying country!” he lamented in his diary on August 1st. But there were clearly legitimate military reasons to continue, so continue they did. An unimpressive series of attempts to gain Gheluvelt saw Haig at last sack Gough on August 25th and give command to Herbert Plumer, who made much better use of the step-by-step approach in taking limited objectives. In a period of dry weather, the Gheluvelt plateau was finally secured on October 4th, but soon afterward the rains began to pour again. Nevertheless, Haig insisted that the advance continue to seize a shattered mound of rubble that was once a village. The village has since given its name to the whole Third Battle of Ypres and still conjures up images of unremitting slaughter amid ghastly conditions – Passchendaele. Men advanced through a literal sea of liquid mud to take the village, and what remained of it was secured on the last day of the battle on November 10th. Passchendaele Ridge provided a secure line of defence for the winter, so taking it was not irresponsible of Haig. Roulers and the Belgian coast, however, remained as far away as ever.
Under different circumstances, Haig might have ended the battle in October before the ground truly degenerated under the rain. However, the French still desperately needed support as they dealt with the mutinies. Both sides had suffered anything from 200,000 to 400,000 casualties each. Amazingly, despite everything, the British Army suffered no collapse in morale. Even accounting for the increased size of the army, there were fewer men going to court-martial than the previous year, and interestingly enough, fewer cases of combat stress. For all the agony, the British came out of Passchendaele less damaged. The Germans considered Passchendaele to have been an unmitigated disaster: the battle had devoured divisions faster than they could be replaced. Eighty-eight divisions, half the total number of German forces on the Western Front, had gone through the Third Battle of Ypres and had been mauled, including the vaunted counterattack divisions developed by Lossberg after Arras. They had no reinforcements to send to the Eastern Front to face the Russian Kerensky Offensive, and one more battle in 1917 at last convinced them that a last, desperate offensive was their only hope left.
Cambrai was the heaviest use of tanks yet in the First World War and the success on the first day is still commemorated by the Royal Tank Regiment. The Italians had recently suffered a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, so something was wanted to prevent the Germans from transferring divisions to Italy to exploit the victory. The so-called hidebound technophobe Haig therefore approved what was undoubtedly the most technologically-ambitious offensive yet of the war: 476 tanks, supported by silently-registered guns to maintain the element of surprise, would smash through one of the most heavily-defended areas of the Hindenburg Line. Cambrai had long been a quiet sector, so the German wire belts and dugout networks were formidably strong. Julian Byng’s Third Army hoped to pierce the line before sending Haig’s all-arms cavalry groups through the hole to enlarge the breach and isolate Cambrai. This came about from Haig’s intervention: Byng had wanted to storm Cambrai itself, which Haig had recoiled at owing to the possibility of costly street fighting. Even if Cambrai itself was not taken, then the first day objective of Bourlon Ridge overlooked key terrain that might force a general retirement.
1,003 guns opened up the surprise hurricane bombardment on November 20th 1917, and it was astonishingly powerful. It has been argued that the bombardment was more influential than the tanks, but nevertheless, it is unlikely that such great gains could have been made without them. In most places, Byng’s 19 infantry divisions advanced three to four miles while tanks ahead of them flattened wire, neutralised strongpoints and lowered fascines into trenches. Alas, in the centre, the key village of Flesquières was not taken: the commander of the 51st Highland Division, George Montague Harper, had feared that the tanks would draw artillery on to his infantry and so he had kept his men much further behind the tanks than drill required. Consequently, German gunners in the village specially trained in anti-tank defence neutralised the tanks when they could have been cleared away by close infantry support. Nevertheless, news of the advance was greeted with jubilation in Britain. Church bells were rung in celebration and a newspaper boldly reported, “HAIG THROUGH HINDENBURG LINE”.
However, the usual difficulties in communication and the unwillingness of commanders to commit until they were absolutely certain that the line had broken meant that the cavalry was not deployed. Bourlon Ridge was not taken until November 23rd, which coupled with the difficulty at Flesquières, left the British holding a vulnerable salient that was subjected to a savage counterattack. “Stormtroopers” making use of infiltration tactics erased most of the British gains and Haig ordered a withdrawal to a new line in front of Flesquières on December 6th.
For the Germans, Cambrai was the final straw. Their army had been shattered at Ypres and now the British had shown that they had developed an effective combined-arms doctrine of infantry, tanks and artillery to decisively break trench lines. American troops were arriving in France in ever greater numbers and Germany was by now scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. The Royal Navy blockade was imposing critical shortages of raw materials. They had only one hope left: that an offensive making use of stormtrooper and infiltration tactics in 1918 would be enough for them to force a compromise peace.
With the withdrawal of Russia from the war after the revolution and the subsequent release of 33 German divisions, it was obvious to the Entente that an offensive in 1918 was coming. What was not clear was exactly where the blow would fall. Haig was trying to hold the line with only a third of the reinforcements he had requested, and so priorities had to be identified. The commitment in Flanders could not be reduced: the fall of Ypres would give the Germans a direct line to the Channel ports and so completely cut the BEF’s logistics train. Accordingly Gough’s Fifth Army at the southernmost end of the British line was reduced to reinforce the rest of the line. This was no doubt a difficult decision to make. It was the junction of the British and French armies, and so a blow there could cleave the two apart. The Fifth Army also sat in front of the vital logistics hub of Amiens. However, behind the Fifth Army’s line was the old Somme battlefield, a ruin of craters, abandoned trenches and shattered ground that would slow down any advance. Thus, Gough’s Fifth Army was the logical choice to reduce for reinforcements as it had the greatest strategic depth behind it. Haig also ordered the construction of new in-depth defences in the German style of three positions – Forward, Battle and Rear. However, the BEF had not had to fight a major defensive battle for over two years, and so adaptation to the principles of defence in depth was slow. A major German deception operation also convinced the Entente that the offensive would fall on the British Third Army further north.
The first German offensive, Operation Michael, began on March 21st 1918, with nineteen divisions striking the Third Army and forty-three divisions attacking the hapless Fifth Army. Within three days, the Germans had advanced twelve miles, and they stood ready to execute the second phase of their plan, which would have involved a powerful swing to the north to force the BEF into the sea. Then Ludendorff made an unforgivable military mistake: he altered his objectives while the operation was still ongoing. Rather than reinforcing his right wing to deliver the “left hook”, the Seventeenth Army was left to continue its increasingly-stalled advance north while the Second Army was ordered west to take Amiens. The Eighteenth Army was removed from its role as flank protection and was ordered southwest in order to split the British and French armies. Thus Ludendorff’s forces were now moving in divergent directions, unable to support each other, while the Entente rallied.
Albert, the starting point for the Battle of the Somme, was lost on March 26th. Haig was acutely aware of the threat to Amiens yet also knew that he needed to retain reserves in case the Channel ports were threatened. To get the French to help defend Amiens, he cast aside his objections to a unified Allied command. Ferdinand Foch, at Haig’s request, was given the authority to coordinate all Allied strategy on the Western Front. There was now no doubt that the French would defend Amiens. Faced with increasingly-stubborn resistance, Operation Michael was terminated short of Amiens on April 5th. Gough was replaced by Rawlinson and the Fifth Army re-designated the Fourth.
The subsequent German Flanders offensive, Operation Georgette, was no less dangerous to the BEF than Michael. Launched on April 9th, by the 11th the Germans were within 5 miles of the hugely-important rail hub of Hazebrouck. If it was lost, communications from the Channel ports to the British armies in the south would be cut for good. Haig issued his immortal Order of the Day to the troops:
“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.”
This reflects a deep concern for the morale of the men. Haig “puttied up” the line around Hazebrouck with reinforcements as they arrived displaying the same skill and calm as he had at the First Battle of Ypres well over three years previously. The men he had trained so well fought a dogged defence and by April 29th Operation Georgette had run out of steam. An increasingly-erratic Ludendorff had ordered another attack on Amiens on April 24th, which had been halted by the Fourth Army in three days of fierce fighting at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, which saw the first tank-on-tank engagement in history when three British Mark IV tanks defeated three German A7Vs.
When it became clear that the two German offensives had been stopped, morale in the BEF soared. The Germans, in contrast, were becoming increasingly plagued by indiscipline. In an effort to drawn French reserves away from the British, Ludendorff launched Operations Blücher and Gneisenau that were stopped amid ferocious fighting on the Aisne and the Marne. In contrast to French territorial losses, Haig’s defence in Flanders appeared more impressive, and his stock rose in the coming months, giving him a greater voice in the development of strategy. For the Germans, this was it: the German Army had shot its bolt and was left with two useless salients bulging into nowhere.
A heady optimism now seized the Allied commanders. What had seemed unthinkable at the start of the year now seemed within their grasp: Germany might be defeated in 1918. Rawlinson had already presented Haig with a plan for a counterattack at Amiens, and the offensive was swiftly approved by Foch. It had all the marks of a bite-and-hold plan, but 1918 was vastly different to 1916. Artillery was available in quantity and the gunners’ skills had developed immensely. Aircraft were now being used in a ground-attack role while increasingly-improved wireless communications made coordinating the reserves that much easier. Tanks were to be used in huge numbers. Finally, this time Haig made his intentions clear: Rawlinson would use cavalry, and the Fourth Army’s commander fully integrated them into his operational plan.
The Battle of Amiens was the largest tank attack of the entire war. Organised behind an impenetrable deception plan (the Canadian Corps, which led the attack on the right, was thought by the Germans to still be at Arras), it was opened by a stunning bombardment of 2,070 guns at 04:20 on August 8th. 552 tanks led the attack with the infantry, followed by 72 Medium Mark A Whippet tanks for the exploitation phase (one of which, Musical Box, roamed around behind German lines for nine hours before finally being disabled). The Australian Corps achieved a six-mile advance; the Canadians, eight miles. 504 of the Germans’ 530 guns had been identified before the attack and were rapidly neutralised by counter-battery fire. Finally, the cavalry charged behind the lines and wrecked havoc, capturing Harbonnières and the line of Caix-Beaucourt. Haig’s concept of all-arms cavalry groups had at last been vindicated. On that day alone the British took 9,000 casualties for 27,000 German, including 15,000 prisoners and 400 German guns. Ludendorff famously named August 8th“the black day of the German Army.”
This was the beginning of the “Hundred Days”, an unending series of devastating blows against the German Army. At the start of the offensive, Ludendorff was hoping for a compromise peace. At the end of it he accepted an armistice that was nothing less than an unconditional surrender. As resistance stiffened on the Amiens front, Rawlinson suggested to Haig that the point of the offensive be shifted north to Third Army’s front to throw the Germans off balance and keep them from concentrating reserves. This was the type of battle Haig had envisioned as early as summer 1915 in a letter to Asquith: an attack on a front of hundreds of miles, constantly shifting the point of pressure with a highly mobile reserve to keep the enemy reserves from being used to best effect. Foch took a little convincing to accept the idea, but that he changed his mind so quickly shows how high Haig’s star had risen in 1918. The BEF was now dictating the pace of operations, and this was also the last time Foch issued direct orders to Haig.
On August 20th, the French gave Ludendorff “another black day” at Noyon. On the 21st, Byng’s Third Army advanced 4,000 yards between Arras and the old Somme battlefield. On the 22nd, the Fourth Army retook Albert and within a week had seized more territory in the Second Battle of the Somme than had been taken in months in the first. As British and Dominion formations seized ever more vital points, the German Army had no choice but to retire again to the Hindenburg Line in early September.
This type of warfare favoured Haig’s hands-off command style. With the means and methods of fighting now worked out, he could set his Army commanders broad objectives and expect them to complete them on their own initiative. He was by now commanding from a specialised train that allowed him to race between points where the offensive was being carried out. In a series of meetings in London he confidently declared that the war could be won that year, while the Cabinet was still making plans for an offensive in 1919. His optimism shocked many, and it was whispered that “another Passchendaele” might be in the works, but Haig was right. He saw, perhaps more clearly than any other Allied General, that the Germans truly were now on their last legs. It was he who proposed that General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force make an offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region with the aim of cutting German railway communications at Mezieres.
By now the British Army had pushed all the way to the Hindenburg Line, and at last the scale of the BEF’s achievement became clear in London. “Well done!” General Sir Henry Wilson wrote to Haig. “You must be a famous General!” “No, certainly not,” Haig wrote back modestly. “But we have a surprisingly large number of very capable Generals.” On September 29th, the Fourth Army charged the Hindenburg Line. Advancing behind a punishing creeping barrage, IX Corps decisively broke the line on the right, advancing over three miles and seizing the Hindenburg Main Position. The Fourth Army took over 5,300 prisoners. By now the situation was utterly beyond recovery for Germany but astonishingly the military leadership still tried to spin out armistice negotiations. Haig’s view of the armistice was insightful: he correctly remarked that should the war be ended by a German government that was not the same as the one that started it (i.e.: one without the Kaiser at its head), it would inevitably be seen as having betrayed Germany. The BEF’s final large action was the Battle of the Sambre. Beginning on November 4th, the Allied armies seized multiple bridgeheads over the Sambre Canal to the depth of four miles. Ten thousand prisoners were taken by the BEF alone. It was over. The British Second Army was now over fifty miles from the Immortal Salient of Ypres. Germany was convulsed by revolution and Kaiser Wilhelm fled to Holland. On November 11th, the German delegation finally signed the armistice and at 11:00, after 1,568 days of fighting, the war on the Western Front finally ended.
Haig returned to Britain a national hero, yet he was about to begin a very different struggle. He refused all honours until appropriate provision was made for veterans. In July 1919 he delivered an infuriated denouncement of the government’s Armed Forces pensions policy to a parliamentary committee, which was embarrassing enough for the government to change tack. He was an instrumental figure in the coordination of various disparate veterans’ groups and the eventual foundation of the British Legion in June 1921. It is Douglas Haig we have to thank for the Remembrance Poppy, which until recently did not have inscribed on it “Poppy Appeal”, but “Haig Fund”. He was observed to work long into the night personally answering correspondence from his old soldiers. In the opinion of Colonel Mickey Ryan, his old chief medical officer, he worked himself to death. He made highly-publicised tours of Canada and South Africa to raise similar support for veterans. In 1927, appalled by how Irish veterans in the now-independent Irish Free State were forgotten as embarrassments to the Republican cause, he made an emotional appeal to Britain to remember the sacrifice of Irish Catholics. Alas it fell on deaf ears, and he publicly regretted the poor response. He was a regular guest of honour at the unveiling of war memorials, where despite the emotionally-charged atmosphere, there is no evidence of any opprobrium being directed at Haig. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack on January 29th 1928 at the age of 66. Following a state funeral and a period of public mourning of unprecedented scale, he was buried at Dryburgh Abbey. His headstone is no different to that of hundreds of thousands of other Commonwealth War Graves.
To conclude, Haig was not a Great Captain, but nor was he a butcher, a bungler and a donkey. His greatest weakness as a commander was his refusal to impose his will on his subordinates, which had catastrophic effects on the Somme and at the Third Battle of Ypres. He also had a tendency to be too optimistic in his planning. However, plan he did. Never did he hurl men unthinkingly against the wire and the guns. It was all in the pursuit of a clear objective and the planning was always meticulous. He was not a hidebound traditionalist. He embraced new ideas such as gas and tanks with enthusiasm, all in the hope of making his offensives more decisive, and so in the long run less costly for his men. Even in his continued support for the use of cavalry, he was a modernist. His concept of mobile, all-arms cavalry groups to exploit breakthroughs was innovative, and when finally deployed at Amiens, worked. He was not a callous leader. If he was distant it was because the nature of First World War command required it, and he deeply felt the sufferings of his veterans after the war. Finally, in 1918 he was instrumental in developing the strategy for the greatest victory the British Army has ever won. He may not be a British General of the same rare calibre as Marlborough, Wellington or Slim, but he is one of the most successful, and one hundred years after he first took to the Western Front, he deserves to be remembered as such.
Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock
Saul David, 100 Days to Victory
Max Hastings: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914
John Keegan, The First World War
Jeremy Paxman, Great Britain’s Great War
Andrew Robertshaw, Somme: 1 July 1916, Tragedy and Triumph
Gary Sheffield, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army
Simkins, Jukes and Hickey, The First World War: The War to End All Wars
Hew Strachan, The First World War
E.D. Swinton, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August