Haig...the final reckoning

Share this article

THE BUTCHER of the Somme. The Blind King. The donkey who led lions.

In the 91 years since the guns fell silent on the battlefields of the First World War, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig has been called all of these names and worse. But this week, a new and impassioned defence of the Edinburgh-born commander of British Forces in the Great War was put forward by an unlikely source: his grand-daughter.

Xenia Dennen, 65, who never met her famous grandfather, said yesterday that "he was not an insensitive man, quite the opposite. A lot of myths have been built up. These need to be corrected in the light of the more recent work of military historians. Unfortunately this doesn't get through to the general public."

For many, Haig is most remembered for the massive loss of life that he presided over. In one day of the Battle of the Somme, 56,000 men died. A year later at Paschendale, 300,000 Allied British soldiers were killed. But, argues Dennen, there was more to it than that. "I believe his men, his soldiers, had enormous regard, respect and trust for him," she says.

So was Haig really the monster he has often been portrayed as? He was certainly demonised in the aftermath of the First World War, despite setting up the Royal British Legion in 1921, creating the poppy as the symbol of remembrance and devoting the rest of his life (he died in 1928) to the care of injured First World War soldiers. He received many public insults, including one, a pastiche of the famous 'Your Country Needs You' poster, printed with a picture of Haig above the words: 'Your country needs me like a hole in the head, which is what most of you are going to get'.

More recently his character has been derided in films such as Oh! What A Lovely War, while he was ruthlessly and effectively lampooned by Stephen Fry as the mad, out-of-touch General Melchett in the TV series Blackadder Goes Forth.

"The thing about Haig is that he divides historians today the way he divided the public at the time," says Dr Bob Bushaway, research fellow at the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham. "You either loved him or you hated him – there's no middle ground. The people who worked with him closely described themselves as a happy band of brothers. The people who didn't like him thought he was a tyrant, a butcher."

Born into an austere Victorian Edinburgh family – owners of Haig & Haig Whisky – in 1861, Haig took the unusual move of going to Oxford to study before joining the army. A quiet man, humourless and reserved, he was also shrewd and ambitious and had a self-confidence that was to alienate many he came into contact with.

British military historian John Keegan, author of The First World War, has said that for him Haig "remains – however much I think about him, and whatever defences of him I listen to – a profoundly unattractive figure. He does seem to have been cursed by some emotional deficiency. He was continually thinking of his own position and he was continually thinking of victory. Those things seem to have been more important to him than conserving lives."

Certainly, on the eve of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Haig issued a typically stern warning to those whose upper lips might tremble at the thought of British casualties.

"The nation must be taught to bear losses," he wrote. "No amount of skill on the part of the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men's lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists."

But this attitude hid, say his defenders, great military skill. "Few people in 1914 recognised it would be a long war. Haig was one of the only ones who did," points out Bushaway. "At the same time, he also recognised that you can only learn how to fight a modern war by doing it and that is quite a costly exercise at the outset."

Clive Fairweather, former deputy commander of the SAS, agrees. "There's no question that Haig did not know the lessons of modern war until they were thrust upon him. He knew the Boer war and earlier wars, but no-one was prepared for the war of attrition that eventually appeared and how to break it."

But while many recognise that the First World War marked a sea-change in how wars were fought, many still struggle to come to terms with the enormous loss of life, particularly at the Somme and at Passchendaele.

Former prime minister Lloyd George, never a Haig fan, described him in his War Memoirs as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task," accusing him of being unable to select good advisers, grasp the realities of the issues facing him on the Western Front, and ultimately dismissing him as "second-rate".

But, says Bushaway, Haig recognised that the army he had been handed in 1914 – which numbered a paltry 100,000 – needed to be both massively strengthened and trained if it was to defeat the Germans, and that without this forethought, the war may have lasted much longer.

"It took two years to train the armies Haig had available to him for the Battle of the Somme in July 1916," he says. "Now it's all very well to create a soldier in two years, but you can't create a staff officer in two years. It was a learning curve.

"What most people forget is that by August 1918 Haig had built up five fully-trained armies who would win the war in 100 days, with the battle of Amiens and the storming of the Hindenburg line. I always say, by all means condemn him for his mistakes in 1916 and 1917, but cheer him for what he did in 1918."

That Haig ultimately won the war by 11 November is undisputed, yet although he initially returned home to a hero's welcome, it was not to last, and public opinion turned against him.

"He became the figure on which everyone fixed their opprobrium for why society did not turn out to be the way it should have been," says Bushaway. "People felt they had fought a war to end all wars, they had put in place a League of Nations that would deal with world peace and they looked forward to days of plenty and prosperity, but it didn't happen. We didn't deliver homes fit for heroes, we did not assist the unemployed of the 1920s, and it went from bad to worse."

While Haig devoted the rest of his life to the Royal British Legion, public anger towards him grew. However, when he died in 1928, he was given a state funeral, to which thousands attended.

But while such issues are clearly of personal value to Dennen as Haig's grand-daughter, with the death earlier this year of Harry Patch, the last British man left alive to fight in the First World War, and the war itself's inevitable slide into history, does Haig's legacy still matter?

"Of course," says Fairweather. "The truth is always preferable. It's worth putting right."

What Haig felt about the besmirching of his reputation is still speculated on today, although many believe he felt no guilt for his role. "His interior life was complicated to say the least," says Bushaway. "He began the war with some fairly wishy-washy lukewarm Protestant beliefs, but during the war he developed a strong, almost Calvinist belief that he had been divinely ordained to be in this particular place at this time to save Britain. The only other man in history who had that amount of self confidence was Oliver Cromwell."

For Dennen, the facts are more simple. "I am very proud of him," she says. "He was a very fine man."

• Haig's funeral in Edinburgh, 1928

HIS LIFE AND TIMES

1861: Born in Edinburgh into the Haig & Haig whisky family

1880-1883: Studies at Brasenose College, Oxford

1883: Enrols for officer training at Sandhurst

1898: First sees active service in Lord Kitchener's Omdurman Campaign, part of the Mahdist war in Sudan

1899: Serves in the Boer War, in the cavalry. He is mentioned in dispatches four times, and attracts the attention of Kitchener.

1901: Becomes commanding officer of the 17th Lancers

1904: Serves in India and becomes the youngest major-general in the British Army

1905: Marries Dorothy Vivian, with whom he has four children

1906: Appointed director of military training on the General Staff at the War Office

1914: Upon outbreak of the First World War is appointed Commander of I Corps and helps organise the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French, with whom he has serious disagreements. Following defensive successes at Battle of Mons and Ypres is promoted to full general

1915: Replaces French as BEF Commander-in-Chief

1916: Directs British portion of the offensive at the Somme. The time and place of the battle is forced upon Haig by the French, who need to relieve the pressure on the French army at Verdun, but the disastrous number of British casualties leads to his nickname, "the Butcher of the Somme"

1917: Promoted to Field Marshal. Conducts major offensive at Paschendale, which again results in huge casualties for little territorial gain

1918: A reinforced German army launches major offensives on the Western Front. Haig issues his famous order that his men must carry on fighting "with our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause". Following Allied victories at Amiens and Marne, Haig's forces storm the Hindenburg Line and advance into Belgium by October. By the end of the war, they have captured 188,700 German prisoners and 2,840 German guns

1921: Helps create the Royal British Legion, with a red poppy as its symbol

1928: Dies on 29 January, aged 66

Back to the top of the page