June 19, 1861
January 30, 1928
Soldier, general, commander of British army
When World War I began, Douglas Haig was widely considered to be Britain's greatest soldier. However by war's end, Haig was just as widely considered a butcher, a distant leader who had sent hundreds of thousands of British youth to their deaths. Although the public view of Douglas Haig had been altered, Haig himself had not changed. From the start of his career he was entirely devoted to the principles of duty, honor, and hard work. These principles lay behind the orders he gave to the thousands of British soldiers who fought on the terrible battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. But these principles and Haig's outdated military methods both failed in the battles of World War I. Haig's fall from glory was a signal that the world had been changed forever by World War I, and that the old ideas of glory and honor were no longer as important as they had been in the past.
An Unlikely Soldier
Little in Douglas Haig's early life indicated that he would become a great soldier. Born on June 19, 1861, Haig was one of nine children. His family was quite wealthy: His father, John, ran a family-owned whiskey distillery, and his mother, Rachel, came from a rich family. Haig did not distinguish himself early in life, being a mediocre student at Clifton College (the equivalent of a private high school in the United States). Haig went on to Oxford University in 1880. There he improved his skills as a horseman and a polo player, but he still struggled as a student.
Even though he showed no previous interest in the military, Haig took the unusual step of enrolling at the British Royal Military College at Sandhurst (often called simply Sandhurst) after leaving Oxford. Biographers speculate that the military college may have offered the best chance for developing his skills as a horseman. At Sandhurst, however, Haig found his calling. Avoiding the social life of the college, Haig worked diligently and rose to the top of his class. It was said that he made up for his lack of intellect with his powers of concentration and dedication to his work. By his last year at Sandhurst he had become senior underofficer, the highest student office in the school. According to Gene Smith in The Ends of Greatness, an instructor wrote this of Haig: "A Scottish lad, Douglas Haig, is tops in almost everything, books, drill, riding and sports; he is to go into the cavalry and before he is finished he will be top of the army."
A Soldier of the Empire
In the cavalry (troops trained to fight on horseback) Haig was an officer. His first assignment was with the prestigious Seventh Hussars. He distinguished himself first on the polo field, where he led his new regiment to several trophies. But Haig began soldiering in earnest in 1886, when he was transferred to India, which was then under British control. In India Haig alternated between staff posts—where he learned about communications, administration, and transportation—and cavalry commands—where he mastered the tactics of mounted warfare. By 1896 Haig was accepted into Staff College, the training academy for the finest British officers. At the academy Haig learned about strategy, tactics, and other elements of warfare. As at Sandhurst, Haig stood out from the other officers both for his refusal to become involved in social affairs and for his dedication to work.
All Haig needed to prove himself as a soldier was experience in actual combat. In 1898 he got his chance when he was sent to Egypt to help suppress a native rebellion in Sudan, just south of Egypt. For ten months Haig fought in the desert, conducting himself well in the battles of Omdurman and the battle of Atbara. Once the rebellion was crushed, Haig was sent to Great Britain's South African territories to fight against the descendants of Dutch settlers (Boers) in what became known as the Boer War (1899–1902). Haig again served with honor and won the rank of colonel.
From 1902 to 1914 Haig bounced back and forth from India to England, all the while progressing in rank. In 1906 he took command of the imperial general staff and was responsible for overseeing the training and organization of troops serving in British colonies all over the world. In 1907 Haig published his only book, Cavalry Studies, Strategical and Tactical, in which he outlined his belief in the continuing importance of cavalry attacks in modern war. In 1912 he obtained the post of director of military training at the British War Office, where he was second in command to war secretary Richard Haldane. The pair had two goals: to reorganize the British armed forces for fighting in distant colonies and to prepare another force for what seemed like an inevitable war on the continent of Europe. Thus they organized the British Expeditionary Force, a highly trained army of soldiers who could be quickly assembled to fight on foreign soil. In addition to his steady rise in the British military, Haig experienced personal satisfaction: In 1905 he met and married Dorothy Vivian, a maid of honor to the queen.
The Ultimate Test: World War I
On August 4, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that Haig and Haldane had created was called into service. Following the assassination of an Austrian archduke, Germany and Austria-Hungary had lined up against France, Russia, and then Great Britain in a conflict to see who would dominate Europe. Field Marshal John French (1852–1925) was placed in command of the BEF, which consisted of two corps; Haig was in charge of one of those corps and reported to French. French ordered the entire BEF to France to fight the Germans; Haig protested that this would leave no one in Britain to train the soldiers that would be needed for future battles. French, believing his forces would quickly defeat the
Germans, overruled Haig and sent the entire force. It soon proved a costly decision.
Haig and his troops—some forty thousand men—faced the enemy near Mons, Belgium, on August 23, 1914, and the Germans' huge advantage in numbers of soldiers soon took its toll. The French armies fell back in retreat, and John French soon ordered his men to retreat as well. Haig led his retreating troops west and slightly north, trying desperately to keep German troops from flanking them. (To be flanked, or attacked from the side, was deadly in battle.) By late fall of 1914 Haig and the British finally succeeded at stopping the Germans, in what became known as the first battle of Ypres. French's leadership had nearly destroyed the original BEF and left the British army in a stalemate of trench warfare with the Germans along the Western Front (the area along France and Germany where fighting took place). By late 1915 British politicians relieved French of his command and appointed Haig as the new leader.
In Command: The Tragedy of the Somme and Passchendaele
As Haig inspected his command, he saw little use for the cavalry that he had so diligently prepared for in his years of studying the art of war. Cavalry were useless in trench warfare; powerful machine guns sped the pace at which men were killed; and his army was now filled with raw recruits rather than trained and experienced soldiers. But Haig thought he saw a way to defeat the Germans in 1916. He would launch a massive assault near the Somme River. Late in June 1916, the British began a sustained artillery bombardment of the German forces along the Somme. For seven days and seven nights, the bombs fell on German positions, and on July 1 British troops rose out of their trenches and marched forward into the most terrific slaughter yet seen in the history of war (see sidebar).
Despite the massive cost in British lives in the battle of the Somme, Haig was promoted from general to field marshal on January 1, 1916, and he faced the next year of battle even more determined to defeat the Germans with the tactics he had used on the Somme. He planned his next attack on the northern end of the Western Front, near the Belgian town of Passchendaele. The battle of Passchendaele mirrored that of the Somme: days of bombardment, followed with a mass assault by armed men. Haig believed that his plan would work this time, for his bombing was more accurate, his men were better trained, and the enemy defenses were not as strong. Sadly, he was wrong. German defenses had improved, and their machinegun nests survived the bombardment. Worse, days of rain turned the fields of Passchendaele into a vast sea of mud. Though the British soldiers dutifully rose from the trenches on July 31 to attack the Germans, they soon found themselves stuck in craters of mud, unable to move and pounded by machinegun fire.
Unwilling to give up his offensive, Haig ordered his men to continue the attack. For weeks and weeks British soldiers died miserably in the mud fields of Passchendaele. By November 10 the British had lost nearly 250,000 soldiers and had gained just 4 miles of territory. Haig called it a victory, but civilian leaders did not agree. British prime minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945) was appalled at the loss of life at the Somme and Passchendaele, and he implored Haig to try new methods. But Haig could see no other way out of the war; he told Lloyd George that Great Britain must simply try again in 1918. Lloyd George could not fire Haig—there were no suitable generals to take Haig's place—so he did the only thing he could do to prevent more casualties: He refused to send more men into Haig's killing machine. Haig would have to fight in 1918 with the men he had available.
Haig's Triumph and Decline
The Germans, too, had been sorely tested by their battles with the British and the French on the Western Front. In the spring of 1918 Germany decided to launch one last, desperate offensive to try to win the war. Across the Western Front the Germans pushed forward, and they gained more ground than either side had gained since the very first days of the war. But the British and the French fought well in retreat, cheered on by Haig's famous "backs-to-the-wall" message, in which he states: "Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one must fight on to the end." When joined by the American troops, the Allies were able to halt the German advance by July 1918. The German army, nearing collapse, quickly fell to Allied attacks through the summer and fall of 1918, and on November 11, 1918, the war ended with the Germans soundly defeated.
Had Haig returned to Great Britain immediately after the end of the war, he might have been greeted as a hero. After all, he was the military commander of victorious troops. But Haig stayed in Europe for nearly six months, overseeing the needs of British troops there; and by the time he returned, many British citizens and politicians had begun to question the wisdom of sending so many of Britain's young men to such an early grave. Haig was granted a title upon his return—he became earl of Bemersyde—and he lived out his postwar years in comfort in Scotland. But he was far from a national hero. In fact, many labeled Haig the architect of World War I's terrible slaughter. Critics said that Haig fought a modern war with oldfashioned methods, that he cared nothing for the lives of his soldiers, that he was a butcher, callous and cruel. They claimed that he was a relic from the past and that men would never again naively march off to die for the glory of their country.
Haig, who had never been one to argue or try to shape public opinion, watched in silence as his reputation plummeted. On January 28, 1928, just two days before his death, he gave a speech to a group of Boy Scouts. His advice, quoted in Smith's The Ends of Greatness, was this: "When you grow up, always remember that you belong to a great empire, and when people speak disrespectfully of England always stand up and defend your country."
For More Information
Smith, Gene. The Ends of Greatness: Haig, Pétain, Rathenau, and Eden; Victims of History. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.
Terraine, John. Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier. London: L. Cooper, 1990.
Warner, Philip. Field Marshal Earl Haig. London: Bodley Head, 1991.
Winter, Denis. Haig's Command: A Reassessment. London and New York: Viking, 1991.
Winter, Jay, and Blain Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
Atwater, James D. "Echoes and Voices Summoned from a Half-Hour in Hell." Smithsonian, November 1987.
"Douglas Haig." Teaching History Online. [Online] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWhaig.htm (accessed May 2001).
"First Earl Douglas Haig." Trenches on the Web. [Online] http://worldwar1.com/biochaig.htm (accessed May 2001).
The battle of the Somme
Beginning on June 23, 1916, the British launched the most sustained artillery attack of the war, targeting German positions near the Somme River. The bombardment could be heard all the way to England. British General Douglas Haig believed that such shelling would thoroughly destroy the German trench system and that his young soldiers would only have to march forward to claim victory. The soldiers had been told, according to a source quoted by Jay Winter and Blain Baggett in The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century, "You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick, you will not need rifles. You will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived." But that was not what they found at all. Despite all the bombing, well-fortified German trench positions had held firm. As the British soldiers climbed out of their trenches, the Germans raked them with machinegun fire. By the end of that first day's attack, twenty thousand British soldiers had been killed and forty thousand wounded. Several brigades lost a majority of their men; the fourteenth platoon of the First Rifle Brigade lost thirty-nine of forty men. It was the beginning of a true military disaster.
Because of poor communications, Haig didn't realize the toll the first day of battle had taken on British troops. He ordered the men to battle on. For days the British threw themselves against the German line. On July 14 they got through the second German line, only to be turned back by fresh German reserves. The battle soon turned into a test of wills, as generals on both sides threw men into the killing fields for months on end. Through August and September and into the fall, British and German troops took turns trying to break each other. Neither side succeeded.
Weather and fatigue brought the battle of the Somme to a close at the end of November. The British had succeeded in advancing six miles and claiming the village of BeaumontHamel, but they had lost 420,000 soldiers in this battle alone, followed by 195,000 for the French. The Germans sustained a total of 650,000 casualties. Because they had gained a small bit of territory, the Allies declared themselves the winners.