Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig
As Commander-in-Chief during the First World War, Haig had a steep and expensive learning curve to achieve the victories of 1918. Despite leading Britain to victory, Haig has been vilified for his supposed and actual failures. Set up the poppy fund in the 1920s.
Douglas Haig (1861-1928) is one of the most controversial British generals of all time. As commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War Haig led the British Army to arguably its greatest victory in the most gruelling war in its history. However, Haig’s triumph has been overshadowed and his reputation tainted by the gigantic losses suffered on the long and bitter road to victory.
The son of a wealth whisky distiller, Haig was born in Edinburgh into a large family of ancient Scottish lineage. He joined the Army in 1884 where he excelled at Polo, saw active service in Sudan and South Africa and became a recognised authority on cavalry warfare. Haig’s assiduity, aptitude for staff work and social connections enabled him to rise swiftly though the ranks and to secure the prestigious command of the BEF in France in December 1915.
Haig took command at a time when the British Army was locked in entrenched stalemate with the Germans along the Western Front. Under his direction the British Army launched a series of mighty offensive against the German lines, the most famous of which were the battles of the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917). These offensives resulted in huge casualties but failed to break the deadlock or to win significant territory. Haig has since been accused of being an out dated cavalryman wedded to a belief in the possibility of breakthrough, failing to appreciate the realties of the new attritional warfare where success was measured not in territory captured but by the attainment of a favourable casualty ratio.
In Haig’s defence some historians now tend to blame the horrific casualties more on the nature of trench warfare and by the British Army’s inherent shortcomings rather than the mistakes of individual commanders. Haig has also been commended for his commitment to the war winning strategy of defeating the Germans on the Western Front. To this end, he oversaw the greatest expansion of the British Army in its history and worked tirelessly to ensure that it evolved into a mighty and sophisticated instrument of war. By the summer of 1918 the British Army was in the vanguard of the Allied counter offensive which broke the German Army.
Haig’s character remains mired in mystery. He has been depicted as a callous and incompetent man who obstinately persisted with costly and futile offensives driven by a boundless yet ill-founded optimism. In contrast, he has been commended for his determination and devotion to duty; a man who stoically bore a burden of responsibility that would have broken lesser men. His involvement in the founding of the Royal British Legion exhibited his deep concern for the suffering of ex-servicemen.
When Haig died in 1928 vast numbers attended his funeral, testament to the high regard in which he was held by his contemporaries. Yet today he is widely perceived as the archetypal bungling First World War general and historians continue to debate his tenure of high command.
General Sir Douglas Haig. Lithograph after John St Helier Lander. Published by the 'Illustrated London News Christmas Number', 1916.
"If there are some who would question Haig’s right to rank with Wellington in British military annals, there are none who will deny that his character and conduct as a soldier will long serve as an example to all."
Winston Churchill on Haig.
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