The following address was delivered by Dr Gary Sheffield, Haig Fellow 2001, at the Seventh Annual Lunch on 29 January 2001.
Douglas Haig in the Context of British Generalship
In 1931, Basil Liddell Hart declared that the First World War was not in keeping with the British Way in Warfare. As C.R.M.F. Cruttwell argued five years later, this view was wrong, for the Great War did fit into the pattern of previous European wars in which Britain had been involved. Like Marlborough's wars, the Seven Years War, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and even the Crimean War, it was protracted and attritional. The same was to be true of the world war that broke out in 1939. Moreover, the British habitually fought as part of coalitions in which they did not have the decisive voice in determining strategy. Douglas Haig's experience of command is thus, in broad terms, comparable to those of senior British generals in other wars, like Marlborough, Wellington, Raglan and Montgomery.
The major difference was that of scale. The conflict of 1914-18 involved the largest army that Britain has ever put into the field. As commander-in-chief of the BEF from 1915 to 1919 the weight of responsibility born by Haig was enormous. Haig's 60 divisions on the Somme compare with Montgomery's 11 or so at Second Alamein. It should not be forgotten that Haig was both a de facto Army Group and also a Theatre commander. In practical terms this meant that Haig lacked the 'top cover' that in 1942 Montgomery enjoyed from Alexander, his Theatre commander. Montgomery could concentrate more-or-less exclusively on operations, while Haig was denied that luxury.
So, tempting though it is to put Haig in a league table of generals, awarding points for performance in battle, strategic brilliance and the like, it would be a pointless exercise. To compare Haig with another general would be like comparing an apple with a banana: it would not be comparing like with like. Other British commanders have certainly carried enormous burdens - one thinks of Wavell in the Middle East in 1940-41 - but their responsibilities were simply not on the same scale as Haig's. Undoubtedly Douglas Haig made mistakes that had bloody consequences for the troops under his command, but what general has not? The sheer scale of the operations that he directed ensured that the human cost of errors was proportionately magnified, with disastrous consequences for his reputation. The issue of casualties has overshadowed even successful operations. The attack on Menin Road Ridge in September 1917, a demonstrably successful operation, was used in the play Oh! What a Lovely War was an example of callous stupidity. In the Second World War, many British battles were as proportionately as bloody as those of 1914-18 (or even more so), but in absolute terms the casualties were lower. This is not surprising, given that the number of British troops involved was smaller. The assaults on Haig's reputation were the price paid for conducting operations, for the only time in British history, on a truly grand scale.
In many ways, however, Haig does fit into a pattern of British generalship, which has often been influenced by three factors: a cult of unreadiness; a tradition of fighting small wars; and coalition
At the beginning of most major wars, the British state has been unready to fight protracted, large-scale warfare. In 1793, the army was a long way short of the peak of efficiency that it had reached during the American War of only a decade earlier. Political indifference and financial cheese-paring were the culprits, a pattern repeated in 1854, 1899, and 1939. In the run-up to 1914, there was a mismatch between Sir Edward Grey's foreign policy, which placed Britain in, effectively, an informal alliance with France and Russia, with the distinct possibility of getting involved in a large-scale war, and R.B. Haldane's policy that produced a highly effective but small army. Haldane's force was not the right army for the war in which Britain became involved, and having neglected to provide a blueprint for expansion, the chaos that resulted from the impromptu raising of Kitchener's armies was the consequence. Against this background, the problems experienced by the raw British forces on the Somme in 1916 begin to look almost inevitable.
Undoubtedly, Haig benefited from the fact that he was not commander-in-chief in 1914. Sir John French, Lord Gort and Wavell all suffered from the fact that they commanded at the beginning of the two world wars, when British campaigns were run on the most threadbare of shoestrings. Haig, like Montgomery in 1942, was well placed to take advantage of the arrival of a relative abundance of materiel in the middle of the war. However Haig and French had to face the unique challenge of coming to terms with profound changes in the conduct of war that amounted to a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The BEF had to be trained to fight a form of war that was evolving daily. It cannot be stressed enough that Haig was far more than just a battlefield commander. He had a bewildering array of responsibilities. As recent research has shown, Haig rose to the occasion, actively encouraging the transformation of the BEF into a technologically sophisticated army through the acquisition of tanks, aircraft, machine guns, the 106 artillery fuse, and a mass of other advanced equipment. His attitude to technology and innovation compares favourably with any other commander. As a recent study by an Australian-based American historian, Albert Palazzo, has demonstrated, it was Haig's British forces rather than the Germans who were most successful in adapting to the revolutionary changes on the battlefield. Victory was the result.
While he was not quite a 'sepoy general' like Wellington, Haig cut his military teeth in colonial small wars. In this respect he was typical of every generation of British officers since 1815, except those who had their formative experiences in the two world wars. Haig was thus directly comparable to Wellington, Roberts, and Kitchener. Such a grounding has not always proved to be ideal training for Continental scale warfare. Wavell, who served on the Western Front as a junior officer but who earned his primary experience in a 'big small war' in Palestine in 1917-18, perhaps had difficulty in stepping up to fight large-scale campaigns against a first class enemy.
Colonial war did teach some key virtues, however, notably pragmatism and improvisation. Haig was by no means the only soldier who managed the transition from small war to big war with success. Plumer, a distinguished commander of mounted infantry in the South African War, is an obvious example. Haig's achievement in handling vast armies in a large-scale war is all the more remarkable because of his lack of relevant previous experience, or indeed training. The Staff College at Camberley had many virtues, but training for a war in which Britain's senior field commander controlled five armies was not one of them.
Since 1688, Britain has lost only one major war — the American War of Independence, 1776-83. This was the only major war Britain fought outside a coalition — indeed, it faced a hostile coalition of the rebellious Americans and European powers. The British learned this lesson well. The British experience of major war has overwhelmingly been an experience of coalition war. As a result, British high commanders have had to demonstrate diplomatic and political, as well as military skills. Coalitions are not the same as friendships, and allies compete as well as cooperate. But the coalition must be made to work.
Some British soldiers have proved masters of coalition warfare: Marlborough among them, perhaps Alexander, certainly Dill. Haig was not quite at their level but his coalition building skills certainly compare favourably with Montgomery, who at times displayed a suicidal disregard for the disciplines of coalition warfare. Haig's relations with Joffre, Petain and Foch had their ups and downs, but were ultimately effective — his dealings with Foch in 1918 were especially fruitful. We should not forget that the BEF itself was also a coalition of sorts. The growth of powerful and elite Dominion formations, especially the Australian and Canadian Corps, gave a spur to nationalism that was reflected in Haig's relations with Monash and Currie. It reflects well on all three men that the Australian and Canadian were reluctant to use their national 'red cards', (that is, to say no to Haig's orders), and Haig accepted the emergence of the Dominion forces as, in effect national armies. Indeed, Haig came to admire these forces and their commanders.
So, senior commanders also need to be politicians, or at least possess political skills. For the first year of Haig's tenure as C-in-C, the British Prime Minister was H.H. Asquith, who pursued a policy of masterly inactivity, effectively leaving Haig alone. Asquith's successor, David Lloyd George, was, of course a very different character. He was, paradoxically, a total warrior who was opposed to Haig's strategy on the Western Front, which was in many ways the logical corollary of total war. Lloyd George's determination to have his own way led in 1917-18 to some serious clashes between GHQ and 10 Downing Street. Haig was not unique in having a difficult relationship with a Prime Minister. The Churchill-Wavell situation springs to mind, while Marlborough was sacked as a result of a change of government in London. Yet Haig's problems were particularly acute in comparison with some other British commanders. Marlborough at his peak effectively controlled the British government, while eighteenth and nineteenth century commanders operating away from Britain had the advantage of poor communications, which put them out of day-to day contact with politicians. In the Second World War, Montgomery enoyed the protection of a powerful patron in the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, who could shield his protege from Churchill's interference in operational matters and the PM's occasional bursts of wrath. A generation earlier relationships between senior commanders had been very different. Haig, the field commander, was the senior partner of Wully Robertson, the CIGS during the critical years of 1916 and 1917, and the relationship between Robertson and Lloyd George had in any case its own difficulties.
Many people regard the First World War as an aberration in the normal run of events, as being somehow 'outside' history. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, the issues at stake during the First World War have largely been forgotten, but those who have studied the subject know that Douglas Haig commanded the BEF at a time as grave as any in British history. From our modern perspective, we can see that in the Great War liberal democracies defeated the first of three majorchallenges mounted by ideological enemies during the twentieth century, for German autocracy was followed by German Nazism and Soviet Communism. From the perspective of 2001, we can see just how important the success of 1918 was; and it is time that Haig and the BEF are given their full share of credit for that victory. After all, Douglas Haig, as the commander of the largest army Britain has ever put into the field, bore a heavier burden than any soldier in British history. Far from being 'outside' history, Douglas Haig's experience as C-in-C of the BEF fits firmly into the context of British generalship, past and present.