The following address was delivered by Dr Christopher Pugsley, Haig Fellow 2003,
at the Ninth Annual Luncheon on 29 January 2003
HAIG AND HIS DOMINION COMMANDERS:
The Evolution Of Professional Citizen Armies On The Western Front
‘I have not got an Army in France, really, but a collection of divisions untrained for the field. The actual fighting Army will be evolved from them.’
‘Some General Officers of the Great War’
In 1922 John Singer Sargent finished his painting of ‘Some General Officers of the Great War’ commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery. It shows Field Marshal Earl Haig surrounded by the commanders of the British Armies during the First World War. The 22 figures include the Chiefs of Imperial General Staff during the war, Robertson and Wilson; Haig, his predecessor French, and the army commanders of the British Armies in France and also those of the campaigns in East Africa, Italy, Palestine and Mesopotamia. There are some prominent commanders who do not make the group; General Sir Ian Hamilton is missing as is Trenchard of the RAF.
One can imagine that below army-level there would have been some intense jockeying going on for the few places available and one surmises that the positioning of each man in relationship to Haig, the man at the centre, would have also led to certain machinations. Birdwood for example is distinctly divorced from the group of Army commanders immediately surrounding Haig, but there again I may be reading too much into this?
Of particular interest are the Dominion commanders of the Western front; Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie who commanded the Canadian Corps from May 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash who commanded the Australian Corps from May 1918 and Major-General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell who commanded the New Zealand Division from its formation in 1916 until the Armistice. Currie stands in the front rank half-turned towards Haig, almost confrontational, as indeed at times he was. Monash and Russell appear as faces looking over the shoulders of those in the front two ranks, almost as if their omission was noted at the last minute and while it was recognised that it was important that they were there in the frame, they were evidently not as important as Currie who is placed in the forefront from the beginning?
In this paper I will examine Haig as Commander-in-Chief and his relationship with Dominion forces and position New Zealand, Australian and Canadian performance in combat in the context of the British armies in which they served. The ‘tyranny of distance’ that divides New Zealand and Australian from scholarship in Europe and America sometimes makes it difficult to see comparative performance in context. Monash and the performance of the Australian Corps stand centre-stage in Australian historiography of the war. However, as I will argue, it was the Canadians who set the benchmark for tactical brilliance first under the enlightened guidance of Lieutenant-General the Hon Sir Julian Byng and who sustained this under their Canadian citizen commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie. The Canadians were at the forefront of the all-arms revolution built upon improvements in artillery techniques and technology, combined with platoon-level infantry tactics that are the keys to understanding the breaking of the trench deadlock on the Western Front. The Canadians also led the way in the evolution of the machinery of a national force, a Dominion Army within the Empire. Haig encouraged the first but was baffled by the second. His frustrations at the question of Dominion command explodes on occasions within his diaries and shape the reader’s perceptions but this has to be separated from his assessment of their capabilities as fighting formations. That is best judged by their employment, and it is here that certain distinct advantages in their organisation and structure gave the Dominion forces a basis for combat effectiveness that was confirmed in practice by the quality of leadership displayed by the three figures in Sargent’s portrait; Currie, Monash and Russell.
But let me go back to the opening quotation. This is the story of evolving professionalism of mass citizen armies; the first that the British Empire had raised in its history and on an unprecedented and on an unimagined scale. When Haig assumed command of the British Armies in France, the superbly professional BEF that deployed to France in 1914 had vanished in the battles of First and Second Ypres of late 1914 and early 1915. In its place were new armies consisting of Regular Divisions in name only manned with wartime replacements and raw but enthusiastic Territorial and Kitchener New Army Divisions. Partially trained, fitting into newly raised corps and equally newly raised armies as they arrived. Haig’s armies grew from one million men to some 1.8 million by the beginning of 1917. The New Zealand and Australian divisions of the two ANZAC Corps were late arrivals among the last wave of reinforcement divisions of April-May 1916 with Monash’s 3rd Australian Division not arriving until December 1916.
Within the ANZAC formations the Gallipoli experience had been diluted by the enormous expansion of the single New Zealand infantry brigade into a division of three infantry brigades and all the accompanying arms and services, and of the two Australian divisions into four divisions with a fifth, (the 3rd Australian to make it confusing) being raised in Australia and shipped to England for training. In every way they reflected the standards and experience of the British divisions that deployed to France with them – generally superb material, keen, enthusiastic, but still largely amateur committed to the most difficult operation of war, that of driving a skilled enemy of equal mass out of carefully prepared defences.
General, later Field-Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig
Haig in public imagination is that “butcher” isolated in his chateau, never visiting the front, blind to the suffering and the deaths of the hundreds of thousands that he is sending forward to die in the mud. He is the Haig of the Somme and Passchendaele, a traditional cavalryman who could not see beyond the value of the horse and one who sent brave men forward needlessly to their deaths. He is a distant figure, inarticulate and inapproachable, feared by his army commanders, blind to the feelings of his officers and men; and ignorant of the conditions at the front. As Gerard De Groot has written ‘confident that he alone knew the right way to victory… A man divinely directed [who] did not seek the advice of mere mortals.’
Natural soldiers are rare individuals. The reality of success in war on the scale of the Western Front demands a sustained effort by professionals with the skills to coordinate, administer, train and employ on operations vast armies. To achieve that in wartime with a citizen force is an expensive journey of trial and error involving enormous sacrifice. The evolution of Haig as Commander-in-Chief and the evolving professionalism of his armies are integral to understanding the Anzac and Empire experience on the Western Front. When first looking at the Haig Diaries in the National Library of Scotland some 10 years ago I was struck by something that Haig said to Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby on his appointment to Army Commander. Let me quote his words.
‘I discussed the merits of the 18 Div[isio]ns and their respective commanders who will be under his orders so that the best commanders may be given the most difficult tasks.’
To put this axiom into practice one has to know his men and from my research it is clear that Haig made it his business to know his subordinates. By 1917 he understood that the key to the effectiveness of his armies was at the divisional level, because it was at this level that training was conducted and changes implemented. Having forged effective divisions they then had to be fought effectively as corps or groups of divisions and armies, this too was a learning process for Haig and his commanders. This paper is a glimpse of Haig’s relationships not just with his Dominion commanders because he did not see himself dealing with them on those terms, but rather an opportunity to assess Haig and his relationships with his subordinates at the tactical level of command; Currie as GOC Canadian Corps, Monash as a divisional commander until May 1918 and then as GOC Australian Corps, and Russell as a divisional commander. It is a glimpse of Haig’s understandings of the workings of his armies at corps and divisional level, and I submit, because of the nature of the man a study in microcosm of his dealings with his corps and divisional commanders throughout his armies.
Divisions, Corps and Armies
The British armies in France consisted of a number of Corps, 100,000-150,000 strong each made up of three or four divisions, 15,000-18,000 strong. An Army Corps, except for that of the Canadian and for I ANZAC Corps after September 1917, was a moving feast of constantly changing divisions. Corps Commanders were stage managers for the periodic battles and were given resources in the form of a number of divisions to do a job, and then these were then replaced when exhausted or moved as the tactical situation directed.
The Example of the New Zealand Division – typical of a British Division?
Russell’s New Zealand Division is an example that reflects the reality of most British divisions. It came to France as part of Birdwood’s I ANZAC Corps before joining Godley’s II ANZAC on its arrival in late May. It was detached for the Somme in 1916 where it was first earmarked to join I ANZAC Corps but was fortunate that 4th Australian Division went before it, so that it served instead as part of XV Corps in the Third Battle which started on 15 September 1916, and did not have to experience Pozieres and Mouquet Farm which was the fate of Birdwood’s Australians in Gough’s Reserve Army. It then rejoined II ANZAC throughout 1917 until the formation of the Australian Corps in January 1918 where it became part of Godley’s XXII Corps. It never fought with Godley in 1918 being detached during the German March offensive, and serving in IV Corps throughout 1918.
The Canadian Corps Advantage
The Canadian Corps was at the forefront because they got to the Western Front first. When the Anzacs arrived in France in March 1916, the Canadians were veterans in theatre who had demonstrated their prowess in holding the line under gas attacks at second Ypres in April 1915 when the 1st Canadian Division formed part of V Corps. The ‘sideshow’ of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli although occurring in the same week was not regarded with the same significance, being so remote from the decisive theatre. Ironically the drive to form the Canadian Corps, after the arrival in France of the 2nd Canadian Division in September 1915, used the ANZAC Corps as the precedent for creating the Canadian formation. From its beginnings it benefited from being solely Canadian in that tactical lessons learnt by one of its divisions could be more easily applied corps-wide, an advantage not available to the shifting mass of divisions within British corps.
The closest to the Canadian Corps was Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood’s I ANZAC Corps which, apart from the brief attachment of the New Zealand Division in April and May 1916, was a de facto Australian Corps, with its commander always under pressure from the Australian Government to achieve a national corps incorporating all five divisions. Birdwood had visions of an ANZAC Army which Haig refused to contemplate and so the formation of the two ANZAC Corps was a compromise. The focus of Australian attention was on Birdwood’s I ANZAC, and Monash’s 3rd Australian Division became the odd-one out being the last to arrive in December 1916 and serving throughout 1917 in Godley’s II ANZAC.
Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley who commanded the New Zealand Expeditionary Force throughout the war does not feature in the Sargent assemblage of notable commanders. Yet as Commander New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) he was Russell’s national commander on the Western front and throughout 1917 both Monash and Russell served as divisional commanders in his II Anzac Corps. But in this portrait group Corps commanders did not make the cut unless they represented their Dominion’s effort to Empire. Administratively Godley did this superbly, but Godley was always conscious that he was an officer of the British Army and in that sense II ANZAC always functioned as any other British Corps, always containing a mix of divisions, the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Division being its bedrock with other British and Australian divisions cycled through depending on the operational need.
The Battle of the Somme 1916
The British experience on the Somme was the turning point in the professional development of the British Armies. It demonstrated the gulf that existed between Haig’s ambition to achieve a breakthrough and the practical capabilities of his armies in 1916. The Somme showed that for all the technological development that had occurred with artillery, tanks and the introduction of critical infantry weapons such as the light Lewis machine gun and the 3-inch Stokes Mortar, his armies and its commanders at every level was still groping towards how to combine this together effectively.
It was a blunt instrument that paid for its inexperience with enormous casualty lists. The experience of the AIF in 1916 reflects this, first on 5 July at Fromelles where the 5th Australian Division, the last raised and least experienced of the Australian divisions was destroyed as a fighting formation in an ill-thought through and rushed assault losing 5,300 men in 24 hours. This unhappy start continued on the Somme in July 1916 where Birdwood’s I ANZAC fought as part of Gough’s Reserve, later Fifth Army. Major-General Walker, whose 1st Division alone showed a degree of professionalism resisted Gough’s impetuosity, but not Birdwood nor his other divisional commanders. Legge’s 2nd Division’s attack on Pozières was rushed and failed. It drew Haig’s criticism of both Legge, ‘not much good’, his division ‘ignorant’ and also of Birdwood’s staff. Only as the battle progressed did Walker’s professional skills in the planning and conduct of the attacks first on Pozières and then Mouquet Farm filter through to the rest of I ANZAC Corps. The calibre of the soldiers involved was excellent, but once again their standard of training, the tactics employed and Australian staff and command skills at corps and division did not match this. One could argue that this was also the experience of the Canadian Corps who replaced the Australians in Gough’s Fifth Army and they like the Australians suffered the demands he made upon them and hated him for it.
It was different for the New Zealand Division; it had an opportunity to learn from the lessons of July and then practiced this before its commitment to the Third Battle of the Somme on 15 September. It earned a reputation of being an outstanding fighting formation but at a cost of 7,400 casualties. Russell its command was conscious of how much it did not know, and how better it had to get both in administrative, staff and tactical skills if it was to survive as a fighting formation.
Learning from the Somme – The Infantry Revolution
The best of the divisional and corps commanders evaluated the Somme experience and profited from it. This was certainly true of Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Julian Byng’s Canadian Corps. Bill Rawling’s detailed study in Surviving Trench Warfare shows the growth in tactical development between the Somme and the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Byng had been selected by Haig to command the Canadian Corps and proved to be a practical thinking general who in his eight months in command of the Canadian Corps was determined to work out how to successfully attack at minimum cost. Equally importantly he understood the particular nature of the men he commanded. He recognised that a citizen army had to be treated and trained differently from Regulars, noting that it was important for senior officers to become involved at levels that would not be contemplated in a Regular formation but ‘when so many Senior Officers in Battalions are still inexperienced, the interference even of Corps and Divisional Commanders in the training of the Platoon was beneficial.’
Directives from above were not enough when inexperience at every level of command down to private soldier meant that the few professionals who knew what to do had to get involved and by “hand’s on” involvement and advice, teach staffs and units both how to manage fighting and the business of fighting itself. This was the reality in every British and Dominion division. Byng was prepared to do this and stuck his nose in at every level it was needed. He also recognised and preached that it was at platoon level that the key to tactical success in breaking the trench deadlock was to be found.
Byng sent his outstanding divisional commander, the corpulent 41-year old auctioneer and estate agent and Militia officer, Major-General Arthur Currie to visit the French at Verdun and assess their organisation and training and as a result made organisational changes to the platoon structure within the infantry battalions which would anticipate army-wide changes in the months ahead. Currie’s report detailed how the organisation, communication and training had to improve within the Canadian Corps both in terms of the infantry who carried out the attack and what the artillery needed to do to ensure they could get forward. He summarised the primary factors behind successful French offensive operations as being, ‘careful staff work’, thorough ‘artillery preparation and support’; the ‘element of surprise’ and the ‘high state of training in the infantry detailed for the assault.’ Currie was impressed by the fact that the French were producing what he termed ‘“storm” troops on a large scale’. Indeed if one looks at its subsequent adoption in the British armies, by late 1917 every British soldier was trained in the tactical skills of fire and manoeuvre and it is this breadth of training that marks the critical difference between the Allied and German approach where the Stosstruppen or specialist storm trooper remained an elite and the German Imperial Armies suffered for it. Key to this was the need to improve tactical skills within the infantry battalions. Currie noted in his report.
‘Too often, when our infantry are checked, they pause and ask for additional [artillery] preparation before carrying on. This artillery preparation cannot be quickly and easily arranged for and is often not necessary. Our troops must be taught the power of manoeuvre and that before giving up [and asking for more artillery support] they must employ to the utmost extent all the weapons with which they are armed and have available.’
In essence the key to success was teaching the infantry how to fight once the supporting artillery fire lifted from the German trenches. It required a change in platoon organisation and the evolution of tactical drills based on the Lewis light machine gun and other infantry weapons such as the rifle, rifle-grenade and hand-grenade.
Byng was not alone. Throughout Haig’s armies commanders and staffs from Haig down were assessing the lessons of the Somme fighting and were suggesting changes. It was a combination of directions from top down matched by feeding ideas from the bottom up. Haig like Byng recognised the need to stick his nose in at every level that it was needed, and although it took him time to get it right, critically with his favourite Gough to whom he gave too much leeway; throughout 1917 he took a critical and direct interest in the tactical preparations and training of his armies.
One of the results of this was that this platoon-level revolution was adopted army-wide in February 1917 with directives from Haig’s General Headquarters. It was these directives that led to the new platoon structure being introduced throughout the British Armies including the New Zealand Division and its Australian counterparts in I and II ANZAC Corps throughout 1917.
The Canadians at Vimy, April 1917
Byng demonstrated its importance with the success of the Canadian attack on Vimy on 9 April 1917 as part of the Arras offensive. It showed what an infantry-based army could achieve with detailed preparation and planning and the coordination of all the resources available. The four Canadian divisions advanced side by side in battle for the first time under a creeping artillery barrage, assisted by specially dug communication tunnels that allowed the attacker to move close to the German front lines. Counter-battery fire silenced the German artillery and most of the critical ground except that on which the Vimy Memorial now stands was gained in the first few hours of battle. The toll exacted was high, 3598 killed and 7004 wounded.
The Canadian victory at Vimy showed that it was possible to break-in and seize heavily defended ground with platoon-based tactics assisted by engineering skills, and the skilled use of artillery. As Ian M Brown has argued it was a ‘not glamorous but effective’ set piece attack which became the model for future Canadian operations on the Western Front This in turn became a model for British armies through Haig’s staff’s dissemination of the lessons learnt.
Disaster at Bullecourt, April-May 1917
The lessons learnt by the Canadians were not as evident in Birdwood’s I ANZAC Corps in the operations it conducted in early 1917. The Australians failed before Bullecourt in the two attacks on 11 April and 3 May 1917. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the determination of the Fifth Army Commander General Sir Hubert Gough to push on attacks against what he thought was a retreating enemy despite growing intelligence to the contrary. Few subordinates in Fifth Army would oppose Gough’s raging zeal to press on at all costs, and Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood was certainly not one of them, and so his Australians were committed pell-mell to hastily arranged attacks against strong defensive positions with the inevitable results. The Australians blamed Gough, British flanking formations and the supporting tanks, and whilst the first is deserving of blame the others are more of an excuse to hide Australian deficiencies. I ANZAC had not changed battalion and platoon organisations to effect fire and movement within the platoon and this tactical ineptness showed in both operations.
The Battle of Messines, 7 June 1917
Godley’s II ANZAC Corps was more fortunate in being part of Plumer’s Second Army whose formations were well served by a brilliant staff under the direction of Plumer’s Major-General General Staff, Tim Harington. In 1917 Plumer’s Second Army Headquarters provided a framework of planning and operating procedures in an atmosphere that allowed both ANZAC Corps to develop into effective fighting formations. Godley’s II ANZAC Corps had the opportunity and the time to assess both the lessons from the Somme and the success of the Canadians at Vimy in the preparation for the attack on 7 June 1917 at Messines. Both Russell’s New Zealand’s Division and Monash’s newly arrived 3rd Australian Division adopted the new platoon organisations and benefited from having time to practice and rehearse these changes.
Driving all of this was Haig himself. Like Byng at Corps level, he saw the importance of poking his nose into details to a degree which in a fully professional army would have been seen as interference. On Thursday 24 May 1917 Haig was on the final day of three days of visits to the Corps in Plumer’s Second Army where he discussed in detail corps and divisional planning for the coming battle. In each Corps he followed the same pattern. Haig, with his Artillery Adviser Major-General J F N Birch, would go through the corps plans with the corps commander and his principal staff, usually the BGGS (Brigadier-General General Staff: the principal operations officer) and the CRA (Commander Royal Artillery: the artillery adviser). After that he would visit each of the divisional headquarters within the corps and repeat the process with the divisional commander and GSO1, the principal operations officer.
After discussions at Godley’s Headquarters Haig noted afterwards that, ‘Everything seemed to have been most carefully thought out.’ At the New Zealand Division he noted that Russell: ‘seems a most capable soldier with a considerable strength of character. His problem is a difficult one, but he and his officers and men are all most confident of success.’ Haig went through the divisional plan in detail and: ‘was well pleased with their arrangements but suggested Messines village should be taken in three “jumps” so as to give artillery a greater chance of producing an effect. His plan results in an awkward salient prematurely!’
I suspect that it was this discussion which formed the basis for Haig’s comments on Russell’s strength of character. Godley had given Russell a degree of latitude in solving the difficult task of securing the village of Messines, the key to the southern sector of the Messines- Wytschaete ridge. Russell assessed that once captured Messines was an obvious German artillery target as well as being an obstacle during the attack. He determined to outflank the town, committing into it only sufficient troops to winkle the opposition out of the cellars before using them themselves as shelter from the inevitable bombardment. The distinctive bulge in his divisional artillery plan reflected this approach.
A British divisional commander faced with a ‘suggestion’ from the Commander-in-Chief would normally take the suggestion as an order to be followed. Not so Russell, he argued his case and continued with his original plan, and this registered with the Commander-in-Chief. Russell’s own diary gives little indication of any debate, noting that ‘Douglas Haig came to see Divl.Hq. He looked over plans – discussed one or two details, spoke pleasantly of N.Z.ers work and departed.’
At 3rd Australian Division Haig noted. ‘The commander is general Monash. I believe an auctioneer by profession, but in my opinion a clear-headed determined commander. Every detail had been thought of. His brigadiers were equally thorough. I was much struck with their whole arrangements. Every suggestion I made was most carefully noted for consideration.’
It seems that Monash’s occupation was mistaken for that of Currie the Canadian, but that aside, Haig was struck by Monash’s attention to detail in his planning. At the end of the day, a satisfied Haig, ‘had a conference with General Plumer, his C.G.S. (Harington), and Generals Butler, Birch and Davidson…. I told him that of all the attacks which had been made under my orders, I considered the present one was the most carefully “mounted,” and that all commanders and troops were better prepared for their work than on any previous occasion.’
Plumer’s preparations and Haig’s assessment was borne out on 7 June 1917 in the attack on Messines – Wytschaete Ridge. By mid-morning the ridge, critical to the first phase of Haig’s Flanders offensive was in British hands. Haig went forward and was briefed by each Corps headquarters before visiting Plumer and congratulating him on the success. Haig noted in his diaries that the ‘operations to-day are probably the most successful I have yet undertaken.’
It was Plumer’s plan and he and his staff’s execution but in the planning and build-up, as his visits programme indicated, Haig was not a distant commander unaware of the tactical detail. Haig knew in detail what was planned and would comment, suggest changes and if necessary discuss changes in command if he believed the briefings he received showed that the commander was not up to the task. In the preparation for Messines we see a man that had given his Army commander a task, but assessed the effectiveness of the planning and constantly monitored the pulse of the preparations. His supervision of the Messines offensive showed that Haig too had learnt from the Somme.
This was consolidated by return visits to gauge performance and assess applicable lessons. On 9 June Haig visited the divisions on the Messines front. Russell at the New Zealand Division’s headquarters ‘was most interesting regarding his experience. He was holding Messines with many machine guns to great depth, all our troops being in positions around and outside the village to avoid shell fire.’ Haig also confirmed his initial impressions of Monash, ‘(evidently of Jewish descent) and by trade head of a Ferro-Concrete firm. He is a most practical and capable commander, and has done well.’
His impression of both commanders was strengthened on each subsequent visit. Haig noted after inspecting Monash’s division on 22 September that: ‘‘Every detail connected with the parade had been carefully though out before hand, hence the parade was so successful. I think Monash has a good head and commands his division well.’ The stage management of a parade was an indication of the staff work of a division and gave the Commander-in-Chief an opportunity to assess the training and spirit of the men. Monash was already aware that Haig had marked him out. On 3 August he wrote:
‘Birdwood told me the C-in-C had a very high opinion of my Division and of me personally, and had gone out of his way to express himself in terms of praise of my work. B. added that it was rare for the Chief to do this. White entirely confirmed these statements.’
Success at Messines did not blind Haig to where things had gone wrong and divisions had not performed. He noted that Major-General Holmes commanding 4th Australian Division ‘does not seem to have the same qualities of character as Russell and others.’ Haig had already received reports, by Major-General Bainbridge of the 25th British Division, highly critical of 4th Australian Division performance and complaining that ‘detachments of the 4th Australian Division have been wandering about in his vicinity as if they had “no leaders”. Haig noted in mitigation that the ‘4th Australian Division was at Bullecourt and lost many officers.’
Haig and the Canadians
Currie succeeded Byng as Canadian Corps Commander on 6 June 1917 and became at the age of 41 the first non-regular officer to command a corps in the BEF. Currie, a ‘very big, tall, heavy fat man’, was Haig’s choice and he pre-empted the Canadian Government in appointing him Corps Commander to which Canada acquiesced. Currie first demonstrated his skills at this level in the planning and conduct of the Canadian Corps attack on Lens. The purpose of the attack was to draw German attention from the next phase of the British offensive in Flanders. It was also to draw the German forces into a meat grinder battle destroying the combat effectiveness of as many of their divisions as possible to prevent them being sent north as reinforcements to Flanders. Currie’s strength of character and determination to do what was best for his corps was evident when, unhappy with the directive and the detailed instructions given to him by General Horne’s First Army, he convinced his army commander that both the objective and the method had to be changed.
Currie was a man who had to go forward and see for himself and from a careful study of the ground he demonstrated that the key feature dominating Lens was Hill 70 that had been placed outside the Canadian boundary in the First Army directive. Seizing this would leave the German’s no option but to counter-attack it in force.
His plans came in for Haig’s close scrutiny on 23 July. Haig wrote: ‘I went into the arrangements made for an attack north of Lens (Hill 70). Every detail had been gone into with the very greatest care and all seemed full of confidence, so that I came away with a feeling that the attack would be made under the best possible conditions.’ However it was also obvious that Currie did not hesitate in stating his requirements and in this showed the same strength of character as Russell before Messines. Haig tetchily noted that the Canadians had a ‘considerable number of guns had been damaged in action … and were still in the repair shops. I said I would go into the question and replace them as far as possible. But the Canadians always open their mouths very wide!’
Unlike Birdwood before Bullecourt Currie refused to be rushed and repeatedly postponed the attack until weather conditions were perfect. The critical ground was seized and as Currie anticipated the Germans counter-attacked furiously over three days, mounting 21 separate counter-attacks, each of which was destroyed by massed artillery fire backed up by machine guns and rifles. Canadian losses were heavy, 9,198 for the period 15-25 August against assessed German losses of 25,000-30,000. All the skills that had marked Canadian success at Vimy were repeated at Lens. A successful attack was mounted under a carefully planned creeping barrage whilst German artillery was suppressed with counter-battery fire, allowing infantry to fight their way onto the objective with fire and movement.
Currie got results and this was enough. Haig inspected the Canadians after an extensive period of rest and training in August and noted: ‘The experience and training of the past year has one wonders for the Canadians. Their moral is now very high, and though they have been opposed by the flower of the German army (Guards, etc.) they feel that they can beat the Germans every time.’
Passchendaele, August-November 1917
Passchendaele has gone down in history as the nadir of the British Army’s experience on the Western front. The mud and casualties of October and November 1917 has blinded us to the tantalising successes that were gained by the British armies from Messines on. One is struck by the rapid re-evaluation by Haig’s GHQ of German defensive tactics. The British Army is no mastodon stuck in its ways, but from the highest level down there is an ongoing assessment of how the Germans are reacting to evolving British tactics. Haig was the spur to this, whether it was a live-firing platoon attack demonstration in XIX Corps whose ‘main object was to show all ranks the importance of good covering fire in order to help forward an advance.’, a brigade attack practice, divisional exercises, or detailed evaluation of divisional and corps planning, his notes show an understanding of both the problems and what was needed to solve it. This was summed up by Major-General Thuillier, GOC 15th Division who remarked to Haig that he was ‘astounded at the splendid feeling amongst the troops of confidence and discipline; quite different to the state of the troops when he commanded 2nd Brigade 1½ years ago.’
Both ANZAC Corps had time to prepare and rehearse before being committed to Haig’s Passchendaele offensive. Exhausted after Bullecourt, the period between May and September was used to good effect in building up the tactical efficiency of the AIF. It was not the quality of the soldier alone that made the difference; rather it was how he was moulded into an efficient fighting team with hard training, matched by sound administration and leadership. Birdwood’s I ANZAC Corps enjoyed the opportunity to adapt platoon organisations, practice drills and conduct rehearsals to solve the practical difficulties of defeating the German defensive system, which they then demonstrated so effectively in the battles before Passchendaele. Haig noted the changes:
‘The Australians have never looked better since they came to France than they did this morning. I was greatly pleased with their bearing and evident desire of each one to do his very best to show well at my inspection. These divisions have been out of the line for three months and have benefited from the training which they have undergone.’
Working as part of Plumer’s Second Army the Australian divisions achieved a series of successes in the battles of Menin Road by 1st and 2nd Division on 20 September; 4th and 5th Divisions at Polygon Wood on 26 September; and by both I and II ANZAC Corps involving 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions as well as the New Zealanders on 4 October the only time both corps were used together, side by side, on the Western Front. Despite the image we have of Passchendaele, it saw the I and II ANZAC Corps employ in battle a level of command and tactical skills at last equal to the Canadian Corps. This was not confined to the ANZAC Corps or Canadians alone, but reflected Second Army’s level of expertise.
After detailed discussions with Army staff, corps and divisional commanders Haig wrote:
‘In every case I found the officers full of confidence as to the result of the forthcoming attack. Every detail had been gone into most thoroughly, and their troops most carefully trained… Altogether I felt it most exhilarating to go round such a very knowledgeable and confident body of leaders.’
However this growing professionalism was matched by an increased determination to group all of the Australian divisions together in an Australian Corps. Haig understood the reasons for doing it on tactical grounds, but Dominion nationalism was beyond his comprehension.
‘Mr Murdoch, an Australian, a friend of Hughes (Prime Minister), and also a newspaper man, came to see me and lunched. He expressed a wish of Australia to have their five divisions organized as “an Army!” I pointed out the impossibility of complying with this wish, but said everything would be done to keep the Australian troops together. I could not help feeling that at the back of this fellow’s mind there is a desire to be independent of the old country!’
It was an issue that refused to go away. In September Haig agreed that four of the Australian divisions would be grouped in I ANZAC with 3rd Australian and the New Zealand Division in II ANZAC being joined by two British divisions rather than rotating an Australian division through. But the demands for all five Australian Divisions to serve together continued.
‘General Birdwood with General White (BGGS) and Hawes (Head of Australian Medical Services in England) came to lunch. B is very anxious to have the five Australian divisions grouped into one corps. Tactically such an organization is not workable but I told M I would try and keep all the Australian units together so that he could supervise their units.’
This would lead to the formation of the Australian Corps in January 1918, but Haig’s always saw this as a potential counter to his tactical control and resented it. He was equally perplexed by Godley’s appointment as Commander NZEF, and this puzzlement was evident in a letter to Plumer.
‘As the New Zealanders are now all in a division under Russell I don’t know how Godley claims special command over the “New Zealand Expeditionary Force”?
The Second Army’s success on 4 October was followed by the failure of Godley’s II ANZAC in front of Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October 1917, the latter with heavy losses to Monash’s 3rd Division and the New Zealanders. Despite the skill of both divisions, lack of Corps’ coordination on the part of Godley’s staff, particularly in the coordination of engineer effort needed to bring up guns and ammunition saw both Russell and Monash divisions attack and fail against uncut belts of German wire. Godley’s Headquarters, despite his success at Messines, did not show the same evolution in staff procedures and planning that was evident in Birdwood’s I ANZAC.
Inadequate artillery preparation and planning led to infantry attacking uncut wire. The creeping barrages were equally ineffective because of insufficient coordination and drive by Corps Headquarters to see that the guns, material for platforms, and ammunition got forward. Despite the skills of both the New Zealand and Australian infantry, they could not reach the bunkers and were shot down in the wire. Russell assessed that had the wire been cut that even with limited supporting fire the attack would have been successful, but the failure of 12 October confirmed that it was the all arms cooperation of artillery and infantry working together with engineer support that allowed attacks to succeed. Infantry or artillery alone was not enough.
It was now that a reluctant Currie was ordered to attack with his Canadian Corps where Godley’s II ANZAC had failed. Currie had discussed with Byng the involvement of his Canadians in a surprise attack with massed tanks that would later be carried out at Cambrai. This was far more attractive than the mud of Passchendaele. Currie made his feelings known to Haig.
‘Every Canadian hated to go to Passchendaele… I carried my protest to the extreme limit… which I believe would have resulted in my being sent home had I been other than the Canadian Corps Commander. I pointed out what the casualties were bound to be, and was ordered to go and make the attack.’
Having been given the job, Currie got on with it. Before Passchendaele, Currie did everything that Godley had not; insisted on time for planning and preparation, coordinated the engineer effort, got his guns forward, and committed his infantry to a series of attacks which saw them seize Passchendaele, all at heavy loss.
Currie and his staff went forward into the quagmire to see the conditions for themselves. At Passchendaele Currie found that of the 360 field guns allocated only 220 were working but not all were in position. Key to the success was his demand that damaged guns be replaced and that the guns allocated, many of which were stuck in the mud, had to be got forward so that they could contribute to the fire plan for the attack. His planning took into account the conditions that both his artillery and infantry would face fighting in such a swampy desolation against a determined enemy organised in depth. It was important that the artillery creeping barrage did not run away from the infantry squelching slowly forward through the mire. In four bites on 26 October, 30 October, 6 November and 10 November, the Canadians fought their way forward against stiff resistance until they finally captured the pulverised ridge on which the village of Passchendaele once stood. The gain was a small dangerous salient poking like a finger into the German defensive line, subject to fire from all sides. This was accomplished by Currie’s Corps in two weeks at a cost of 15,643 Canadian casualties. Its seizure marked the end of the Passchendaele offensive.
Currie mounted a series of carefully coordinated attacks in impossible conditions and succeeded where II ANZAC and other corps had failed. Given the conditions Currie faced, it is hard to see how this wasteland of mud could have been more cheaply gained. As we know Currie made it clear to Haig that he did not want the task, and insisted on time and effort that Haig was initially reluctant to give. Similar demands by a British corps commander might have been overruled; but Currie by now had a professional formation, valued his men, and knew what was necessary to succeed, and would stand up to his Commander-in-Chief if he considered it necessary. It is quite clear that Currie admired Haig as a commander, but the relationship between the two men was always a prickly one, and the problem would surface again during the German offensive in March 1918.
The images of Passchendaele and its costs have blinded us to how much the British armies had progressed in combat effectiveness. This is exemplified by tactics employed by I ANZAC and the Canadian Corps, but these mirrored those used throughout the British armies. The principal difference was the advantages of homogeneity where the four divisions in each corps benefited from evolving a common corps doctrine based on directives from Haig’s GHQ.
1918 - Victory
The Russian collapse saw the balance of numbers swing in German favour. The seeming success of the March offensive has blinded us to the way in which Haig’s armies consolidated and held ground after their initial losses. They lacked the defensive skills of the Germans who had perfected them over three years, but it was now a professional hardened organisation with skilled commanders and staffs who knew how to fight their armies. It had the flexibility to adapt and after holding ground, it then advanced against a seriously weakened and exhausted German force.
In the 100 Days offensive from 8 August on, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders were at the spearhead of the British offensive, and all three at the cutting edge of tactical doctrinal development on the Western Front. Currie was the first to admit that Canadian skills were drawn both from their own experience but also from the dissemination of lessons distributed by Haig’s GHQ. ‘These documents were carefully studied and, to a large extent, inspired our training.’ Monash took those lessons with him when he assumed command of the Australian Corps in May 1918 and demonstrated them in fighting his Corps at Hamel, and in the battles of the 100 Days offensive from 8 August on. At last the Australian divisions had a man in command that knew the value of planning and preparation. Both the Australian and Canadian Corps demonstrated the value of having homogenous corps consisting of fixed divisions and gained strength from that cohesiveness. It was something that Australian commanders had always recognized, but while I ANZAC was structured with four Australian divisions in August 1917 it was not until the formation of the Australian Corps at the beginning of 1918 that all five Australian divisions were grouped together. What marked out each corps in comparative terms was sustainability of effort. The Canadians had staying power which the Australians lacked, and this also dictated relative performance. It was because of a guarantee of trained manpower that the New Zealand Division remained the outstanding division on the Western Front.
The crises of 1918 saw Haig and Currie at loggerheads over Currie’s insistence that the Canadian Divisions be regrouped under Currie’s command after the German offensive had been blocked. Currie was prepared to draw on his Government’s support to achieve this, as he had done in a skilful political battle to retain his 12-battalion divisional structure and prevent the formation of a second Canadian Corps early in 1918. This Dominion interference in what he saw as tactical matters angered Haig, and became a point of contention with Monash over the withdrawal of the Australian Corps from the line in October 1918. Despite this all three continued to feature positively in Haig’s diaries; one can see in them the qualities that he admired and as commanders exemplified what he had been striving for throughout his armies. Monash and Currie would demonstrate their skills at corps level, Russell at division. In June 1918 Russell became the only Dominion commander to be offered command of a British corps by Haig, and where his diffidence and stipulations on choice of staff amounted to a refusal. They embodied as leaders, General ‘Tim’ Harington’s, Plumer’s Second Army’s Chief of Staff’s maxims for success, ‘Trust, Training and Thoroughness’.
In 1918 the British armies in France had developed a combined arms approach based on infantry attacks on foot, supported by artillery, armour and aircraft. In terms of combined arms doctrine, its effectiveness and scale would never be equalled by British arms again. In this performance the cohesiveness of national corps made the Australians and Canadians stand out, but their performance and those of the British formations on their flanks reflected a common doctrine and a tactical skill in the offensive generally superior to the armies they faced. In 1918 the British armies in France were skilled and professional despite the exhaustion and strain of four and half years of war. This evolution and overall excellence was due in large part to the efforts of its Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig who both honed the sword and in 1918 wielded it to effect.
Dr Christopher Pugsley is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of War Studies, RMA Sandhurst. He has written extensively on New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War. His examination of comparative combat effectiveness between Dominion forces, The ANZAC Experience: New Zealand, Australia and Empire in the First World War: is being released by Reed, New Zealand in March 2004.
GERMAN CASUALTIES IN THE WAR OF 1914-1918
A COMMENT AND A PLEA
There has always been trouble with Great War casualty statistics, first as to the figures themselves and secondly as to their interpretation in the 'attrition' debate. At one time I thought of tackling the subject in detail but other problems intervened and too much irrecoverable time has passed, and so I wish merely to set out some ideas - perhaps stir a little debate - and put forward a suggestion.
On the first point, anyone who has spoken on the war to an educated 'lay' audience knows that there is an unshakeable conviction that 'millions of Englishmen' died in it: even among academic historians one can find the same belief. When asked for a rough figure for those killed their answers usually range between 1.5 and 2.5 millions, and they find it quite incredible that in round terms the answer for the British Isles should be 760,000, with a further 200,000 for the Empire. And yet the sources for British casualties are relatively easy to trace.
Even fewer know (or seem to care) about the number of French dead, that 1.35 million, and it is worth asking those who regularly tour and holiday in France whether they ever look at the local village and town memorials, and whether the lists are longer or shorter than those in places of similar size in Britain. But it is when German casualties come into discussion that the difficulties really begin. This note is therefore about German casualties and a line of research.
German casualties were a bone of contention between the British War Cabinet and the War Office even during the war. They underlay the justification or rejection of the British strategy of attrition: on 5 December 1916 Haig put British casualties (killed, wounded, missing and prisoners) on the entire Western Front for the five 'Somme' months at around 489,000 - post-war researches judged this estimate too low by about 10,000 - whereas at the close of the campaign, Charteris on 18 November 1916 had reported German losses for the Somme alone as 'at least 680,000' (Haig diary entries).
I do not intend to discuss Charteris's motivations and methodology here. I quote this contemporary comparison simply to contrast it with the case presented a decade later by the most incisive commentator on the war, a man of outstanding debating power and literary gifts whose conclusions have been generally accepted for 75 years. After considerable enquiry and communication with the German authorities responsible for recording casualties, Winston Churchill published comparative British, French and German official casualties by periods for the entire war as an appendix to The World Crisis, 1916-1918, part I (1927). They served as the justification for his chapter 'The Blood Test', which included more tables of figures and for his conclusion that 'during the whole war the Germans never lost in any phase of the fighting more than the French whom they fought, and frequently inflicted double casualties upon them . . . in all the British offensives the British casualties were never less than 3 to 2, and often
nearly double the corresponding German losses' (pp. 53-4). This was the greatest of the 'Easterners' in his verdict on 'Western' strategy.
Everyone knows that Sir James Edmonds tried to counter these arguments by various calculations adorning the British Official History, most notoriously his 'thirty percent slightly injured' factor to be added to all German casualty figures. Liddell Hart repeatedly challenged the basis of the calculations, but their final exposure was due to Dr M J Williams in RUSI Journal in 1964 and 1966. Both articles are intellectually satisfying and they must leave every reader - certainly they leave me - convinced that Edmonds's methodology is quite unsound.
But Williams deals principally with Edmonds rather than with the larger question per se, and even before the close of his working career Edmonds had become so quirky, idiosyncratic and extreme that quite a number of his opinions were being taken with a handful of salt. By the 1960s he was fairly easy game. The question of the accuracy of German casualty statistics is, however, a question slightly different from Edmonds's interpretation of them, and those who have replied to my questions that 'it is all dealt with by Williams' are, I feel, missing the point.
The safest and surest way of establishing casualties is from the nominal roll. In the case of the British forces the daily return was the starting point and by its timing it recorded a worst case position, since some of those absent or 'missing' might subsequently return from the dressing station or from no-man's-land. The names went back to Whitehall for onward communication. Throughout the war national and local papers carried casualty lists and subsequently there were two further registers, that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the massive compilation Soldiers Died and Officers Died. The regimental histories produced for the many ex-servicemen anxious to see their part commemorated in the final war in history frequently provide very detailed rolls of honour. There are also a number of tables of killed, wounded, missing and prisoners in Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire 1914-1920, published by the War Office in 1922, though these have discrepancies between them. So taken as a whole it is possible to be reasonably certain of what the burden of mortality was in the British armies and what were the number of injuries. It is as good as any historian has the right to expect of the past.
What of the German side? From quite early in the war its high command issued nominal lists of casualties , and the British and French military intelligence employed teams of specialists to study and evaluate the lists and exchange information between London and Paris. The distinguished Oxford military historian Professor Charles Oman, whose expertise with casualty returns from the Napoleonic Wars was well known, was one specialist so employed, and in 1927 he explained how the teams worked and how the German lists evolved. Initially his comments appeared in an article written in haste for The Nineteenth Century and After of May 1927, pp.694-705 (Churchill's volume came out only in March), but were revised, the text re-cast and certain figures corrected, when later reprinted (pp.40-59 and tables) - together with a number of other specialist contributions - in a book 'The World Crisis' by Winston Churchill, a Criticism (1927). Surprisingly, many people use the initial and not the final version of Oman's essay, but the figures I quote later are all from his final version.
The foundations of the casualty investigators' work were the periodically published casualty lists giving the German soldier's name, his regiment or arm, his known or estimated whereabouts; supplementary information and revisions were later made to the analysis arising from subsequent casualty bulletins. Additionally, of course, Allied returns of captured Germans enabled the teams to revise and refine the initial German figures for those posted 'missing'. The result was that, apart from the confused German summaries of August 1914 to January 1915, during the first half of the war, though with increasing intervals, the Allies possessed a reasonably detailed and accurate set of German casualty figures.
Verdun, the Somme and the great Russian offensive of 1916 changed all that. In December 1916 the Germans ceased to issue the casualty lists with any details, just haphazard lists of names, A to Z. The new lists appeared more belatedly and at longer intervals. This was certainly intended to confuse the enemy, but it may also have been to conceal the scale of the losses from the German public whose morale was already being sapped by blockade and starvation. In the final months of 1918 the whole German system of casualty statistics neared collapse.
This confusion continued into the peace and a German government office was left with the task of finding and identifying casualties, issuing periodic statements of its findings. Nothing equivalent to our comprehensive Soldiers Died was published, although for a short while memorial notices appeared in the military weekly newspaper Militär Wochenblatt (MWB) and some regimental histories printed rolls of honour . Therefore, while Mrs Smith knew at first hand the names of the men in her street who had died in the war and, because the figures were basically compiled from the bottom up, could - had she wished to find out - have established by name how many in those men's battalions had died with them and how many in the British Army, Frau Schmitt (once outside her strasse) was less well placed to do so and in most respects had to accept, without much ability to cross-check, whatever top-down post-war figure the authorities published. The German official histories provided figures by formations of divisional size and the medical histories also produced statistics but they deal in large numbers and are not always very informative.
In demolishing Edmonds Dr Williams had duly noted that Sir Charles Oman had used a different approach to German casualty figures, but he did not really pursue this observation. Yet Oman's method is interesting and becomes suggestive when placed alongside the Reichsarchiv's figures published another ten years later in Der Weltkrieg. In examining the Somme Oman relied upon his own wartime work on the periodical bulletins, the Verlustliste, up to 1 December 1916, giving figures by individual infantry division and by temporary formations (such as Liebert's provisional division) and by periods. For instance, the 1st and 2nd Guard Divisions are recorded by Oman as present '15 August to 5 September' and '20 October to 30 November' and together suffering 11,480 casualties 'incomplete', while for the first period Der Weltkrieg, vol x, App 3, entries 58 and 65, gives 5241 and 4165 respectively and vol xi, App 4, entries 155 and 156, gives for the second period 761 and 777, or a total for the two divisions of 10,944 while on the Somme. The 22nd Reserve Division, present on the Somme '1-10 July' had casualties of 3594 according to Oman, and Der Weltkrieg, vol x, App 3, entry 13, gives 3154 for this period. But as any reader of the two studies will see there are places where Oman's figures materially exceed the Reichsarchiv's, and vice versa: some of Oman's figures are followed by his note 'incomplete'. In sum, Sir Charles put German infantry losses on the Somme at 424,956 'incomplete'; the Reichsarchiv at 459,568, with a further 1724 in December. Oman went on to claim that there were ancillary units and arms which needed to be added to the infantry arm total, thus giving a Somme estimated total of 530,000; also that other sectors besides the restricted Somme frontage also entailed wastage. Into that I do not intend to go, but I think it reasonable to maintain that Oman's general approach, based on nominal rolls, has a certain validity.
It was generally admitted by the end of the 1920s that considerable numbers of men remained unaccounted for and that the records were very imperfect. There is however, another line of investigation along the lines of a nominal roll which so far as I know has not really been developed as yet. I mentioned the rolls of honour published just after the war by the MWB , and although the set in the IWM is, I think, incomplete, the weekly issues in the year following the end of fighting may yield something of value (e.g. about support or logistical units). A note in the Army Quarterly of 1932 mentions the Ehrenbuch der Feldeisenbahner, published in Berlin, giving totals of 70,000 field railwaymen as serving in the war, 14,000 of whom were killed or died on active service. A similar Roll of Honour book for the Pioneers showed that death (from all causes) befell 1874 officers, 7513 NCOs and 54,715 men. And of course there are the German regimental histories, also preserved at the IWM.
This leads us back to old Sir James Edmonds and a minor puzzle over CAB.45 records. Readers will remember his frequent footnotes which pick out snippets from these little books, e.g. the Oldenburg Infantry Regiment Nr 91's experience between St Christ and Brie in the great March 1918 offensive (see Mil Ops Fr & Belg, 1918, i, p.468). He maintained that a study of all these regimental histories (few divisional histories were ever published) would show cumulative losses for divisions well above what was officially recorded, and he said that he had a file of such material. One must assume that it was with the other Historical Section papers and must have been treasured - yet it does not appear to have survived.
The work therefore remains to be done, or done again, for what Edmonds argued was of considerable significance should it prove to be sustainable. Some casualties of Nassau Inf Rgt Nr 87 were printed in the MWB in 1933: up to 6 October 1914 it recorded 45 officer casualties and 1300 men out of a war establishment of 80 officers and 3000 men. If its other ranks had suffered over 40% casualties in under 60 days' campaigning in 1914, it is unlikely that their casualties for the entire war would have been less than their war establishment, and if every unit suffered casualties up to establishment (or beyond) then Edmonds believed the top-down totals to be seriously under-stated. It was a point that he hammered home repeatedly. The 3rd Bavarian Infantry Rgt's history listed 5320 dead (of whom 168 died from sickness) whereas the original establishment was 3306, a factor of 160%, plus 10,936 wounded. Infantry Rgt Nr 126 lost 4881 o/r killed or dead, a factor of 150% against establishment. Concerning Prince Henry of Prussia's Fusilier Rgt Nr 35 Edmonds remarked that 'a total of 22,500 men passed through the regiment during the war and that, although its fighting in battle was probably below the average, yet the incomplete list of killed and died of wounds (not from sickness) is 114 officers and 4030 other ranks, a third as much again as its original establishment'. He also emphasised that in this book produced a dozen years after the war's end was a statement that 'the fate of 2987 missing has not yet been cleared up' although it was suspected that at least 1484 of them might be dead. Obviously hope sprang eternal, but if one adds 2987 to the dead category then the cost of war to this regiment looks very grim . . .
Clearly Edmonds's thesis and his approach have to be treated with caution, for the number of infantry battalions rose as the war went on, and their establishments changed, and it would be necessary to weight the length of service and the number of actions fought. To say simply that if each of the 2608 German battalions (excluding Landsturm) were of 1000 men establishment and suffered casualties up to their establishment, there were thus 2.6 million casualties, would give birth to another of those 'factors' to which the 'thirty percent myth' was an elder brother.
That said, if a sufficient number of regimental records could be found to yield 'hard' information, then a valid statistical sample would exist for a more general assessment of the overall German casualties, and this bottom-up hard number could be used to verify or question the top-down totals which were centrally generated.
It may be less exciting than researching the use of propaganda to mislead the home population (though Edmonds believed that this was what the German authorities used their casualty figures for), or the wrongs of conscientious objectors in Britain, two topics I have found young students examining at the PRO; but the result of such a trawl of German records in the IWM and a little mathematical effort might well prove of rather greater value, for these histories are unlikely to fudge their lists and returns and it should be possible to find enough material for a statistically respectable analysis.
Will someone with patience, a grasp of German and an ability to add up, be persuaded to give up some months to the histories lodged in the IWM? He or she might do the historiography of this dreadful, contentious topic a real service, and earn a footnote in the next generation of books on that most misunderstood of wars.
MILITARY LUDDITE OR AIRPOWER ADVOCATE?
David Jordan & Gary Sheffield
In his Final Dispatch, published in 1919, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig argued that the recently concluded war ‘has given no new principles’ but new ‘mechanical devices’ had ‘introduced new problems of considerable complexity concerning the effective co-operation of the different arms and services’. ‘Much thought’, Haig contended, had to be devoted to solving this conundrum. What Haig was describing was the process by which the disparate parts of the BEF were combined into a cohesive weapons system. This was a painful and bloody process, but one which by 1918 had created a formidable fighting machine. A key element of this weapons system was the aircraft. Haig was well satisfied with the contribution to victory of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service – combined in April 1918 as the Royal Air Force. The co-operation of the ‘Air Service’ with other parts of the BEF, especially the Royal Artillery, had, he wrote, ‘been the subject of constant study and experiment, giving results of the very highest value’.
Haig’s tribute to airpower may come as a surprise to some, for his popular reputation is of a military Luddite. But even the most cursory glance at the full range of Haig’s diaries reveals this view for the caricature it is. Haig was well aware of the importance of technology, including tanks, artillery, machine guns and the subject of this essay – aircraft.
Haig’s appreciation of the significance of airpower long predated 1919. Before the war he was heavily involved in the writing of Field Service Regulations 1914, which was the closest approximation the British Army had to a doctrine. This volume contains the following words:
Aircraft are also capable of offensive action against troops on the ground by means of machine guns and bombs. When insufficient aircraft are available they can be employed for the observation of artillery fire and for inter-communication between widely separated portions of an army .
Arguably, during the war what FSR had envisioned as a secondary role – spotting for artillery – became the primary one. But this passage casts doubt on the view that before the war Haig was completely dismissive of the military value of aircraft. True, he may have been something of a sceptic. Apparently, in 1911 he announced that ‘flying can never be of any use to the army’. However, the memoirs of Major General Sir Frederick Sykes, an airpower pioneer, from which some of the most juicy quotes purporting to show Haig as an opponent of aircraft appear, are perhaps not entirely reliable on this subject.
More importantly, there is plenty of evidence from the 1914 campaign that Haig took the role of aircraft very seriously indeed. His diary makes that clear, as does a report on lessons gleaned from recent operations written at the end of 1914 by his Chief of Staff at I Corps, Brigadier-General Sir John Gough VC. Haig was an eminently practical soldier, and any doubts about the value of aircraft that he may have entertained before the war were seemingly swept away by their sheer usefulness on campaign, particularly in the reconnaissance role. Indeed, by the spring of 1915, Haig bluntly informed his artillery commanders that he would not stand for ‘early Victorian methods’ in the forthcoming battle of Neuve Chapelle. He was ‘going to use the air’ and so should they. Haig was thus one of the first military commanders to treat air operations as an integral part of his overall plan.
Perusal of Haig’s diaries, letters and dispatches offers ample evidence that his understanding of the importance of airpower was real. As early as 1914 he grasped the link between airpower and the emergence of artillery as the dominating factor on the battlefield. In his first dispatch as C-in-C, which appeared in May 1916, Haig highlighted the ‘admirable work’ of the RFC in photo-reconnaissance and ‘assisting the work of our Artillery by registering targets and locating hostile batteries’.
In addition to reconnaissance and artillery spotting, over the course of the First World War most of the modern roles of the military aircraft emerged – interdiction, close air support, strategic bombing and the struggle for air superiority. Haig deserves some of the credit for this. He was not an innovator in the field of airpower per se, but he understood its importance - the frequent comments in his diary about the state of the weather and its impact on aerial observation is eloquent testimony to this – and firmly supported what would today be described as his ‘air component commander’, which for much of the war was Hugh Trenchard.
Trenchard pursued an offensive, ‘forward’ aerial strategy that fitted in well with Haig’s own approach. Historians are divided about how successful Trenchard’s strategy was, it was, but that is not the issue here. Far from being ignorant of or opposed to airpower, Haig was a thoroughly ‘air-minded’ commander. Trenchard fully realised the debt he owed to the C-in-C, writing ‘Haig made me all I rose to in France’. He in turn showed loyalty to the memory of his mentor. At the end of his life, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Trenchard stood up for Haig when the Field Marshal’s reputation was at a low ebb.
Haig was prepared to throw his considerable influence and authority behind Trenchard in the latter’s battles with bureaucracy. This ultimately extended to stern notes to the War Cabinet from the C-in-C complaining that the supply organisation was letting his air commander down, and suggesting that if his air service was not adequately equipped, it would have serious repercussions for current and projected operations. Haig also supported Trenchard in internal battles within the BEF, for example in repelling an attempt in late 1916 by the Royal Artillery to take over some key RFC assets. As with the case of Eric Geddes in the field of transportation, once Haig had found an expert in a niche capability that he could trust, he tended to let them have their head. Haig might not have known much about the precise details of air warfare, but he gave staunch backing to the man who did.
Haig’s enthusiasm for airpower must be seen in the wider context of his overseeing of the BEF’s evolution from a small and relatively uncomplicated force to a highly complex and sophisticated army. It is of a piece with Haig’s championing of tanks and Geddes’ restructuring of the BEF’s logistics; of his recognition of the significance of the 106 graze fuse and the R.E. Signal Service, and above all, of the importance of welding these disparate parts together into a cohesive whole. Haig, far from being a military Luddite, was a forward thinking commander with a firm grasp of the importance of new technology. He deserves to be elevated to the pantheon of patron saints of airpower.
Dr David Jordan and Dr Gary Sheffield both teach in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham. Gary Sheffield was Douglas Haig fellow in 2000.
The National Museum of Scotland marked the 75th Anniversary of the deaths in 1928 of Earl Haig and Viscount Haldane by the unveiling of two plaques at the Musuem of Scottish Country Life at Kittochside on 17 April 2003. During the ceremony the following message from Professor Richard Holmes, CBE, TD was read and is reproduced with his kind permission.
I feel that it is important to remember Douglas Haig because he presided over what was unquestionably the greatest collective undertaking in British national life, this great citizen army that put well over five million men through its ranks. It included some of your fathers, perhaps, and certainly a good many of your grandfathers and great-grandfathers. There is probably not a family represented here not touched by its long shadow.
Uniquely in its history, on the Western Front the British army fought a powerful land enemy in the main theatre of a long war. It endured conditions that we can scarcely guess at with courage, obstinacy and earthy humour. It helped free a huge swathe of France and most of Belgium from what was – however politically incorrect it may be to acknowledge it now – a brutal occupation.
It attacked on the Somme earlier than its leaders wished to wrest the German grip from the French windpipe at Verdun. In the summer and autumn of 1917 it bore the main burden of the front as the French army recovered from its mutinies. Yet alone amongst the war’s chief European protagonists it was free from a large-scale mutiny.
It ascended a steep learning-curve that took it from Mons, in the blazing summer of 1914, through Loos the following year, the Somme in 1916 and Third Ypres in 1917 to emerge in the triumphant Hundred Days of 1918 as the Alliance’s most deadly instrument. Indeed, it is something of a reflection on the way we remember the war that while 1 July 1916, the first day of the First Battle of the Somme, is etched into our collective consciousness, 8 August 1918, what Ludendorff called “the black day of the German army”, when Australians, British and Canadians began to bundle it back across France, is too often forgotten.
We cannot blame the men of 1914-18 because theirs did not become a land fit for heroes to live in, nor accuse them of failing to predict the rise of Hitler. History is not like that. They did what they were asked to do, and did it with bravery and endurance. And Douglas HAIG led them with a determination and moral courage without which the Alliance might so easily have foundered, and all their brave endeavour come to naught. We should remember him for that.
A month later Magnus Linklater wrote a thought-provoking article in Scotland on Sunday which will be of great interest to members of the Douglas Haig Fellowship and is reproduced here with Mr Linklater’s kind permission.
WHY HEROISM OF A DIFFERENT NATURE
DESERVES RECOGNITION TOO
(Published in Scotland on Sunday on 18 May 2003)
It has been a week for remembering heroes.
On Wednesday, 34 holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, Britain’s highest decorations for bravery, gathered at Westminster Abbey in London to dedicate a permanent memorial to those who had demonstrated conspicuous gallantry on and off the battlefield. Among them was the most recent, Sergeant Ian Mackay of the Parachute Regiment, who charged an enemy position on his own in the Falklands, allowing his comrades to escape, but losing his life as he did so.
On the same day, in an Alpine valley, a piper played a lament for one of the most extraordinary RAF pilots of the Second World War, whose remains have only just been found. Adrian Warburton was a wing commander who became one of the most highly decorated airmen of the war.
He had carried out low-level reconnaissance from his Malta airbase - the most dangerous of all flying activities. On one mission he flew so low over a German warship that he came back with the ship’s aerial trailing from his tailwheel.
By the age of 26 he had dug a bullet out of his own chest with the tip of a commando knife, crashed a plane in the desert, and disappeared in North Africa after coming down in his Spitfire, only to reappear after his fellow pilot had given him up for lost. He was described as "absolutely fearless", larger than life, and by his boss, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, as "the most valuable pilot in the RAF".
It is easy to admire and respect courage of this kind. It reflects the best of human qualities - spirit, character, daring, selflessness. But heroism can take a different form. It may be the kind that flies in the face of popularity, that courts nothing but disdain and is even widely reviled.
Last month a memorial was unveiled to two Scots whose names are inextricably linked to the war that makes all others of the last century pale in comparison, both in terms of blood spilt and suffering caused. The First World War lasted for five terrible years, cost the lives of 750,000 British soldiers and was fought in conditions of appalling squalor - I remember a throwaway line from my father’s account of his time as a sniper in the Black Watch, when he said that more men in his battalion had drowned in the flooded shell-holes and the trenches that they took shelter in than had been killed by German gunfire.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the death of the man who commanded those soldiers - Douglas Haig - and the man who, as Secretary of State for War, helped create the army he led - Richard Burdon Haldane. Both were Scots, both died in 1928, and to commemorate their lives, two small plaques were dedicated, on April 17 at the National Museum of Scotland’s Museum of Scottish Country Life at Kittochside.
It may not be surprising that the ceremony attracted so little attention. Those men have been the subject of relentless criticism - Haldane in his lifetime was driven from office after a sustained and hostile press campaign which accused him, with no justification, of having pro-German sympathies. Field Marshal Earl Haig, adulated in his lifetime, has been transformed into a villain since his death. The conventional view today is that the war was an unforgivable waste of human life. Those who sent thousands "over the top" to almost certain death are portrayed as blinkered and unfeeling, locked in the strategies of the past, and caught up in a form of warfare that they never properly understood.
The phrase "lions led by donkeys" coined by a German general served as convenient shorthand to described their inadequacies, and was used by the late Alan Clark in a scabrous account of the war.
Haig was nevertheless a hero, albeit of a very different kind from those whose exploits won the VC. It is hard to imagine a greater test of leadership than that of raising and commanding the British Expeditionary Force during those critical years of 1916, 1917 and 1918.
Haig held the army together in the face of unbelievable conditions and appalling losses. He was responsible for everything, from intelligence to transport. He drove the enemy back at Verdun and protected the front while the French army was in disarray.
He withstood the spring offensive on the Somme and the Lys. He maintained discipline and morale through some of the worst fighting that the army had ever endured on the Somme in 1916 and Ypres in 1917. Above all, he won the ultimate victory in what General Ludendorff called "the black day of the German army". His campaign, so routinely denigrated, rescued France, Belgium and ultimately Britain from German tyranny.
In the eyes of his contemporaries his military greatness was not in doubt. The French general Marshal Foch described the offensive which won the war in 1918 in the following terms: "Never at any time in history has the British army achieved greater results in attack than this unbroken offensive, lasting 116 days from 18th of July to 11th of November."
In a tribute to Haig read out at last month’s ceremony, the historian Richard Holmes described his command of an army that put more than five million men through its ranks as "unquestionably the greatest collective undertaking in British national life".
And Haldane, who helped create it, was described by Haig himself as "the greatest Secretary of State for War that Britain has ever had".
We owe our freedom as much to men like Haig and Haldane as we do to those who stormed machine-gun posts and flew their planes at death-defying height. They deserve their place in the Scottish pantheon of heroes. It is time that history revived its view of both men, and recognised their achievements.
During the 2003 Annual General Meeting, Earl Haig raised a point of disagreement with Dan Todman’s article in Records No. 8, A Statue for Earl Haig. The Editor acknowledged that his comments required a more permanent record and apologized for any distress which might have been caused by the article.Dan Todman has also stated that he greatly regrets any offence caused and hopes that readers will have been aware that this was not the intent of the article.
The article about the statue is particularly interesting and well researched. However I might have avoided some of the hurtful comments about my mother if I had been given the chance of being consulted. I remember very well the public debates. My mother’s ‘dislike’ of Hardiman’s statue was strong and was shared by members of this club. One of the maquettes by a naturalistic sculptor who competed for the commission is on our lunch table today. My mother never minced her words. It is important to remember that though she failed to appreciate the sculptor’s conception she did help him to achieve a stronger portrait of my father and a better likeness.
The view that she was too busy writing her biography of my father to be able to address her mind to the statue is churlish. To say that her view of Duff Cooper was that he slandered my father is false. Her criticism of Duff Cooper was not that he slandered my father but that he failed to understand him and failed to give a true portrait.
The publication of Records is an important part of our work. To include in it passages about my mother which are untrue tarnishes the reputation for truth which we try to uphold in our deliberations about the Field Marshal. The same standards should apply to our depiction of his widow.
THE UNQUIET WESTERN FRONT
Britain’s Role In Literature And History
ISBN 0521809959; 128pp £17.50 Hardback
The Great War began on the Western Front. Professor Bond begins the story thus … “What resolved the government’s doubts and ended its hesitation was Germany’s brutal ultimatum demanding unimpeded passage through the whole of Belgium followed by the news, on 3 August, of the latter’s refusal and of King Albert’s appeal to King George V for diplomatic support. On the next day the German invasion began and Britain promptly entered the war.”
His short book “The Unquiet Western Front” is based on four Lees Knowles lectures delivered in Cambridge in 2000. He analyses war literature published after 1918 and before 1939 as lacking the authority of serious historical study. He goes on to add that “the 1960’s were in some respects a very unpropitious decade for the study of military history”. The words of the war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, tough hardened soldiers as they were, reflected the mind of the artist. He supports Correlli Barnetts’ criticism made in the 1960’s of the British anti-war literature which was written in the 1920’s and which undermined the publics readiness to resist Nazism in the 1930’s. In a different category John Buchan’s character constantly tempted him towards romance. He did “despite his limitations in outlook and range of resources write history as distinct from propaganda”. Churchill’s “profound interest in the study of military history enabled him to cover the ‘other side of the hill’”. Lloyd George’s memoirs “constituted a powerful indictment of the high command and of British strategy in the main war theatre”. As an unrepentant Eastener he seized every opportunity to damage the memory of his late Commander in Chief. “Both Basil Liddell Hart and Major General J F C Fuller were tremendously successful in creating a historical myth”. Liddell Hart maintained that “Germany had been defeated by the Naval blockade and internal collapse rather than by the wasteful attrition on the Western Front”. Duff Cooper’s biography of my father used extracts from his Diary avoiding however any mention of the French mutinies for fear of diplomatic damage on the eve of another war.
After the 2nd World War there was a further decline in 1st War historical accuracy with the play “Oh what a Lovely War”, Alan Clark’s “The Donkeys” and “In Flander’s Fields” by Leon Wolff. In Bond’s view discussion of military conduct of the tactical use of modern weaponry and of strategic decisions “tends to dwell obsessively on the obvious examples of failure with little appreciation of the nation’s effort during the whole 1914-18 period”. He describes the evolution of the citizens army “in sum this amateur force of citizens in uniform learnt how to conduct modern industrial warfare in unexpected seize conditions against the world’s toughest and most tactically adept enemy”.
Surprisingly there is no mention of my father’s Diary of which an edited edition by Robert Blake was published in 1953. According to John Terraine (who is given deserved praise) it was only after reading these Diaries that he began to realise the falsity of most of the accusations against my father.
Throughout his account Professor Bond maintains a neutral attitude towards the controversies. His attitude is revealed when he writes:- “Traditional critics would argue that nothing did change: the German Army was worn down by attrition, lacked the manpower resources and production capacity to make good its losses and effectively defeated itself by prolonging its final, desperate offensives in 1918. However sharply modern scholars may disagree among themselves they would unite in rejecting these explanations as unsatisfactory and incomplete. Indeed the scholarly debate has already moved on to more specialized and specific issues such as: the basic nature of the problem, the origins and steepness of the ‘learning curve’, at what level innovations were introduced and how they were implemented by high command. Was Haig little more than a spectator in the final weeks or more akin to the conductor of an orchestra?”
The case which Brian Bond has carefully built up about the nature of the learning curve would be meaningless if the Commander in Chief during all those years was considered to have been a mere spectator.
Professor Richard Holmes does not question the role of the Commander in Chief in his recent message. “We cannot blame the men of 1914-18 because theirs did not become a land fit for heroes to live in, nor accuse them of failing to predict the rise of Hitler. History is not like that. They did what they were asked to do, and did it with bravery and endurance. And Douglas Haig led them with a determination and moral courage without which the Alliance might so easily have foundered, and all their brave endeavour come to naught. We should remember him for that”.
Failure to remember means to forget that the successful battles of 1918 were the sequence of what happened before when new ideas and changes in tactics were being adopted by both sides.
The story of the Great War has been well documented, with wonderful photography and many diaries and letters. The collection of paintings in the Imperial War Museum is for all to see. The Western Front Association and the Imperial War Museum provide a resource which is beneficial to the general public and which is so important for our schools and universities.
The Editor can only offer the deepest apologies for the long-delayed appearance of the 2003 edition of Records. However, Records 2004 is almost complete and will appear in December as usual. Members will know the sad news of the death of John Terraine, one of the Fellowship’s founders and most distinguished members. Records 2004 will include tributes and an assessment of his contribution to military history. Application forms for the 2005 AGM and Luncheon, on Friday 28th January will be included.
The Editor welcomes contributions to Records. It is helpful if material for publication is submitted by e-mail attachment or on a 3½ inch floppy disc, preferably in MS Word format.
These, then, are just a few of my random reflections at the end of my year as Haig Fellow. I hope that they may have given you some additional food for thought and further debate or, at the very least, that they have not given you indigestion.