The Ramblings of an Itinerant Military Historian*
The Douglas Haig Fellowship Lecture January 2007
By my calculations it is now about ten years ago that the Fellowship was first established, with the enthusiastic support of Earl Haig, who has worked so tirelessly to safeguard his father’s reputation over the almost eighty years since the latter’s death; and John Terraine, whose work on television and in his writings ensured that the debate on the Great War (and, in particular, of the role of Haig) began its long march to one of reason rather than the emotionalism that had characterised it from the years before the Second World War onwards.
When the Fellowship began we all knew that a more reasoned approach had taken firm root, at least amongst the circle of professional military historians and in particular amongst younger military historians; that is, with some notable exceptions, prejudice had given way to argument centred on an interpretation of facts or on the emergence of new evidence. But there was still an Everest to climb as regards popular perception. This was the time of Blackadder and of the campaign, by the Express, for the Field Marshal’s statue to be removed from Whitehall.
Why was there a change amongst the military historians?
I think you will now have to allow me a digression whilst I look at another area of history entirely – that is, the Tudor and early Stuart period. In my schooldays, when A Levels were, perhaps, more challenging than they are today, we had to grapple with the arguments and theories of great historians such as Pollard (even then a bit passé, as was Christopher Hill, even in his academic lifetime, which must have been depressing), Elton, Scarisbrick (a nouveau) and others. GR Elton held sway, with his sweeping views on the importance of Thomas Cromwell as the founder of a type of an early modern governmental system. Sniping away in the background was AG Dickens, with an occasional sally by Hugh Trevor Hughes, as he delved into the life of Archbishop Laud from the Stuart era. Things were changing, however; even by the time that I left school the hard graft put in by historians working in local records and the papers of the gentry (thank God for the hereditary system – where would medievalists be without the depository, for example, of the Berkeley family and the Percies, as only two examples) were producing a different perspective. What people like John Morrell, John Guy and Christopher Haigh were doing was making use of detailed local records, wills, estate records and so forth to see just how much the impression given by the state papers was reflected by what was happening on the ground in the provinces. The consequence of this work led to a rethink of many aspects of Tudor (and Stuart) historiography, much to the regret of A Level history students who had the certainties of Elton replaced with complex historiographical arguments. There was a move away from the broad brush approach and a rethinking of the understanding of the era: not necessarily a wholesale junking, but certainly a far more nuanced, sophisticated and, dare I say it, mature approach.
Back to the Great War, which does fit in with this scenario, at least from the perspective of the historian’s art. The old fifty-year rule for public records meant that, apart from certain exalted personalities and regimental historians on a more particular scale, as well as the Official Historians, the papers of the Great War were out of bounds to historians of all types. Up to this time we had to take people’s word for what was actually in the records, and of course most of the memoirs written which had such access were autobiographical and, perforce, thus not exactly objective studies and occasionally were quite polemical – a useful illustration of the latter being provided by David Lloyd George’s and Field Marshal French’s memoirs – whilst those of some of the other protagonists, taking just Hindenburg and Ludendorff as examples, were certainly not balanced. The historiography of the Great War was then overshadowed by authors who had lived through (and often had personal experience of) the Second World War, a cataclysmic event that had enormous consequences for First World War scholarship.
Then in 1964, continuing on to 1970, the relevant papers – military, diplomatic and governmental - became available. Departments of War Studies (or Peace Studies) were established or developed. The number of people engaged in higher academic studies increased, slowly at first and then dramatically. When the papers came out, much attention was focussed on the political papers and little on the details of actions and major battles; even less on statistics and the daily grind, the equivalent of those estate records and wills of an earlier age.
Oral history had also become an important source: Martin Middlebrook produced a book on the first day of the Somme (so far as I know, it has never been out of print since it came out in 1967) largely based on a substantial body of oral evidence from the participants. However, oral sources needed to carry a big caveat: Middlebrook used his sources, I think, very wisely and did not expect too much of them as carrying more than could be expected from the position that the relevant person had during the war – a sensible approach not always followed by others and certainly not by the television media in particular. Experience has taught me that TV producers generally would not gain many marks for objectivity.
What followed in the sixties and early seventies, as several historiographical essays have shown, was the publication of a number of books which seem to have been unduly influenced by contemporary events, above all the Vietnam War and by the Cuban Crisis, which made the threat of MAD seem alarmingly possible: titles such as Alan Clark’s Lions led by Donkeys preceded this phenomenon, but it gives the flavour; Norman Dixon’s, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence perhaps hit the type at close to high water mark, whilst the film Oh What a Lovely War sums the situation up nicely. What was portrayed at this time, almost without exception (though there were exceptions, most notably John Terraine, but there were others), was mindless generals, incapable of dealing with the situation, with a detestation of technology, against anything that threatened the primacy of the cavalry and whose only solution was to throw hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of men’s breasts against the reality of modern technological warfare. AJP Taylor’s Illustrated History of the First World War summed it all up nicely.
The world moved on, with the occasional blip of John Laffin’s output and Denis Winter’s work on Haig, culminating in Blackadder – which, at least, everyone with an ounce of intelligence knew was satire. In the background, however, the increasingly academically respectable art of the military historian was coming into play. Now (and here is the point of my earlier digression on the Tudors) there was a vast corpus of material available and more and more learned monographs saw the light of day, bringing up new issues and trying to move the debate on from the personality of generals (fascinating though that might be) and instead considering the performance of the British Army and the BEF in particular, this time with the benefit of detailed knowledge of a far greater range of sources (though the fruitful and significant, if rather dry, range of publications produced at Army and GHQ had been available some time before). Thus followed work on operations by historians such as Tim Travers, Prior and Wilson, Paddy Griffiths, Bidwell on Firepower, Brown on Logistics – at long last the debate moving away from the cult of personality and more on to what was actually happening technically and how the BEF was developing and adapting to the conditions.
Sociology was getting a look in at proceedings as well, bringing with it the jargon of that sphere of activity.
Useful also has been the large number of histories, often on single units, commencing with the Barnsley Pals and now encompassing a large number of battalions: Pals, service, territorial and regular (though Sir John Beyne’s book on the Cameronians was both early in the field and an outstanding piece of work). Usually the work of amateur historians, sometimes obsessive in their concern for an individual unit (or at least closely related units), these brought to life not only War Diaries but also many reminiscences hitherto untapped and made considerable use of local sources, such as newspapers. The faceless thousands were being surely but slowly transformed into men (and families) with individual histories.
Added to this outpouring, assisted by new technology in publishing, which dramatically reduced costs (alas, at the expense of almost any serious editorial work), has to be added the internet, with a seemingly limitless amount of offerings, ranging from the almost worthless to the invaluable CWGC site. A further element has been the republishing output of a number of printing houses, most notably Naval and Military Press, so that hitherto extremely rare (and maligned by some) regimental and divisional histories are now available at a moderate price. Who would have thought that the entire Official History of the Great War would be republished in the 1990s as a commercial proposition, let alone all the divisional histories of the BEF; or that a range of Great War Quarterly Army Lists would see the light of day again? Finally, most recently, Colonel Jack Sheldon has done all of us much service by producing full length works on the German army on the Somme and at Third Ypres, soon to be followed by Vimy; more about this later.
Some years ago the army records of Great War officers were, more or less, made available to the public by the PRO. For some reason the BBC decided to interview me for the Nine O’Clock News (possibly because I came gratis), wanting to know why there was such an interest in these records. My answer was that, for many people, this was the first ancestor for whom there existed a documented record, and one which could be followed up through other documentation, such as a War Diary: even though the person concerned might not be mentioned by name, it was possible to get a pretty good idea of what he was up to during the War; from there it was possible to follow his unit on the ground and through various publications; and finally it was possible to find the graves and memorials of his friends and possibly of the ancestor in question. The evidence for this is plentiful, but the most obvious may be seen in the massive increase in commemoration queries to the CWGC in the last twenty five years or so. Another marker is to be found in the foundation of the Western Front Association, whose early members fondly imagined at its foundation in 1980 that there would be no more than 300 members: there are now over 6,000.
The increasing interest in the Great War and the nature of the sources available made the War a shoe-in for the various permutations of the history curriculum that have taken place over the last twenty years or so in schools. In the same time frame there has been a huge increase in battlefield visiting (the Beaumont Hamel site now has some 150,000 visitors a year; in 1968 there were an estimated 2,000); whilst this has been across the spectrum of the population, it is particularly true of school groups. It has taken some time for this particular element to move on from seeing the war through that most unrepresentative but highly influential band of soldiers, the War Poets. I think that this was a major concern when we founded the Fellowship – that history through war poetry would ensure that a whole new generation would come at the War with a skewed opinion, despite developments in academia.
But even here the tide is beginning to turn, as more and more schools come far better prepared for such tours, often having encouraged elementary research into their own past pupils or of local men. Mind you, I have learnt to be well out of earshot whilst teachers explain what happened on 1st July 1916 at the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland site. Recently I casually glanced at the textbook now in use at Ratcliffe for the Year 9 (Third Form for most of us) group – and this is far more balanced (though far from perfect) than its equivalent of ten years ago. It even goes so far as to state that Haig was one of the chief architects of victory in 1918.
Over the last dozen years I have been working on a part-time basis for the Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs, which has the task of looking after the various national and Newfoundland memorials in France and Belgium, foremost amongst which are the sites at Vimy and Beaumont Hamel. Along with Colonel Phillip Robinson, Chairman of the Durand Group, inter alia we have the responsibility for much of the training of the three groups of Canadian Guides that come every year to assist people during their visits. When this first started, the Guides (then only at Vimy) had a script for the subway tour and nothing else. They arrived forty eight hours before taking up their duties; one day for administration and the rest to learn the script by heart, which they had to repeat more or less verbatim to the site director before being let loose on the unsuspecting public. The script was appalling, concerning itself only with the Grange Subway, and that was so bad that nowadays we produce it for the Guides towards the end of their stint so that they can have a laugh: according to that document the subway had a chapel, you will be pleased to know, whilst it connected to a much longer range of tunnels, constructed by monks in the middle ages (presumably from Mont St Eloi), who had some strange desire to tunnel their way on to Vimy Ridge. If you do not believe me, have a look at the map in Pierre Berton’s Vimy.
First we were given a day in which to train them, then two and finally we have seven days with, occasionally and if possible, evening sessions later on devoted to the contribution of the German army (a talk given by Colonel Jack Sheldon) and another on the soldiers’ daily life by Andy Robertshaw. They are even introduced to the idea that the French (let alone the British) had been engaged in operations, not unsuccessfully, in the area of the Ridge. The result is a much more balanced interpretation available to those who want to hear it and a fair number of ‘myths’ have been pretty effectively extinguished, at least on the ground. Between us we have produced new self -guided tours for the site, with good mapping and, one hopes, an objective account of events on the sites. I have rewritten great chunks of the VAC website as well.
Of course it does not stop all howlers, and Canadian ministers still have their speeches written by the Department of Foreign Affairs who never seem to consult those who might know better: thus we still regularly get the old chestnut about one tree being planted for every Canadian killed in the War (oh, that it was so – on the Vimy site there are estimated to be well over 300,000 trees); whilst one unfortunate was left wittering on about the great victory at Vichy! The website for the rededication in April has used a publication produced some years ago and repeats some of the throw-away, inaccurate phrases – e.g. the Canadians succeeded where repeated attacks by the French and British had failed (what British attacks?). But the point is that what people are hearing at a level below the academic is now happening.
Another example is the Thiepval Centre, opened a couple of years ago. Both Peter Simkins and I worked on this project, along with Michael Stedman, together providing the historical element. Whilst always a little doubtful about the centre (mainly the decision to site it at Thiepval), I have to admit that it is rather better than I had hoped and I think that the history is balanced – for starters it is not obsessed about 1st July 1916. It is another sign that changes in thinking are extending down the chain. In fact I think it also makes the In Flanders Field museum in Ypres and (perhaps more so) the Historial at Péronne look rather tired and in danger of becoming a museum of a museum. For example, the new museum at Zonnebeke Chateau seems to me to display a far better understanding of the war than its much bigger counterpart.
Richard Holmes has done his bit in various television programmes as well as with his books, which reach a wide market. Even Ian Hislop’s recent TV commentary on those Shot at Dawn was far from one-sided in its approach, from what I can gather from the reviews.
When the Fellowship was established, the first glimmerings of hope could be seen in the Time Watch programme on Haig, though reviewers in much of the press found it difficult to come to terms with the viewpoint that Douglas Haig had any redeeming qualities. Now, I think, any serious programme on the war can no longer rely on hackneyed and rather discredited simplifications – and in any case, the genre of such programmes has been significantly transformed by the plethora of TV channels. I even have hopes that Canadian media coverage will become more balanced, having spent part of last year working with a TV company producing a long Vimy based documentary to coincide with the ninetieth anniversary of the battle and the rededication of the memorial after a twenty million dollar restoration project in April. Let’s hope there is not a repeat of the weather of 9 April 1917!
Of course not everything is perfect in the garden: Professor Mosier’s book (a tome guaranteed to drive any reader with a reasonable grasp of events to the whiskey bottle: but then the title does give a clue – The Myth of the Great War – How the Germans won the Battles and the Americans the War) is an absolutely ghastly work. Although he is described as a ‘full’ professor (what is an unfull one?), I suppose we should take consolation that his speciality is English literature and not history. I see from the Great War Forum on the internet that it is (to my mind rightly) adjudged (by vote) one of the worst books ever written on the subject – Butchers and Bunglers is well up there too.
To see how far we have come, let us look at the publications of recent months: there is the welcome and much fuller edition of the Haig Diaries and, more recently, his pre-war diaries; there is now a slim volume on Haig in the Great Commanders series produced in the USA; and there is Walter Reid’s interesting, Douglas Haig, Architect of Victory. Neglected major battles are getting coverage – Loos springs to mind. There are new publications examining further down the command chain, e.g. Andy Simpson’s Directing Operations: Corps Command on the Western Front, there has been a volume given to the development of the Canadian 2nd Division, Dan Todman has written the highly readable The Great War: Myth and Memory, there is a book due on Haig’s Army, whilst Jack Sheldon has written the German Army on the Somme with the German Army at Passchendaele due shortly, which at long last gives an archivally based account of things from the German side of the wire – and, after all, they form some fifty percent of the story much of the time. Although it may use a large number of personal accounts (it will come as a surprise to many, if not us, how ghastly the Germans found the conditions on the Somme and at Third Ypres), he also is able to pass comment on how the German Army reacted to the challenges the various allied offences provided. The biggest lacunae now remains the French army and I am sure Bill Philpott and others will ensure that we are better informed about that before too long.
In short, I think the Fellowship can regard the situation today with some satisfaction. The dripping down of new work by academics, to which Professor Brian Bond referred in his writings and his earlier Douglas Haig Fellowship lecture, has taken time, but I am firmly of the opinion that the argument is beginning to take hold, that many more people are now considering the achievement of the whole army in all its aspects, as opposed to obsessing with commanders, important as they were.
The Fellowship in conjunction with the BCMH, played its part in the early years when Brian Bond and I edited ‘other men’s flowers’, the essays on Haig Seventy Years On. It is encouraging to see how many of those essays are cited in recent works and to find it on the reading lists of various university faculties, both in the UK and abroad. To say that we have done little since is, of course, objectively true if one considers the Fellowship in a narrow sense as material produced in its name: but if one considers what various members have done over the last ten years or so, I think that it has very much fulfilled its aim, which is to ensure that the Field Marshal and his Army are treated with the critical respect that their actions deserve. I do not think that even the most optimistic amongst us could have considered that the situation would change so much in the last ten years; we should not be complacent, but I think we are entitled to some quiet satisfaction that a far more rational debate has now reached public consciousness.
At long last that formidable fighting machine, the BEF of 1918, is beginning to get its due: and I suspect that no-one would have been more pleased than its Chief.
* This article appeared for the first time in November 2007 in Firestep, the magazine of the Western Front Association’s London Branch.