HAIG FELLOW'S ADDRESS
The following address was delivered by Professor Brian Bond, Haig Fellow 1999, at the Fifth Annual Lunch on 29 January 1999
IT IS PARTICULARLY APPROPRIATE TO EXAMINE HAIG'S role in the final months of the war, since 1998 marked not only the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, but also the 70th anniversary of the Field Marshal's death. Media coverage of Haig's achieve¬ment in the culminating weeks of the war was sur¬prisingly thin, but a remarkable diatribe in the Daily Express (on 6th November 1998) called for the demolition of his statue in Whitehall. This effusion seems to have evoked virtually no response among politicians or the public.
The final phase of the war is critical in reaching a verdict not only on Haig's strategy as Commander-in-Chief, but also on the wider issue of the British Army's 'learning curve' during that period. Here I can only touch briefly on four aspects on all of which the Field Marshal emerges with great credit. He was the first person in high authority to realise that the war could be won in 1918; he kept in close touch with his commanders and with front-line conditions; he retained a firm but more relaxed control of his Army Commanders; and he displayed moderate and humane views on the approach to the armistice and peace terms.
Tim Travers may be cited as representative of those historians who bestow praise for technological innovation and increased efficiency on corps, divisional and more junior commanders while remaining lukewarm about the influence of Haig and G.H.Q. "The war ended', Travers concludes 'not with any decisive offensive or breakthrough, but gradually through the wearing-down strategy that Haig and GHQ had applied since 1916, and through the use of ever larger amounts of traditional or semi-tradition¬al technology'.1 Denis Winter represents the out-and-out critics, though paradoxically he argues that Foch was primarily to blame for attacking prematurely in August 1918, thus ending the war before Germany was completely defeated. Haig's role in the Hundred Days was irrelevant : 'Since March 1918 Douglas Haig had merely been the tea boy to Foch's managing director'.2
A more far-fetched and preposterous analogy it would be hard to imagine.
Haig was the first to realise, in early August 1918, that Germany could be defeated that year, and this despite the pessimism (even, in some quarters, defeatism) of the British Prime Minister and War Cabinet, the CIGS and most of the Dominions lead¬ers. On 21st August, for example, Winston Church¬ill (Minister of Munitions) visited Haig at GHQ and informed the latter that supply targets would be met by June 1919. Despite Haig's warning that, if given a respite, the enemy's powers of resistance would recover, Churchill confirmed that the General Staff calculation was that the decisive phase of the war would not arrive until next July. 3
Haig realised that the enemy would collapse if subjected to all-out attacks by the Allies, but from the successful opening of the battle of Amiens (on 8th August) onwards he saw that these attacks had to be orchestrated in time and in different sectors of the front, rather than pressed continuously on one sector in face of diminishing returns. It seems clear that, under Foch's general co-ordination of the Allied armies, Haig was the principal conductor.
This relationship is clear from the outcome of a meeting between Foch and Haig at Sarcus on 15th August (mis-dated 14th by Blake) when the latter refused to persist with his current offensive because of the heavy casualties in men and tanks. According to Haig, Foch at once climbed down and said that all he wanted was advance information on British plans, but in fact the Frenchman had been insistent for the past five days that the British should capture the German bridges above Peronne regardless of casualties.4
On 1st October Haig told two of his Army Commanders (Byng and Rawlinson) that since the enemy was breaking up only continuous pressure was needed and therefore no further orders from him were necessary.5 This has widely been taken to prove that Haig abandoned his role as commander in the final weeks, but a glance at his daily longhand diary shows that the remark should not be taken literally. Diary entries on 5th, 8th and 12th October, for example, show that Haig was still firmly in control. At a con¬ference with his Army Commanders and the Cavalry Corps commander on 12th October, Haig gave Plumer detailed orders to advance north of the river Lys and press on towards Tournai with a view to iso¬lating Lille. 'Finally I explained Foch's general plan and told them how I proposed to operate with the British Army. For the moment the important thing was to complete our railway communications on the Cambrai-Le Cateau front.'
Once adequate ammunition was available 'our main advance will be made between the Scheldt and the Sambre rivers with the object of joining hands with our Second Army and cutting off the Lille salient'.6
As numerous diary entries show, Haig was unwilling to accept subordination to Foch because he was convinced that the British and Dominions' forces were playing the leading role in the final offensives. This assumption has not been seriously challenged by historians.
In what proved to be the final weeks of the war, Haig was ceaselessly active, completely rebutting popular notions of a sedentary 'chateau general' far from the action. Nearly every day he motored to the front areas and spoke to officers and soldiers of all ranks. After the conference already mentioned on 12 October, he visited 37, 42 and New Zealand divisions besides IV and V Corps. He returned to his advance headquarters in a railway car at 9.00 pm to find the Prince of Wales and General Du Cane still dining. After a typically exhausting day such as this, Haig would usually walk or ride the last few miles back to his train where living conditions were spartan. Only occasionally did he return to his more distant and more comfortable - but certainly not luxurious - headquar¬ters near Montreuil.
In addition to the obligatory ceremonial meetings with Clemenceau, Lloyd George and other VIPs, the diaries reveal Haig's lively interest in all kinds of technical developments and exercises, including tanks, cavalry training, bridging and even messenger dogs. His humane side is also evident in moments of tragic news, as in his expression of grief on hear¬ing of the death of George Black, a former ADC.
Finally, it is greatly to Haig's credit, as a humane commander with political acumen and no vindictiveness towards the enemy, that he repeatedly, but vainly, advocated moderate armistice and peace terms with Germany. On 19th October, for exam¬ple, he visited the War Office and recorded that General Sir Henry Wilson's terms for an armistice were too severe. The enemy was still resisting with determination so if terms approaching uncondition¬al surrender were demanded they would be refused and the war would continue for at least another year. He then crossed to Downing Street and advised the Prime Minister that the German Army was capable of retreating to its own frontier where it would fight 'with the courage of despair' should the national honour be threatened. Furthermore he gave his opinion that at present the French and American Armies were not capable of a serious offensive. 'The British alone might bring the enemy to his knees. But why expend more British lives - and for what?'7
His doubts about the wisdom of imposing harsh armistice terms were still in evidence when he attend¬ed a meeting of the Supreme War Council at Versailles on 1st November. By then, however, he accepted that the sudden collapse of Germany's allies meant that her own resistance could not be prolonged and that stiff terms probably could be imposed. He displayed considerable foresight and wisdom, not only in wanting to end hostilities as quickly as possible, but also in seeing the need for moderate peace terms which would secure a German government that would have a chance of reconciling the German people to defeat.8
SIR DOUGLAS HAIG'S STRATEGIC OUTLOOK DOES NOT appear to have changed radically in 1918. He continued to be optimistic that Germany's military man¬power could be worn down and her resources exhausted. Even the Russian defeat and withdrawal from the war, permitting some thirty German divisions to be transferred to the West, did not shake his belief in ultimate victory. In the crisis of March and April 1918 he may have experienced moments of pro¬found anxiety, mainly about his main Ally's morale and willingness to provide reserves to shore up his front, but he readily accepted Foch's appointment to co-ordinate the Allied armies - and their reserves. Where he had proved badly over-optimistic in pushing on for victory at great costs in 1916 and 1917, his correct perception that the enemy was nearing collapse in August 1918 merits special praise in view of the prevailing pessimism in London and Paris. In the final weeks, by contrast, he did not press for severe terms or a knock-out blow mainly because he could see that parts of the German Army were still putting up stout resistance which would inevitably stiffen in defence of their homeland.
Nor did Haig's command style change much in 1918, but he developed a more relaxed relationship with his Army Commanders, meeting them fre¬quently and giving them clear directives, but inter¬fering less in operational matters.9 In the final phase he frequently urged them to keep the cavalry con¬centrated in the forward zone ready for a break-out into the enemy's rear areas, but the opening never occurred. Haig's diaries do not suggest that he was a technical or tactical innovator himself - hardly tasks for the Commander in Chief of a huge Army -but by 1918 he was making full use of the methods and weapons available (including tanks and aircraft) and deserves much credit for the excellent all-arms co-operation displayed in and after the watershed of the battle of Amiens.
Sir Douglas Haig did not have the opportunity to be 'a Great Captain' in Napoleonic terms - condi¬tions on the Western Front ruled that out - but he commanded by far the largest Army Britain has ever put into the field and led it to what was arguably its greatest victory: not perhaps in terms of operational brilliance, but in playing the major role, especially in 1916-1918, in defeating the main forces of a great Continental Power in the principal war theatre. This colossal achievement of Haig and his Armies was widely appreciated in 1918 and perhaps in the following decade, as evidenced by the huge crowds attending his lying-in-state in harsh wintry conditions in 1928. Since then, however, Britain's military achievement, and Haig's part in it have been questioned and devalued for a variety of reasons which are very familiar to members of the Haig Fellowship. Fortunately, I need not conclude on a gloomy note because, thanks to the efforts of serious military historians - several of them present today - the achievements of Haig and the British forces in the First World War are once again receiv¬ing the understanding and appreciation which they thoroughly deserve.
1. Tim Travers, How the War Was Won (Routledge, 1992), pl45.
2. Denis Winter, Haig's Command (Viking, 1992) p 210.
3. Robert Blake (ed) The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, 1914-1919 (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952) p 324.John Hussey kindly lent me his copy of the longhand diaries for 1918, but I have referred to Blake's edition for convenience when the references I use have been included.
4. Blake, pp 323-4.
5. Blake, p 329.
6. Haig, Diary, entry for 12th October 1918.
7. Blake, pp 332-3.
8. Blake, p 339.
9. See Peter Simkins' admirable essay on 'Haig and His Army Commanders' in Brian Bond and Nigel Cave (eds) Haig: A Reappraisal 70 Years On (Pen & Sword Books, 1999).