Sunday, November 12, 2006

Time to melt down Butcher Haig and honour the real heroes…

The nightmare carnage of the First World War has often been characterised as “lions led by donkeys”. And I can’t let another Armistice Day pass by without commenting on the man seen by many as the biggest donkey of them all.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig was known by his own side as the “Butcher of the Somme”. And for good reason.

At Loos in 1915, Haig threw two entire divisions of inexperienced volunteers straight into battle as they arrived on the Western Front – with no rest, food, water and crucially little combat training. They were mown down row after row by German machine guns.

Despite his disaster at Loos, Haig was then allowed to preside over the darkest hour in the history of the British Army. On the 1st of July 1916, more than 57,000 of our soldiers were killed or seriously injured. One day. 57,000 British lives, each one a sitting target for German machine guns which Haig had proclaimed were “much overrated”.

That was just Day One. Haig kept the battle of the Somme going for another three months: 400,000 casualties for an advance of barely half a mile.

Incredibly, his command was still not removed from him. And in 1917, for his next disaster, he chose Paschendaele which saw the slaughter of another 230,000 British soldiers.

Haig was also known as the “Chateau General”. As British troops drowned in rat-invested trenches, their Commander in Chief once boasted he never got his boots wet. Instead, he dined in total luxury at a safe distance from the German guns, reportedly even having whole lambs diverted from the front and sent back for his family so they did not suffer food shortages.

AJP Taylor described the callous Haig as preferring
“an unsuccessful offensive under his own command to a successful one under someone else’s.”
Yet after he died a natural death long after the butchery he oversaw, our nation erected a bronze statue of Earl Haig on horseback which today still enjoys pride of place on Whitehall.

I’d recommend anyone in doubt about Haig’s ability to read “The Donkeys” by the late Tory MP and military historian Alan Clark. Almost 20 years ago, Alan Clark supported a campaign to have Haig torn down from Whitehall.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to replace Haig with a memorial to the ordinary Tommies who were the real heroes of the First World War.

It has even been suggested that the Haig bronze should be melted down to cast medals for the 300 British soldiers under his command who he had shot at dawn for desertion (who were this week granted official pardons).

What a pity Alan Clark died before his battle to remove Haig was won.


Anonymous said...

I am glad you have done some reading before this post Phil. Alas you have swallowed the easy interpretation of the First World War.

Very easy to criticise Haig and the commanders. How would you have won the Battle of the Somme, or at least forced the advantage that Haig did? If you had not done this, how would you have won the First World War? An attack somewhere else? How could this have been successful and how could it have saved lives?

Failing answers to these questions, I can only assume Britain would have lost the war, and Europe would have dominated by a semi-democratic and highly militaristic Germany and its semi-barmy Kaiser. How would this have helped British interests?

The truth is that terrible things happened in the First World War. But Haig simply did what he had to do to win a crucial war. That was his job, and he did it. For this he deserves to be honoured.

fairdealphil said...


Your interpretation of the First World War, ie the official one, is actually the easier to swallow.

But I'm happy to be in the same camp on this one as distinguished military historians AJP Taylor and Alan Clark MP who believed Haig was chief donkey.

You are right that terrible things happened in the First World War (as they do in every war).

But it was scale of the slaughter of the First World War that made it the war to end wars: four years of madness, massacre, mutiny and mud.

As Taylor says: "For four years, while statesmen and generals blundered, the massed armies of Europe writhed in a festival of mud and blood..."

Yes, it's easy to criticise the Generals, particularly 90 years on and in the very different times and cultures in which we live today.

I do however believe that Haig should have been removed after he had sacrificed say 100, 200, or even 300,000 British troops, rather than allow him to preside over the butchery of three quarters of a million (not to mention Axis casualties).

Haig's strategy of attrition was based on the mad theory that if slaughter of both sides continued long enough, we would be last men standing. It was surely mutually assured destruction in practice.

The politicians were just as bad. Lloyd George had no confidence in Haig and seems to have spent half the war plotting, but never quite succeeding in sidelining his Commander in Chief, even manouvering to have the French commander Nivelle assume Allied command over Haig.

What would I have done differently?

Well, for starters, maybe I would have listened more to my own Generals and intelligence chiefs who accurately predicted that some of Haig's ill-thought out battle-plans would end in disaster.

I would also have recced the front to assess whether my plan had any chance of success. Haig preferred to draw lines on a map rather than experience the impossible mud on which his next slaughter was to take place.

I would also have reinforced success, rather than failure which he seems to have done over and over, refusing to learn from his previous massacre.

And when it came to respect for my own troops, I hope I would have followed Iron Duke Wellington's example rather than the obstinate 'Chateau General' Haig's.

Yes, after eight or nine million deaths, the Germans blinked first, and the foundations were laid for the Second World War.

Yes, the Germans were militaristic and less than democratic - but then so were we Brits.

The British Empire relied on gun-boat diplomacy delivered by the greatest Navy the world had ever seen.

Germany only semi-democratic? True, but the suffragettes weren't too impressed with democracy in Britain at the time!

Who knows how different twentieth century Europe might have been if a negotiated settlement were possible two, three, or four years earlier...?

Anonymous said...

AJP Taylor and Alan Clark: a fine pair to align yourself with. Two of their highlights. I admire both, but they had shades of madness at the best of times.

Taylor wrote the defence of Hitler. Alan Clark said on Northern Ireland: "We should just arm the unionists to the teeth, and get out". Fine company there Phil.

A few facts. the scale of death in the First World War was not unique. The rates in the Franco-Prussian War were much the same, and six times as many died in the Second World War.

Actually do mention the Axis casualties. Without them we would not have won the war, and Haig is to be thanked. The policy of attrition was not Haig's idea, it was the only tactic of the time.

The battle plans weren't ill planned...they worked. I am afraid walking round a trench would have been an exercise in PR, nothing would have been gained. Better to know the big picture. Comparing the Britain of 1918 to the Kaiser's Germany demonstates a real lack of understanding.

I can't keep arguing the point with you, but ask yourself this. What would German military terms have been in 1915 or 1916?(bearing in mind their armies occupied most of France and a large chunk of Russia). I am glad you have learned more about WWI, but I recommend reading John Terraine's defence for a bit of balance.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

You want simple?

Here it is. In terms of slaughtering his own Butcher Haig was Great Britain's Stalin. And all the excuses in the world will not change this simple fact.

And just as Stalin has now been discredited in the former Soviet Union, it is high time we did the same with our own homegrown mass-murderer.

IMHO Haig's brittle bones should be dug up, placed in a container along with his gravestone and that ridiculous Whitehall statue and the lot transported to a place outside of UK territorial waters and dumped (with full military honors) into the ocean.

Butcher Haig is a stain on this land. A perfect example of an incompetent, upper-class, blue-blood twit if there has ever been one.

And I would pay my share to facilitate this action.

Stephen Thompson
(Proud Brit living in Canada)

Anonymous said...

It’s actually not entirely true that the British army of 1914-18 were ‘lions led by donkeys’. In fact this quote, attributed to the German general Ludendorf in Alan Clark’s semi-fictitious book the Donkeys was actually made up by Clark.
The truth is that the politicians, financiers and industrialists pursued the war for whatever reasons: a war that was fought using relatively new industrial methods and kit with huge national populations. The generals had to win it for them and there was no plans or previous experiences to draw on – they had to make it up as they went along.
Of course Haig has blood on his hands, but at the time there was simply no-one better to do the immense job of commanding and controlling a British army of millions.
Let’s not forget that it was the BEF that won this war, when France had mutinied, when Russia had imploded in revolution. The full weight of beating the militaristic and Euro-invading Germans fell to the citizen army of the British empire. It’s the only time in British history where the nation’s army has fought the main enemy in the main theatre of war – and we won.
The stunning victory of 1918 using tanks, aircraft, machine guns, artillery fire plans (that NATO still practice in Germany today) all meshed together with wireless communications was thanks to Haig, his generals, his staff and most of all his troops. To take a small professional army to war in 1914 where Napoleonic tactics were thought to be sound, to transform that tiny army into a huge modern fighting force in just four years against the slick and huge Imperial German army is a feat of arms that has never been equalled.
Haig was a hero in the 1920s and when he died Lloyd George and Winston Churchill stole his glory for themselves at his expense. This spin continued, and was cemented, in the 1960s & 1970s following the defeat of the US army in SE Asia.
It’s only now that people are taking a more grown up look at the Great War and realising that Haig – although no Napoleon – was no donkey either.
If you’ve ever served in the British army in the last 10 or so years you’ll recoginse that low-level infantry tactics were born out of its victories on Vimy Ridge, Arras, Menin Road, Cambrai and the battles of 1918.

Anonymous said...

Oh and Hiag did get stuck in to battle in 1914. Firstly on the retreat from Mons he ducked and dived behind eneny lines. Secondly In the first battle of Ypres he saddled up his horse and trotted up the shell-swept Menin Road telling his boss (the biggest donkey Sir John French) "there's nothing left but for me to go and die with my men"
What's the point of a commander doing this? He has to command really, the only place you can do this is in the rear - a bit like all commanders in the last 60 or so years.
Modern war is costly, there are no easy victories...

Unknown said...

As a fifth generation New Zealander, I would like to comment on Haig.

He wasn't a 'butcher', but he was a man with very little compasion for his troops.

His relatives should be ashamed to bear his name, and his statue in Whitehall should certainly be removed.