The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army

Marshal law.

The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army
Gary Sheffield
Aurum Press, 400pp, £25

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force between 1915 and 1918, is etched on to the popular imagination as the most villainous of the generals of the First World War. One scene from the 1989 series of the television comedy Blackadder, in which the Haig character brushes toy soldiers off a model battlefield and sweeps them up in a dustpan, sums up the popular overall impression of an incompetent "donkey", consigning the soldiers to bloody and unnecessary slaughter.

Yet in the decade following the 1918 armistice and leading up to his sudden death in 1928, Haig was one of the most feted figures in Britain. During the war, "Duggy", as he was known, had been too remote a figure to inspire much affection. But as a result of his dedicated championing of the rights of veterans through his work for the Royal British Legion and the United Services Fund, Haig became the object of hero-worship. His death led to mourning on a national scale. Thousands lined the route for his state funeral in Westminster Abbey, even more than turned out for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, seven decades later. Their presence was at once a mark of respect for Haig, and a chance for the bereaved of the Great War to salute their own dead.

Haig died before common disillusionment with the war set in. Within a few years of his decease, the wave of literature condemning the war and its leaders, and the shift towards a society attracted, however fleetingly, by pacifism, ensured the beginning of disputes over his reputation which have persisted since.

The military historian Basil Liddell Hart once described Haig as a figure enfolded in a dual legend. On the one hand, he wrote, there is the conventional picture of the great commander, far-sighted, decisive and moved by duty. On the other, there is the popular caricature of a slow, obstinate and callous army man. Was there any possibility, Liddell Hart asked, of reconciling these two pictures, of discovering the real Haig who lies beneath?

Gary Sheffield's biography comes closest, in the extended line of Haig literature, to resolving Liddell Hart's dilemma. As co-editor of Haig's diary and the author of an excellent book that combats the myths surrounding the First World War, Sheffield is well placed to do so. He reassesses Haig's reputation and effectively dismisses some of the more abiding canards that have been associated with the field marshal's record as a commander.

Among the most persistent of these is the idea of Haig as technophobe, addicted to cavalry charges and dead set against using new weaponry, especially machine-guns. In fact, he embraced many devices for battle and was in the vanguard of change in recognising the value of such innovations as aerial photography. As for the way he employed cavalry, his plans were not some foolish, romantic throwback, but a sensible tactical response to exploit an initial advantage on the battlefield.

Significantly, Sheffield tries to understand the man in the context of his era. Far too often, misapprehensions about Haig have sprung from historians regarding the First World War as current affairs and the commander as our contemporary. The subject of military executions is a case in point. To 21st-century minds, it is abhorrent to execute soldiers. Haig, however, was typical of his time in believing in the deterrent value of the death penalty, and recognising it as a tool in controlling a vast citizen army in a period of total war.

On the other hand, Sheffield acknowledges that Haig was frequently too optimistic about what was attainable, and it was this optimism that prompted his worst mistakes, not least his repeated attempts to achieve a definitive breach of enemy lines in the west. Decisively, Sheffield gives him full credit for the final breakthrough when it came: the last hundred days of the war, a period of unrelenting advance by Haig's troops, which forced the Germans to capitulate.

Sheffield is less successful in elucidating Haig the man rather than Haig the commander, and there are few insights into his relationship with his wife or children. Notoriously stiff and inarticulate, he nevertheless proposed to Dorothy Vivian, lady-in-waiting to Queen Alexandra, just two days after they first met, and her connection to the court proved invaluable in the shifting military and political alliances of the war years.

In the ghastly vernacular beloved of military historians and adopted by Sheffield, Haig underwent "a personal learning process" during the First World War. This resulted in victory, though it was a victory that came at a vast cost in lives. Echoing this conclusion, an army contemporary of Haig's wrote presciently of the general in 1915, describing him as "a strong man and a good soldier. He is very determined but does not always realise the limitations of his men and has lost thousands of lives by this. But one learns war by war, and he has probably learned the lesson."

Mark Bostridge is writing a study of life in England in 1914

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold