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

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.