Haig and British generalship during the war

Archivist and Curator Laura Walker compares and contrasts the historical responses to Sir Douglas Haig, a controversial figure who led the Somme and Passchendaele offensives and under whose leadership the war was won.

Factors of the triumph of justice for the rights and freedom of the people

Factors of the triumph of justice for the rights and freedom of the people

An image, frequently used in publications during World War One, with portraits of prominent politicians and military figures including Sir Douglas Haig.

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Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) began his military career at Sandhurst in 1884 and served with the British Army in the Sudan campaign, in the Boer War and in India. With the outbreak of the First World War he left for France on 15 August as Commander of the 1st Corps under Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces on the Western Front. Haig became increasingly critical of French’s ability to command and in 1915 he replaced French as Commander-in-Chief. Haig was convinced that the war could only be won on the Western Front and by using tactics of ‘attrition’, which included the offensives of the Somme and Third Ypres (Passchendaele).[1] Despite the very large numbers of casualties, the war was won during Haig’s leadership, but due to his ‘Westerner’ point of view and ‘butcher’ reputation he remains a controversial figure.

The University of Birmingham, Centre for War Studies’ ‘Lions led by donkeys’ project has estimated that at least 1, 253 officers with the rank of brigadier general or above served on the Western Front during the First World War, and at least 58 of these were killed in action or died due to wounds sustained during fighting.[2] Some of the better known generals include Edmund Allenby, William Birdwood, Julian Byng, Hubert Gough, Charles Monro, Herbert Plumer, Henry Rawlinson, William Robertson and Horace Smith-Dorrien. The generals commanded an army, corps, division or brigade depending on their rank. The official and private war diaries of a lesser known general, Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston, provide an interesting insight into the daily life of a general, and they can be found online as part of the Europeana project.

Account of a journey through Germany after the Armistice from a private war diary by Major General Hunter-Weston

Private war diary of Major General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston recounting his journey through Germany in December 1918.

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Copyright: © The copyright status of HUNTER-WESTON PAPERS. Private War Diary. Vol. XIV. 8th Army Corps [VIII Corps]. After Armistice. 11 Nov.1918-April 1919 is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk if you have any information about this item.

Reappraisal in the 1920s and 1930s

During and after the end of the First World War the government commissioned or encouraged a number of works to foster opinion in favour of the war effort. These included volumes by Fortescue, Conan Doyle and Buchan that were fundamentally patriotic. This positive perception of the war did not, however, last long and the combination of the works of the war poets, memoirists, plays such as Journey’s End and novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front (despite not being necessarily anti-war), began to express a sense of futility. This feeling was reinforced by Britain’s post-war economic difficulties of declining industries, unemployment and labour unrest.

At this time memoirs, including those of Churchill and Lloyd George, as well as histories of the war by veterans such as Liddell Hart increasingly reflected the views of the ‘Easterners’, who believed that the war had been won by naval blockade and the Central Powers’ internal collapse. They argued that the British should not have committed a large army to fight on the Western Front (as opposed to the less central campaign theatres), as this was not their traditional way in warfare and had incurred needlessly high casualties.

The 1960s: ‘lions led by donkeys’

With the 50th anniversary of the First World War in the early 1960s, interest was reawakened in the study and interpretation of the conflict. This took a number of forms including The Great War television series, the theatre production Oh! What a Lovely War, and a rejuvenation of the ‘Easterner’ view with the ‘lions led by donkeys’ argument. The phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ was used to suggest that unintelligent and incompetent generals led brave soldiers into certain death. A number of historians at the time attributed the phrase to a conversation between the German generals Max Hoffman and Erich Ludendorff. There is, however, no evidence to support this claim.

One such historian was Alan Clark, who published The Donkeys in 1963 to show how, in his opinion, most generals were ‘grossly incompetent for the tasks which they had to discharge and that Haig, in particular, was an unhappy combination of ambition, obstinacy and megalomania’.[3] Another historian with a similar view was Leon Wolff, who published In Flanders Fields in 1958 about the offensive at Passchendaele. He described the battle as ‘a caricature of war…It was unfairly and brutally conducted up to the highest level’.[4] Not all historians completely agreed with this argument and although A J P Taylor stated that ‘The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesman alike’[5] he reluctantly accepted that it could only be won on the Western Front.

The revisionist view

John Terraine was a vehement ‘Westerner’ and can be seen to represent a revisionist view. He did not believe that the First World War was ‘unique’ or ‘disproportionate’ in its casualties when compared to other wars, and argued that it was a sequel to the previous European wars fought for national interests. Terraine recognised that there were capable generals including Plumer, Allenby, Byng, Rawlinson, and Munro. He was also a staunch defender of the reputation of Haig, publishing Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier in 1963. Instead of blaming the generals Terraine stressed the importance of external factors in hampering Britain’s progress in the war. These included: the relative inexperience of the British army; a lack of preparation for the war; the constraints imposed by the coalition with France; the strength of the German army, political interventions and the rapid advance in new weaponry.

The middle ground

The increased availability of private records and the release of the state papers relating to the First World War since 1967 have enabled historians to explore the middle ground between the ‘lions led by donkeys’ view and the revisionist argument. Brian Bond has argued that younger historians do not have the ‘emotional hang ups or anguish of their elders or mentors’.[6] He feels that they are less prejudiced by former experience or by literature and therefore more able to see merits in both viewpoints.

One such historian was the late Richard Holmes, who took a more balanced view of the war. He and others would recognise that the generals made mistakes but that they were also constrained by inexperience and external factors. It is very difficult to study the war without the preconceptions produced by literature, poetry, television programmes and plays. Modern historians are endeavouring to use original sources in order to discover how much the generals were to blame when compared with external factors.

Footnotes

[1] NB ‘attrition’ was a controversial term, which changed its meaning during the war. For a fuller discussion see David French, ‘The Meaning of Attrition’, The English Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 407 (Apr. 1988), pp. 385-405.

[2]The University of Birmingham, Centre for War Studies' 'Lions led by donkeys' project

[3] Alan Clark in a letter to the Daily Telegraph for 20 March 1965, quoted in Alex Danchev, ‘“Bunking” and Debunking: The Controversies of the 1960s’ in Brian Bond ed. The First World War and British Military History (Oxford University Press 1991), p.268

[4] Leon Wolff, In Flanders Fields (Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1963), pp.xiv-xv

[5] A J P Taylor, The First World War. An Illustrated History (George Rainbird Ltd, 1963), p.220

[6] Brian Bond, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in Brian Bond ed. The First World War and British Military History (Oxford University Press 1991), p.1

  • Laura Walker
  • Laura Walker is a qualified archivist and information professional. She currently works as Curator of Modern Historical Papers at the British Library. In this role she works with the Library’s 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century historical collections including documents relating to the First World War. She has been involved in selecting items from these collections for inclusion in the Europeana project.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.