Douglas Haig – butcher or hero? By Rupert Colley


Douglas Haig, Britain’s First World War commander-in-chief from December 1915 to the end of the war, is remembered as the archetypal ‘donkey’ leading ‘lions’ to their death by the thousands. But, almost a century on, is this a fair judgement?

Born in Edinburgh, 19 June 1861, Douglas Haig was the eleventh son of a wealthy whiskey distiller. An expert horseman, he once represented England at polo. In 1898, he joined the forces of Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. Asked by Kitchener’s superiors in London to report back in confidence on his commander, Haig did so with relish, taking delight in criticising the unsuspecting Kitchener. In 1899, Haig served under Sir John French in Kitchener’s army during the Boer War in South Africa.

At the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914, Douglas Haig served as a deputy to John French who had become commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Haig’s actions at the Battle of Mons and the First Battle of Ypres earned him praise while, conversely, John French’s fortunes plummeted as the British failed to make any headway on the Western Front. Haig helped manoeuvre the mood-swinging French out of power and was appointed by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as French’s replacement in December 1915.

Cavalry man

A Presbyterian and firmly believing that God was on his side and therefore his decisions had to be right, Haig insisted on full frontal attacks, convinced that victory would come by military might alone. Still a cavalry man at heart, he believed the machine gun to be a ‘much over rated weapon’. It is one of the criticisms levelled at Haig – that he was adverse to new technology. The evidence is contradictory. Almost a decade after the war, Haig still believed in the use of cavalry: ‘I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.’

But Douglas Haig did champion the new ‘landship’, as the prototype tank was originally known. On 15 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Haig had insisted on their use, despite advice to wait for more testing. He got his way and the introduction of 32 tanks met with mixed results – many broke down but a few managed to penetrate German lines. Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more.

Butcher Haig?

Haig has often been criticized of being profligate of men’s lives, while many defend him stating that Haig had no other alternative. Historian, Basil Henry Liddell Hart, who fought during the war, described Haig as ‘not merely immoral but criminal’. Yet the very nature of warfare during 1914-1918 meant that offense was no match against deeply entrenched defence; the weapons of defence during the First World War were much superior to the weapons of offense. Haig was not alone – generals on all sides puzzled over this uncomfortable truth.

Haig’s tenure as c-in-c saw the horrendous losses at the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) and the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele, (July-November 1917), for which Haig earned the sobriquet the ‘butcher’. David Lloyd George, prime minister of a coalition government from December 1916, had questioned the point of launching another costly offensive at Passchendaele but Haig had got the backing of the Conservatives within the coalition and so got his way. But Haig was often under pressure of his French allies to act, bringing forward, for example, the Somme offensive by six weeks to help take the pressure off the French at the long slug that was the Battle of Verdun. The question remains however would the extra six weeks to prepare made a difference? – the answer is probably not.

While Douglas Haig is remembered for the losses at the Somme and Passchendaele, it is often forgotten that from August 1918, Haig oversaw Britain’s advance during what became known as the Hundred Days Offensive, the Allies’ great push, in partnership with the overall Allied commander, the French c-in-c, Ferdinand Foch. The offensive ultimately led to victory and the surrender of the Germans on 11 November.

A land fit for heroes

Despite having a personal rapport with the king, George V, Haig never enjoyed the confidence of Lloyd George, who was openly critical of Haig’s cavalier attitude with his men’s lives. Lloyd George, in his War Memoirs, published in 1936, accused Haig of being ‘second rate’. But by then Haig was dead and unable to defend himself.

It was Lloyd George, who during the election campaign of 1918, had promised a land ‘fit for heroes to live in’. But it was Haig who did much to help veterans. In 1921, Haig was one of the founders of the Royal British Legion, becoming its first president, a post he held until his death, and helped introduce the poppy of remembrance into Britain. He championed the rights of ex-servicemen and refused all state honours until the government improved their pensions, which duly came in August 1919. (Only then did Haig accept an earldom).

On 29 January 1928, Douglas Haig died from a heart attack brought on, according to his widow, by the strain of wartime command. He was 66.

Haig’s reticence certainly didn’t help his own cause – prone to long silences and often coming across as callous. But at war’s end, Haig was hailed as a hero, and his death saw much public grief, especially in his hometown of Edinburgh, and London, where up to a million people turned out to pay their respects.

Earl Haig Memorial‘Beastly attitudes’

Haig’s only son, Dawyck Haig, who was imprisoned in Colditz during the Second World War and who died in 2009, was a staunch defender of his father. In an interview to the BBC in June 2006, the eve of the 90th anniversary of the first day of the Somme, he said, ‘He was not a brutish man, he was a very kind, wonderful man and by God, I miss him… I believe it has now turned full circle and people appreciate his contribution. But it saddens me my three sisters have not survived to see it. They died suffering from the beastly attitudes of the public towards our father.’

In 1937, a statue of Earl Haig, the Earl Haig Memorial, was unveiled on London’s Whitehall (click on the picture to enlarge). Designed by sculptor, Alfred Frank Hardiman, and eight years in the making, it won many plaudits and prizes but unfortunately, the stance of the horse is that of one in the process of urinating.

Rupert Colley

Read about the war in World War One: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

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