Haig: Was He a Great Captain?

by Geoffrey Miller
© Geoffrey Miller

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said,
When we met him last week on the way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card" grunted Harry to Jack,
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

The general referred to in Sassoon's searing verse was certainly not Sir Douglas Haig; nobody could have ever called him a "cheery old card" because Haig was noted for his reserved and remote manner.

However this verse does illustrate the prevailing British opinion of military leadership in the years immediately after the War. Haig always attracted controversy concerning his competence, his detractors include De Groot(1) and Winter(2), whereas his supporters include the eminent historian, John Terraine(3) and Marshall-Cornwall(4).

The purpose of this paper is to argue the case that Haig was not a great Captain. It is maintained that, no matter how well he may have performed as C.in C. of the British and Dominion forces in 1918, his plans of attack unnecessarily 'did for' hundreds of thousands of his soldiers in the great battles of the Somme and Passchendaele (Third Ypres). Any discussion on Haig's competence must, therefore, consider aspects of the management of his battles and, in particular, these two.

Haig's plans were derived from the plan that he conceived for the battle of Neuve Chappelle and he used this basic plan of battle throughout the war(5). His plans were always very painstaking, timing was meticulous and critical and as much prior intelligence as possible was obtained by aerial observation and photography, ground patrols and interrogation of prisoners. The battles always started with an artillery bombardment to destroy the German barbed wire in front of their trenches and this preceded a massed infantry attack over No Man's land on the German trenches. The bombardment, he hoped, would kill or demoralise the German front line troops with their machine guns and allow his men to cross safely to the German trenches before they were exposed to the deadly fire.

Unfortunately, his plans did not allow for those unavoidable mistakes that always occur during the confusion of battle. Specifically they failed to allow for the frequent occasions when the artillery failed to cut the barbed wire and to disable the German heavy artillery situated well to the rear, often out of range of the British guns. The result was that those hapless men who were facing uncut wire were funnelled into zones that were enfiladed by German machine guns and exposed to pre-registered shell-fire.

General Hackett wrote of the Battle of Loos(6): "...Then twelve battalions, 10,000 men, on a clear morning, in columns, advanced up a gentle slope towards the enemy's trenches. The wire behind which these lay was still unbroken. The British advance met with a storm of machine gun fire. Incredulous, ... the Germans mowed the attackers down, until, three and a half hours later, the remnants staggered away... having lost 385 officers and 7,681 men. The Germans as they watched the survivors leave, stopped firing in compassion. Their casualties at the same time had been nil."

The unavoidable delays resulting from such slaughter inevitably caused disruption to Haig's precise plans because no provision was made for them. The Germans were given time to regroup, causing the British to suffer further failure of their attacks. Significantly, Haig's usual reaction was to order them to advance again! They did so, even though this led to almost certain death. At Neuve Chappelle, a relatively small battle, the British lost nearly 17,000 casualties,(7) at the Somme they lost about 420,000.(8)

The Battle of the Somme: Haig was ultimately responsible for the planning and direction of the series of battles known collectively as the Battle of the Somme. Despite his awareness of what had gone wrong at Neuve Chappelle, and again at Loos, and the failure of these battles, Haig still repeated the same principles of attack, although on a vastly greater scale. Yet again, he made no allowance for the failure of the artillery to cut the wire and completely misjudged the capacity of the Germans to survive his artillery bombardments, despite the tremendous bombardments they were still able to fire their machine guns and cause immense carnage on his unprotected men. One important reason why the bombardments were not successful was because about one in three of the British shells failed to explode! Haig was aware of the deficiencies in his ammunition but failed to realise how seriously this affected the effects of the shelling.

The Germans had built a complex system of defence in depth, involving a strongly fortified front line with deep dugouts where the defenders could shelter, safe from all but a direct hit from a very large shell. When the barrage eventually ceased, they were able to emerge and set up machine guns before their attackers could reach them. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, The British soldiers were actually ordered to advance in line abreast into their fire!(9)

The unavoidable result was 61,816 casualties on the first day of the Somme, July the 1st, 1915.(10) and even Terraine admits that there was a great tactical blunder. (11) Yet, on the first day of the battle, Haig was quite unaware of the magnitude of the disaster; Terraine wrote: "What is difficult to grasp, from the vantage of today, is how a disaster of such proportions could fail to be instantly apparent. Yet such was the case. It is perfectly clear from Haig's Diary that he had no sense whatever, on July 1st, of the catastrophe that had befallen his army."(12). Even at the end of July 2nd, according to his diary, Haig still believed that the losses had been 40,000 in two days, instead of over 61,000 in one day.(13)

Importantly, in view of what was to happen at Passchendaele, Haig made no allowance for the weather and this deteriorated into rain on July 7th, turning the chalky battlefield into a swamp and the trenches became knee-deep in mud. Despite this, the main assault was planned for the 14th. July. There was an initial success but, because Haig had allowed himself to be persuaded by Joffre that operations should continue as a 'Battle of Attrition' to wear down the German forces, the battle then bogged down and dragged on for a further four months.

The ostensible reason for this 'Battle of Attrition' was to divert the Germans from Verdun but Brigadier General Marshall did not agree. He considered that Haig "...by self hypnosis, became convinced that the Somme was an open-sesame to final victory. He would cut the German army in two, and do it in one day. He would have the Cavalry Corps under bit and ready to charge through the shell-cratered gap and 'into the blue' as proof of his intent to crush the enemy... By February 11 his plan was tentatively set. By late April a great part of Europe knew that the British were organising the Big Push...but by then the German attack on Verdun had slackened. ...When General Fritz von Below ...reported that he sensed that a great attack was coming, Falkenhayn told him it was a wonderful hope. Having splintered his own army by throwing it against the immovable object (Verdun), Falkenhayn couldn't imagine that the enemy would be equally stupid.".(14)

Bean, the Australian historian, like Marshall, was also convinced that Haig never really intended to fight a battle of attrition and originally intended a breakthrough battle. He wrote: "A general who wears down 180,000 of the enemy by expending 400,000 men...has something to answer for(15)" and "Haig failed to break through, and, because he failed, his literary supporters have argued that it was never his main purpose; if that were true - which it is not - the most comprehensible reason for his conduct of the battle would disappear".(16)

Haig's losses now numbered hundreds of thousands but he still insisted on continuing the slaughter, despite the rain and the freezing conditions at the beginning of October. Although he was frustrated by the dreadful weather and the stubborn German defences, he still would not abandon the now useless and unwinnable conflict. The battles of the Somme did, indeed, wear down the enemy and cause them immense loss, but the British and Dominion forces, too, suffered horrendous losses, fighting under the most appalling conditions. Marshall wrote that: "...this hideous turmoil must be recorded as the most soulless battle in British annals. The Somme deteriorated into a blood purge rivalling Verdun. It was a battle not so much of attrition as of mutual destruction, and it continued until November 18." (17)

The Battle of Passchendaele: Haig had long advised attacking the Germans at the Passchendaele Ridge as, if he could break through, then the Flemish ports with their submarine bases could be captured and the Ruhr itself would be threatened. The war could even be won.. Unfortunately, the Germans, who were not stupid, were also aware of this and had fortified the area so that it was one of their most strongly defended positions. In December 1916 Ludendorff made radical changes to the policy of defence in the Western Front. His new doctrine was to withdraw as many troops as possible from the forward trenches, thus saving them from the British artillery. The forward trenches were to be supported by strong concrete pillboxes; the commanders were instructed to rely on firepower, not manpower, in order to conduct their defence. The key to the concept was the use of immediate counterattacks after the British had overrun the front lines; fresh soldiers were to be kept in reserve especially for this purpose(18). The British were aware of this change in policy from prisoners but made no allowance for it.

Geographically the Germans were very strong as they occupied the high ground of the sickle-shaped ridge that extends from the east to the northwest of Ypres, overlooking the city. The British were forced to occupy the marshy, waterlogged plain between the ridge and the city, even though this was overlooked by the Germans.

The Battle of Third Ypres was preceded by the successful Battle of Messines, this allowed the British to occupy the south eastern arm of the ridge. Before Messines, Haig had proposed that, if the attack was successful, then the vital Gheluvelt Plateau could be seized by a prompt advance of only 700 yards.(19) After the battle, Plumer wanted to wait for three days to enable his supporting artillery to be placed in position, but Haig, for inexplicable reasons according to Prior and Wilson, considered this delay excessive and ordered Gough, the commander of the 5th Army, to take over from Plumer and prepare a plan for action on the Gheluvelt plateau. Gough naturally asked for time to do this and Haig granted him this, even though this delay would be longer than that requested by Plumer. Unfortunately this unwarranted delay allowed the German forces on the plateau to be strengthened and the chance of occupying the vital plateau was lost. Prior and Wilson wrote: "So the only consequence of the commander-in-chief's determination on a hasty sequel to Messines was no action whatever."(20)

Haig had been given expert advice that the area planned for his battle was below sea level and was only prevented from flooding by a system of drainage ditches and dykes. To open the battle with an artillery bombardment would destroy these and, if it rained, as was likely, the bombardment would result in widespread flooding. Despite this advice, Haig started the battle with the bombardment. The result was that, when the inevitable rains started, the battlefield turned into a quagmire of mud, deep enough to prevent movement of guns and vehicles and in which men and animals drowned.

Initially Haig had proposed the battle to be a short intensive attack on a narrow front. He wrote to Plumer: "...That is to break through the enemy's trench system and get to open fighting with the least possible delay so as to defeat the troops immediately available before they can be reinforced."(21)

It is difficult to understand why, in view of this proposal, Haig should have insisted on continuing the battle after it had become obvious that he was not going to be able to break through; yet he ordered the battle to continue at Langemarck to the north. General Gough, whom Haig had chosen because he was the most aggressive of his Generals, actually advised Haig to cease the attack, but Haig persisted, despite horrific losses, for another three weeks until August 26th. He then changed the axis of attack from the north to the east and, when finer weather came, he ordered the assault on the Passchendaele Ridge itself. The Battle of Menin Road on September 20th. was the first of the three famous victories of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, possible only because the weather remained fine. Prior and Wilson, however, have pointed out that even the Battle of Broodseinde was only successful by chance.(22) The Germans had exhibited ill-judgement by keeping too many men in the front line and they had launched an attack on the Australians at the very moment that the Australians had launched theirs.

Unfortunately it started to rain again on the 5th. of October. Haig however, encouraged by the three successes, decided to make a further attempt to break the Germans on the Ridge. He ordered the Anzacs to take Passchendaele village on October the 9th. even though the wind and rain had now developed into a gale force storm. This order was given despite his experiences at the Somme, a year earlier, and it was given despite the fact that the wire had not been cut and that the Germans had replaced their soldiers with fresh support troops in their relatively dry pillboxes. The result was a disaster, the attack cost 7000 casualties and the Australian 3rd. Division lost 3199 lives in 24 hours.(23)

By now, the artillery was running out of ammunition and the shells were burying themselves in the liquid mud and expending themselves in a fountain of water and a cloud of steam. Yet even now Haig went on with the battle, even though the rain and bitter cold had set in. On October the 12th. Haig ordered still another attack, this was fated to fail as miserably as the others, with men struggling up to their knees and waists in the dreadful stinking mud.

It was not until November that the Canadians, under General Currie, who refused to advance until conditions had improved, were able to take the ruins of Passchendaele village. Prior and Wilson pointed out that the most that could be hoped for as a result of the capture of the Village was to place Haig's forces in a salient and they wrote: "So although the operations proposed by Currie made more sense than those which had just preceded them, their overall purpose was not sensible at all."(24)

Haig now allowed the battle to end, having incurred 275,000 casualties, of whom about 70,000 were killed, (25) for very little gain. The original objectives of the battle had not been realised.

Haig has been blamed for the deaths of a whole generation of British and Dominion young men in the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Of course the blame was not his alone, but his management of these two battles suggests, at the very least, that he was unable to learn from his previous experiences, that he was not in control of events, that he underrated his enemy and that, indeed, he was far from being a great Captain.

1. De Groot G. J., Douglas Haig 1861 - 1928, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988.
2. Winter, Denis, Haig's Command, Penguin Books, London, 1992.
3. Terraine John, Douglas Haig - the Educated Soldier, Hutchinson, London 1963.
4. Marshall-Cornwall James, Haig as Military Commander, Batsford, London 1973.
5. Johnson, J. H.., "Stalemate," Arms & Armour, London, 1995, p. 22.
6. General Sir John Hackett, The Profession of Arms, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1983, p.157.
7. Johnson, Ibid. p. 31.
8. Johnson, Ibid. p. 87.
9. Winter, Ibid. pp. 58 and 59
10. Middlebrook M. The First day of the Somme, Penguin Books, 1984 edition, p 262.
11. Terraine, Ibid p.204
12. Terraine, Ibid p.207.
13.The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919, Ed. Blake R., Eyre and Spottiswoode, London 1952, p.154.
14. Marshall S. L. A. World War 1. American Heritage Press, New York, 1964, p. 248.
15. C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 - 1918; III, p.945.
16. Bean, Ibid, p.945
17. Marshall, Ibid, p.251.
18. Paschall R., The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918. De Capo Press, New York, 1994.
19. Prior R. and Wilson T, Passchendaele: the Untold Story, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1996, p. 64.
20. Prior and Wilson, Ibid, p. 64.
21. Bean, Ibid., p 946.
22. Prior and Wilson, Ibid. p. 137.
23. Bean C. E. W. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, lV, pp. 927 and 928.
24. Prior and Wilson, Ibid, p. 137.
25. Prior and Wilson, Ibid., p. 195.

Created: 9 April 1996, 20:36:36 Last Updated: 23rd. October, 1997.