Douglas Haig (1861-1928) was a top British military leader during World War I. A graduate of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Haig fought in the Sudan War and the South African War. Named commander of the 1st Army in 1915, he went on to become commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force and then field marshal. Known for his strategy of attrition, Haig’s offensives at the Battles of Somme and Passchendaele resulted in large numbers of casualties, though his efforts helped to wear down the German army. After the war, Haig organized the British Legion and was named an earl.
Sir Douglas Haig remains the most controversial figure in the literature of the British army in World War I. Some considered him callous, bungling, stupid, an intriguer, and a falsifier of documents. To others, he was the embodiment of the British nation during World War I, sternly following an undeviating course to victory on the Western Front. Others again have seen Haig as limited by the ideas and army structure of the late Victorian period and uncomfortable with the developing technology of World War I. The last view seems the most accurate.
Haig’s previous battle experience in the mobile, colonial wars of the Sudan and South Africa did not prepare him well for the static nature of war on the Western Front. Neither did his Staff College training in the late nineteenth century. Taken together, these combined to produce a fixed image of war in Haig’s mind. He conceived of battle as a structured, three-stage affair: first, the preparation, wearing down, and drawing in of enemy reserves; second, the rapid and decisive offensive; and third, exploitation. Essentially, Haig did not change his mind about this structure throughout World War I. He continued, therefore, to think of war as relatively simple, human-centered, dependent on morale, and requiring the determination of a commander to persist until victory.
In addition, Haig was a cavalryman, and he always optimistically anticipated breakthroughs (the decisive offensive), followed by cavalry exploitation. Hence at the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, Haig forced his army commanders to deepen their objectives, and he also wanted a short hurricane bombardment, followed by a rush through. The result was a mixed plan of lengthy bombardment and deep objectives that did not succeed. The same process occurred at Passchendaele on July 31, 1917, when Haig appointed an offensive-minded general (Sir Hubert Gough) to command, and pressed him to plan a decisive breakthrough, rather than a step-by-step advance.
Thus Haig’s major offensives at the Somme and Passchendaele commenced with artillery preparations, followed by breakthrough attempts. But these failed, and so did not produce cavalry exploitation. When the breakthroughs failed, both battles turned into protracted efforts to wear down the enemy, resulting in the costly attrition warfare of 1916 and 1917. Larger casualties were sustained on the British attacking side than on the German defensive side. Haig has been criticized for this basic strategy; however, this attrition did eventually take its toll on the German army and undoubtedly contributed to victory in 1918.
Haig has also been criticized for his ignorance of conditions at the front. His distant but powerful personality (and the possibility of dismissal) tended to intimidate liaison officers, staff officers, and senior commanders, who often told Haig what he wanted to hear. Additionally, Haig’s Staff College training decreed that a commander should set strategy and then step aside and leave tactics to subordinates. Together, these two factors detached Haig from reality at the front and from the tactical side of day-to-day action. In fact, tactics on the Western Front had swallowed strategy–thus Haig had removed himself from the changing nature of warfare on the front. This mind-set also tended to create a vacuum between Haig and his generals before major offensives, when free exchange of ideas proved difficult. Nevertheless, when Haig did intervene at the strategic level, it always led to pressure to break through rapidly, and when this failed, to unduly prolonged offensives.
As a cavalryman, Haig also did not fully appreciate that technology had become central to the conduct of warfare. This can be seen in Haig’s choice of battlefield at Passchendaele in 1917, which put his artillery at a severe disadvantage, while the terrain prevented the use of tanks. However, by late 1917 at Cambrai, and through 1918, the many experts in the technical aspects of war had really taken over the preparation of battles, so that Haig, General Headquarters, and even army generals became less relevant. Thus the August 1918 Amiens offensive was really run at a lower level and did not require the supervision of Haig, except for his usual instruction to considerably deepen the objectives of the attack. In summary, as the offensives of 1916-1918 show, Haig expected technology to adapt to his offensive plans, rather than structuring his plans to accommodate his weapons. Thus he persistently pursued objectives that were technically beyond the capabilities of his forces.
Haig’s persistence did eventually produce victory on the Western Front in 1918, when others were expecting the war to continue into 1919. Yet the question remains whether a more flexible and imaginative commander could have achieved the same results with less cost.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.