Haig-bashing

Michael Howard

  • Haig’s Command: A Reassessment by Denis Winter
    Viking, 362 pp, £18.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 670 80255 7

The German General Staff used to divide army officers into four categories: the clever and lazy, the clever and hard-working, the stupid and lazy and the stupid and hard-working. The clever and lazy made the best generals, the clever and hard-working the best staff-officers, the stupid and lazy could be fitted in as regimental officers; but the stupid and hard-working were a positive menace and had to be got rid of as quickly as possible. Douglas Haig belonged to the fourth group.

That at least would probably be the consensus of opinion after seventy years of historical controversy which has sometimes risen to the level of a German Historikerstreich, if not of the Dreyfus Affair. With the reputation of Haig was bound up that of the entire British High Command in the First World War, if not that of the British Army itself and the governing classes from which its senior officers were largely drawn. After the Somme and Passchendaele no one could claim that all was entirely well: but once the war was over the Establishment closed ranks to defend Haig’s reputation against his detractors, and ensured that the official histories of his campaigns were uniformly laudatory. This was not easy in the face of critics as formidable as Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and Basil Liddell Hart, and by the beginning of World War Two the attempts to defend him were looking increasingly threadbare. The publication of Haig’s Diaries after the war (unkindly described by Lord Beaverbrook as committing suicide after his death) did not help his case. Nevertheless a powerful counter-attack was launched on his behalf by John Terraine, and these efforts found some support among the new school of ‘War and Society’ historians such as Professor Brian Bond and the present writer, who argued that Haig’s faults were those of the old Army as a whole, and that the problems he faced had baffled European commanders with far greater experience than himself.

Nevertheless the popular image remained that projected by Siegfried Sassoon and Oh what a lovely war: of a general who stubbornly year after year consigned scores of thousands of young soldiers to horrible deaths in pursuit of an insane strategy, using outmoded tactics under conditions he did not begin to understand. Only the most traditionally-minded, on the one hand, and the most sophisticated, on the other, found very much to say for him. Their lukewarm defence was that he was probably the best of a bad bunch.

With this judgment Denis Winter emphatically does not agree, and in Haig’s Command he launches the most devastating attack on Haig’s reputation since the publication of Lloyd George’s self-serving memoirs in the Thirties.

Much of it, admittedly, is old hat. Haig’s failure to pass his exams, his use of intrigue to gain promotion, his conveniently influential marriage all are dragged out again. To these Mr Winter adds the suggestion that, in the intensely homo-erotic atmosphere of the Edwardian Army, Haig’s remarkable good looks did him no harm with susceptible senior officers, to say nothing of such highly-placed and epicene protectors as Lords Esher and Haldane. But this does not explain away the high reputation that Haig enjoyed within the Army itself. It has to be admitted that he carried out increasingly responsible duties with a high degree of competence, and nothing cited by Mr Winter suggests that he did not enjoy the full confidence of all his associates. Mr Winter skates rapidly over the years Haig spent in the War Office as Director of Staff Duties and Director of Military Training under the eye of Lord Haldane, reshaping the British Army for Continental war. It is true that the conventional wisdom Haig brought to this task was to prove inadequate when the results of his labours were put to the test, but his performance showed that he was a great deal more than a pretty face with back-stairs influence at court. Haig was in fact a dour, hard-working, ambitious Scot, with little money and few friends, who was not too particular about the methods he used to get to the top of his profession. But he was a dedicated professional none the less, and in the pre-war Army such men were rare. One can understand why Haldane held him in such high esteem.

The gravamen of Mr Winter’s charge, however, is heavier than this. The defenders of Haig maintain that once the war began the command of the British armies in France was safer in his hands than in those of the mercurial Sir John French, whose incompetence at the Battle of Loos he was quite right to expose. Haig then presided successfully over the expansion of the British armies in France from 200,000 to over two million men. The offensives on the Somme and at Passchendaele may have been mismanaged and unduly prolonged, but Haig never lost the confidence of his subordinate commanders, and in spite of all efforts Lloyd George could find no one to replace him. In the crisis of March 1918 he kept his nerve, and selflessly subordinated himself to the supreme command of Marshal Foch. Finally, in August 1918, he launched the great attack that broke the nerve of the German Army and which was sweeping it back victoriously to its frontiers when the Armistice brought the war to an end.

Mr Winter paints a very different picture. He does so on the basis of fresh evidence, the unearthing of which is perhaps the most fascinating part of his whole story. Scholars have for long been dissatisfied with the patchy nature of the First World War records in the Public Record Office, which were clearly ruthlessly ‘weeded’ before being made available to the public. By using Australian and Canadian archives, together with a very thorough trawl through the private papers now accessible, Mr Winter has been able to fill many gaps, as well as explaining why the gaps were there and who made them. By the time he has finished, there does not seem much left to say on behalf either of the unfortunate Haig or of those who attempted to rig the record on his behalf.

There are two main areas of Mr Winter’s criticism: the nature of the armies that Haig built up, and the manner in which he used them.

In the first place, Haig, in expanding his force, ensured that this expansion took place within the framework of the old Regular Army, which, small, snobbish, unintellectual, and set in its pre-war ideas, remained intact and unadulterated by civilian talent. ‘Our experience of war,’ Haig wrote when challenged about this, ‘has shown that brilliancy in any one of the learned professions or possession of high business capacity do not in themselves constitute all the qualities necessary for a first-class officer. Indeed I venture to think that character is more important than any other quality for success as a commander in war.’ Moreover, within this cadre promotion by seniority reigned supreme: officers with the talents of Charles Harrington or Ivor Maxse emerged largely by accident. As for the millions of civilian soldiers in the ranks, Haig’s idea of training consisted largely of disciplining them to unquestioning obedience by the use of old-fashioned drill that had no relevance to battlefield requirements, and which left them quite incapable of displaying the initiative and flexibility required to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Winter quotes the official historian Cyril Falls as saying: ‘Our Army was the best disciplined and the least effective in the war.’ But more important than this, whereas the French and German armies learned from their operational experience, continually adapting their training and organisation as the war went on, the ideas of the British remained substantially unaltered. They continued to be governed by the Field Service Regulations published in 1909. It is not altogether surprising that this was regarded for the next ten years as a military bible: Haig wrote it.

It is only fair to point out (which Mr Winter does not) that these Regulations were as good as any produced at the time. Haig had soaked himself in the works of the German General Staff and studied the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War. His belief that a commander should devolve the conduct of battle on to the shoulders of his subordinates was derived from the great von Moltke. His analysis of the nature of battle as quoted by Mr Winter is taken word for word from Clausewitz. These were all the accepted ideas before 1914. Haig’s hard-working professionalism had truly made him the very model, circa 1910, of a modern major-general. But there he stuck: and he ensured that the rest of the British Army stuck with him. Whereas by 1918 the Germans had developed operational techniques that were with a little updating to serve them very well in 1939-40, Haig had learned nothing. His post-war Despatches were to justify his conduct of the war as a total vindication of the principles he had laid down in 1909. It was not indeed until 1932, five years after Haig was safely dead, that the War Office set up a committee to consider whether there were any fresh lessons to be learned from the experience of 1914-1918.

As for the overall conduct of the war, the new documentation uncovered by Mr Winter calls for a reinterpretation of virtually every battle fought on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. It is not too much to say that his work is as important to our interpretation of the First World War as the unveiling of the Ultra secret was for the second. One does, to be sure, get a little weary of Mr Winter’s monotonous Haig-bashing: was there nothing that the wretched man got right? But since the official histories were written and the documentation weeded so as to give Haig the benefit of every possible doubt, any reinterpretation is likely to be to his discredit. Mr Winter has used his new material unabashedly to produce a case for the prosecution. Someone else must go through it to see what can be said for the defence.

I have only two minor criticisms to make of this book. First, Mr Winter’s discovery of the official skulduggery that went on between the wars in order to sanitise the documents and bolster Haig’s reputation leads him to believe that the conspiracy is continuing, and that vital documents are still being deliberately withheld for the same reason. Anyone with inside experience of the Cabinet Office Historical Section will find this hard to believe. It is a tiny, understaffed, underfunded and over-worked organisation responsible only to a Cabinet Secretariat that regards it as the least of its responsibilities. Sir Robin Butler has other things to do with his time than defend the reputation of Field Marshal Haig. The likelihood is that no one has had either the time or the incentive to get round to reconsidering the classification of what are by today’s standards rather antique records. But Mr Winter has shown it is high time that they did. If necessary, the matter should be raised with the Advisory Council on Public Records.

Indeed, an independent enquiry into the official handling of all material dealing with the conduct of the First World War might be no bad idea. Secondly, Mr Winter is rightly critical of professional academics (such as myself) who have left it to him, a freelance writer, to make all these discoveries. We have to accept the impeachment. But his book would be hugely improved if it conformed with minimal standards of academic documentation. References are all too often made to collections of papers with no indication where to find the document concerned, and to books with no indication of page. Worse, many of Mr Winter’s most contentious statements are made without any authority being cited at all. His book is far too important to be allowed to suffer denigration because of this sloppy presentation, and the second edition should be as fully and as carefully documented as it deserves. It will then become the authoritative starting-point for a new era in the historiography of the First World War.