Keep slogging

Andrew Bacevich

  • Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-18 edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne
    Weidenfeld, 550 pp, £25.00, March 2005, ISBN 0 297 84702 3

What is it we expect of generals who exercise high command? The answer comes reflexively: in wartime, the measure of merit is victory. Great captains win battles, campaigns, wars. In fact, however, the standard to which generals are held is far more demanding and elusive. Victory by no means guarantees them the lasting gratitude of their political masters, the plaudits of their fellow citizens, or the respect of history. Consider the fate of the senior US commanders credited with ‘winning’ several of America’s most recent military encounters.

In 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf handily dispatched the Iraqi army in what Saddam Hussein had proclaimed would be the ‘Mother of All Battles’. At the time, Operation Desert Storm appeared to be as close to flawless as any major operation in modern military history. Stormin’ Norman instantly became a national hero. He was Patton reborn: gruff, swaggering, volcanic, but above all a gifted fighter. Yet hardly had the shooting stopped than Schwarzkopf’s reputation began to deflate. Despite broad claims advanced in his end-of-hostilities Mother of All Briefings, the defeat inflicted on the Iraqi army fell well short of conclusive. Schwarzkopf’s bungling of the ceasefire negotiations had allowed the Iraqi dictator much-needed additional wiggle room, and enough of Iraq’s Republican Guard had escaped intact to enable Saddam to survive.

It soon became apparent that Schwarzkopf’s blemished victory had succeeded chiefly in deepening American military involvement in the Persian Gulf. The general retired to write his memoirs; US forces remained. Schwarzkopf might rightly claim credit for liberating tiny Kuwait, but as a consequence of his errors a protracted and far costlier conflict emerged. He turned out to be less like Patton and more like the MacArthur of November 1950 who, believing his own press clippings, had foolishly promised to have the troops home from Korea by Christmas.

As Nato’s supreme commander, Wesley Clark faced an altogether different adversary: Slobodan Milosevic, the president of what remained of Yugoslavia. Although by 1999 Clark’s nemesis posed no real threat to his neighbours, he remained committed to the goal of reconstituting an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, an ambition that imperilled the Albanians living in the province of Kosovo. Clark rode to their rescue, directing the first fully-fledged war waged by the Atlantic alliance, an aerial campaign to oust Serb security forces from Kosovo. That Nato eventually prevailed was hardly surprising. That it did so without suffering a single combat fatality was nothing less than astonishing. General Clark’s reward for this unprecedented feat was to be handed his walking papers. Assurances that all had unfolded according to plan could not conceal the fact that he had misread Serb intentions and badly underestimated Serb resolve. As an operation expected to last a handful of days stretched on for several weeks, Clark managed to alienate not only senior civilian officials back in Washington but even his military peers. Once Operation Allied Force ended, they wasted little time in settling scores: the Clinton administration almost immediately announced plans to oust Clark as supreme allied commander. In his moment of triumph, the general was invited to retire forthwith. Although he soon fired back with a blistering memoir, the damage done to his reputation was irreparable.

More recently still, General Tommy Franks engineered not one, but two seemingly momentous victories in America’s global war on terror. In 2001, Franks crushed the hapless Taliban; in 2003, he commanded the coalition that finally toppled Saddam Hussein, presiding over a lightning campaign that Franks himself has described as ‘unequalled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war’. Operation Iraqi Freedom made the general a celebrity. In addition to signing a lucrative book contract, the plain-talking Texan hit the lecture circuit and was soon gracing the cover of lifestyle magazines like Cigar Aficionado. Yet by the time his autobiography was ascending the bestseller lists, evaluations of his generalship were heading in the opposite direction. In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden remained at large, along with senior Taliban leaders. Long after Kabul had fallen, the Afghan conflict simmered on. In Iraq, the decisive outcome attributed to ‘shock and awe’ proved illusory. The march on Baghdad segued into an altogether different war that Franks had failed to anticipate and for which US forces were ill-prepared. Iraq became – and remains – a mess.

While today the general continues to prosper, offering tips on leadership to business groups at $50,000 a pop, the troops he once commanded are heading back to the Persian Gulf for a second or even a third combat tour. The likelihood of future historians including Franks in the pantheon of great battlefield commanders alongside Stonewall Jackson is essentially nil.

From his perch in Fiddlers’ Green, to which, legend says, the spirits of faithful cavalrymen retire on fulfilling their earthly duties, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig might sympathise. In a war of epic proportions, waged against a tenacious and skilful adversary, Haig delivered decisive victory. But as a guarantor of lasting personal glory, victory did not suffice.

Throughout the ordeal of 1914-18, Haig commanded large British formations on the Western Front. For most of that time, he served as the army’s commander-in-chief, designing and directing battles which, at least in scope, rank as the greatest in British military history. When the end finally came, the results appeared unambiguous: the British Empire and its allies had prevailed; Germany was a spent force, its army shattered. Haig could rightly claim that he, more than any other British political or military figure, deserved credit for the outcome.

With the Armistice in place, he returned home to receive the accolades of king and country. Elevated to a peerage, he became Earl Haig of Bemersyde. Then with almost unseemly haste, he was eased into oblivion. In the war’s aftermath, Winston Churchill wrote, Haig ‘was given no work. He did not join in the counsels of the nation; he was not invited to reorganise its army; he was not consulted upon the treaties.’ The field marshal, Churchill observed bluntly, ‘was not wanted any more’.

The swiftness with which Haig vanished from the scene reflected a preliminary assessment of his wartime performance. In short order, that assessment hardened into a fixed judgment, one that Churchill’s own writings both reflected and reinforced. Conceding of Haig’s tenure in command that ‘No one can say it did not end in victory,’ Churchill endorsed the view that the cost of that victory had been unnecessarily high. For that, he along with many other Britons held the army’s general-in-chief directly accountable.

What were Haig’s reputed shortcomings? Although conscientious and doubtless well-intentioned, he had, according to Churchill, never had an original idea. Haig lacked ‘that mysterious, visionary, often sinister genius’ possessed by great captains of ages past. He was instead ‘the head boy and prize pupil’, chock-full of lessons lifted from copybooks, but devoid of wisdom and insight. He was inflexible, unimaginative and morally inert.

Haig seemingly viewed generalship as a matter of temperament, with implacable steadfastness its defining feature. According to Churchill, his grasp of the operational art reduced to a single precept: press the attack. ‘Hurl them on and keep slogging . . . that was war.’ Like ‘a great surgeon before the days of anaesthetics’, the field marshal had performed his duties ‘entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient’.

Much as ‘Chamberlain’ later became synonymous with appeasement and naivety, so in the aftermath of 1918 ‘Haig’ became a byword for mindless slaughter and soldierly incompetence. Just as Munich came to define Chamberlain, so the Somme and Passchendaele came to define Haig. A harsh judgment? Yes, but one that Churchill along with most other observers did not consider unjust.

This widely held verdict has not prevented periodic efforts, of which Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters, 1914-18 is the latest, to refurbish the field marshal’s image. Why, after the serial cataclysms of the 20th century, Haig’s personal standing (or that of any of his military contemporaries) matters is a question that the editors of this volume do not take up. Suffice it to say that they have identified a historical wrong – a view of Haig that they consider ‘unfair and ludicrously inaccurate’ – and they are intent on setting it right.

To this end, they have chosen not to offer their own revisionist account of the war’s conduct, but to let Haig speak for himself, reprinting extensive selections from his wartime diaries along with extracts from a relative handful of letters. The result falls well short of compelling. Although reading this volume may not bear comparison to struggling across no-man’s-land, it is certainly a hard slog. More to the point, as with many of the operations that Haig planned, it comes nowhere near achieving its intended objective.

In their introduction, Gary Sheffield and John Bourne summarise the conclusions that they wish the reader to draw from the text itself. Running through the charges typically brought against Haig, they acquit him on all counts. Far from being a half-educated dilettante, he was, they write, ‘essentially, and self-consciously, a trained modern staff officer’. His abiding affection for the horse notwithstanding, he demonstrated a keen interest in hurrying into battle new technologies such as gas, the aeroplane and the tank. However much he might grouse in private over French (and later American) shortcomings, he remained throughout the war ‘a loyal and co-operative ally’. Contrary to his iceberg image – aloof, insensitive, even callous – the editors note his unfailing ‘courtesy’ towards subordinates and the endless stream of visitors intruding into his headquarters. Above all, they credit Haig with having grasped from the outset the essential nature of the struggle about to unfold. Others naively expected a short war; Haig possessed a ‘prescient belief that the war would be long and attritional’.

Overall, Sheffield and Bourne conclude, ‘there were few men more ready to go to war in 1914.’ Perhaps so. But given the quality of generalship prevailing in the various opposing armies, as revealed over the course of the next four years, this is exceedingly faint praise. Essentially, the argument on Haig’s behalf comes down to this: the war had to be fought the way it was fought. No real alternative existed. Decision had to be gained on the Western Front and nowhere else. Winning required bludgeoning the other side into submission. That, in turn, meant expending resources, not only material but also human, on a prodigious scale. As a consistent and outspoken advocate of this approach, Haig deserves to be seen as the one soldier who got it right.

Considered in retrospect, therefore, the setbacks and disappointments of 1915-17 ought to be seen in a different light. What seemed at the time to be pointless bloodletting actually formed part of what Haig subsequently called a great ‘Wearing-Out Battle’. By 1918, this wearing-out had laid the German army open to a climactic counter-offensive. Evaluated from this perspective, the editors write, even ‘the Somme was a British strategic success.’

Haig’s own contemporaneous account does not sustain this sympathetic interpretation. Rather, his diaries and letters suggest, first, that throughout his tenure in command he fervently expected the very next ‘big push’ to win the war; second, that he looked for victory not in the application of new methods but in adherence to established dogma; third, that he was devoted above all to the principle of mass, which emphasised huge quantities of artillery, and deliberately carried out infantry assaults on the widest possible front; fourth, that when this approach failed time and again, he placed the blame on others, with the French army, ever unreliable, and British politicians, ever failing to meet the army’s requirements, his preferred scapegoats.

As early as January 1915, Haig was expressing his certainty that ‘with more guns and ammunition, and more troops we are bound to break through.’ That same month he recorded a conversation with Colonel Charles à Court Repington, military correspondent of the Times, in which he said that ‘as soon as we were supplied with ample artillery ammunition of high explosive, I thought we could walk through the German lines at several places.’ In March 1915, preparing for the attack at Neuve Chapelle, he told his commanders that ‘we are embarking on a serious offensive movement with the object of breaking the German line. There is no idea of merely taking a trench here, or a trench there.’ The aim was to penetrate German defences and to exploit the breakthrough with cavalry – Haig’s diary is replete with expectations of unleashing his cavalry reserve on the German rear. ‘We cannot hope to reap the fruits of victory,’ he wrote in April 1915, ‘without a large force of mounted troops.’ And so it went on.

Haig spent much of 1915 scheming to replace the incompetent John French as commander-in-chief of the British army in France. He did this in part by suggesting to senior civilian officials that he, not French, knew how to break the deadlock. Asked by Lord Haldane in July 1915 how the war might be won, Haig explained that it was simply a matter of ‘applying the old principles to the present conditions’. ‘Engage the enemy on a wide front,’ he continued, ‘the wider the better, a hundred miles or more; then after five or six days, bring up a strong reserve of all arms to break through where the enemy has shown that he is weak! . . . It must be our objective to engage the enemy all along his line so as to induce him to throw in his reserve.’

Appointed commander-in-chief at the end of 1915, Haig conceived of the Somme offensive as the first chance to apply these methods. Although the ensuing debacle produced nothing like the intended breakthrough, he professed himself quite satisfied with the results achieved. Writing to his wife on 8 July 1916, a week into the offensive, he observed that ‘the battle is developing slowly but steadily in our favour.’ His determination unshaken despite the horrific casualties, he held firmly to the ‘hope that some decisive results may be obtained’. Two days later, he returned to this theme. ‘The battle is being fought out on lines which suit us,’ he assured his wife.

That observers back in London failed to share this optimistic assessment baffled Haig. Warned in August that politicians were ‘beginning to get a little uneasy’, he launched a scathing rebuttal. The ongoing offensive, he insisted, had already ‘shaken’ the ‘faith of Germans, of their friends, of doubting neutrals in the invincibility of Germany’. It had ‘impressed on the world . . . the fighting power of the British race’. It had depleted the ranks of the German army. ‘In another six weeks, the enemy should be hard put to it to find men!’ And all of this had been achieved at tolerable cost: ‘Our losses in July’s fighting totalled about 120,000 more than they would have, had we not attacked. They cannot be regarded as sufficient to justify any anxiety as to our ability to continue the offensive.’ Persisting in that offensive, ‘well into the autumn’, defined his aim.

As his own commentary regarding the Somme suggests, Haig was utterly unafflicted with self-doubt. His diaries are devoid of second thoughts or expressions of regret. Although he displays the prejudices common to his time and class – a distaste for Jews and Catholics, a patronising attitude toward ‘ignorant’ and ‘conceited’ colonials, antipathy towards politicians for whom ‘the real issue of the war . . . was votes, and not the destruction of the German military party’ – Haig’s defining quality appears to have been an unflinching sense of duty. Informing that commitment to duty were two fixed convictions. First, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Britain’s cause was just. ‘We have no selfish motive,’ he recorded in 1916, ‘but are fighting for the good of humanity.’ Second, he believed that preserving the Empire mandated the total defeat of Germany. He recorded his response on receiving his appointment as commander-in-chief: ‘I stated that I had only one idea: namely, to do my utmost to win the war.’ To permit anything to impede the pursuit of that one idea was sheer folly.

Armed with these convictions, Haig experienced four years of war and came away from the encounter all but unchanged. He learned nothing. Indeed, it seems fair to say that he viewed learning – which implies curiosity, openness and a willingness to consider alternative views – as subversive, as undermining the presumption that the high command knows what it is about and has things well in hand. True, he expressed an interest in tanks and planes, but he viewed these as novelties. He never considered the possibility that their use might fundamentally alter the conduct of warfare. True, too, he encouraged tactical innovations, prodding his subordinates to refine the techniques employed at division level and below. But governments don’t employ senior field commanders to emplace machine guns or plan rolling barrages. Their responsibility is to devise operations that satisfy war’s larger purposes.

Yet if Haig was hardly the first soldier of high rank to retain the outlook of a regimental officer, his apparent lack of curiosity about what he typically referred to as the ‘enemy’ was nothing short of remarkable. Apart from frequent and grotesquely premature predictions that German morale verged on collapse, he devoted remarkably little attention to what might be happening on the far side of the trenches. Enemy capabilities and weaknesses, prospective German moves and countermoves, the qualities and aims of the senior commanders he faced: for Haig, none of these held much interest.

Above all, he was utterly oblivious to the continuous and dynamic interaction of war and politics. That war aims should be considered contingent, subject to revision, was in his view anathema. When, in September 1915, the ailing French confessed his belief that ‘we ought to take the first opportunity of concluding peace otherwise England would be ruined,’ Haig would have none of it. ‘We cannot make peace till the German military party is beaten,’ he insisted. For all his inadequacies, French had grasped that total war lasting for years on end just might have a profoundly adverse impact on the nation’s overall well-being and standing in the world. Such a possibility seemingly lay beyond Haig’s understanding.

Granted, it is not the field commander’s job to re-evaluate and revise political purposes in light of changing battlefield realities. However, it most emphatically is his responsibility to see war for what it is, and help political leaders decipher its implications. At the summit of politics, at least of democratic politics, generals do not dictate. Their proper role is to educate and advise, so that responsible civilian officials just might act with prudence and foresight.

True in Haig’s day, this remains true today. Of course, to admit to such a civil-military relationship is to undermine the traditional conception of the field commander as supreme warlord who wields near-total authority, bends events to his will, and thereby saves the nation. Clinging to that tradition in his war, Haig exerted his considerable influence to forestall any reconsideration of Britain’s commitment to fight it out on the Western Front whatever the cost. So, too, in very different circumstances, Generals Schwarzkopf, Clark and Franks, each in his own way adhering to the same cult of high command, resisted ‘meddling’ by politicians and insisted on calling all the shots.

When victory, once gained, turned out to be both more costly and less decisive than advertised, the American generals, like Haig in his day, found themselves hard put to explain why. (On that score, the self-serving accounts published by the Americans contribute little apart from providing ammunition to their critics. Perhaps wisely, during his lifetime, Haig maintained a studied silence on the matter.) An honest answer would go something like this: war will always elude efforts to bring it fully under control; in its wake, it inevitably brings unanticipated and unwelcome consequences; those claiming a capacity to understand and to harness war are either charlatans or suffering from delusions. That so many generals insist on pretending otherwise may be one reason genuine great captains are few and far between.