Does General Haig deserve the title 'Butcher of the Somme'?

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Does General Haig deserve the title 'Butcher of the Somme'?

Source A – A Wilkes – ‘Technologies, War and Identities’

‘Lions led by donkeys’

A German army commander once described the British army as ‘lions led by donkeys’. He admired the courage of ordinary British soldiers, but felt that many lives could have been saved had their generals performed their jobs more effectively. Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was the most senior officer in the army. He was the Commander in Chief from 1915 to 1918. He, too, has been criticised for the way he managed the war and has been nicknamed, the ‘butcher of the Somme’ after the disastrous battle of the Somme in 1916 when tens of thousands of troops died. Is this criticism fair? Were the soldiers of the British army really lions led by donkeys?

Biography of Haig


ouglas Haig was born in Edinburgh 1861, the son of John Haig, who owned the famous whisky distillery. He went to Oxford in 1880, and then the prestigious Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1883.

Haig was sent to India with his regiment in 1886 and while there worked his way through the ranks. He experienced active service in the several conflicts around the world in India, South Africa and the Middle East. He served under Lord Kitchener (the officer who appears on the famous British Army recruitment poster). When Haig became major-general he was the youngest officer of that rank in the British Army.

Haig had a distinguished career in the early stages of the First World War and his courage and leadership skills were admired by fellow soldiers during the Battles of Mons and Ypres in 1914. Haig was promoted to full general and was given command of the British Expeditionary Forces in France and Belgium. Haig was severely criticised for his conduct of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 by people (including the Prime Minister at the time Lloyd George) who claimed his military tactics misjudged.

After the war Haig became commander in chief of home forces until his retirement in 1921. Haig was given £100,000 by the British government and spent the rest of his life helping ex-servicemen through the Royal British Legion (who organize the Poppy Day Appeal every year). He was made Earl Haig in 1919 and died in 1928.

Arguments in favour of Haig

Source B – Edward Roberts – Historian and Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland, Canada 2001-2008. The Newfounlanders are a regiment from Canada.

Historical reputations come and go like the seasons, and almost as predictably.

Shakespeare described men "seeking the bubble reputation" in As You Like It. A century earlier, the French essayist Montaigne — in French, of course — marvelled at "how many valiant men have we seen survive their own reputation!"

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with the reputations of statesmen and soldiers, and nowhere more strikingly than in the way the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment viewed Douglas Haig, the man who led them during the Battle of the Somme and throughout the final years of the First World War.

Haig was a professional soldier who rose steadily through the ranks of the British Army. He commanded an army corps during the first months of the war, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) — the "Old Contemptibles" — were pushed back by the Germans through Belgium and into northern France.
He became commander-in-chief of the BEF in December 1915, when Prime Minister Asquith and Lord Kitchener, the secretary for war, fired Sir John French. David Lloyd George became prime minister a year later. He argued strenuously against Haig's strategy and tactics, but nonetheless did not replace him, and Haig commanded the British Army in Europe for the rest of the War.
A cheering crowd of 10,000 met him when he returned home in December 1918. King George V made him an Earl — a high rank in the peerage. Both Houses of Parliament thanked him formally, and voted to give him £100,000 — a very large fortune indeed in 1918.
Unequal to his task

But the tide soon turned. Winston Churchill censured Haig in the World Crisis, his history of the war. Lloyd George was even more critical in his war memoirs, describing Haig as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task" and "second-rate."

Churchill published his opinion during Haig's lifetime, but Lloyd George's account of the war was not published until 1936, 10 years after Haig's death. He told his private secretary that "he intended to blow [Haig's] ashes to smithereens," adding that "unfortunately, he could not get at [him] personally."
As the years passed, many, if not most, military historians treated Haig's leadership harshly, and condemned his conduct in the war. He was frequently called "the Butcher of the Somme."
But Lloyd George, too, had cause to recognize that an historical reputation is only a bubble. In November 1918, he was hailed throughout Britain and the Empire as "the Man who Won the War." He quickly called a general election, and was returned to office with an overwhelming majority.
His downfall was just as spectacular. By 1922, his parliamentary and political supporters had turned on him and forced him to resign as prime minister. Although he remained a Member of the House of Commons until shortly before his death in 1945, he never again held office. His political legacy was the destruction of the Liberal party that brought him to cabinet office in the first place, and his place in history was irrevocably tarnished by the failure of the Treaty of Versailles, the post-war settlement he helped to bring about.
Heralded by regiment

Newfoundlanders — and particularly the men who wore the regiment's caribou badge during the Great War — had a very different opinion of Haig. They remembered the men who attacked at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, the first day of Haig's plan for "the Big Push" on the Somme.

The Newfoundlanders were sent forward in an attack that had no hope of success and would have changed nothing even if it had succeeded. That Beaumont Hamel was a military folly does nothing to diminish the courage and gallantry with which they fought that morning. They were the men whose comrades had died at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917, when the Newfoundlanders were ordered forward in an ill-planned assault on the German front line; their losses that morning were second only to those at Beaumont Hamel.
If any group of men anywhere in the British Empire had reason to dislike or even to despise Douglas Haig, their commander-in-chief, surely it was the Newfoundlanders.

And yet they did not. The irrefutable proof came long after the end of the war, when the regiment had been stood down and its members had returned to civilian life. They staged two great ceremonial events to honour those who fought and particularly those who died.

On June 7, 1925, the Caribou Memorial at Beaumont Hamel was dedicated officially.

The regiment's soldiers, through the Great War Veterans' Association, were the driving force behind the memorials and both events. They invited Earl Haig to be the principal figure in each ceremony, and unveil each of the memorials. He did so.

The men who fought under his leadership gave the strongest possible testimony of the great esteem in which they held him. No greater tribute could ever be paid to him. And the Bennett Brewery's Haig Ale became a favourite tipple of many Newfoundlanders.

Only realistic way

History and historians have been much kinder to Haig than to Lloyd George. Indeed, for Haig, the tide has come in; most recent studies of the Somme Battle and the balance of the war on the Western Front, have endorsed his conduct of it, while still taking into account his acknowledged failings.

Peter Hart, a director at the Imperial War Museum in London, summed it up in a short sentence in his study The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (2008): "Haig's way was excruciatingly painful but it was the only realistic way at the time."

The men of the Newfoundland Regiment were right. William Philpott, another leading British military historian, concluded his Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme on the Making of the Twentieth Century (2009) by recalling that General Erich Ludendorff, the German commander-in-chief, acknowledged that the Battle of the Somme "was the military turning-point of the war."

Arguments against Haig

Source 3 – a response to the essay by Edward Roberts – author unknown
What utter nonsense! Haig was a product of his times when devotion to King and Country trumped common sense and compassion for humanity. The enemy was to be defeated at all costs.Haig was not a military tactician and as a consequence he was more than prepared to send other peoples sons to their deaths to accomplish his goals! The Newfoundland Regiment was ordered to attack by crossing open ground against well entrenched and high powered German machine guns. Regrettably, the Newfoundlanders were too naive and indoctrinated in the British system to refuse such a suicidal and immoral order. The battle of Beaumont Hamel and the senseless loss of life or the men of the Newfoundland Regiment has been romanticized and made the subject of myth in order to mitigate and justify that carnage. The men who died on July 1, 1916 were sacrificed and slain without any real reason. Any Officer who would permit his soldiers to wear a metal triangle on their back packs which reflected the suns rays and allowed the German gunners any easy target every time a wounded Newfoundlander moved was clearly incompetent! The Officers who did not have the courage to resist or refuse the order to go over the top on July 1, 1916 bore the responsibility for the senseless massacre of their men in a futile, ill conceived and useless attack against dug in and heavily armed German resistance. Many questions about the battle of July 1, 1916 have been ignored and gone unanswered in favor of covering up the stupidity displayed by the Officers of the Newfoundland Regiment and the British Army on July 1, 1916 and throughout the battle of the Somme. Without a doubt, considering the number of British and Newfoundland soldiers who were needlessly killed as a result of his orders General Haig was deserving of his nickname "Butcher Haig"!

Source 4 Arguments in defence (favour)of Haig

Dr Gary Sheffield is Senior Lecturer in the War Studies Group at King's College London, and Land Warfare Historian at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham.

Douglas Haig was 'brilliant to the top of his Army boots'. David Lloyd George's view sums up the attitude of many people towards Haig and other British generals of World War One. They were, supposedly, 'donkeys': moustachioed incompetents who sent the 'lions' of the Poor Bloody Infantry to their deaths in futile battles. Many popular books, films and television programmes echo this belief. The casualty list - one million British Empire dead - and the bloody stalemate of the Western Front seem to add credence to this version of events. But there is another interpretation:

...Haig's army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918.

One undeniable fact is that Britain and its allies, not Germany, won the First World War. Moreover, Haig's army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 'Hundred Days' campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

Even the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917), battles that have become by-words for murderous futility, not only had sensible strategic rationales but qualified as British strategic successes, not least in the amount of attritional ( wearing down) damage they inflicted on the Germans. No one denies that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had a bloody learning curve, or that generals made mistakes that had catastrophic consequences. However, before dismissing the generals as mere incompetent buffoons, we must establish the context.

The context of WW1

Waiting for 'zero hour', the Somme  ©

From 1915 to 1918 the BEF learned, in the hardest possible way, how to fight a modern high-intensity war against an extremely tough opponent. Before 1914, the British army had been primarily a colonial police force, small but efficient. By 1916………it was a citizen army rather than a professional force………..

What was extraordinary was that, despite this unpromising beginning, by 1918 this army of bank clerks and shop assistants, businessmen and miners should have emerged as a formidable fighting force.

Arguments in favour of Haig

Sitting back and letting Britain's principal ally's army be mauled was simply not an option for Haig.

The Somme : An inescapable fact of life for Haig and his predecessor as commander-in-chief, Sir John French, was that Britain was the junior partner in a coalition with France. Naturally, the French tended to call the shots, even though the British C-in-C was an independent commander. Thus in July 1916 Haig fought on the Somme largely at the behest of the French, although he would have preferred to attack, somewhat later, in the Ypres salient where there were more important strategic objectives. At this time the French army was under heavy pressure from German attacks at Verdun. This reality of coalition warfare also helps to explain why Haig never contemplated halting the Battle of the Somme after the disastrous first day.

The one real achievement of the Anglo-French armies on 1 July 1916 was to relieve pressure on Verdun, as the Germans rushed troops and guns north to the Somme to counter the new threat. If Haig had called off the offensive on 2 July, he would have thrown away this advantage. Sitting back and letting Britain's principal ally's army be mauled was simply not an option for Haig. The alliance between France and Britain was always a somewhat uneasy one. Lack of co-operation, let alone British inaction in 1916, might well have caused the coalition to fall apart.
Techniques and strategies

A Mark 1 tank in action, 1916  ©

In 1914-17 the defensive had a temporary dominance over the offensive. A combination of 'high tech' weapons (quick-firing artillery and machine guns) and 'low tech' defences (trenches and barbed wire) made the attacker's job formidably difficult. Communications were poor. Armies were too big and dispersed to be commanded by a general in person………………. and radio was in its infancy. Even if the infantry and artillery did manage to punch a hole in the enemy position, generals lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the situation, to get among the enemy and turn a retreat into a rout.

In previous wars, horsed cavalry (who provide a fast moving force) had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front. In World War Two, armoured vehicles were used for this purpose, but the tanks of Great War vintage were simply not up to the job. With commanders mute and an instrument of exploitation lacking, World War One generals were faced with a tactical dilemma unique in military history.

...the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches.

It is not true, as some think, that British generals and troops simply stared uncomprehendingly at the barbed wire and trenches, incapable of anything more imaginative than repeating the failed formula of frontal assaults by infantry. In reality, the Western Front was a hotbed of innovation as the British and their allies and enemies experimented with new approaches. Even on the notorious first day on the Somme, the French and 13th British Corps succeeded in capturing all of their objectives through the use of effective artillery and infantry tactics; the absence of such methods helps to explain the disaster along much of the rest of the British position.

Breakthrough battle

RAF pilots and aircraft, 1918  ©

The problem was that in 1914 tactics had yet to catch up with the range and effectiveness of modern artillery and machine guns. Warfare still looked back to the age of Napoleon. By 1918, much had changed. At the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the BEF put into practice the lessons learned, so painfully and at such a heavy cost, over the previous four years. In a surprise attack, massed artillery opened up in a brief but devastating bombardment, targeting German gun batteries and other key positions. The accuracy of the shelling, and the fact that the guns had not had to give the game away by firing some preliminary shots to test the range, was testimony to the startling advances in technique which had turned gunnery from a rule of thumb affair into a highly scientific business.

Then, behind a 'creeping barrage' of shells, perfected since its introduction in late 1915, British, French, Canadian and Australian infantry advanced in support of 552 tanks. The tank was a British invention which had made its debut on the Somme in September 1916. Overhead flew the aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force, created in April 1918 from the old Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The aeroplane had come a long way from its 1914 incarnation as an extremely primitive assemblage of struts and canvas, its task confined to reconnaissance.

The aeroplane had come a long way from its 1914 incarnation as an extremely primitive assemblage of struts and canvas...

By Amiens, aeroplanes were considerably more sophisticated than their predecessors of 1914. The RAF carried out virtually every role fulfilled by modern aircraft: ground attack, artillery spotting, interdiction of enemy lines of communication, strategic bombing. This air-land 'weapons system' was bound together by wireless (radio) communications. These were primitive, but still a significant advance on those available two years earlier on the Somme.

German prisoners after the Battle of Amiens, 1918  ©
The German defenders at Amiens had no response to the Allied onslaught. By the end of the battle, the attackers had advanced 13km (eight miles) - a phenomenal distance by Great War standards. The Germans lost 27,000 men, including 15,000 prisoners and 400 guns. It was, the German commander Ludendorff admitted, the 'Black Day of the German Army'. From this point onward, the result of the war was never in doubt. Amiens demonstrated the extent of the military revolution that occurred on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. It was a modern battle, the prototype of combats familiar to armies of our own times. 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability.

One cannot ignore the appalling waste of human life in World War One. Some of these losses were undoubtedly caused by incompetence. Many more were the result of decisions made by men who, although not incompetent, were like any other human being prone to making mistakes. Haig's decision to continue with the fighting at Passchendaele in 1917 after the opportunity for real gains had passed comes into this category. In some ways the British and other armies might have grasped the potential of technology earlier than they did. During the Somme, Haig and Rawlinson failed to understand the best way of using artillery.

Haig, however, was no technophobe. He encouraged the development of advanced weaponry such as tanks, machine guns and aircraft. He, like Rawlinson and a host of other commanders at all levels in the BEF, learned from experience. The result was that by 1918 the British army was second to none in its modernity and military ability. It was led by men who, if not military geniuses, were at least thoroughly competent commanders. The victory in 1918 was the payoff. The 'lions led by donkeys' tag should be dismissed for what it is - a misleading caricature.


Forgotten Victory: The First World War - Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield (Headline, 2001)British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One by John Laffin (Sutton, 1988)Western Front by Richard Holmes (BBC, 1999)


More viewpoints on the generals

Source 5
The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the commentators, no training, however good, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists … three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of Britain’s men is not too great a price to pay.
Haig wrote this just before the battle of the Somme in 1916. Haig believed in a war of attrition – which means wearing down the enemy

Source 6
You will be able to go over the top with a walking stick, you will not need rifles … you will find the Germans all dead, not even a rat will have survived.
Before the battle of the Somme, the general assured their troops that the shells would destroy the enemy before they arrived.

Source 7
On that first day of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 35,000 wounded, but this did not make General Haig want to change his methods. He ordered more attacks but the same tragic story was repeated each time. Against the advice of experts who said he did not have enough, he sent fifty tanks into battle in September. Twenty-nine broke down before they even reached the battlefield and the rest soon got stuck in the mud. By the end of the battle, the British and French had lost 620,000 men and the Germans 450,000. The allies had advanced 15 kilometres at the furthest point.
From Brooman’s, ‘The Great War’, 1991. The number of dead soldiers appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest number of casualties in one battle!

Source 8
One regiment, the First Newfoundlanders, left the trenches with 752 men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 684 (91%) were killed or wounded in half an hour. No Germans were killed.
Modern history textbook

Source 9
In another six weeks the enemy will find it hard to get enough men
Haig believed in wearing the enemy down. He said the above after 2 weeks of the battle.

Source 10
We had heavy losses in men and material. As a result of the Somme we were completely exhausted on the Western Front.
Quote taken from the autobiography of General Ludendorff, one of the most senior officers in the German army.

Source 11
What the hell does that matter? There are plenty more men in Britain.
A quote from one of Haig’s generals in 1915, when told Britain had lost 60,000 soldiers at the Battle of Loos

Source 12
In the Somme fighting of 1916, we lost our best men. The men who joined afterwards did not have the temper, the hardness or the spirit of the men who had fallen.
Official German Army record.

Source 13
My God, did we really send men to fight in that?
One of Haig’s generals said this about the area where the Battle of Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres, 1917) was fought. In it Britain lost 400, 000 men – many had drowned in a sea of stinking, liquid mud. As the dead bodies rotted, the generals in their headquarters could smell the decaying from 6 miles away!

Source 14
The horse is the future. Aeroplanes and tanks only aid the man and his 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.
Even writing in 1926, Haig believed the horse would still be important in warfare. He was often criticised for not accepting new ideas. During WWI he felt that machine guns were hardly needed. The Prime Minister had to order him to send more to the front lines.

Sources taken from A. Wilkes, ‘Technology, War & Identities’

Your tasks

1. Read the biography of Haig and highlight in blue all the events in his life which suggest he had all the qualities necessary to be a good leader or organiser.

Are there any events or characteristics that suggest that he was ill-suited to the task of leading the British army in the First World War? List them below.

2. Study source 1. What impression does this give of Haig’s character? List some adjectives to describe him below.

3. Study source 3. Does this source provide a different view of Haig’s character or confirm your original suspicions? Explain your answer.

4. Study sources 2,3,4,5 & 6. Write down 5 facts from the sources about the Battle of the Somme. Is there any evidence to suggest the Somme was successful?

5. Recently there has been a campaign to have the statue of Field Marshall Haig in London removed and replaced by a statue of an ordinary soldier. Write a letter to the Mayor of London explaining what you think should be done. Include the following points:

A brief description of who Haig was

Explain the key events of the most famous / infamous battle associated with him – the Somme

Use quotes from historians or contemporaries where appropriate

Explain what should be done with the monument to Haig and why


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