Douglas Haig

Douglas Haig books and biography


Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig

Field Marshal Lord Haig
Field Marshal Lord Haig

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig KT GCB OM GCVO KCIE ADC (June 19, 1861 – January 28, 1928) was a British soldier and senior commander (Field Marshal) during World War I. He was commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the Battle of the Somme and the 3rd Battle of Ypres. His tenure as commander of the BEF made Haig one of the most controversial military commanders in British history.


Early service

He was born in Edinburgh, the son of John Haig, who was head of the family's successful Haig & Haig whisky distillery. Haig attended Clifton College and unusually for a British officer at that time attended University, studying at Brasenose College, Oxford. He left without a degree, which was not unusual for "gentleman" undergraduates and perhaps also as he would otherwise have been too old to enroll for officer training in the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1884. He was then granted a special nomination to the British Military Staff College, despite being colour-blind. He was commissioned into the 7th (Queen's Own) Hussars the following year and promoted to lieutenant shortly afterwards. He first saw overseas service in India, in 1887, where he was appointed as the regiment's adjutant in 1888, giving Haig his first administrative experience. He was promoted to captain in 1891.

He saw his first active service in Kitchener's Omdurman Campaign in 1898, where he was attached to the cavalry forces of the Egyptian Army, acting as Chief of Staff to brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Broadwood. He served in the Boer War in further administrative positions with the cavalry, acting first as the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General in 1899. Haig was employed briefly as Chief Staff Officer to Major-General John French during the Colesburg operations, then as Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division. He was mentioned in despatches four times. His service in South Africa gained him prominence and the attention of John French and Kitchener, both of whom would have important roles in World War I.

In 1901, he became the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers, which he commanded until 1903. He was appointed Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII in 1902, remaining in this position until 1904. After leaving the 17th Lancers, Haig returned to India after Lord Kitchener was appointed Commander-in-Chief, India, and became Inspector-General of Cavalry. Having been a captain until the age of thirty-eight, five years later in 1904 he became the youngest major-general in the British Army at that time. The following year, Haig married Dorothy Maud Vivian; they would have four children - Alexandra (born 1907), Victoria (born 1908), George (born 1918), and Irene (born 1919).

Haig returned to England in 1906 as the Director of Military Training. During this time, Haig assisted Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane in his reforms of the British Army, which was intended to prepare the army for a future European war. He took up the post of Director of Staff Duties in the War Office in 1907. A second return to India came in 1909, when he was appointed as India's Chief of the General Staff. He was promoted to lieutenant-general in 1910, became GOC Aldershot from 1912 to 1914, and Aide-de-Camp to King George V. In the Army Manoeuvres of 1912 he was decisively beaten by Sir James Grierson despite having the odds in his favour.

First World War

Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914, Haig helped organise the British Expeditionary Force, commanded by Field Marshal John French. As planned, Haig's Aldershot command was formed into I Corps, giving him command of half of the BEF. Tensions quickly arose between Haig and French. Haig and Lord Kitchener, who was now Secretary of State for War, clashed with French over the positioning of the BEF. French argued to the war council that it should be positioned in Belgium, where he had confidence in the country's many fortresses, while Haig and Kitchener proposed that the BEF would be better positioned to counter-attack in Amiens, stating that the BEF would have to abandon its positions in Belgium once the poorly-equipped Belgian Army collapsed, forcing the BEF into retreat with the loss of much of its supplies. During a royal inspection of Aldershot, Haig told King George V that he had "grave doubts" about French's competence.

Map of the Western Front in 1914.
Map of the Western Front in 1914.

The BEF landed in France on 14 August and advanced into Belgium, where John French intended to meet General Lanrezac's French Fifth Army at Charleroi. During the advance the BEF experienced their first encounter with the Germans at Mons on 23 August. The Germans were bloodied in the battle but the BEF began a withdrawal after Lanzerac ordered his army into retreat exposing the BEF's right flank.

The retreats of I and II Corps had to be conducted separately because of the Forest of Mormal. Both corps were supposed to meet at Le Cateau but I Corps under Haig got no further than Landrecies, leaving a large gap between the two corps. Haig's reactions to his corps' skirmish with German forces at Landrecies led to him sending an exaggerated report to John French, causing French to panic. The following day 26 August, Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps had to make a stand at Le Cateau unsupported by Haig. This battle further delayed Germany's advance. The French commander Joseph Joffre had ordered his forces to retreat to the Marne on 25 August, compelling the BEF to undertake a lengthy and arduous withdrawal to conform to the French movements. John French's faltering belief in the competence of his Allies caused further indecision and led to him deciding to pull the BEF out of the war by withdrawing south of the Seine. Lord Kitchener intervened on 1 September, making a visit to dissuade French and order him to continue cooperation with Joffre's forces. The stand to defend Paris began on 5 September, in the Battle of the Marne. The BEF weren't able to participate in the battle until 9 September. The battle ended the following day; the German advance was defeated, prompting them to initiate a withdrawal to the Aisne that signified the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan.

Stretcher bearers recovering wounded during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916.
Stretcher bearers recovering wounded during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916.

Following defensive successes at Battle of Mons and Ypres (1st Battle of Ypres), Haig was promoted to full General and made second-in-command of the British forces in France under Sir John French. In December 1915, Haig replaced French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, with French returning to Britain to head the Home forces. Haig had been intriguing for the removal of French as commander of the BEF and had told King George V that French was "a source of great weakness to the army and no one had confidence in him any more". He directed several British campaigns, including the British offensive at the Somme, in which the forces under his command sustained over 300,000 casualties taking little ground but inflicting casualties on the German army it could not afford and the campaign at Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres). Haig's tactics in these battles are still considered controversial by many, including the then Prime Minister Lloyd George, arguing that he incurred unnecessarily large casualties for little tactical gain. In 1917, however, Haig was made a field marshal.

In 1918, following the final German assault, Haig's forces had much success prior to the German collapse and the end of the war. The French, American and Belgian armies combined captured 196,700 prisoners-of-war and 3,775 German guns between July 18 and the end of the war. Haig's forces with a smaller army than the French, captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns. The military historian Gary Sheffield has called this 'by far the greatest military victory in British history'.[1]

Haig had frequent disagreements and strained relations with both his Prime Minister and his French counterparts, particularly Robert Nivelle and Ferdinand Foch.

Later life

Field Marshal Haig unveiling the National War Memorial in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Memorial Day 1 July 1924)
Field Marshal Haig unveiling the National War Memorial in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Memorial Day 1 July 1924)
Haig's grave (right) next to his wife's & below a cross typical of those at WW1 graves in France
Haig's grave (right) next to his wife's & below a cross typical of those at WW1 graves in France

After the war, Haig was created Earl Haig (with a subsidiary viscountcy and a subsidiary barony) and a grant of £ 100,000. He was commander-in-chief of home forces in Great Britain until his retirement in 1920.

He devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen, travelling throughout the British Empire to promote their interests. He was instrumental in setting up the Haig Fund for the financial assistance of ex-servicemen and the Haig Homes charity to ensure they were properly housed; both continue to provide help many years after they were created. He was involved in the creation of the Royal British Legion, which he was president of until his death and was chairman of the United Services Fund.

He maintained ties with the British Army after his retirement; he was honorary colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers (having been honorary colonel of the 17th Lancers from 1912), Royal Horse Guards, The London Scottish and the King's Own Scottish Borderers. He was also Lord Rector and, eventually, Lord Chancellor of the University of St Andrews.

Haig died in 1928 at the age of 66. He remained an enormously popular public figure until his death, even amongst ex-servicemen (belying his 'butcher' reputation), his state funeral was attended by over 100,000 people. He is buried at Dryburgh Abbey, in the Scottish borders.


A statue of Haig at Montreuil-sur-Mer, France.

After the war Haig was often criticised for issuing orders which led to excessive casualties of British troops under his command, particularly on the Western Front, earning him the nickname "Butcher of the Somme". Others[citation needed] gave him much praise, arguing that he performed well given the situation and circumstances in which he was placed. Notably, General of the Armies of the United States John Pershing remarked that Haig was "the man who won the war". Brian Bond, in his 2002 book The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History, says: "Perhaps, however, it is a mark of a civilized, liberal society that it hugs and cherishes its defeats, dwells obsessively on the worst combat conditions and on casualties and cannot forgive Field Marshal Haig for being victorious."

The military historian John Terraine published a biography of Haig (The Educated Soldier) in 1963, in which he claimed Haig was a "Great Captain" of the calibre of the Duke of Marlborough or the Duke of Wellington. Terraine, taking his cue from Haig's own "Final Despatch" of 1918, also argued that Haig pursued the only possible strategy given the situation the armies were in; that of attrition which wore down the German army and delivered the coup de grāce of 1918. Gary Sheffield has claimed that although Terraine's arguments about Haig have been much attacked over forty years, Terraine's thesis "has yet to be demolished".[2]

However, others regard Haig as an inept commander who exhibited callous disregard for the lives of his soldiers, repeatedly ordering tens of thousands of them to useless deaths during battles such as Passchendaele. Although, to judge from the press comment which greeted the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice, this view held wide sway in popular discourse until at least the end of the 1990s, writers who make such blanket charges tend to be those of a populist bent, eg. John Laffin ("British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One") and John Mosier ("The Myth of the Great War"). However, scholars such as Tim Travers (The Killing Ground; "How the War was Won") make more serious and detailed critiques of the British forces' speed of adapting new technology and techniques of warfare.

Haig's defenders also argue that Haig was an adaptive user of new tactics and weapons rather than an innovative one as the British made considerable changes and developments during the war and that Haig's critics - who remain obsessed with the tank and the machine gun - fail to understand that throughout World War I, battles were dominated by the artillery and the struggle to coordinate infantry and artillery attacks.

However, Haig's critics include many younger officers who served in the First World War, making the criticism that they "fail[ed] to understand" the actual combat conditions of the war ring hollow. The military historian Basil Liddell Hart, who served as an Officer in nearly all of the British Western Front Offensives during the war, accuses Haig of ignoring reality in his conduct of the war.[citation needed]

Along with Terraine, modern historians such as Richard Holmes, Gordon Corrigan and Gary Sheffield are more sympathetic towards Haig. They point out that he faced enormous problems, notably the inexperienced new Armies, the lack of effective battlefield communication, the lack of a decisive arm, the application of new technology and political interference. He was also facing the Germans a far larger, better trained and equipped army especially in the early days; not only was the Western Front the main theatre of operations (as a defeat for either side would have exposed Paris or the Ruhr to occupation), where the Germans deployed between 150 and 200 divisions, a force comparable to their forces on the Eastern Front in WW2, but in the second half of the war the forces under Haig's command took over the main burden of the Allied offensive. They admit that Haig made mistakes but claim that they were understandable given the difficulties that he faced. Far from being unwilling to adapt they point to numerous innovations in tactics and weapons that bore fruit in the final victories in 1918.

They also make the point that mass warfare between Western Armies in WW1 (and indeed WW2, in which the most serious land fighting was done by the Soviets rather than the Western Allies) invariably led to huge casualties and that if there was an easy, cheap way to break the trench stalemate, no-one else found it on either side. Allied casualties during the victories of 1918 were if anything worse than those of 1916 and 1917, and on a unit-for-unit basis were comparable to those suffered by some British units during the campaigns of 1944-5. In particular Gordon Corrigan points out that Haig was overall commander of British and Empire forces on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918 and if he really had been the blinkered uncaring incompetent of popular legend he would not have delivered victory.

Haig in popular culture

Haig's tactics were a running joke on the 1989 BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, where Stephen Fry's role as General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, nicknamed 'Insanity' Melchett, with his vast moustache and callous disregard for the lives of his men is a popular caricature of British leadership, with elements of Haig and Lord Kitchener, although his personality is most like that of Sir Edmund 'The Bull' Allenby, without the latter's ability. Field Marshal Haig, played by Geoffrey Palmer, makes an appearance in the final episode, shown setting up toy soldiers on a battle map and then pushing them over, before sweeping them up with a dustpan and brush and throwing them in the bin. In the series, he is portrayed as a complete idiot. His battle plans include 'climbing out of the trench and walking very slowly towards the enemy'. Despite using this plan, Haig cannot understand why the men always seem depressed.

Haig was also played by Sir John Mills in Richard Attenborough's 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War, in which he is portrayed as being indifferent to the fate of the troops under his command, his goal being to wear the Germans down even at the cost of enormous losses and to prevail since the Allies will have the last 10,000 men left.

In Anthony Powell's novel A Buyer's Market (book 2 in A Dance to the Music of Time), the narrator attends a dinner party where a controversy over a proposed statue to Haig is discussed, in which one character suggests that the sculptor should show him in a car rather than on a horse.


  1. ^ Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory. The First World War: Myths and Realities (Headline Review, 2002), p. 263.
  2. ^ Ibid, p. 21.

Further reading

  • Arthur, Sir George Lord Haig (London: William Heinemann, 1928)
  • Bond, Brian and Cave, Nigel (eds) Haig – A Reappraisal 70 Years On (1999)
  • Charteris, Brigadier-General John. Field-Marshal Earl Haig. (London: Cassell, 1929)
  • Charteris, Brigadier-General John. Haig. (London: Duckworth, 1933)
  • Cooper, A. Duff. Haig. Macmillan. 1935 / (2 v., London: Faber, 1935)
  • Davidson, Major-General Sir John Haig, Master of the Field (London: Peter Nevill, 1953)
  • De Groot, Gerard The Pre-War Life and Military Career of Douglas Haig Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1983
  • De Groot, Gerard Douglas Haig 1861–1928 (Larkfield, Maidstone: Unwin Hyman, 1988)
  • Dewar, G.A.B. & Boraston, J.H. Sir Douglas Haig’s Command (1929)
  • Duncan, Rev G S Douglas Haig as I Knew Him (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966)
  • Haig, Countess The Man I Knew (Edinburgh & London: The Moray Press, 1936)
  • Haig, F-M Sir Douglas Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches (December 1915-April 1919). Ed. by Lt.-Col. J.H. Boraston, OBE, Private Secretary to Earl Haig. Dent. 1919
  • Keegan, John. The First World War. Pimlico. 1999. ISBN 0-7126-6645-1
  • Marshall-Cornwall, General Sir James Haig as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1973)
  • Protheroe, Ernest Earl Haig (London: Hutchinson, nd)
  • Reid, Walter. "Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig" (Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2006.) ISBN 10: 1 84158 517 3
  • Secrett, Sergeant T Twenty-Five Years with Earl Haig (London: Jarrods, 1929)
  • Sixsmith, E.K.G. Douglas Haig (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976)
  • Terraine, John. Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier. (London: Hutchinson, 1963) ISBN 0-304-35319-1
  • Travers, Tim The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and The Emergence of Modern War 1900-1918 (Allen & Unwin 1987)
  • Warner, Philip Field-Marshal Earl Haig (London: Bodley Head, 1991; Cassell, 2001)
  • Winter, Denis Haig’s Command (London: Viking, 1991)

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