‘Douglas Haig as I Knew Him’

Those of us who lived close to Haig never ceased to admire his strength of character – his inner poise which nothing could disturb, his quiet resolution, his readiness to accept responsibility, his power to sink self in the common cause, his invincible faith.

In York last week I found a copy of Douglas Haig as I Knew Him at the rather good Minster Gate Bookshop. First published in 1966, it is a memoir by G.S. Duncan, a Church of Scotland minister with whom Haig felt such an affinity that he had him transferred to GCHQ. Every Sunday the C-in-C went to the Church of Scotland service (in what was during the week a social club for soldiers) to hear him preach.
The book’s representation of Haig is unremittingly positive; he is ‘[T]he British commander who rose to new heights with each succeeding crisis, and brought us in the end to victory.’ Duncan writes that he had previously been unwilling to write about a personal relationship with a man who ‘studiously avoided publicity, preferring to devote all his powers to the performance of present duty and to leave the future to be judge of the past’. He became aware, however, that

In recent years many writers have presented to the public a portrait of Haig which is so distorted as to be essentially false.

This personal memoir is therefore designed to redress the balance. Duncan’s reflections on public matters, such as questions of strategy and the conduct of the War are not particularly original (he notes a debt to John Terraine). It is the depiction of the private Haig that makes the book worth reading. This is as an undemonstrative, dogged man with a dislike of rhetoric. Duncan is very critical of those who saw Haig’s taciturnity as a mark of incoherence or stupidity. Of the ‘Backs to the wall’ order of April 1918, he notes that Haig addressed it ‘To all ranks of the British Forces in France’, because ‘he always preferred the inclusive “all ranks” to the alternative “officers and men”’,and speaks approvingly of the ‘simple straight language which came naturally to him on paper’. The manuscript originally ended with the words:

But be of good cheer, the British Empire must win in the end.

The words were deleted, and Duncan surmises that Haig, though himself deeply believing that divine providence would bring Britain and its Empire through to victory in the end, felt that he should not say so, because ‘the words smacked too much of facile optimism’. Haig was not one to decorate the truth, and had a consistently difficult relationship with the Press, whose priorities were different. He once told the assembled correspondents:

I think I understand what you gentlemen want. You want to get hold of little stories of heroism, and so forth, and to write them up in a bright way to make good reading for Mary Ann in the kitchen, and the man in the street.

Philip Gibbs writes of ‘the quiet passion with which these words were resented’ by himself and his fellow-journalists.
Duncan’s picture of Haig as dogged, serious and forthright is believable enough, but he is less reliable on Haig as politician. I think he is right to complain that Lloyd George’s memoirs traduce Haig for the purpose of self-aggrandisement, but Duncan presents his friend as essentially non-political, a soldier who avoided intrigue. This does not square with the record.
I doubt if many readers will be completely convinced by Duncan’s placing his friend alongside ‘Moses and Joshua in the Scripture records, or […] Cromwell and Lincoln in the story of the nations.’ This book is one-sided (though no more so than those that traduce Haig as merely a ‘donkey’). It is useful, though, as a reminder of the loyalty that Haig could inspire in those that knew him, and reminds us of the esteem in which he was held at the time of his death, not just because he had led his army to victory, but also because of his work for the wounded and disabled in the decade after the War.

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2 Comments

  1. David
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    The Reverend George Duncan is mentioned in one of the more recent scholarly studies of Haig, “The Chief” by Gary Sheffield 2011, (ISBN:
    1-84513-691-8) at pages 155-156. This book is a more balanced study of Haig which covers his failings as well as his strengths and is a necessary correction to the studies from the 1960’s such as “The Donkeys” by Alan Clark, 1962. It seems to have been Alan Clark who first attributed the phrase “Lions led by Donkeys” to allied, particularly British generals. Also in the early 1960’s the BBC aired their documentary series “The Great War” which took the prevailing view of the generals as donkeys.
    I suppose these views are what the George Duncan is referring to as “distorted” and thus in part provide him with the motivation to write his own memoir in the mid 1960’s.
    Gary Sheffield also makes it clear that Haig intrigued to remove his predecessor French as the British C-in-C and thus ensure his own promotion to that post.

  2. janevsw
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that John Buchan was a great admirer of Haig, but have never really followed up the whys and wherefores except to wonder if it was because they were both Border Scots…


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