Haig-Bashing, 1921 style

I’ve been looking at rather a remarkable book published in 1921, called At the Supreme War Council. It’s by Captain Peter Wright, who had been Assistant Secretary at the Supreme War Council during 1918, and had acted as interpreter during some of the key meetings between Foch and English generals. The book is in large part a response to the recently published diaries of the war correspondent Colonel Repington, which had presented a detailed but biased view of the war, very much based on briefings from Robertson.
Wright is hostile to Robertson, but deeply scornful of Haig. For example, Haig’s letter to Nivelle (Mar 4,1917) , he says, was:

evidently confused and almost unintelligible. While Sir Douglas refused to obey the decisions of the Calais conference, he evidently avoided any justification of this refusal by introducing irrelevant topics; in these respects it is exactly like his letter of March 2, 1918 to Foch and the Executive War Board. The historian who wishes to guage the intellectual calibre of Haig (and he will never understand the War otherwise) should collect all his personal communications and memoranda with the War Cabinet and the Supreme War Council, and read them.

How did a man of such low calibre remain in command? Wright blames the censorship which precluded criticism of the Generals, and encouraged adulation of them:

It becomes almost impossible to displace these Napoleons, whatever their incompetence, because of the enormous public support created by hiding or glossing failure, and exaggerating or inventing success.

Because of this, he says:

Haig’s reputation survived the loss of very nearly half a million men in Picardy in 1916, and another loss of nearly half a million men in Flanders in 1917.

And there’s more where that came from. He’s particularly critical of Haig’s failure to reinforce Gough in March 1918.

I’m very interested at the moment in the explosion of divergent opinions in the years immediately after the War (a bigger explosion than is indicated in some accounts). This book has the most extreme criticisms of the Generals that I’ve found during the period – stronger than those in Philip Gibbs’s Realities of War, for example.

3 Comments

  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted February 20, 2007 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    It’s more striking to me not for the ‘Haig-bashing’ – Robertson, Petain, Nivelle, and Foch hardly come off better – but for the hagiographical view of Lloyd George. He’s lionised throughout the book as the answer to the ills of the world. I’m very interested in how this view of Haig becomes entrenched and, by extension the ‘disenchanted’ view of war as well.

    Certainly a fascinating book, though. Great for numerical stats on the war if anyone’s ever looking for them.

  2. Posted July 27, 2007 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Wright was sued for libel in the 1920’s and it is a wonder that the Generals did not sue him for his comments in “At the SWC”. It is a scurrilous and wholly unreliable work.

  3. Posted July 27, 2007 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think he was sued for libel – in 1927 he tried to use the laws of libel against Gladstone’s son, who had responded angrily to Wright’s biography of WEG, in which he accused Gladstone of dodgy dealings with fallen women and keeping a mistress. Wright could not himself have been sued for libel about this, because you can’t libel the dead.
    Gladstone’s son sent Wright a scornful note:

    Mr. Peter Wright:

    Your garbage about Mr. Gladstone in your book, Portraits and Criticisms’ has come to my knowledge. You are a liar.

    Because you slander a dead man, you are a coward.

    And because you think the public will accept inventions from such as you, you are a fool.

    (Signed) GLADSTONE.

    He also sent a note to the Secretary of the Bath Club, to which both Captain Wright and Lord Gladstone belonged. “Mr. Wright is a foul fellow!”
    As a result of this, Wright was excluded from the club. He sued Gladstone for libel, and there was a sensational court case, in the course of which Stuart accused Gladstone taking Lily Langtry as a mistress while he was in his seventies. He lost the case.
    I agree with you that Stuart seems to have been an unreliable historian. At the Supreme War Council is an interesting historical document, though, showing as it does how extreme scepticism about Haig was expressed in some quarters in the early 20s.


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