Haig as Gothic Cathedral?

When I picked up Neville Lytton’s The Press and the General Staff (1920) at Lichfield Book Fair the other day, I expected it to be a dryish analysis of the relations between journalists and soldiers during the War. It’s actually much better than that, a pacey memoir of Lytton’s time, first as a soldier, and then as the officer in charge of foreign correspondents at the Front.
He is good at conveying details such as smells:

The smell of Flanders trenches goes back as far as five miles behind the line, and is quite different to a new corpse, which has a sort of sweet sickly smell.

Or the sight of the Germans who died from the shock of the great blast at Messines:

The battlefield itself was an extraordinary sight; many of the enemy had been killed by the concussion of the mines, and they were lying with cigars in their mouths reading newspapers, and it was hard to believe they were not still alive.

Lytton stresses the need for positive reporting during the War, but uses his post-war freedom to be very critical of many of the tactics used during wasteful attacks, especially in the early years. Having been a front-line soldier himself, he is sceptical of the staff, and caustic about some senior officers. For Haig, however, he has nothing but admiration:

I don’t think I shall ever forget the impression that the Chief made upon me; it was the first time that I had ever seen him, and I fell immediately under the spell of his personal magnetism. It is one thing to see a great General riding triumphantly through the streets of London in a victory pageant; it is quite otherwise seeing him in his office in the thick of the fight when the victory is still most uncertain. I felt that if only he had been my Colonel or my Brigade Commander, instead of ── but no matter, I would have been willing to die for him a hundred times over. I confess that I am one of those who will do anything for one sort of man and nothing for another; well, with Haig I felt immediately such a longing to gain a word of praise from him that I should have liked him to ask me to do some impossible exploit that I might prove my devotion to him. The common saying is. ‘Oh, Haig is not a clever man.’ I don’t think he is very clever; personally I have never admired cleverness, it is the attribute of small successful men. Haig’s qualities are much more moral than intellectual ; what intellectual qualities he has have been used almost entirely within his own profession, but he exhales such an atmosphere of honour, virtue, courage and sympathy that one feels uplifted like as when one enters the Cathedral of Beauvais for the first time. Surely it is this sense of trust that has made Haig come out on top in spite of a terrible rough passage; not one of his subordinates has ever suspected that he could act from any motive of self-interest. It is largely the great character of the Commander-in-Chief that brought about the astounding result that Great Britain had the finest army of the world in the autumn of 1918.

I’ll write more about this (most enjoyable) book later.


  1. Posted April 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I read The Press and the General Staff some time ago, and my memory may not be serving me very well. But I believe I came away thinking that it seemed like a work of propaganda, meant to reassure that the end of the war was achieved by a British army whose strength was undiminished. According to Lytton, the Germans were still a formidable enemy (I remember him pointing out how well provisioned they were, which is a bit hard to accept, at that late stage of the blockade?) All of Haig’s final strategy was unerring, and there’s no mention of the Americans.

  2. Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    My admiration for Haig has its limits, but I’d say that Lytton was accurate in suggesting that Great Britain had the most effective army of the world in the autumn of 1918. It had withstood the setbacks of Spring 1918, and had maintained strong morale through difficult times. Unlike the other major European armies – French, Russian and German – it was never afflicted by major mutinies. Haig surely deserves some credit for this. As for the Americans, their contribution in 1918 was undoubtedly useful, but their role in the victories of the last hundred days of the War was minor in comparison with that of the British, Canadian and Australian forces.

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