‘The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army’

In Disenchantment (1922), C.E.Montague gives a snapshot of Haig a short while after his 1918 victory:

Sir Douglas Haig came to Cologne when we had been there a few days. On the grandiose bridge over the Rhine he made a short speech to a few of us. Most of it sounded as if the thing were a job he had got to get through with, and did not much care for. Perhaps the speech, like those of other great men who wisely hate making speeches, had been written for him by somebody else. But once he looked up from the paper and put in some words which I felt sure were his own; “I only hope that, now we have won, we shall not lose our heads, as the Germans did after 1870. It has brought them to this.” He looked at the gigantic mounted statue of the Kaiser overhead, a thing crying out in its pride for fire from heaven to fall and consume it, and at the homely, squat British sentry moving below on his post.

This paragraph suggests many of the characteristics of Haig that are brought out well in The Chief, Gary Sheffield’s very readable new account of Haig the soldier: the dislike of public speaking; the dogged performance of a duty despite his personal feelings; the delegation to others of tasks that could be delegated; the determination not to lose his head; a preference for the military over the political.
Haig had many virtues, but history has not been kind to him, for the reason touched on in Gary Sheffield’s conclusion:

Above all, Haig’s strategy, like those of the Great War generals of all nationalities, implicitly accepted that there would be very heavy losses among his own troops. To the casualty-intolerant twenty-first century, this is callous disregard for human life. All this points to an obvious conclusion: Douglas Haig was not a modern man, and he should not be judged as if he was.

Haig was the most important of the generals whose task was to transform the British Army, previously an institution rather marginal to the wider society whose activities, however keenly followed at home, were mostly conducted in the outposts of Empire, into a huge force of two million citizens, mixing volunteers and conscripts. The process was carried out with remarkable success but Haig’s heart was still with the traditional army which formed his outlook and his character.
Gary Sheffield’s narrative is gripping, as it takes Haig from one near-success to the next false dawn, foiled now by the limitations of his allies, now by the weather, now by the failure of his subordinates to grab opportunities (Rawlinson comes badly out of this book). The casualty figures mount, but Haig’s job was to win the War. Sheffield’s analysis shows that he used all the weapons at his disposal; he comes across as a highly intelligent professional with a keen sense of the potential of new technology, such as aeroplanes, gas and tanks.
One of the achievements of The Chief is that it makes us aware of the sheer hard work behind the logistical organisation of so vast an organisation. Whatever else he was, Haig was a professional who got his staff work right. After the War, writers from Liddell Hart to John Buchan and Bernard Newman insisted that professionalism was not enough – that there must have been a better way. These armchair strategists imagined brilliantly successful alternatives, but of course they could do so without the restraints or the responsibilities that narrowed the options of a real-life soldier. C.E. Montague shared the romantic wish that there might have been some Napoleonic master-stroke of brilliance on the Western Front that might have ended the deadlock of attrition, but he is realistic enough to see that speculation on the matter is fairly futile:

…but in Flanders what way through could there have been? The dodge found by genius is always an obvious dodge, afterwards. Till it is found it can as little be stated by us common people as can the words of the poems that Keats might have written if he had lived longer. You would have to become a Keats to do that, and a Napoleon to say how Napoleon would have got through to Bruges in the autumn that seemed so autumnal to us.

Sheffield shows Haig continually looking beyond attrition to the possibility of decisive action, and continually thwarted. Many later commentators have mocked Haig’s insistence that cavalry could still have a crucial role in twentieth-century warfare, despite the trench defences and the machine guns; Sheffield (following the same logic as Stephen Badsey) sees this as a sign of Haig’s imagination, and of his military seriousness. Cavalry was the only method of exploitation that he had. Just get the horses behind the enemy lines, and the stalemate would be broken; cavalry divisions were potentially a war-winning force. Circumstances of the time were against him, though, until 1918, where the German advance meant that the War was once again a war of movement. The hard-won lessons of the previous four years could be put into practice, and Haig (or his principles put into practice by subordinates) reaped success. No other general of the Great War achieved as much.

Gary Sheffield edited Haig’s diaries and letters a few years back, so this book is rooted in a detailed knowledge of Haig’s war, from day to day. He easily disposes of the blanket condemnation of Haig by his more extreme critics, but on the other hand, this account is well short of idolatry; the Haig that comes through is a methodical and skilful soldier but no Napoleon. Sheffield analyses his mistakes as well as his achievements. The final verdict comes out as positive, but Haig’s limitations are not shirked.
Essentially this book is about Haig the soldier, though it is topped and tailed with chapters on his youth, and on his post-war career. Sheffield does not probe deeply into his private life, except to show the strength of his marriage and the depth of his religious feeling. He gives the usual picture of Haig as inarticulate and unsocial. I wonder how far this usual picture has developed because most accounts of Haig are by politicians, whom he generally disliked, and journalists, whom he generally distrusted.
An interestingly different picture comes if one looks at his relations not with writers, but with artists. He was on good terms with William Orpen and John Singer Sargent, and encouraged the work of Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist. Orpen’s An Onlooker in France gives a very sympathetic picture of the C-in-C:

Sir Douglas was a strong man, a true Northener, well inside himself – no pose.It seemed it would be impossible to upset him, impossible to make him show any strong feeling, and yet one felt he understood, knew all, and felt for all his men, and that he truly loved them; and I know they loved him. Never once, all the time I was in France, did I hear a “Tommy” say one word against “‘Aig.” Whenever it became my honour to be allowed to visit him, I always left feeling happier – feeling more sure that the fighting men being killed were not dying for nothing. One felt he knew, and would never allow them to suffer and die except for final victory.
When I started painting him, he said, “Why waste your time painting me? Go and paint the men. They’re the fellows who are saving the world, and they’re getting killed every day.”

Orpen even shows Haig capable of making a joke, an ability which might come as a surprise to readers of the 380 pages of Sheffield’s absorbing book:

The second time I was there, just after lunch, the Chief had gone to his room, and several Generals, Colonel Fletcher, [Philip] Sassoon and myself were standing in the hall, when suddenly a most violent explosion went off, all the windows came tumbling in, and there was great excitement, as they thought the Boche had spotted the Chief’s whereabouts. The explosions went on, and out came the Chief. He walked straight up to me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and said: “That’s the worst of having fellows like you here, Major. I thought the Huns would spot it,” and having had his joke, went back to his work. He was a great man. It turned out to be a munition dump which had exploded near by, and the noise was deafening for about eight hours.

One Comment

  1. Gary Sheffield
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Just found this. Thank you for your generous comments about my book.


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