General Douglas Haig’s rise to the top

Welcome one and all to another World War One Blog Post. In this post we shall examine one General Douglas Haig (1861-1928). Haig of course is quite a controversial figure, and memory portrays him as commander who valued little of any of those under him. Whilst I may slightly touch on that subject, it won’t be my focus, but rather his rise to power and why he was chosen.

Haig’s military career started in 1884 at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. His first regiment where he was commissioned was the 7th hussars in 1885, whom would be sent to India. His rise as an officer was quite impressive, becoming captain within three years, whilst finding his taste for staff work at the headquarters of the Bombay army at Poona. However it would only be by 1896 would he be able to enter the staff college, after being failed before on colour blindness as well as failing a maths examination!

Haigs first taste of battle came in 1898, in Sudan, where apparently he rallied the Egyptian cavalry against an attack and before the battle of Omdurman, made an impressive reconnaissance of the area. On returning from the Sudan,

He was appointed a brigade major at Aldershot, interestingly enough, his commander was a certain Major-General John French. The two seemed to have quite a close bond, with Haig apparently loaning French money when he was in problems! The two would serve in the Boer war, and again Haig proved himself, this is good staff work.

So now let us jump forward to 1914, Haig has risen through the commissioned ranks rather quickly and seemed to have done a pretty good job. So what happened next? Well Haig was chief of one of Britain’s corps. The Commander of the whole army was none other than Sir John French, Haigs old ally. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson state in their biography of Haig that at the first council of war that, ’Haig listened with alarm as French spoke in disregard of the pre-war arrangement whereby the BEF would take its place on the left of the French army and act in unison with it in support of Belgium. French proposed taking his force as an independent unit to Antwerp, where it would assist the Belgians in the defence of that city. Haig argued the contrary: that the small BEF, in a conflict between the giant armies of France and Germany, could not afford to operate separately from the French. That view prevailed.’ Haig’s influence in the war council was already huge, and again his view prevailed. Haig saw French was incompetent when down to military matters, and once again Haig proved himself, when retreating from Belgium, he did so without ‘catastrophe’ for the entirety of the thirteen days. So, Haig was not a completely awful commander, he seems to have shown great skill and tactics in the events so far. His actions would see him promoted to General of the First Army, due to the split of the armies in Belgium and France.

I think the biggest problem with Haig was his unwillingness to change, he was stubborn and kept to very outdated tactics which were not useful in Trench Warfare conditions. However, Haig was a man of his time, and I think most Generals would have followed a similar line of thought even if it does seem absurd to us now, if he had deviated from the task, people in power would probably have thought he had gone mad. A few mistakes that Haig was known to do was as Prior and Wilson note that in, ‘his determination to accomplish great victories Haig too often disregarded key factors such as weather and the condition of the battlefield, placed his objectives beyond the range which his artillery could cover, and incorporated in his schemes a role for cavalry which this arm was helpless to accomplish.’ He wanted to win, but Haig kept sending men to get unrealistic targets and goals, some of which were now irrelevant to the situation at the time.

Haig became Commander-in-Chief in 1915, after the support of Sir French dwindled, and with Haig and other important officers writing to London of their disapproval, Haig was appointed to replace him. Prior and Wilson state that ‘Haig, whose steady demeanour and capacity as a staff officer were everywhere acknowledged, was appointed his successor. Satisfaction, in political as well as military circles, was widespread.’ Then of course we see that a year later, the Somme happened.

My post used a lot from the Oxford Biographical Dictionary online, as that gives a great description of the man himself, so if you need more info, then go to there!  I found it a great help and I hope this gives a small insight into his rise in power. By no means am I saying that he was a good/bad man, when we look at Haig, we must remember what was the norm at the start of the twentieth century.  I think he was very much like most of the generals at the time, and again with memory, we have to put things in context.  Our memory of him comes from hindsight, from modern sources and perceptions, we must see things through the eyes of the time, and although we can say that the tactics used by him and his fellow officers were crazy and outdated, no one had come up with anything better.

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