The popular image of General Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, has him sitting in a chateau far from the front line, signing incompetent orders that will send thousands of young men ‘over the top’ to their deaths, and confirming court martial decisions that anyone shell-shocked or unstable should be shot at dawn. Haig has for many years been vilified as the worst of the ‘donkeys’ leading the young ‘lions’ at the front, although his star shone brightly until his death in 1928. As Sheffield reminds us, two future Kings of England walked behind the Field Marshall’s coffin; the funeral attracted more mourners than that of Lady Diana.
This biography is meticulously researched and very well written. Sheffield is not, on the whole, an apologist for Haig, but he carefully re-evaluates every command decision taken by Haig, and for the most part demonstrates that actions that led to unsuccessful engagements and unacceptable loss of life were not the result of incompetence or pig-headedness on Haig’s part.
Haig emerges from the fog of war, and the subsequent war of words, as a thoughtful, level-headed, efficient staff officer, and one of the best ‘top brass’ out in the field. As a man he was quiet, devoted to his family, strengthened by his faith. He suffered from the ‘stuffed shirt’ inarticulacy of his upbringing – his favoured opening remark of ‘What are you?’ put several young officers on the hop, but those who got on friendlier terms with him remained loyal. Details of Haig’s thought processes emerge from his affectionate letters to his wife, Doris, and from his diaries, often written in haste in the field and thereby providing ammunition for a recent band of more sensationalist military historians.
This biography successfully brings down the worst of these myths – Haig did not have blind faith in cavalry, over tanks and other mechanised weapons, but was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of all tactics. Rather than decrying the use of aircraft, Haig sent out many on reconnaissance missions. Haig was not isolated from his soldiers; he spent most afternoons visiting various units. The chateaux, farmhouses and armoured trains which he used as his command posts were chosen for their effective communication routes, not for their safety or their wine cellars.
Sheffield bravely tackles the issue of the execution of deserters, arguing that Haig felt compelled to confirm these orders, believing that the risk of encouraging further desertion would be too great if leniency was shown. Haig wrote on one appeal ‘how can we ever win if this plea is allowed?’ Personally I felt that these arguments fell short of justification, and the two pages devoted to this issue was insufficient, set against the strength of feeling then, and surviving to the present day.
Regardless, perhaps, of his War record, what should be remembered is Haig’s tireless work to improve the condition of ex-servicemen in the 1920s. Haig was responsible for galvanising the British Legion, which became such an influential movement that members of the government were worried that Haig might use his old soldiers to stage a coup and become a dictator.
I would recommend this biography to anyone who has already studied something of the history of World War I. It is a detailed, scholarly book, which gives a fascinating insight into the strategic decisions made before, during and after the hostilities. As such, it is a valuable partner to the histories and memoirs from the serving soldiers at the front. I hope it finds its way into the library at Sandhurst.
5 Mr Mushroomheads.
Lucretia Click here to buy from Amazon