George Duncan (1884-1965) was from a non- military family who was ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1915 and became an Army chaplain based at the hospitals near GCHQ of the BEF at St Omer France. Not long after his arrival Douglas Haig was appointed Commander of the BEF. Haig would always attend church services on a Sunday and when he could he would prefer to attend (and sit amongst the ordinary ranks) the smaller Church of Scotland services administered by the young George Duncan.
- George S Duncan.
Haig was impressed enough with Duncan that when GCHQ was moved to the smaller town of Montreuil, Duncan was like wise ordered to pack up and follow. The two men formed on the face of it an unlikely friendship although it’s never explained what Haig saw in the young chaplain. You can only guess that Duncan being from a non- military back ground his opinions were different from the other members of the GCHQ mess. Duncan was often invited for dinner at Haig’s Chateau especially when there were VIPs in attendance. After the war Duncan kept in touch until Haig’s death from heart failure in 1928.
About the book itself, I was glad to receive this book as I knew little about Haig, other than he was commander of the BEF, he launched massive set piece battles like the Somme, Cambria and Passchendale all of which never really achieved much only massive loss of life on both sides. Any ground gained was lost when the Germans launched their final offensive of the war in March 1918 which nearly succeeded in defeating the British, although the BEF did counter attack and went on to throw the Germans back and to the negotiating table. Haig also nodded the approval of the executions of over 300 of his men, but after the war went on to devote the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen.
Disappointingly this book fails to deliver. Duncan explains that Haig found small talk difficult as well as public speaking but he could however talk freely one to one with anyone regardless of their rank or status. Haig was a modest man who when congratulated for the victory 1918 redirected all praise to the common soldier. Duncan was clearly in awe of Haig, praises him for reorganising and preparing the army in the final years before WW1, but blames others for shortages of weapons and ammunition.
His chapter on the Somme offensive is brief, blames Corps commanders for not telling Haig that the wire was uncut in many place which is difficult to believe. Yet the battle carried on for months. All military set backs are blamed on the need to support the exhausted French army or the incompetent French government or Lloyd George not supporting Haig and his staff by vetoing consent for further offensives. Although there is acknowledgement of the fact that most of the British army were fresh from civilian life.
The book was first published in 1966 a year after the author’s death, Duncan had only written the book to counter the change of attitude the public were adopting about the conduct and leadership of that war. He had sought to keep the friendship private yet the book fails to deliver and masterful insights, there are no diary entries to explain key, often tragic decisions that were made. Duncan was not an accomplished author and you can almost hear Duncan saying Haig was a nice chap and therefore he mustn’t be scrutinised.
For anyone wanting to learn more about Haig this is not the book