Monday 3 August 2009

Douglas Haig-a Great Soldier

The role of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig during the First World War continues to be a matter of abiding controversy that I do not suppose will ever be settled one way or the other, though I have a feeling that the pendulum is beginning to swing in his favour.

I have long been of the view that only the English could have developed such a negative view of arguably one of the nation's greatest commanders. His contribution in defeating the Germans was widely recognised at the time, by both the people of Britain and a number of foreign observers, including General Pershing.

It was several years later when the true extent of the sacrifice involved in winning the Great War began to sink in that a new mood of hostility and revisionism began to emerge. This developed over the years, finding popular expression in Joan Littlewoods’s stage production of Oh, What a Lovely War, as well as support in several academic monographs. The whole campaign of vilification seemed to be based on the assumption that Haig sacrificed men unnecessarily; that battles were fought simply for reasons of attrition, and nothing besides; that there was somehow another, less bloody, road to victory that Haig and his colleagues did not take.

But wars cannot be won without confronting the main enemy army in battle; and this, sad to say, is inevitably a gruesome process. Consider the example of U. S Grant, who in his campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg in 1864 and 1865 was arguably responsible for the death of more Americans than any other man in history. At one battle alone, Cold Harbour in the early summer of 1864, the Union losses, as a proportion of the total strength of the Army of the Potomac, were as great as some of the battle losses on the western front. Grant could have taken the same road as McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and so many others before him and retreated back to his start line; but he pushed on to Richmond and victory.

Likewise, in the Second World War, Georgy Zhukov, the greatest of all the Soviet commanders, sustained losses at Stalingrad and Kursk quite as dreadful as those at the Somme and Passchendale. What other way was there of defeating the Germans?

Haig, like all other commanders at the time, began without really knowing what the new warfare, the great battle of men and materials, was really about: heavy prolonged artillery barrages were followed by unsupported and uncoordinated assaults on enemy positions, with the inevitable consequences in casualties.

However, by 1918, Haig had moved through a sharp learning curve, turning the British Army into one of the best in the world, a remarkable achievement when one considers that the country had little in the way of a military tradition, and in 1914 was only able to field four 'contemptible' divisions in France. In the final offensive of 1918 Haig, in carefully co-ordinating a creeping artillery barrage with measured and discreet infantry attacks, was able to advance in relentless stages against the German positions, covering more ground than the rest of the Allied armies. It was this that broke the back of the German army and assured victory.

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