Duff Cooper’s Haig: Hero and Saint



Duff Cooper,    Validity of the Record,   The Epic Drama of Haig,   

The Big Issues: 1. The Somme,   2. Passchendaele,   3. Clash with Lloyd George,   

Haig the Saint,      


Duff Cooper, Haig 

(Faber and Faber, 1935-6)



Alfred Duff Cooper (1890- 1954),  First Viscount Norwich, was a Conservative politician who rose to become Secretary of War 1935-37.   He resigned from the government in 1938 over Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy, but served as Minister for Information during the war and became ambassador to France 1944- 47. 


Duff Cooper fought in the Grenadier Guards during the First World War.   He was a family friend of the Haigs, and he was officially invited to write Haig's biography by Lord Haig's executors.  



Duff Cooper

The Validity of the Record


In 1935-6, Duff Cooper published – in two volumes – his Haig.


The book is pedestrian, and talks down to the reader.   It lacks the raw incisiveness of Lloyd George's War Memoirs and is somewhat 'preachy' in tone.


At the time, however, Duff Cooper's account of Haig was especially useful and important.   Because he was close to the Haig family, Duff Cooper had access to two sources which were to be unavailable to other historians for many years.   The first were Haig's personal Diaries, and the second was a memorandum on the war, penned by Haig himself, but sent to the British Library with orders that it only be made available to the public in 1940.     


But is it a reliable biography?   There are reasons to doubt it.   One would not expect a biography written by a friend of Haig's, at the request of Lady Haig (who was worried about the damage being done to her late husband's reputation by Lloyd George's War Memoirs), to be very critical.   And in his acknowledgments, Duff Cooper  not only thanked Lady Haig, but also expressed 'particular gratitude to Brigadier-General Sir James Edwards, the Official Historian [of the War], who has not only read the proofs, but has helped me with his advice and unrivalled knowledge of the Western Front' (pages 9-10).   Edmonds, too, was a friend of Haig's.  


The historian Gerard de Groot, in his biography of Haig (1988), says of Duff Cooper's biography:


In 1935, Duff Cooper's two-volume official biography, still the most complete treatment of Haig, was published.   The usual restraints imposed upon official biographers were in this case exacerbated by the vigilance of the distraught Lady Haig.   What resulted was, unsurprisingly, a book which made little attempt to separate the myth from the man.


Having said that, John Terraine, in his 1963 biography of Haig, said of Duff Cooper:


I have to admit to the increasing respect with which, throughout my work, I turned to Duff Cooper's great book ...   It is a fine achievement, from which proper recognition ash been withheld.


But Terraine was a 'Haig fan' - so he would like Duff Cooper's pro-Haig biography, wouldn't he?



Validity of the record


The Epic Drama of Haig


Duff Cooper was in no doubt that he was writing about a genuine hero, and he declared the story of Haig's life an 'epic drama', about which it was a privilege to write.


Duff Cooper's Haig is so closely based on Haig's Dairies that one writer complains that it 'claims to be an official biography but is, in fact, a poorly annotated edition of Haig's typed Diary'.   Duff Cooper simply uses the narrative story of the war as a framework to quote uncritically Haig's own words.   So the book progresses as a series of factual prefaces to quotes from the Diary, punctuated, from time to time, by short passages of interpretation by Duff Cooper, pointing out how all this demonstrates what a fine man Haig was.


It will not take many examples to give you a flavour of this approach.


Describing Haig's exploits during the Boer War, as recorded in Haig's letters to his wife:


There is no false modesty in these... private letters... but only the genuine distaste of a reserved but sensitive man for anything in the nature of public acclamation. (Vol. 1, p. 90)


On his appointment as Commander-in-Chief:  


In this period of supreme trial, which was to prove longer than all expectation, he was supported from first to last by his deep religious belief. (Vol 1, p.284)


Again, speaking of Haig's dealings with the French and the government:  


Haig was a man of his race and of his class...   Had his character been cast in a more cosmopolitan mould, had he been more hail fellow well met with all and sundry, many difficulties which arose might have been avoided, but in that case he would not have been Douglas Haig, and many difficulties which were avoided might have arisen. (Vol 1, p.284)


Describing the Nivelle incident, when Lloyd George forced Haig to co-operate with the French offensive (which turned out to be a disaster), Duff Cooper comments:


Haig had loyally accepted the decision of his Government and had loyally served the foreign general who had been placed over his head.   Now that general had lost his glamour... some men might have been tempted to pay out an old score... but to Haig the temptation simply did not occur.   There is not a line in his private diary or in his intimate correspondence to suggest that the sudden reversal of positions ever struck him...  Tthere was no room for thoughts of petty malice or of mean revenge in that high and honourable man.   (Vol. 2, pp. 97-98)


And Duff Cooper represents the appointment of Foch as supreme commander in 1918 as Haig's idea - his solution to prevent the disaster of a split in forces proposed by Petain:  


Slow of speech, deliberate in council, Haig was nevertheless, like all great soldiers, swift to perceive and to appreciate the importance of a fundamental change in the situation and swift to act...   Haig's simple and clear brain saw the only way...   that both armies be put under one general. (Vol 2, p.253)


It is not necessary to point out how every one of these assertions is today challenged by historians who oppose Haig.   To our modern ears, the praise is just too sickly-sweet and gushing to have the ring of truth.   


One of Duff Cooper's interjections is particularly revealing.   Describing the victory of the battle of the Marne, he comments:


If Haig himself had written the history of the war, he would not have closed the account of this phase of the campaign without reminding his readers of the important part that had been played by the cavalry until the initiation of trench warfare. (Vol 1, p.187)


In this passage, Duff Cooper's intentions are revealed.   He is not writing a critical biography of Haig.   He is trying to write the book that Haig himself would have written, had he done so.



The Epic Drama of Haig

The Big Issues 


It is in the presentation of the main issues of contention between Haig and Lloyd George that the book's character as an apologia most comes out.   Duff Cooper throws off the disguise of an historian, and becomes simply the advocate:



1.   The Somme

It is worth following the hyperlink to see the full text (Vol 1, pages 366-369) of the passage in which Duff Cooper argues that the deaths of the Somme were justified.  


Writing about the battle, Duff Cooper admits:


There are still those who argue that the Battle of the Somme should never have been fought and that the gains were not commensurate with the sacrifice.


But, he says:


There exists no yardstick for the measurement of such events, there are no returns to prove whether life has been sold at its market value.   There are some who from their manner of reasoning would appear to believe that no battle is worth fighting unless it produces an immediately decisive result, which is as foolish as it would be to argue that in a prize fight no blow is worth delivering save the one that knocks the opponent out.... 


and also


As to whether it were wise or foolish to give battle on the Somme on the 1st of July, 1916, there can surely be only one opinion...   All military writers are agreed that the Battle of the Somme saved Verdun and if no further justification were forthcoming that alone would suffice. 


Duff Cooper argues that the Battle of the Somme was 'the furnace wherein are forged the armies of victory', which honed and hardened the British Army into the fighting force which 'two years later formed the backbone of the force that smashed the Hindenburg line'.   Yet at the same time, he asserts, the German Army (and 'the world has never seen a more highly trained and perfectly disciplined machine') lost its fighting power and its self-belief:


Fighting fiercely, disputing every inch of the ground, inflicting fearful punishment upon the foe, they were none the less compelled to relinquish the trenches they had sworn they would hold to the last....   And for the German soldier the result of the Somme was not the loss of a few lines of trenches nor the bitterness of temporary defeat; it was the end of a great tradition, it was the bankruptcy of a religious faith: Two instances were brought to Haig's notice of German officers who, being prisoners, had attempted to commit suicide - a fact of profound significance...


When certain British politicians, alarmed by the number of the casualties, rallied to the cry of "No more Sommes", they little knew that their latest slogan was also the muttered and heartfelt prayer of the whole of the German Army, from the men in the trenches to the Commander-in-Chief...


These then were the results of the first great battle fought under the supreme command of Haig.   Verdun was saved, the maintenance of Anglo-French co-operation was assured, the British were taught to fight and the heart of the German Army was broken.   (Vol 1, pp.366-369)



The Big Issues

1. The Somme

2.   The Battle of Passchendaele  


A second occasion when Duff Cooper throws aside the role of an historian to argue Haig's case is when he comments on the battle of Passchendaele.   Like the Somme, the battle had undeniably costs thousands of lives, and Haig had been criticised for this.


In justification, Duff Cooper echoes Haig's argument that the British had to be taught to accept the inevitable losses of a war of attrition on the Western Front.   He also casts aside Lloyd George's claim that Haig should have opened the war on another front:


This war was a war of peoples…   Because it was a war of peoples there could be no victory until one side was beaten…   There is no braver people than the Germans; no race, by long tradition, more inured to war.   Until they were defeated the war could not be won.   They could not be defeated in the Dardanelles, nor in Macedonia, nor in the Julian Alps, but only where the flower of their great army was fighting, on the plains of Flanders and in the fields of France.   To defeat them demanded every drop of blood that the Allies shed, every pang of suffering that they endured.   


It may well be that the world would have been happier if no war had been fought.   But fought it was – and we believe that the failure of the Allies would have been a world disaster.   Therefore the supreme consolation is ours to know that all the sacrifices which we made to bring us victory, including the sacrifice of Passchendaele, were not made in vai’.  (Vol 1, 175-6)



2. Passchendaele

3.   The Clash with Lloyd George  


At the start of Volume 2, Duff Cooper addresses the third big issue of the debate::


Henceforward, two facts were to exercise an unhappy influence over the remaining stages of the war.  The Prime Minister of England had, from now on, no confidence in his own Commander-in-Chief, and he disbelieved in the main strategic principle upon which the Governments of France and England had decided...   (Vol 2, p.17)


Why, wonders Duff Cooper, did Lloyd George not dismiss Haig?   Lloyd George's excuse was that 'the whole of the British Empire could not produce a better.   Such an admission of imperial bankruptcy can hardly be taken seriously'.   No, asserts Duff Cooper, Lloyd George's criticisms are simple jealousy:


Much of the deplorable bitterness which pervades the pages of his [Lloyd George's] War Memoirs may be attributed to the fact that, although the war was won within the period of his premiership, the strategy which he advocated was never adopted, and the Commander-in-Chief whom he distrusted was never displaced.   (Vol.2, p.18)  


And he concludes sarcastically:


The truth is that, for some curious reason which he [Lloyd George] cannot explain, the people of Great Britain, who are not always lacking in sagacity, had greater faith in the stupid soldier than in the clever politician.   (Vol 2, p.18)  


To modern ears, it is a lame argument.   It was an argument which appealed to tradition and to the values of nationalism, heroism and militarism.   Lloyd George's desire to limit and justify the bloodshed holds more sway with the modern mind.



3. Clash with Lloyd George

Haig the Saint 


It is worth following the hyperlink to see the full text (Vol 2, pages 435-441) of the passage in which Duff Cooper concludes his biography and vindication of Haig.   His reply to Lloyd George does not debate facts.   For him (however many lies 'others' told), the facts were plain:



Haig foresaw the retreat from Mons and trained the BEF in 'manoeuvre in retreat'.


He exercised the duty of Commander-in-Chief, despite the fact that his command was qualified by the French and and undermined the Prime Minister.


He held the foe at bay when the French army faltered.


He destroyed the fighting ability of the German Army by the great offensives of 1916 and 1917, and evidence recently available from German sources shows that he came very close to victory.


In 1918, Haig realised that the French and British forces had to be united under one commander.


And then, in the last 3 months of the war, he drove the Allied forces on to victory.


For Duff Cooper the answer to Lloyd George was simple - Haig won the war:


As we read the history of the Great War and the mists created by prejudice, propaganda and false witness begin to scatter, the figure of Haig looms ever larger as that of the man who foresaw more accurately than most, who endured longer than most and inspired most confidence amongst his fellows...   Haig believed from the first that the German line could be broken and the German Army beaten in the way that that line was broken and that Army was beaten at last.   (Vol 2, p.435)



Was Haig a genius?   Duff Cooper does not think so.   However, he says, Haig was a truly great man - he showed no resentment against those who reviled him, he served his country faithfully and unstintingly, and after the war he showed his love of humanity by founding the British legion.   Duff Cooper's Haig is a great hero in the mould of Napoleon and Malborough, and he speaks of him in high and glorious phrases - 'If there be a Valhalla... this modest, quiet Scotsman will have his place there':  


Greatness of character is something different from greatness of mind or of intellect.   It is a quality that does not dazzle men....   But when it is possessed by one of those upon whose life the searchlight of history beats, it should command the homage of the historian.   In moral stature Haig was a giant.   It may be easy to find in history a more brilliant, it would be hard to find a better man....   "The legion has lost a president," exclaimed [a member of the British Legion] on hearing of his death,  "but it has gained a patron saint."    (Vol.2, pp.440-1)


At it is here - with the assertion even of Haig's sainthood, and a demand for the 'homage' of the historian, that Duff Cooper ends his 'epic drama' of Haig:


...the story of how for three long years he commanded the greatest armies that his Empire ever put into the field, how in the darkest days his faith in their ability to conquer never faltered, and how he led them to victory in the end.   (Vol.2, p.441)

Haig the Saint