Source Documents on Haig


Haig Unperturbed

Sir Douglas Haig was undismayed by the events of 1 July.   His response to the casualty figures – provisionally estimated at 40,000 – was that they were to be expected.   He reserved his concern for the ‘cowardly’ performance of VIII Corps.   Above all he continued the battle.

JM Bourne, Britain and the Great War (1989)


German Woes after the Battle of the Somme

The German army had been fought to a standstill and was utterly worn out.

General Ludendorff, War Memoirs (1920)


The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army, and of the faith in the infallibility of the German leaders.

A German psychologist


No commander could have given the Germans back the trained soldiery which had been destroyed.

A German military writer.



Had Haig Learned Any Lessons?

You propose that strong attacks shall be made by our respective armies with the object not only of drawing in and using up the enemy’s reserves, but of gaining such tactical successes as will open the way for decisive action…   I have already agreed to launch such an attack as you describe, but not to an indefinite continuation of the battle to use up the enemy’s reserves.   Such continuation might result in a prolonged struggle, like that on the SOMME this year, and would be contrary to our agreement that we must seek a definite and rapid decision.

Haig to Nivelle, 6 January 1917


At the present time I think our action should take the form of 1. Winter ‘sports’ or raids continued into the Spring.   2. Wearing out fight similar to 1 but on a larger scale at many points along the whole front.

Haig, Diary (14 January 1916)


The C-in-C was lodged in the Chateau de Valvion, roughly equidistant from the headquarters of Rawlinson and Gough.   The correct position for a C-in-C at such a time is not easy to decide…   Haig was learning.   The following year he found that a properly equipped train made a more satisfactory Advanced GHQ when battle was in progress.

John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire (1980)


Haig believed firmly in the principle of leaving decisions to ‘the man on the spot’.   Consequently, though Haig drew attention to the German probing methods at Verdun, when Rawlinson settled for linear attack, Haig did not feel that he could override him.   Later in the war, he would not be so diffident.

John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire (1980)


The Order of the Day

Victory will belong to the side that holds out the longest.   There is no other course open but to fight it out.   Every position must be held to the last man.   There must be no retirement.   With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.

Haig, Order of the Day (11 April 1918)


Criticisms of Haig

He was a painstaking professional soldier with a sound intelligence of secondary quality.   He had the courage and stubbornness of his race.   But he did not possess the necessary breadth of vision or imagination to plan a great campaign against some of the ablest generals of the war.   I never met a man in a high position who seemed to me so utterly devoid of imagination.

Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1928)


As an executive commander there has hardly been a finer defensive general; in contrast, among those who have gained fame as offensive generals none perhaps have made worse errors… His mind was dominated by the instinct of method, where he failed was in the instinct of surprise – originality of conception, fertility of resource, receptivity in ideas.   In his qualities and defects he was the very embodiment of the national character and the army tradition.

Liddell Hart, Reputations (1928)

From a book of essays about the great leaders of World War One.


In all the British offensives the British casualties were never less than 3 to 2, and often nearly double the corresponding German losses…   The campaign of 1916 on the Western  Front was from beginning to end a welter of slaughter.

Winston Churchill, The World Crisis

Haig commented that it was French pressure which forced him to keep fighting on the Western Front in 1916–1917, and wrote about the battle of Passchendaele in 1917: ‘It is impossible for Winston to know how the possibility of the French army breaking up in 1917 compelled me to go on attacking.   Pétain pressed me not to leave the Germans alone for a week, on account of the awful state of the French troops.


His stubbornness in the offensive all but ruined us on the Somme.

Fuller, Memoirs of an Unconventional Soldier

Fuller had harsh things to say about most commanders.   EKG Sixsmith comments: ‘Fuller had a brilliant perception of what it would have been better to do’.  


The whole planning of the Somme campaign was ham-fisted and clumsy.   The fault for the failure of most of the strategic planning must fall on Haig.   Because the plan failed, Haig must be held responsible.   The main fault with Haig and his Chief of Staff in London, General Sir William Robertson, was that although they had got the reasoning of war right, ie that it must be decided on the Western Front, they also felt that they must have some spectacular victory to prove how right they were.  

Perhaps the fault lay in the idea that the British still regarded war as an extension of a game of rugger…   an attitude which proved totally ineffectual against the cold German professionalism that manifested itself in the form of accurate shell, machine gun and rifle fire.   Haig promised victory and failed.

PW Turner and RH Haigh, Not for Glory (1969)



Apologists for Haig

No man did more to take away from Haig all credit for victory in the war than Lloyd George.   Haig’s great weight of responsibility must have been vastly increased by the knowledge that Lloyd George mistrusted his military opinion and ability…   But Haig was not deflected from his purpose.   Only a man of outstanding integrity and great strength of character would have remained and done what he did.   He continued to follow the strategy which he considered to be right.   The events of 1918 proved it was right.   It was doubtful whether anyone else could have done it so well.

The disparaging remark about Haig’s lack of imagination was written in Lloyd George’s Memoirs with hindsight after Haig’s death.   [At their first meeting, Lloyd George had written:] ‘I have the feeling that everything that the trained thought of a great soldier can accomplish, is being done’.   It was the Somme which altered Lloyd George’s opinion of Haig.

EKG Sixsmith, Douglas Haig (1976)


The differences on military policy, which during the last two years of the war caused friction between Haig and Lloyd George, were such as are likely to arise in time of crisis between professional soldiers and the elected representatives of a democracy.   Haig’s views on strategy were sound… to decide that all the generals were wrong and that the truth lay with the civilians would indeed be a sad conclusion.   Greatness of character is something different from greatness of mind or of intellect.   In moral stature, Haig was a giant.   It may be easy to find in history a man more brilliant, it would be hard to find a better man.

Duff Cooper, Haig (1936)

Duff Cooper was one of the military men whose opinions he thought better than the civilians’ – in the 1930s had been First Lord of the Admiralty in the navy.


Few soldiers have been less understood and more misrepresented than Douglas Haig.   Duff Cooper and John Terraine have cleverly championed his reputation as a humane commander.   The legend of his lack of imagination and callous brutality, however, still exist.   One of the faults of Haig’s nature was that he trusted too completely some of his immediate subordinates.   The cost was high, but it would have been higher still had the agony been prolonged.   Haig’s foresight, energy and resolve were among the main factors which contributed to the Allied victory in 1918.

General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, Haig as Military Commander (1973)

Marshall-Cornwall had served Haig as a junior officer during the battle of the Somme, and said that he had witnessed first hand the effect of the bad advice and information given to Haig.


Haig had a fine appearance, and a stern devotion to duty.   Though he had no more idea that others how to win the war, he was sure that he could win it.   Divine help would make up for any deficiencies on his part.   This unshakeable confidence, and the support of the king, enabled Haig to survive a long record of failure and to emerge in the end victorious…   A later generation may feel that Haig should have stood on the defensive and waited for the tanks.   The French would not have tolerated this.   The British public would have been still more indignant.   Haig had to do what he did and, though he did not succeed, no one better was found to take his place.

AJP Taylor, The First World War (1963)  


Your World War One examples, while trying to introduce some element of balance to the argument, still do not give sufficient weight to the work of recent historians like Sheffield, Griffith and Strachan who have done so much to question the 'all British generals were idiots' line.   The fact is that British tactics developed considerably during the war.   'Bite and Hold' (developed in 1917) became the basis of British attacks in both world wars - El Alamein (in the Second World War) is a classic battle in that regard, with percentage casualties on a World War I scale.   The creeping barrage, again used in both world wars, was developed during the Somme which supposedly consisted of men repeatedly being thrown uselessly 'over the top'. 

The point which many (but not all) student textbooks fail to stress is the sheer difficulty of winning a war involving mass armies and technologically-advanced powers.   The idea that if only we had sacked Haig and got somebody clever we'd have won the war quickly with minimal losses is nonsense - we're talking the German Army here, not the Band of Hope.   It took millions of Russian dead in World War II to stop them - in battles more costly than the Somme or Passchendaele.

Mark Hone, email to this website (2002)  

Mark Hone is a modern historian and teacher - Head of History and Politics, Bury Grammar School, Lancashire.


Blackadder on Haig

From episode 1 of Blackadder Goes Forth, the series reserved some of its most telling satire for Haig and the futility of his tactics:


Blackadder: My instincts lead me to deduce that we are at last about to

go over the top. [peers over the top of the trench with a periscope]

George: Great Scott sir, you mean, you mean the moment's finally arrived for us to give Harry Hun a darned good British style thrashing, six of the best, trousers down?

Blackadder: If you mean, "Are we all going to get killed?" Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.


Melchett: Now, Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field. [they gather around a model of the battlefield]

Blackadder: Now, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy sir?

Darling: How can you possibly know that Blackadder? It's classified information.

Blackadder: It's the same plan that we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.

Melchett: E-E-Exactly! And that is what so brilliant about it! We will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do this time! There is however one small problem.

Blackadder: That everyone always gets slaughtered the first ten seconds.

Melchett: That's right! And Field Marshal Haig is worried that this may be depressing the men a tadge. So, he's looking to find a way to cheer them up.

Blackadder: Well, his resignation and suicide would seem the obvious solution.

Black-Adder- Series 4, Episode 1



Darling: What the General means, Blackadder, is: There's a leak. In short: A German spy is giving away every one of our battle plans.

Melchett: You look surprised, Blackadder.

Blackadder: I certainly am, sir. I didn't realise we had any battle plans.

Melchett: Well, of course we have! How else do you think the battles are directed?

Blackadder: Our battles are directed, sir?

Melchett: Well, of course they are, Blackadder -- directed according to the Grand Plan.

Blackadder: Would that be the plan to continue with total slaughter until everyone's dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan?

Melchett: Great Scott! (stands) Even you know it! Guard! Guard! Bolt all the doors; hammer large pieces of crooked wood against all the windows! This security leak is far worse than we'd imagined!

Black-Adder- Series 4, Episode 5