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Was General Haig a donkey or a great commander?

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Was General Haig a donkey or a great commander? '"Good morning, good morning!" the General said, When we met him last week on the way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead, And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine. "He's a cheery old card" grunted Harry to Jack, As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both with his plan of attack.' Douglas Haig, as he was then, was born in Edinburgh in 1861, and educated at the Royal military college at Sandhurst. He fought in the Sudan and the South African wars, and also held administrative positions in India. While director of military training from 1906 to 1909 he introduced several major reforms, including the introduction of the Territorial Army and an expeditionary force for a future European war (the BEF). In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Haig was leader of the 1st Corps and by 1915 was commander of the 1st Army. On December 17th he succeeded Sir John French as commander in chief of the expeditionary force that he had helped to set up. His actions over the two years succeeding his appointment have been rigorously scrutinised by hundreds of people, and several different opinions about his character, his skill and his professionalism have been expressed. These range from expressions of disgust to those of unerring admiration, and all have ideas to support them. What is undeniable is that Haig played a vital role in the 1st World War, and without his presence, the outcome would almost certainly have been different, although it is hard to say for better or for worse. Although the above poem, by Sassoon, was not written with reference to Douglas Haig, (Haig being anything but a "cheery old card"), it does illustrate the opinion of the British to their generals in the years after the war. ...read more.


The statistics continue: During the first 24 days of the Somme, 4.5 million shells were fired, and at Arras 6.46 million were discharged in the same period. This may be true, but critics would argue that by the end of the offensive any noble concepts of breakthroughs had been disposed of, and the war had descended into a battle of attrition. The justification for this was that the BEF were depleting the German forces, and wearing them down, and again the obvious answer seems to be "A general who wears down 180,000 of the enemy by expending 400,000 men...has something to answer for. In response, his supporters and indeed some of his enemies would argue, just as the German archives did in 1928, that "It would be a great mistake to measure the results of the battle of the Somme by mere local gain of ground...Although the casualties of the Entente were numerically greater than ours (the Germans)...this grave loss of blood affected Germany very much more heavily." This could have been due to the keenly contested battles of Verdun and the Brusilov offensives, which had affected the Germans and their opponents (the French and the Russians) but had not affected the British army. Therefore they claim that the Germans had fewer men to spare and so were affected more seriously by the tactics. Haig's critics describe the Somme as a "hideous turmoil that that must be recorded as the most soulless battle in British annals. It deteriorated into a blood purge rivalling Verdun. It was a battle not so much of attrition as of mutual destruction, and it continued until November." On the other hand, the Somme is considered by some to be a success as the "improvised cadres of the BEF's citizen-soldiers grow in skill and confidence, whilst, in a bloody contest of attack and counter attack the old German Imperial Army was destroyed" and "would never be the same instrument again." ...read more.


Indeed, Germany had secured two peace deals with Russia and Romania, which provided them with more than enough raw material and food. Therefore it is necessary to compare the effect of the blockade with the resources that Germany acquired during the war, not just those that it had in 1914. Many people also say that the German military chiefs exaggerated the effects of the blockade, in an effort to distract attention away from the incompetence of the army. Without the physical, military defeat of the German army, the war could never have been won, although perhaps it could have been won with not such drastic loss of life. So, it seems that the war had to be won on the battlefield, and the battlefield almost always involves loss of life. Yet there still seem to be two stages in the war, each of which supports one or other of the two factions. The battles of 1916 and 1917 favour his critics, whilst the '100 days campaign' of 1918 strongly supports the claims of his supporters. Yet Haig himself explained that "the victory of 198 can only be understood if the long succession of battles commenced on the Somme in 1916 and ended in 1918...are viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement." While Haig undoubtedly sent millions of young men to their deaths, on the fields of a foreign country, he still won the war, and presided "over such a titanic struggle...bore that awesome burden of responsibility...and never faltered in the belief that ultimately victory would come." Welcomed back to Britain as a hero, and buried as a hero in 1928, many people still question his place as "master of the field." Therefore I believe that Haig, a very brave, resourceful and well-meaning man, was perhaps not the best of military strategists, and had a few small but important weaknesses that class him as more of an old, retired thoroughbred, slightly out of date, than a donkey or indeed a triumphant racehorse. ...read more.

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