Was Field Marshall Douglas Haig more important that the allied blockade of German naval ports in bringing about the victory on the western front in 1918?

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Natalie Gilbert


“Was Field Marshall Douglas Haig more important that the allied blockade of German naval ports in bringing about the victory on the western front in 1918?”

Although Haig was important in bringing victory to the Allies, he was not as important as the allied blockade. The blockade caused German shortages in food and supplies (which in turn lowered morale.)The blockade subsequently brought the Americans into the war. The blockade was effective as it meant that German troops were too weak to defeat the allied forces, the troops began to contract many diseases such as scurvy and dysentery, related to malnutrition. When compared, Haig’s impact was a lot smaller; however he did make many progressions in battlefield techniques.

In February 1916 the Germans began a determined battle to capture strategic French forts surrounding Verdun. To relieve the pressure, the British led by Haig launched their long-planned offensive at the Somme. After the week long artillery bombardment of German trenches, British troops advanced. In doing so, taking the pressure off the French and allowing them to meet their objectives. This was a success for Haig and showed that he did have some success during the war.  During the battle of the Somme Haig greatly weakened the German army. This is supported by figures from the Battle. British Casualties were at 420,000, French casualties at 200,000 and German casualties at 500,000.

A quote by a German Captain also supports this by showing that even the German Officials believed that the Somme was a disaster for the Germans. Showing that Haig was partially successful in his objective:

“Muddy grave for the German army”

However during the Somme it is also argues that Haig hindered the British. I do agree with this statement. As I feel that Haig was outdated in most of his techniques, and was largely unused to this sort of warfare. The techniques and weapons used at the time were better suited to defence, rather than attack. It was much easier to defend a position, than to attack one. This was due to barbed wire, trenches and mud rendering cavalry charges ineffective. This was a blow to the British as Haig rather favoured cavalry and believed them to be very effective, despite the evidence before him. Machine guns could mow down charging infantry, meaning any attacks made by troops would be completely ineffective. Especially as Haig insisted that his troops should walk across no man’s land in columns. They were commonly referred to as cannon fodder. The colossal new guns of artillery could kill the enemy supplies but were unable to make a breakthrough. Artillery could also destroy enemy guns. But the supply of weapons to both sides quickly became inexhaustible. Factories back home in each country were soon geared up to produce all the extra munitions needed. However the naval blockade hindered Germany’s production as it cut off supplies of nitrates, which is vital for explosives. Germany could not produce food or weaponry necessary for the troops.

Many military mistakes made by Haig and other Generals at the time were to do with tactics, historian David Stevenson wrote:

“At this point, all commentators agree, Haig should have halted. But he insisted on carrying on.”

This quote emphasises the old tendency to press assaults long after the position had become hopeless. The rise of new generals such as Rawlinson and John Monash came at the expense of old, “bad” generals such as Hubert Gough, sacked in March 1918. Another problem with old tactics was that not enough power was given to ground forces. Captains or Generals on the ground could not go against their direct orders, even when it was inevitable that they would fail, later on during the war, more responsibilities were given to the ground troops. For instance if they saw that something was not going to go as planned then they could question or call off the attack.

During the Battle of the Somme, the British planned to attack on a 24 km (15 mile) front, between Serre, north of the Ancre, and Curlu, north of the Somme. Five French divisions would attack a 13 km (8 mile) front south of Somme, between Curlu and Peronne. To ensure a rapid advance, allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. British commanders, like Field Marshall Haig, were so confident they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. Once they had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. However, unconcealed preparations for the assault and the week long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning. Happy to remain on French soil, German trenches were heavily fortified and, furthermore, many of the British shells failed to explode. When the bombardment began, The Germans supply moved underground, and waited. Around 7:30 on July 1, whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. With the shelling over the Germans left their bunkers and set up their positions. If ground troops had been using new tactics then they might not have had these issues. Instead of just bombarding the enemy, then walking across to the trenches, they should have followed the bombardment, so that when it was over they would already be at the trench (Known as a creeping barrage). Unfortunately they didn’t do this, and as the 2 British divisions walked towards the German lines the machine guns started and the slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit their gains and were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: Their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed. Many “pals” battalions, comprising of men from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses; whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers would be filled with lists of the dead, wounded and missing. The French advance was considerably more successful. They had more guns and faced weaker defences, yet were unable to exploit this advantage without British backup and had to fall back to earlier positions. With the “decisive breakthrough” now a decisive failure, Haig accepted that advances would be more limited and concentrated on the southern sector. The British took the German positions there on 14 of July, but again could not follow through. The next two months saw bloody stalemate, with the allies gaining little ground. On 15 September Haig renewed the offensive, using tanks for the first time. However, lightly armed, small in number and often subject to mechanical failure they made little affect. Torrential rains in October turned the battlegrounds into a muddy quagmire and in mid-November the battle ended, with the allies having advanced only 8 km (5 miles). The British suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000. Only in the sense of relieving the French at Verdun can the British have claimed any measure of success.

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“The French reached and even exceeded most of their first day objectives: the British except in the Southern sector, made no gains whatsoever.”

The British had been blockading German ports since 1914. The blockade was supposed to strangle” German industry so that it could not supply the German army. It reduced German trade from $5.9 billion in 1914 to just $0.8 billion in 1917. By 1917 civilians in Germany were experiencing severe shortages.

“It was in food supplies that Germany was most vulnerable. The blockade ensured that this problem would worsen steadily the longer the war continued. Whereas ...

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