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Andy Walker

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I should first point out that I am hardly an objective observer of this event. My grandfather, Private John Simkin, was killed during the Somme campaign. My initial interest in history came from my research into the possibility that my grandfather died needlessly. He did. So did thousands of other men from several different countries.

To answer this question about Sir Douglas Haig you need to go back to September, 1914. After the Battle of the Marne, both sides built trenches. It soon became clear that the politicians were wrong when they told their people that the war would be over by Christmas.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWtrenchsystem.htm

What you had was a stalemate. The use of the latest machine guns meant that any side that tried to breakthrough enemy lines would suffer terrible casualties. Sensible members of the British government, like Arthur Henderson, the President of the Board of Education (he was in fact the Labour Party’s first ever cabinet minister), realised that a negotiated peace was the only answer. However, this idea was rejected by the prime minister, Henry Asquith. It was also not acceptable to the man who replaced him, David Lloyd George. Henderson continued to argue for peace and even became involved in trying to arrange a Peace Conference in Sweden. As a result, Henderson was forced to resign from office.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUhenderson.htm

Asquith and Lloyd George both insisted that the British Army fought an offensive war. Sir Douglas Haig was therefore only following orders. However, Haig was an enthusiastic supporter of this policy.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWhaig.htm

Haig developed a policy that became known as a "war of attrition". This was based on the idea that the Allies could afford to lose men more than Germany. Therefore, if you used tactics that ensured great loss of life for both sides, the Allies would win the war and the enemy would run out of men. The problem with this tactic was that it would result in the deaths of millions of men. Haig, who never visited the front line, thought this was a price worth paying.

The battle lasted from July to November 1916. In that time Allied force advanced 12km and suffered 420,000 British and 200,000 French casualties. However, his supporters believed the battle had won the war because it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000.

As James Lovegrove, a junior officer at the Somme was later to say: “The military commanders had no respect for human life. General Douglas Haig, later he was made a Field Marshal, cared nothing about casualties. Of course, he was carrying out government policy, because after the war he was knighted and given a lump sum and a massive life-pension. I blame the public schools who bred these ego maniacs. They should never have been in charge of men. Never.”

Bernard Montgomery (a successful commander in the Second World War), another young officer who served on the Western Front, agreed with Lovegrove: “The higher staffs were out of touch with the regimental officers and with the troops. The former lived in comfort, which became greater as the distance of their headquarters behind the lines increased. There was no harm in this provided there was touch and sympathy between the staff and the troops. This was often lacking. The frightful casualties appalled me. The so-called "good fighting generals" of the war appeared to me to be those who had a complete disregard for human life.”

Haig was both an immoral and incompetent general. This is what he had to say about military tactics in an article written in 1926. “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - the well-bred horse - as you have ever done in the past.”

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWsomme.htm

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There is quite a lot of ground to cover when assessing if Haig had what it took to compete against the Germans with regards to his tactics. I think he has more than enough fellow inmates in the prison of eternal damnation. Many points of view can be taken among which are

Examples

The pre-war British Government which did not invest in a robust and sustainable Army against what it faced when the Schlieffen Plan unwound across France and Belgium.

Once the war settled down the Germans and the British may have inadvertantly extended it by defending everywhere at all times. Post war mobilisation took longer than expected and did not rapidly produce industrial efficiency nor a flood of troops after the volunteer mania wore off.

We see that that the British were still weak in April 1915 when the gas attacks at Ypres threatened to allow a gap to be opened. But even though a gap could be opened in either direction Germans going West or British going east - they had severe difficulties to exploit the local breakthrough.

This pattern repeated itself in the summer of 1916 at the Somme, 1917 at Cambrai. This approach seems to have started to break when the French took over the general direction of the war under the Supreme Allied War Council.

In short - the British Government (- as reported by Walter Page - US Ambassador to London-) thought it would be over before the Americans came in -------- see my paper on The US Mobilization in WW1 at http://www.donlowconcrete.com/wilson/ - the US Secretary of Defence asked why had joint cooperation not been sought with the French pre 1917? Because the government would have fallen was the answer.

This seems only to have been solved in late August 1918 when the August 8 battles at Amiens started pushing back the Germans for the next three months.

Short answer to a long question - Haig didn`t have the tools - they being a joint European approach to the war from the start - didn`t have the mass of American industry available until well into 1916. The Brits went broke early and tried to do things on the cheap - only to be bailed out financially by Uncle Sam - who had money but no strategic vision - or ability to get masses of bombs onto German trenches any better despite their economic aid.

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I'm not sure that you can condem one General of this war and not all of them. The fact is that tactics had not kept up with technology. Soldiers on both sides were still fighting with the tactics used during the American Civil War. Therefore, if Haig were to be a truely brilliant General he would have devised new tactics that did not follow the order of the day: Shell the hell out of them and then charge ahead.

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I think that you could justifiably criticise 'all of them'. The problems with the officer class continued right through the inter-war period until the disasters of the Blitzkrieg and the early stages of the campaign in the desert and Barbarossa, i.e. until the old officer class who didn't think that it was the task of a gentleman to find out how to fight wars had been killed or captured.

My dad was conscripted into the 5/7 Lancers in 1942, when they came back from a successful campaign against Rommel. In the Western Desert Rommel easily defeated the pre-war Lancers when they walked right into a trap. He decided to send the 'high value' soldiers back to Germany as prisoners of war, and the 'rubbish' back to the British so they would have to feed and water them. Problem was, he'd read too many school novels, so he kept the officers and sent the NCOs and other ranks back to the British! The British were then forced to re-constitute the regiment from the people they had left.

During the highly successful campaign of the 5/7 Lancers in Europe after Normandy, the Colonel was the man who had been the pre-war colonel's batman (personal servant) in 1939 and his staff had largely been sergeants and sergeant-majors at the beginning of the war.

True to form, as soon as the prisoners-of-war were liberated, the successful staff were transferred out and the unsuccessful ones put back in charge, but, fortunately, the war was almost over, so they managed to avoid screwing up in the little time left available.

Interestingly enough, in Sweden at this time, the Swedish Army was deployed to the Finnish and Norwegian borders. I've met many people who were NCOs and other ranks at the time, and many of them have stories of who it was who was designated to shoot the captain if the Germans attacked, so that he couldn't order them to go over to the German side.

Edited by David Richardson

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As a follow up - I am reading a small book now called Clausewitz - A very Short Introduction - by Michael Howard - Oxford University Press 2002

In this book and in Clausewitz`s own ON WAR - there is a notion that there is only one means of making war and that there is no limited war.

The Howard Book notes that by the 1911 time period - the doctrine of all parties later to be found guilty - promoted total war vs. limited war in all the Armies of Europe. They say the spread of democratic sentiments made all peoples more bellicose rather than less. This engendered a lack of subtlety in Strategic thinking and the "implacable determination of leaders to gain their objectives whatever the cost, their almost joyful acceptance of heavy casualties as an indication not of military competence but of moral strength. Clausewitz`s defenders could reply that given the issues that were seen to be at stake the war could only be settled by just such a `trial of moral and physical forces by means of the latter`, and no amount of military skill could have attained the political objects - the preservation and destruction of the Habsburg Empire, the establishment or prevention of a German hegemony in Europe, the maintenance of British maritime supremacy, and the territorial integrity of France - any more cheaply. (pp 68 and 69 Clausewitz - A very Short Introduction - by Michael Howard - Oxford University Press 2002)

Thus we may have many term papers to be written on Haig - no smarter but no less blind than the rest of his fellow protagonists.

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