The First World War: Assessment of British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

15 Dec
Field Marshal Douglas Haig (photograph within the public domain)

Field Marshal Douglas Haig (photograph within the public domain)

(Note: The following work was submitted to partially fulfill course requirements of ‘The First World War in Perspective’ at University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education, fall semester, 2014.)

Condemnation of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig for the exorbitant loss of men under his command along the Western Front during the First World War is understandable but unwarranted. This war, the first major global conflict of the Twentieth Century, was characterized by evolving, devastating weaponry (artillery, machine guns, gas) of which the deployment of and use amid vast fronts was new not only to all commanders in the field but to those answerable to at home; British Prime Minister Lloyd George, the War Office, and both British public and press in this instance.

Haig’s relationship with Lloyd George, George a staunch ‘easterner’ who believed that victory was impossible in the west but obtainable “in the Eastern theatre of operations,” proved to be difficult in his quest for victory on the western front.[1] As a predominantly defensive war, decisions were to be reached through costly offensive strategies which had to result in excessive loss of infantry. Haig was not the only field commander to suffer this legacy; Germany lost approximately 500,000 men during the second Battle of the Somme in 1916.[2]

Haig’s dilemma of ‘old school’ leadership during the First World War owes not only to the changing nature of warfare in 1914, but his approach to war fighting which was forged during the (Second) Boer War. It was not that cavalry had little place on the Western Front; it was Haig’s tactic of infantry leading the way for cavalry that was outdated. Gerard J. DeGroot in Haig: A Re-Appraisal 80 Years On writes that

Aside from the difference in rank, the Haig who returned from war in 1902 was essentially the same Haig who went to war in 1914. While he and his co-religionists argued the merits of antique weapons and tactics, their minds were diverted from studying the implications of technological developments upon military science. This was unfortunate, for the Army, if not for Haig. He had many of the qualities of greatness. His unemotional, conservative nature was suited to crisis. His courage and devotion to his men and to his profession cannot be questioned. He was capable of clear thinking and decisive action. Nor was he unintelligent—as those who seek an easy explanation for the carnage of the Great War have often claimed. But a good commander was weakened by an irrational adherence to outdated doctrine.[3]

Additionally, in Haig’s defense, Great Britain had “limited resources” in 1915, which on the surface appear to support his defense early in the war.[4] Chief among these limited resources was the shortfall of artillery shells.

French, Joffre and Haig (left to right) visit the front line during 1915 (photograph within public domain)

French, Joffre and Haig (left to right) visit the front line during 1915 (photograph within public domain)

As noted by historians of the Great War, Haig should not be condemned for failures without mentioning his subsequent successes. There is a ‘learning curve’, or an adaptation that takes place in every war. Again, to hold Haig to a higher standard seems unjust, but understandable given the losses. Haig’s over-aggressive tactic of “decisive breakthrough” from 1915-1917 as opposed to conservative but wiser “short advances backed by massive firepower”[5] led many British soldiers to their deaths. The U.S. Marine Corps’ first contested amphibious assault of the Second World War at Tarawa in 1943 was comparable, in that strategy and preparedness were questioned. The American public and press were similarly shocked at the loss of life at the outset of that Pacific learning curve.

In J.P. Harris’s final summary in Douglas Haig and the First World War, he reconciles Haig’s leadership in context of the entire war, of which this essay’s stance is in agreement with. Harris concludes that Haig was not “one of history’s great generals” and at times during the Great War “not good.” Harris adds:

The Western Front 1914-1918 was a time and place that tended to make nearly all generals look inadequate. Haig was not, of course, responsible for the war, and given that the British government had decided to intervene, it was practically inevitable that hundreds of thousands of British Empire troops would die in France and Flanders before final victory was attained.[6]

It is only proper that a new generation of historians see fit to recognize the Great War and its tragedy for what it was, and recognize that the failings of any one leader—in this case Haig—must be evaluated in its global context and entirety.


[1] J.P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 242.
[2] Ibid, 271.
[3] Brian Bond and Nigel Cave, eds., Haig: A Re-Appraisal 80 Years On. (South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword, 2009), Kindle Edition.
[4] J.P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 537.
[5] Ibid., 545-546.
[6] Ibid., 545


Bond, Brian and Nigel Cave, eds. Haig: A Re-Appraisal 80 Years On. South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword, 2009.
Harris, J.P. Douglas Haig and the First World War. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in World War I - General


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