I was intrigued to hear the other morning on Radio4 that a lecture was to be given today about Field Marshall Haig. The lecturer (Professor Sheffield) suggested that Haig should be reconsidered given the harsh treatment from reassessment of his role in World War 1. Sheffield argues that he needs to be seen in the round as a good leader, a visionary and excellent manager and one who transformed the British Army from an amateur organisation into a professional war-winning organisation by 1918. Moreover, we are to accept that Haig managed and lead the largest British organisation ever created up to that point.
Three major points come to mind in considering whether to rehabilitate Haig.***
First, the Nicias defence is not sustainable. Nicias was a general who was tasked to lead Athens’ Syracuse invasion. He was an able leader, a competent general, and a well respected Athenian. Like Haig, he had to command a large army and like Haig, he was a failure. He was not a statesman (a proper strategos) in the way that Alcibiades was. Nicias feared failure and the only way he thought he could deter the Athenian misadventure was to insist on an even larger force with even more ships. He did this with the hopes of deterring Athens. He misread the polis and in doing so doomed it. Athens became excited by Nicias’ approach and sent even more men and more ships. In effect, like Haig he failed because he had no understanding of the fundamental political issue at stake. Haig may have been a competent military man, but as a strategos (exercising the statesman’s art, as all great leaders (like Wellington) must do) he was a failure and hundreds of thousands of men perished as a result.
For a fuller discussion of Nicias and his failure to understand the Athenian regime see Leo Strauss The City and Man.
Second, Haig’s only partial success is his failure created the opportunity for soldiers such as Patton, Macarthur, De Gaulle, and, yes, Churchill to learn from his folly. They understood the failures, they had to carry out the flawed strategy in WW1, and they understood the new way of warfare. Unlike Haig, they understood the need to change their approach to the way of warfare because of technology. Although one may argue that Haig allowed officers in his command to exercise such innovation, it was more out of necessity than an creative vision.
Third, every day I pass the memorials to those men who died in WWI because of Haig. Every Sunday, I see their names listed above the door of the Church. They exist as a moot reminder of Haig’s failures. By 1918, he was waiting for the Germans to lose. He had no vision for winning the war and he had nothing else but to absorb the assaults that had been the bedrock of the previous years. He was not simply re-fighting the previous wars, but rather his mindset was captured by a flawed strategic vision. At the root of the issue is that Haig failed. He was in command when Germany surrendered. To the extent that he was in command, Britain suffered. To the extent that he was not replaced as testament to, the strategic, military leadership void within the British military and the political weakness. In addition, to that extent, his legacy cast a shadow over the UK military approach to WW2 and the belief that the BEF could, or should, emulate its approach in WW2.
In particular, Haig only had a role in the strategy of the Allies holding on until the Central Powers had exhausted themselves. Hardly a strategy to win but rather one to avoid losing until victory conditions emerged. To the extent that it helped to protect British interests it “worked”. However, to the extent that the war should have recast the European political framework, his approach showed the weak relationship to the political strategy guiding the Allied war effort. To the extent that the military art is an extension of politics by other means, the British Army was a blunt instrument pursuing goals that were undeliverable, by a military unwilling or unable to change it.
To some, the Terraine defence is valid in that Haig was doing the best he could with the circumstances. As such, this betrays the point of Haig’s supposed brilliance. In effect, he was caught in a structure and unable to show his agency. If this is the case, then what is the point of arguing for his skill as a manager, a leader, and a commander? He may have led to changes within the British Army but even those are a result of the interaction with the enemy than a vision and intent. In effect, it suggests that is all that history will do is to sum up Haig: he was a good manager.
The overriding point of the war is to win, to force your opponent to do your will through force of arms. As such, the Allies succeeded to the extent that Germany could not win and was in danger of collapse. Taken from the battlefield, Haig was a failure. Yes, he was in charge when the armistice was signed. Yes, he led the BEF throughout, but being in charge and winning are two different things. In that regard, Haig’s “success” is not to be emulated nor is it to be praised, but it is to be remembered. Like Nicias, he is a leader that is to be remembered to remind us of the challenge of leadership in war and what victory means in the end.
***Please note that this is in reference to Haig as a military leader and not Haig the man. Haig was decent and honourable. I also realize that the term “Butcher” is overused and less precise against the historical narrative, but the Somme creates sobering understanding given what followed from that day.
- Innovation and Transformation in the British Army Medical Services 1854-1914: Resistance and Reform (warstudies.wordpress.com)
- Set sail for the trenches. (garyokeefe.wordpress.com)