Gary Sheffield is an old hand at writing the history of World War I.  In addition to being a professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton, he was co-editor of Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters, 1914-18.  It is obvious that he wishes to set not just the United Kingdom but the whole world straight on the lifetime and achievements of Field Marshal Haig.

Haig was born June 19, 1861, in Edinburgh.  His father, John, owned a distillery, and young Douglas grew up in rather comfortable circumstances.  (Whisky was, and continues to be, in demand in Scotland as well as the U.S., and the Haig brand of Scotch can be purchased in virtually any liquor store to this day.)  He later attended Oxford but left before taking a degree, which in the British Army of Haig’s time conferred no special advantage to the holder.  Sheffield tells us that

Haig enjoyed Oxford and remembered it fondly in later years, but it is not clear from his undergraduate diaries whether he had any sort of emotional or sex life. . . . Did he have homosexual inclinations?  The evidence for this is non-existent . . .

Then why bring up the subject?

The focus of Sheffield’s book is Haig’s fitness for command.  As the title suggests, this book covers the period from the first battle of the Somme, through Passchendaele, and up to the culmination of the Hundred Days Offensive, though the author does provide a summary of Haig’s career during his days as a young cavalry officer serving first in Egypt and Sudan (1898), his service in  the Second Boer War (1899-1902), his staff time and command of the Aldershot training facility (1902-12), and finally his appointment as head of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915.

Haig has been criticized by many historians for his command of the BEF during the first battle of the Somme, from July to November, 1916.  On the first day of battle (July 1) the British Army suffered its most horrific loss of human life in its history.  Within the first 24 hours, the British lost a staggering 19,240 soldiers.  Including the wounded and missing in action, the casualty list reaches over 55,000.  The original purpose of the battle was to relieve pressure on the French garrison at Verdun and to break through the German lines.  Both sides suffered horrendous casualties: The British and French gained about 12 kilometers of ground, but at a cost of 600,000 casualties.

About a year later, Haig was again involved in planning a major offensive operation against the Germans in the vicinity of the town of Passchendaele in west Flanders.  The aim was to cut the main German rail link and seize submarine bases on the Belgium coast.  Marshal Foch, commander of French forces, and David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain, were against the idea, thinking it better to wait, in a defensive position, against any German advances and hold any action in reserve until American troops and equipment reached the Allied armies.  (The United States had declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and by May of that year 14,000 American troops had arrived.  The balance, over one million men, would arrive by June 1918.)  The French Army at this time had its own problems.  The Nivelle Offensive (named after the French general who conceived it) was repulsed with heavy casualties, causing the French army to mutiny in April 1917.  Nearly a million young French soldiers under the age of 20 had been killed out of a population of 20 million Frenchmen.  French troops would not tolerate being ordered into frontal assaults over open terrain; they refused to leave their trenches or salute their officers.  Nivelle was relieved of command and replaced by Marshal Pétain.

The German forces’ last hurrah occurred during the “Hundred Days.”  Actually, the term refers not to any specific campaign but to a series of them from August 8 to November 11, 1918.  Through July and August of that year a Franco-American force defeated the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne, and a British-Canadian force did the same at the Battle of Amiens, which featured over 500 tanks; German General Ludendorff described the battle as “The Black Day of the German Army.”  By September 18, 1918, Haig’s forces had reached the Hindenburg Line.  On September 28, the Germans requested an armistice.  The treaty of surrender followed not long after on November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m.—the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour.

Most criticism of Haig’s performance as a wartime commander stems from the disastrous casualty counts at First Somme and Passchendaele.  The aftermath of both battles earned him the sobriquets “Butcher of the Somme” and “Butcher Haig.”  The remark of the Greek general Pyrrhus after his victory over the Romans in 279 b.c. at Ausculum comes to mind: “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”  British historian B.H. Liddell Hart, who fought in the First World War, referred to Haig as “not merely immoral but criminal.”

And yet the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John Pershing, referred to Haig as “the man who won the war.”  Another British historian, the late John Terraine, defended him by claiming that, while some of the Allied generals lost heart, Haig persevered, believing firmly the war would be won on the Western Front but also that high casualty rates were inevitable.  Sheffield points out that generals of other armies in the Great War whose losses far surpassed Haig’s (the aforementioned French general Nivelle comes to mind) rarely came in for criticism.  And it is notable that over one million mourners (by some estimates) attended Haig’s funeral service.

Sheffield closes with a list of achievements that answer, at least in part, the insults and accusations of his opponents.  First, leading up to 1914, Haig built the British army and prepared it for war.  Second, during 1916-18, he transformed the British army into a war-winning force.  Third, his leadership was vital to the Allied strategy.  And fourth, Haig’s advocacy spurred the British government to provide medical services and other benefits for returning veterans.

Subsequently, the entertainment industry launched two sophomoric attempts at discrediting the British high command in World War I, Haig in particular: the musical (later made into a movie) Oh! What a Lovely War and a BBC series titled Blackadder.  Sheffield, by contrast, fairly evaluates Field Marshal Haig on the basis of exhaustive research and dispassionate analysis, offering a balanced view of “one of the most significant generals in the British army’s history.”


Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory, by Gary Sheffield (London: Aurum Press) 480 pp., $34.99