The presentation by John Stevens on “The Butcher of The Somme” has been widely received, by not only our own local membership, but also by many others globally. It has certainly brought into context the role played by Field Marshall Haig and the presentation was of great interest. Our Zoom meeting, which ran over two sessions, had barely sufficient time to answer questions and we have taken the opportunity of adding further comment. Mac Alexander’s vote of thanks which pays tribute to John’s contribution is also included.
We will have Stephen Bowker addressing our December meeting on his family and the part that the Bowkers have played over the generations in the military history of the Eastern Cape. It is said that the Bowkers have not missed out on a good fight since landing in 1820 and that includes all wars. We look forward to Stephen enlightening us!
The Butcher of the Somme: Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig,
KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE (19th June 1861 - 29th January 1928)
by John Stevens on 9 November 2020
1. Reputation Decline
100 years ago, Douglas Haig was the hero of the Empire, the man who led the British Army to victory on the Western Front, lauded and applauded by all. From his premature death from a sudden heart attack in 1928, his reputation started to decline. This was very much triggered by David Lloyd George (British Prime Minister 1916 – 1922) in his memoirs of the Great War (1933 – 1936), ably assisted by his Military Adviser, Captain Liddle Hart, who was wounded on the Somme in 1916.
Lloyd George had a self-professed low confidence index in people who battled to articulate speech clearly. He saw this as a weakness of intellectual capacity to think clearly. Douglas Haig had such an impediment as he was notorious as a man of few words and was not the centre of any social gathering, being reserved and withdrawn. However, whatever Haig lacked with the tongue, he more than made up with the pen and had no problem expressing himself with this medium.
Lloyd George expressed doubts in Haig’s ability as Commander of the BEF on the Western Front, which led to massive losses in terms of casualties. This planted the seed which, in my opinion, led to a decline in Haig’s reputation.
2. Hero to Zero
After World War 2, the decline rapidly continued. In the 1960s Alan Clark’s book “The Donkeys” fuelled public sentiments even further. Charles Chilton’s masterful sentimental BBC radio programme “The Long, Long Trail” aroused memories of the war and, in turn, led Joan Littlewood to combine Chilton’s programme, very much underwritten by Clark’s book, into the play “Oh, What a Lovely War”. She gets Chilton on board to assist her. Her motive being to expose the “folly of war”, given her perception that the world is heading towards a nuclear holocaust and needs a jerk into reality. Clark picks up that she has plagiarised his book and sues her. This, through the medium of humour and song, influences the British public even further. Richard Attenborough turns this into a highly successful movie with Joan Littlewood’s help and entrenches the message even further. The core message of these linked works being the incompetence of British generals, led by Haig, during World War One, which led to unacceptable losses. In the late 1980s Haig’s reputation is further dented by the highly successful British TV comedy “Blackadder Goes Forth”, which again attacks Haig’s incompetence. This is so successful that in 1996 the Daily Express in a Remembrance Day article launches a campaign calling for the removal of Haig’s statue as they feel he is not deserving of this recognition. This is not successful. In 2020, “Black Lives Matter” George Floyd protesters target Haig’s statue applying political graffiti. This is removed by volunteer soldiers of the Household Cavalry. By now Haig’s public reputation has dropped to Zero.
3. Personalities in Conflict
Even credible historians found themselves in conflict. John Terraine, considered by many modern historians as the prime authority on the British Army in WW1, leads the fightback in the 1960s with his book the “Educated General”, regarded as the first true academic investigation into Haig. Terraine digs deeply into Haig’s battlefield performance and finds this to be far above expectations. John Laffin in his book “British Butchers and Bunglers of WW1”, finds Haig to be the “worst donkey” on the British side in WW1. Gary Sheffield, a current British academic, WW1 military historian and author, has this take on Haig: “Haig was far from the idiot of popular myth and the fact that his armies won the greatest series of victories in British military history means we must take him seriously as a military commander.”
Was Haig a dim witted bungler of limited intellect and ability who managed to elevate himself into senior rank and privilege only through influence and having the right connections? I think not.
One only has to take a look at his career resume to discover an extraordinarily intelligent and capable officer. Starting with a university education at Oxford (very rare amongst military officers at this time) and developing into a world class polo player of extraordinary riding and playing talent (a sure sign of a sharp mind under pressure). He comes first in his class at Sandhurst Military College and from there becomes the man to watch in the British Army. He becomes Adjutant of the 7th Hussars at the age of 26 as a young lieutenant, a role he fills effectively by all accounts. This is unusual for one so young. He attends the Staff College at Camberley, where he does well. He has a flair for organisation and staff work and becomes recognised for his detailed and stimulating reports on both French and German Cavalry Manoeuvres. He sees active service under Kitchener in the Mahdist War in the Sudan, where he displays a coolheaded ability to assess and correct some difficult combat situations on the fly, earning praise. He also shows great courage when he rides out under fire to rescue and bring in a wounded cavalryman - a feat his fellow officers think is worthy of the VC and they commission a painting to commemorate his act. Haig performs well in the Boer War as temporary Chief of Staff to General Sir John French, is appointed to command the 17th Lancers and later a brigade column. Haig is mentioned in despatches 4 times. After the war ends, Kitchener asks Haig to become his Inspector General of Cavalry in India and he becomes the youngest Major General in the Army and reforms the Indian Cavalry to world class standards. Haig is now being seen as a reformer and modernist by his peers. Haig goes on to reform the Indian Army as a whole, but the task gets cancelled by an irate Secretary of State for India before it is finalised. The documentation is ordered to be destroyed, but a copy survives. When war breaks out in 1914, this is recovered and the Indian Army gets brought up to scratch quickly and is the first Empire force to arrive in support of the BEF in 1914. He is given the British Army’s most prestigious Aldershot Command in 1912. This effectively became 1 Corps of the BEF in the event of war.
5. The Ultimate Test
Many modern historians debunk the myth that Haig was weak in intellect and conned his way to the top by considering his relationship with Sir Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War in the British Government. Haldane is regarded as very effective in his role as a positive reformer of the British Army after the Boer War. He was highly intelligent, a sharp lawyer by profession and nobody’s fool and is considered to be one of the best Secretaries of War in British history. To achieve reform in the Army, he needed a military right hand to formulate and action his ideas. Haig was recommended for this role and recalled from India. Haldane created the British Expeditionary Force and the Territorial Force, working with Haig as his chief adviser and administrator. Haldane’s opinion of Haig’s abilities is of the highest order. Haldane tells us: “After surveying the whole Army, I took it upon myself to ask Lord Haig, who was then in India, to come over to this country and to think for us. From all I could discover even then, he seemed to be the most highly equipped thinker in the British Army.” It is felt that, of all people, Haldane would have quickly identified Haig as a dim-witted bungler and exposed him. This is not the case.
In 1905 Haig marries Lady Dorothy Vivian, an intelligent, attractive and vivacious Maid of Honour to the Queen, some 20 years Haig’s junior, after a whirlwind romance and fairy tale wedding. Some think Haig sought an entry into the Royal environment, but a solid, loving, close supportive marriage shows otherwise. She, too, would surely have sussed him out as unsuitable were he not up to scratch, given her family connections. She writes an autobiography of Haig in his defence after he dies.
6. Command Challenges (Excessive losses)
The two most devastating actions during Haig’s command were the Battles of the Somme in 1916 and the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917. These presented Haig with some serious challenges and Haig was not in a position where he was able to avoid the pitfalls:
1. The Somme
This was not a battle of his choosing and from the outset heavily influenced by the French Army demands. When the Germans attacked Verdun, the ball game changed from a massive joint attack to the French fighting for survival at Verdun and screaming for the British to relieve pressure by attacking without delay. A now large, but totally inexperienced, mainly volunteer citizen British Army with only relatively limited, inexperienced artillery with shortages of heavy weapons and defective ammunition, had no choice but to make do as best they could. On the other side of the wire they faced the cream of the German Army dug into some of the most formidable defensive positions ever created. Haig did not have the luxury of calling the offensive off when things went badly and risk losing the war.
2. The 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)
Again, Haig finds himself driven by French needs. The French Army is in the middle of a crippling mutiny, with close to two thirds of the French Army in revolt. In order to keep the German Army from taking advantage of this weakness and bringing the war to a swift end, the British Army had to act swiftly. General Petain, now commanding the French Army, calls on Haig to give him time to restore order in the French Army. While much has been said about the unnecessary losses incurred, particularly by keeping the offensive going after no further gains could be achieved, time had to be bought for the French Army to recover. Haig does not have it all his own way. Again, losses are huge.
While we are quick to blame Haig as incompetent and see him as a Butcher, I have found no other senior commanders on any side, in what was a new type of modern war which had little respect for men’s lives, who did any better; in fact, most did considerably worse. They seem not to be held to account to the same extent as Haig has been.
So, was Haig the Butcher of the Somme? In terms of the number of casualties, he would have been the first to admit responsibility and blame it on no one else, being the Commander in Chief of the BEF. I see no action on his part ever to shift the blame. The term “Butcher” implies a callous, uncaring and unfeeling commander, who committed his troops to their deaths, without a moment’s concern or remorse for his actions. I do not see this in Haig.
Given the huge burden and mask of command he had to bear to take the decisions required to get the job done without showing emotion, which can be interpreted as being uncaring. Given his Victorian Army regimental roots, the requirement to care for your men was a priority well ingrained into all officers.
His supreme efforts after the War to look after “his” veterans support this view, in my mind. While arguments abound that he was simply acting to redeem himself from his war actions, it is interesting to note that he first raised the issue of the long term welfare of BEF troops in a memorandum to the Government in February 1917.
Haig understood the idea that large modern, technically advanced armies of similar size pitted against each other would produce large numbers of casualties on both sides and had to shoulder the responsibility and risk of casualties under difficult circumstances.
Churchill sums it up well in later years when he writes “He might be, surely he was, unequal to the prodigious scale of events; but no one else was discerned as his equal or his better.”
A recording of John’s presentation is in the SAMHS Zoom Library.
Mac Alexander’s vote of thanks – "The Butcher of the Somme"
“Thank you, John, for an outstanding talk, examining the sometimes tarnished reputation of Field Marshal Douglas Haig in such a refreshing manner and with far more balance and objectivity than his critics. To me, your lecture succeeded in overcoming three major difficulties in the study of military history (perhaps in the study of all history!). Difficulties which had clearly turned Haig into a victim. They are:
Your analysis of the analysts was insightful and thought-provoking. Thank you for the thorough research that you obviously did into this subject.”
Comment from Ronnie Glass on “The Butcher of The Somme”
Ronnie is a SAMHS Cape Town member and has added the following comments that, had time permitted, he would have made at the meeting:
“Prime Minster Lloyd George appeared to blame Haig after his death - how convenient as he could not defend himself and was it not a case of Lloyd George as Prime Minister at the time trying to keep his name clean after Armistice? He thus had definite motives for blaming Haig and I would take what he said as not unbiased and very motivated. He was the person who would take the final decision/responsibility as Head of Government.
Did the French and Germans also subsequently hold their WW1 leaders in such disregard was a question posed? The answers being:
French: NO; why? look at the position Petain held - he was so high up that he could enter into a pact with Hitler on behalf of his nation.
Germans: NO; why? look at Hindenburg - he was State President of Germany until his death. He is remembered by having airships named after him. There was no ship called Haigh to my knowledge.
Fascinating that he was forced by the French into 2 battles he was not keen to enter at that moment, thinking of his troops’ non-readiness for battle – again thinking of his men.
And in conclusion, my opinion of the man has altered thanks to John!”
SAMHSEC’s RPC on 26 October 2020:
Malcolm Kinghorn spoke on the War Memorial on the East London Railway Station. The Memorial consists of two panels with the Rolls of Honour of the South African Railways and Harbours Officers and Men who have given their lives in the Great War 1914-1918 and in the World War 1939-1945. The inscriptions are in English and Dutch on the former and English and Afrikaans on the latter.
The presentation focused on one of the soldiers whose name is on the Great War Memorial, Private J.J.C. Human. He is in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records as 21357 Private J.J.C. Human, Second Regiment South African Infantry, who died in England on 21 October 1918, after having been evacuated as a casualty from France. He is buried in the Brookwood Military Cemetery. The presentation closed with a photograph of one of his grandsons visiting his grave in the 1960s.”
A recording of Malcolm’s presentation is in the SAMHS Zoom Library:
Peter Duffel-Canham spoke on his father, John Duffel-Canham’s book Seaman Gunner Do Not Weep. Peter did a presentation on the book to SAMHSEC on 11 May 2006, see EASTERN CAPE newsletter - No. 21: - June 2006 - South African Military History Society - Title page (samilitaryhistory.org).
A Heritage site under threat – who can assist?
This request comes from Willem Hutten and if anyone can assist, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am an archaeologist based in Cape Town, but have conducted a couple of projects on historic battlefields making use of hobby metal detectors to assist. All of these projects have been under SAHRA/HWC permits, and the metal detectors were trained according to set protocols.
I received a query from one of these metal detectors regarding a heritage site at 34,017467 S, 25,594283 E which is in danger of becoming part of an informal settlement. This would make the site inaccessible for any future research or conservation.
I am fully aware that the issue of metal detecting is contentious in itself. Since I am not familiar with PE, could you advise on any local organisation or institution that could possibly intervene or research the possible historic site? The site apparently yields many historic metal artefacts.
Books on the Navy
Ronnie Glass has a close affinity with the SA Navy and has shared details of various books and other reading material that may be sourced by those who have an interest in this particular sphere of military history. Ronnie added “The contact for the Naval Heritage Association is Glen Knox (email@example.com). They have a superb selection on SA Naval History. It is worthwhile for members to ask for lists of the books for sale. The Annual Digest is very reasonable in price and they have many other books for sale, including Seaman Gunner Do Not Weep.”
SAMHSEC RPC on 30 November 2020
SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to discuss military history at 1930 on 30 November 2020:
Session 1 from 1930 to 2010
The session will open with the Act of Remembrance, which was postponed from our 9 November meeting to allow as much time as possible for John’s presentation
Franco Cilliers will discuss the War in the Ogaden
Session 2 from 2015 to 2055
Andre Crozier will discuss Mike Sadler’s book Captured at Tobruk
SAMHSEC meeting on 14 December 2020
Speaker: Stephen Bowker
Subject: The Bowker family in the Eastern Cape
Session 1 from 1930 to 2010
Session 2 from 2015 to 2055
This is the captain speaking
With Zoom meetings having become part of what SAMHSEC offers, I know that members miss the company of fellow historians implicit in room meetings. With this in mind, I encourage members to use our newsletters as our primary means of communicating with one another. I hope that more follow Ronnie’s examples above to comment on presentations and bring resources such as the Naval Heritage Association to our attention.
Thanks to our Scribe and his predecessors who have edited the 195 (and counting) issues for their role in recording our activities.
And to Mike Marsh for posting recordings of our talks in the SAMHS Zoom library.