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Statue of Earl Haig on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade
Statue of Earl Haig on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

An Eminent War Scot

Wednesday November 7 2018

Malcolm Noble traces the life of Earl Haig, much-maligned commander of the British Expeditionary Force for most of the First World War

Few would doubt that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was a most eminent Scot in Great War London and in the years immediately following the Armistice.

He was an elder at London: St Columba’s and after his death in 1928 his coffin lay in the church for three days while mourners processed past. The procession left St Columba’s for the state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Sir Douglas Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from December 10 1915 to April 2 1919. After the war, he spent the remaining years of his life working in the interests of veterans. In this he was assisted by Dorothy, Lady Haig (known as Doris).

Born in Edinburgh on June 19 1865, Haig attended Oxford University. On leaving he decided not to make his career in the family whisky firm, but instead to start Army officer training at the Royal Military College Sandhurst. He saw service in India, at the battle of Omdurman in the 1898 Sudan War, and in the Boer War, rising to the rank of major. Afterwards he returned to India as Inspector General of Cavalry.

In 1906 Haig was appointed to Director of Military Training at the War Office. The collaboration between two London Scots – Haig and the War Minister R B Haldane – established the basis for how the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would go to war in 1914. As war came on August 4 1914, Haig was serving as General Officer Commanding at Aldershot, responsible for the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the 1 Cavalry Brigade. The BEF was deployed in Belgium under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French and Haig held the rank of Lieutenant General, in charge of 1 Corps.

Haig’s comments in his diary are telling, as he indicates growing lack of confidence in French’s fitness for command during the retreat from Mons. However, from September 6, what the historian Gary Sheffield has described as the ‘strategic initiative’ passed to the British and French armies. Stalemate and years of trench warfare followed right across the Western Front.

Haig launched the great offensive at the Somme on July 1 1916. With a devastating number of casualties, the historian John Keegan noted that this was ‘the worst day in Britain’s military history’. He went on to describe the Somme offensive ‘as appearing to drift away in an autumn of frustration and a winter of stalemate.’ However, the introduction of tanks and the development of new tactics such as the creeping barrage, led to the balance of advantage shifting from defence to attack. Haig had a keen interest in new technologies and battle tactics that would eventually help him end the stalemate.

On March 21 1918 the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, Operation Michael. The danger this posed can be deduced from the tone of Haig’s special order of the day issued on April 1 1918. It read: ‘with our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.’

The Allies were not defeated, though for a time the issue of battle hung in the balance. On July 18 the French army effected a successful counteroffensive on the river Marne, which marked the end of the period of crisis.

What followed was by far the greatest victory in British military history and it was achieved under Haig’s inspired leadership. On August 8 1918 Haig’s Army attacked at Amiens, achieving complete surprise and advancing up to eight miles. This was the first in a series of nine battles that were to end the war.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister from December 1916 until October 1922, published his ‘War Memoirs’ in the 1930s. In a chapter reflecting on the contents of Haig’s own diaries, Lloyd George concludes that he thought ‘Douglas Haig was intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the command of an army of millions fighting battles on fields that were invisible to any Commander’.

Over one million young men from Britain and her Empire had been killed in the conflict. Lloyd George, who wanted to avoid blame for deaths on the scale experienced at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. quite explicitly laid the responsibility on Haig as Army Commander.

However, as the centenary of the Armistice has approached, military historians have taken a more balanced view of Haig’s command. By setting any political considerations aside, they can make more objective judgements on the strategies he followed and the choices he made.

Malcolm Noble is Chairman of the Royal Caledonian Education Trust, this year’s President of the Caledonian Society of London and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Suffolk. He is a member of London: St Columba’s Church of Scotland and on the Scots in Great War London planning group.

A longer version of this feature appeared in November's Life and Work.

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