Thursday, 2 December 2010

1.5 Leadership

There were of course thousands of Scottish leaders during WW1. They included Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the King's Own Scottish Borderers who was awarded the Victoria Cross ...

"For most conspicuous bravery prior to an assault on German trenches near Loos and Hill 70 on 25 September 1915. During the worst of the bombardment, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was badly shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger, mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes until he was wounded."

Then there were the officers. Men such as Colonel George McCrae (above), a former Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who recruited and commanded the 16th Royal Scots which included the Hearts footballers. When McCrae died after the war, thousands of Edinburgh folk lined the streets to pay their respects.

However, when historians discuss the issue of leadership during WW1, the debate always focuses on one Scot only:General, later Field Marshal Douglas Haig ...

The debate about Haig's leadership is a bitter one. Achieving a balanced view can be difficult.

Source 1

Watch this clip from a BBC documentary about Haig. Is it favourable to or critical of Haig?


Source 2

Now watch this clip. It gives a more balanced view of Haig.

Source 3: Historian Tevor Royle discusses the attacks made by some historians on Haig ...

"Haig was all too often treated as a cardboard cut out ... According to the stereotype Haig was a dull witted cavalry officer ... who stubbornly continued fighting the war with the debased tactics of attrition because he lacked the ability to find other ways of winning battles. Owing his position to influence, he back stabbed his way to power and held onto it with a ruthlessness that matched his indifference to high casualty figures and then re-cast the record in his diaries to put himself in a good light. Even the fact that he was a serious minded Christian has been held against him ..."

Source 4

The historian John Terraine was one of the first historians to publish a revision of Haig's reputation. He offers a very positive point of view ...

His attitude towards tanks is most revealing of all. Without even having seen them, he detected in them the possibility of 'decisive results', and after their debut, which many thought equivocal, to say the least, he sent his Deputy Chief of Staff to London to demand 1,000 tanks without delay. I need hardly add, he never got them.

He summed up his attitude towards the technicalities of the war after a meeting between Ministers and Generals to discuss new weapons at the end of 1915; he said:

I thought the meeting was good for the generals as well as for the Government. Generals after a certain time of life, especially French, are apt to be narrow-minded and disinclined to take advantage of modern scientific discoveries. The civilian Minister can do good by pressing the possibility of some modem discovery.

The war of technology was also a war of organisation. It was called - without affection - a Staff Officer's war, and so it was, because armies of millions require an enormous apparatus of administration. As early as 1916 the BEF contained a 'population' larger than any single unit of government except London in all England. Haig's attitude to this feature was equally broad-minded:

.... with the whole nation at war, our object should be to employ men on the same work in war as they are accustomed to do in peace. Acting on this principle I have got Geddes at the head of all the railways and transportation, with the best practical civil and military engineers under him. At the head of the Road Directorate is Mr. Maybury, head of the Road Board in England. The docks, canals and inland water transport are being managed in the same way, i.e., by men of practical experience. To put soldiers who have no practical experience of these matters into such positions, merely because they are generals and colonels, must result in utter failure.

Haig was, in fact, a modern general, fighting Britain's first modern war.

Modern wars are costly wars; they consume lives by the million, on and off the battlefield, and it was the shock of this consumption of soldiers' lives that prompted the unthinking execration of Haig - as though one man could halt or change an industrial revolution!

What, then, was Haig's own view of the great battles of attrition in 1916 and 1917 with which his name is so fatally connected?

He certainly had no illusions about their nature; in his Despatch (6) of 21 December 1918, The Advance to Victory, he says:

The strain of those years was never ceasing, the demands they made upon the best of the Empire's manhood are now known. Yet throughout all those years, and amid the hopes and disappointments they brought with them, the confidence of our troops in final victory never wavered. Their courage and resolution rose superior to every test, their cheerfulness never failing, however terrible the conditions in which they lived and fought. By the long road they trod with so much faith and with such devoted and self-sacrificing bravery we have arrived at victory.

His Final Despatch, March 1919 (leaving no doubts about his feelings), develops the thought:

... neither the course of the war itself nor the military lessons to be drawn there from can properly be comprehended, unless the long succession of battles commenced on the Somme in 1916 and ended in November of last year on the Sambre are viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement..... If the operations of the past four and a half years are regarded as a single continuous campaign, there can be recognised in them the same general features and the same necessary stages which between forces of approximately equal strength have marked all the conclusive battles of history.

Haig had taught his theory of the necessary stages of war in India in 1909 and never departed from it:

1. The manoeuvre for position

2. The first clash of battle

3. The wearing-out fight

4. The decisive blow

It is, of course, the third stage - what he called 'the wearing-out fight' (in other words the three years of attrition during which four-fifths of Britain's casualties were incurred) - which has commanded so much unfavourable notice for so long. Haig's own view of it is quite clear:

In the stage of the wearing-out struggle losses will necessarily be heavy on both sides, for in it the price of victory is paid. If the opposing forces are approximately equal in numbers, in courage, in morale and in equipment, there is no way of avoiding payment of the price, or of eliminating this phase of the struggle. In former battles this stage of the conflict has rarely lasted more than a few days, and has often been completed in a few hours. When armies of millions are engaged, with the resources of great Empires behind them, it will inevitably be long. It will include violent crises of fighting which, when viewed separately and apart from the general perspective, will appear individually as great indecisive battles. To this stage belong the great engagements of 1916 and 1917 which wore down the strength of the German Armies.

So Haig made no attempt to avoid responsibility for the war of attrition; he never tried to claim credit for victory, and blame something or someone else for the hard part - e.g. subordinates, Allies, the Government, the troops, bad luck, etc. Instead, he insisted:

If the whole operations of the present war are regarded in correct perspective, the victories of the summer and autumn of 1918 will be seen to be directly dependent upon the two years of stubborn fighting that preceded them.

This, it seems to me, is the wisest statement written about the Great War. A great pity that it was totally disregarded during the peace, so that everything had to be painfully learned again the second time.

In conclusion, what is Haig's place in our military history? ...

...Haig's armies did actually themselves engage the enemy's main body. In 1916 the BEF fought ninety-five and a half identified German divisions (forty-three and a half twice, four three times, which makes a divisional total of 143). In 1917, in the Battles of Arras, Messines, Lens and Third Ypres, the BEF engaged 131 identified divisions. When the Germans attacked the British front in March-April 1918, they used 109 divisions - fifty on the first day alone.

In Haig's Final Offensive, the BEF encountered ninety-nine German divisions (some twice, some three times, some even four times).

This was the 'main body' indeed. Never, at any time, in any war, has a British army performed such feats as these.

Sir Winston Churchill, in a memorable phrase, described the year 1940 as 'the finest hour' of the British people. Objective assessment must equally describe 1918 as 'the finest hour' of the British Army, and to no-one was that fact more due than to its admirable Commander-in-Chief.

So which argument is correct: Haig the Donkey, stupid and indifferent to the slaughter his plans caused or Haig the modern General, architect of Britain's greatest military victory?

You be the judge.

What do you know? (Tasks to ensure that you have the K&U you need!)

Use the information from this blog page (including the youtube clips) to prepare evidence cards about Haig's role in WW1. Use as many cards or sheets of paper as you need ( 1/4 A4 sheet should be about the right size). Write an item of evidence on one side only. It can be a quote from a historian or from Haig himself or a fact or statistic.

When you have 10 or more sheets completed, you can work with a fellow student. Shuffle the sheets and then deal them out one a time. Challenge your fellow student to decide whether each piece of evidence shows Haig in a positive or negative light. You may disagree but historians do disagree over evidence!