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Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge Military Histories) [Paperback]

J. P. Harris
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Oct 2009 Cambridge Military Histories
From December 1915 until the armistice of November 1918, Sir Douglas Haig was commander-in-chief of the largest army his country had ever put into the field. He has been portrayed as both an incompetent 'butcher and bungler' and a clear-sighted, imperturbable 'architect of victory'. However, in this magisterial account, J. P. Harris dispels such stereotypes. A dedicated military professional, Haig nevertheless found it difficult to adjust to the unprecedented conditions of the Western Front. His capacity to 'read' battles and broader strategic situations often proved poor and he bears much responsibility for British losses 1915–17 that were excessive in relation to the results achieved. By late 1917 his own faith in ultimate victory had become so badly shaken that he advocated a compromise peace. However, after surviving the German spring offensives of 1918, he played a vital role in the campaign that finally broke the German army.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 666 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (15 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052115877X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521158770
  • Product Dimensions: 3 x 15.2 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 314,755 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Harris' judgement of Haig is, ultimately, critical but fair. He arrives at it through careful analysis and detailed interpretation. This really is the definitive book on Haig, his actions and his legacy.' Tribune

'If you wish to understand how the First World War was fought and won, and seek a balanced assessment of British generalship in that victory, then there is no better a book written on it than this.' British Army Review

'This work of meticulous scholarship is certain to re-energize the debate over Haig's command. It also in many important ways expands our understanding of military operations in France and Flanders and the BEF's evolution into a formidable offensive machine. It is highly recommended to both academics and general readers.' American Historical Review

'According to Dr J. P. Harris, senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Haig was not quite the uncaring monster of popular myth but nor was he, as some recent studies have suggested, a clear-sighted and imperturbable leader who should take the credit for Britain's ultimate victory … Dr Harris argues that Haig's failings led him to misread the strength of the German armies.' The Times

'This is a landmark book … if you take your history seriously, it must be read.' The Society of Friends of the National Army Museum

'Paul Harris has not only written the definitive biography of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, but the most important book on the First World War to appear in over a decade. His judicious use of sources and impeccable research has placed Haig in the context of the terrible challenges that that terrible conflict raised. The resulting portrait presents his considerable strengths along with the fatal flaws that were to prove so disastrous in terms of the lives of British soldiers in the battles of 1916 and 1917. Above all Harris' biography underlines that it is individuals who make history, not obscure social trends.' Williamson Murray, Institute for Defense Analysis

'This is a superb book. Deftly sidestepping caricatures of Haig as either a callous, incompetent butcher or as a clear-sighted, imperturbable Great Captain, Harris offers a nuanced picture of a complex personality in hopeless times. Haig was not purblind, but open to technical and tactical innovation. Yet he was responsible for the massive casualties so disproportionate to the results achieved and for the near collapse of British civil-military relations by the end of 1917. He went from the nervous, battle-shy corps commander of Mons 1914 to the confident 'tyde-what-may' army commander of 1915–17, and to the shaken and confused soldier-statesman of 1918. Bold and masterful, this book will become the standard biography of Haig.' Holger H. Herwig, University of Calgary

'Paul Harris is one of our very finest military historians of the Great War. He combines great depth of scholarship, research - and especially of psychological perception - with a highly readable style. In this, his highest masterpiece to date, he has cut straight through a horribly tangled thornbush of pro-Haig hagiography intertwined with anti-Haig propaganda of the 'Butchers and Bunglers' variety. His ultimate conclusion is that the anti-Haig camp has very much the right of it, although much of the hysteria attaching to this issue has been lamentably over-done. This, surely, has got to be the long verdict of History.' Paddy Griffith, author of Battle Tactics on the Western Front 1916–18 (1994)

'Ninety years after the end of the Great War and eighty years after his death, Haig still has the capacity to arouse extraordinary extremes of vilification from his detractors and praise from his defenders. There have been many biographies of Haig over the years, but few have matched Paul Harris's mastery of both the original archive sources and also the most recent scholarship, which has so transformed our understanding of the nature of command and the conduct of operations on the Western Front. Here, then, is an informed and thoroughly modern re-assessment, balancing Haig's undoubted qualities against his manifold weaknesses.' Ian F. W. Beckett, University of Northampton

'This is a most impressive book … Douglas Haig and the First World War is unreservedly recommended for all students, from the first year to doctoral candidates, and it should be in all university libraries.' Antoine Capet, H-Diplo

'Paul Harris (an academic and lecturer at Sandhurst) has written an in-depth and long-awaited account of Haig's part in the First World War. It cleverly covers each of the major events of the war doing so using Haig as the key focus of analysis. This is an incredibly well-researched and academic title … a must have for World War historians …' Major Neil Powell AGC, Soldier (magazine of the British Army)

'… a formidable achievement … Not the least of Harris's strengths is his impressive grasp of the literature, and his synthesis of recent research (of which there is a great deal, such is the dynamic nature of the subject) is extremely valuable. Not surprisingly it has been acclaimed by a battery of historians, and has been awarded, at the time of writing, two major prizes.' Gary Sheffield, English Historical Review

Book Description

A biography of Sir Douglas Haig, one of the most controversial commanders in British military history. Paul Harris decisively answers the contested issue of whether Haig's tactics cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers during the First World War or were essential to the Allied victory.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Beware of selective quotation 23 Dec 2012
I notice that there is a carefully selected quotation from my review in the English Historical Review posted on the Amazon site in support of this book. However my EHR review is overall very critical: I simply do not agree with Harris' portrait of Haig, as a glance at my own bio of Haig will show.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and insightful 10 Jan 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As part of the MA in British First World War studies at the University of Birmingham I reviewed this book and to do so read it twice - it'll be read again in due course as it offers a balanced and detailed assessment of the man rather than the attention seeking polemics written in the 1960s. That said, I'd still like to see Haig's statue remived and his hereditary title taken from his offspring. The unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands lie squarely on his shoulders - his obstinancy and desire for establishment position drove him, not the welfare of his men.
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47 of 64 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A retrograde step in the Haig historiography 9 Mar 2009
This book purports in its dustjacket blurb to be "the definitive biography of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig." It is not. It is in fact a poorly researched hatchet job, in which the most outlandish assertions - such as that Haig fomented 'mutiny' and 'treason' against Sir John French - are based upon references which do not stand up to scrutiny.

Harris manages, without substantiating it, to discount much of a whole school of Great War thinking amongst military historians on command and control which has grown up over the past quarter century - and in doing so he repudiates many of his own earlier writings on Haig's achievements.

In this new book, almost every achievement of Haig's which it is unavoidable for the author to make passing reference to is either prefaced or appended with a comment or observation which puts a pejorative spin on it. Quotes and references are highly selective and misleading and the book is clearly based largely upon secondary rather than any original archival work. As a result, it repeats the long exposed errors of earlier works and misses key parts of the primary sources upon which its conclusions purport to be based.

His footnotes reveal that Harris has relied heavily upon earlier works such as G. J. De Groot's and Denis Winter's for the conclusions put forward in his book. To enumerate all of the factual errors would require a virtual re-write of Harris' book. His references to primary sources - Esher's correspondence for instance - only go so far as other authors have used them, and as a result references to key documents which would give a different picture to that painted by Harris are missing.

As far as being a biased polemic which has every appearance of having been researched to support preconceived ideas goes, Harris' Haig is what one imagines Denis Winter's dreadful book transparently dressed up as an academic text would look like.
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54 of 74 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Very poor effort... 4 April 2009
This depressing book is truly dreadful. It pretends to be 'academic' and 'fair' but is neither. The author is relentlessly biased against Haig and uses every form of 'weasel' words to attack him at every point of the narrative culminating in the statement that Haig 'apparently' died from a heart attack. Just out of interest note that Lady Haig wrote, "He died from the first attack of angina ...... His heart was in a very bad state, due, I am told to the constant and prolonged strain of what he came through during the war." A less negative biographer Gary Mead wrote, "A post-mortem examination revealed Haig had suffered a massive heart attack; there was no inquest." And so it goes on. Every Haig achievement is either undermined or totally discounted as a matter of course. The book even at crucial points 'imagines' what Haig 'might' have been thinking in the absence of any real evidence - it really is truly awful!! Harris clearly simply doesn't understand or 'get' the Great War. Ignore prestigious sounding 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch your back' awards/reviews; indeed avoid this book like the plague. So the wait goes on for a fair modern military biography examining Haig's career by someone with a thorough understanding of the strategy and tactics of the war.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not an Impartial Account 4 Aug 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Harris has not written a complete biography of Haig, but as the title shows, mainly about his participation in the First World War, which covers 17 chapters out of 20. Harris might have been better to limit the book to a study of Haig's military command, as his experience as senior lecturer in war studies at Sandhurst would have equipped him to do this. Harris has clearly done a great deal of research and his detailed descriptions of military operations, well illustrated by maps and archive photographs, are what might be expected from a well-qualified writer. However, this book is also about the development and performance of Haig as a military commander, and for his analysis to be convincing, Harris needs to demonstrate a degree of impartiality and absence of bias.

Unfortunately, particularly in the first two and final chapters, and elsewhere when talking of matters not (or not wholly) military, Harris seems at best judgmental and a worst hyper-critical of Haig. In discussing (for example) Haig's relationship with George V and his struggle for an earldom, Harris is wholly negative. More importantly, Harris treats Lloyd George's dislike and distrust of Haig, which caused Lloyd George to attempt to replace Haig or to subordinate him to French commanders, to replace his trusted subordinates and to divert troops to Italy, Salonika or elsewhere to weaken Haig in a way which is favourable to Lloyd George rather than Haig. This was a political matter, not a military one so outside Harris's particular expertise. It might be argued that, if Lloyd George thought that Haig was incompetent, he should have accepted the need to sack him and its political fall-out, rather than resorting to underhand tactics.
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