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on 4 January 2014
A popular misconception of the First World War is that thousands of British soldiers were killed in futile frontal attacks because of the ineptitude of the British Army's Commander in Chief Douglas Haig.

The argument goes that Haig conducted operations from the safety of a château 40 miles behind the front line and, according to Blackadder, he was not a man to change his mind despite everyone being slaughtered in the first ten seconds.

Gary Sheffield's account goes a long way in dispelling the aforementioned misconception and is a must read for anyone interested in the First World War. Drawing from a plethora of private papers and previously untapped archival evidence Sheffield has produced an almost definitive account of Haig's career.

Haig's early career was spent serving in the Sudan and South Africa. However, his reputation was forged in the attritional struggles astride the Somme and in the mud of Flanders after taking command of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915.

Sheffield argues that fighting on the Western Front was a learning process. It is difficult to see how else the war could have been fought. And it certainly could not have been won in any other theatre. Germany, Britain's main enemy, could only be defeated through attrition i.e. by inflicting more casualties on Germany than Britain sustained and eroding German manpower and morale quicker than Britain's manpower and morale were eroded.

Fundamentally, Haig was successful in waging this war of attrition. By 1918 Germany's manpower was running out and their moral smashed. Battles such as the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele went a long way towards achieving this end.

However, Sheffield does not completely vindicate Haig. He was "frequently too optimistic" and the enormous casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were largely his responsibility. That is not to argue the battle should have been called off after the first day. Political imperatives and the constraints of coalition warfare necessitated the battle continued in order to relieve German pressure off the French at Verdun.

Haig has been accused of being a technophobe unwilling to exploit the advantages of modern technology. Sheffield demonstrates how this was simply not true. Haig was the first British general to use gas, at the Battle of Loos in 1915, and tanks on the Somme the following year. Albeit both had limited immediate impact, again demonstrating how Haig could be over optimistic, failing to grasp the limitations of the equipment and men under his command.

Nonetheless, by the summer of 1918 the British Army under Haig had developed an "all weapons system" incorporating tanks, gas, aerial support, cavalry and close artillery and infantry co-operation. It was this system deployed by Haig in the last 100 days of the war that defeated Germany. While politicians in London estimated the war would continue into 1919 or even 1920, Haig, ever the optimist, deserves credit for recognising Germany could be defeated in 1918.

Haig may not have been the "Great Captain" of the British Army as the late John Terrain claimed. Instead, he should be remembered for what he accomplished; being the soldier who orchestrated the greatest set of victories the British Army has ever achieved.
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on 6 October 2011
Well written, superbly researched - Gary Sheffield's balanced view on Douglas Haig is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Great War. This is not a revisionist whitewash of Douglas Haig, and Gary Sheffield looks in depth at Haig's strengths and weaknesses before arriving at the conclusion that Haig played a pivitol role in bringing about Allied victory in WWI. Many of the myths about Haig that have become commonplace are countered and shown to be incorrect, and Haig's earlier reputation as the man who led the BEF to victory is reaffirmed. Professor Sheffield also looks in depth at the work of Haig before and after the War, and his role in working for ex-servicemen as they struggled to re-adapt. Is this book worth 5 stars - without a shadow of a doubt and Gary Sheffield's position as the leading authority on the Great War is sustained.
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on 19 May 2014
Haig commited his life to God, country and family. In an age of media savy David Patraeus style generals, whose convictions are revealed in their personal lives, it is heartwarming, and encouraging, to read of real men like Haig. The man Haig is seen in the fruits of his life faithfully recorded in this book. This is a story of a wise man. Determined, with an agile mind, open to exploiting technoligical advances to defeat the foe. Noble, dignified and reserved.

I don't know much of Lloyd-George, save he was reputedly a adulterer. We learn in the book that Lloyd George made unfavourable comments regarding Haig's generalship in his memoirs but not until Haig had died. In another era that would be seen as cowardice. Lloyd George and his socialist politcal classmates were content to sacrifice Haig on the alter of their political ideology and the liberal intelligencia have been in their employ ever since. Having now read the book I am struck by the heartlessness of the popular caricatures of Haig.

Every life that was lost on the fields of Flanders is a terrible loss and we have reason to believe that Haig was grieved by these losses. He was a soldier, he had led men into battle, he knew his men. This book allows one to get to know the persona and character of Haig. And now I know the Chief I really don't think that he would allow his detractors to trouble him. He was a humble man, not one to be troubled by the political machinations of man.
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VINE VOICEon 27 March 2012
this is probably the most balanced bio I have ever read. Sheffield goes out of his way to remain objective throughout this work. He also strives to include oposing veiwpoints from those who disagree with him and the reasons. It seems to have been written by possibly the most reasonable man in the country. It is a brilliant book exposing alot of the misconceptions that still exist pertaining to the war, and haig and the overall strategy. As someone who works in a military museum and constantly have to correct the sweeping generalisations people come up with I found a very useful tool. afterall we do live in a blame culture populated by people who use soundbites as teh truth . it felt more like a explanation than a rehabilitation, like someone setting you straight on some points after they have done all the hard work of investigating the matter, and doing so without ego or agenda.

well balanced, excellently assembled research, and with an excellent pace throughout ( in otherwords It didnt get dry and stuffy) all in all its how a military bio should be written and I look forward to reading more from Mr Sheffield
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on 29 January 2013
It's as difficult for a reader to approach a biography of Douglas Haig in an even handed manner, as it is for the biographer themselves. So in a spirit of full disclosure, I come from a left-wing family, in which my paternal Grandfather had fought in the Great War and survived. So I can tick all those boxes that revisionist historians hate - Oh What a Lovely War!, the War Poets and Blackadder. But I've also read a good number of revisionist books on the war, and can appreciate the scholarship that has greatly broadened our understanding of the conflict.
I procrastinated for a long time before buying this book, even having enjoyed Gary Sheffield's 'Forgotten Victory.' After all it is clear that he is not an unbiased biographer, having edited Haig's diaries, and clearly admiring much about the man. The book is however even-handed, and it is possible to finish it with a dimmer view of the subject than the authors.
Is it well written? Possibly not in a classically scholarly way, but it cracks along at a good pace and is eminently readable. Perhaps it is slightly superficial in some areas - Haig replacing French flashes by with little discussion, but is a very good introduction to the subject, and thankfully focuses mainly on the war itself.
In summary, a good introduction to Douglas Haig, with a balanced approach to its subject.
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on 18 March 2015
Having been thoroughly brainwashed by the anti-war brigade, this was a real eye opener. Neither an eulogy nor an assassination, Mr Sheffield destroys the myths bit by bit but still leaves the warts to be clearly seen. I came close to crying with the sudden end to Hagues life. Now hunting for a biography of Liar George ( Lloyd_George) to see if anyone is equally open about his warts!
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on 29 April 2016
Like many of my generation I was taught that Haig was a blinkered fool who wantonly butchered every army he commanded.

After reading Professor Sheffield's admirably objective account of Haig's career I now know better. Haig made mistakes and because of his responsibilities his mistakes had more terrible outcomes than would have otherwise been the case. Professor Sheffield is cleared eyed on Haig's faults but equally clear about his virtues.

Two areas explored by the author real gave me pause for thought. The terrible oversight of the military by the politicians and the latter's propensity to re-write history has a familiar topical flavor. But more importantly as we get closer to remembering the infamous first day of the Somme Professor Sheffield prompts us to remember not only the British army's terrible casualties but also the continuing destruction of the German army's capability and capacity to fight.

It may be unfashionable and difficult for us today to accept that a war of the scale and nature of the fight on the Western Front meant that the butcher's bill would always have been high.

Was the price too high? After reading this book I don't think that's a question that can be answered usefully by any modern person. Haig's contemporaries thought so and thought he performed his duties as well as circumstances allowed.

He did his best. For good and bad.
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on 29 January 2014
I'm glad I read this book and recommend it. I am not a fan of military history but was prompted to read it by the current debates around the teaching of the history of First World War. I would have liked to hear more of the politics of the time, e.g. the ways in which the German threat was perceived weighed and measured, leading to Haig's pre-war conclusion that war was coming. The consensus that we cannot judge the standards of one time using the morality of another seems to pass unchallenged in the book, and that may come up for further debate as the anniversaries of 1914 are marked - in their passing - later this year. The book is critical but sympathetic towards Haig, who was and is a hero of the British establishment. The book is valuable for its consideration of the military establishment at a time when its (Victorian) values were being shredded and celebrated on the battlefield. Haig's reputation appears to rest on how effective you believe the British army was in bringing military solutions to contemporary problems, some of which were to resurface again and again (and again) during the twentieth century.
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on 18 April 2013
Sheffield seeks to give a balanced account of Haig's career as a soldier and CinC of British forces on the Western Front in WW1. He takes aim at several myths - Haig was stupid, he rejected technology, he did not care about the losses - and relies on a forensic analysis of sources to support his case that Haig was a highly competent general working in impossible conditions. It's not hard to rebut the caricature exemplified by the Oh What a Lovely War school, but that is an aunt Sally. Sheffield is not uncritical, but his criticisms are measured and take account of the circumstances in which Haig had to make his decisions. The boundless optimism, the repetition of failed tactics costing tens of thousands of lives, the failure to keep a grip on wayward subordinates - these are charges that Sheffield can't answer on Haig's behalf. This is a classic military historian's book, rich in the language of campaign histories and staff college analysis of battles and strategy. Death, mutilation, mud, terror, bayonets, PTSD don't figure much. The more one reads the terse, official reports of the slaughter, the more delusional they appear. The tone of the book veers into a breeziness that matches Haig's own detachment. In describing the opening of the 3rd Ypres operation in July 1917, Sheffield uses the phrase 'the campaign exploded into life' (p332). Hard to imagine a less appropriate and more bizarre description of a WW1 battle than that.
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on 31 March 2012
Having read a couple of Gary Sheffield's books I was given "The Chief" for Christmas. Despite the lack of any maps (I understand the cartographer was given three days to do them!) the book is well-balanced and researched, portraying Haig as arguably the only man up to the job of leading an army from small beginnings in 1914 to one that was ultimately victorious in 1918, able to withstand the German Spring Offensive of that year. What sets Gary Sheffield's book apart from other books on Haig, is the way he has dealt with the criticisms of Haig (tanks, gas, cavalry, casualty figures) that have become entrenched over the years. This book should be read by any historian that blithely warbles on about the 'Blackadderesque' perception of the Great War. Haig had a difficult job to do and was probably the ONLY General who seized the moment in 1918 - effectively by not telling the politicians until he had won the war. His post war involvement in the poppy appeal showed how much he understood the sacrifices made by the troops, and the fact he refused to write his memoirs while Lloyd George attempted to vilify Haig only adds to the stature of the former and detracts from that of the latter.

Like Churchill in WW2, Haig was the man of the moment. As Gary Sheffield accepts, he made mistakes but as with the Army, Haig learnt from these mistakes. The book has been written in a way that whether new to the subject or not, the reader will come away from it with an incite to a very private man that has not previously been available. Thoroughly recommended
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