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3.6 out of 5 stars
3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 17 August 2014
This is in many places a highly critical book on Haig but it not as poor as some of the previous reviewers would lead one to think. It is not inadequately researched, a sort of rehash of Winter's book or based on secondary sources.It rebuts some of the obvious false claims of the uninformed Haig bashers e.g. that he was a technophobe.It is arguably too censorious of his hands off style of command; delegating the planning of offensives and then interfering once the battle had started.The other issue with his command style highlighted here was that it made debate between him and his generals impossible leading to a passive acquiescence to approaches which his commanders thought wrong and which turned out to be as costly and futile as feared.How much was him and how much was a product of the social mores of the time is arguable.Harris does make clear Haig's positive and important contribution to the planning of the Battle of Amiens in 1918 which initiated the run of victories that led to the German army's collapse.
The real heart of this book is Haig's view of bite and hold versus break through in 1915 through to the end of 1917.There Harris makes a strong case that Haig responded in an repeatedly unrealistic manner to the success of initial limited bite and hold or bite and bite tactics at the start of offensives and insisted that a break though was just an extra push away so ordering attacks that failed with huge casualties when troops advanced beyond their artillery support.Gary Sheffield's argument for Haig's approach was reasonable as wars are not won by bite and hold seems at variance with the historical record;it may not win wars but it make a significant contribution as the actual course of 1915 -1918 shows.Harris argues forcefully that Haig's over optimism about when to switch from bite and hold to the more ambitious goal of breakthrough was generally wrong; he eventually got it right in 1918 but the price tag for his errors in this regard was high and he was very slow to learn from them.
A gripping and thought provoking read
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on 9 March 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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on 10 January 2014
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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on 23 December 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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on 4 August 2012
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.

Harris's apparent bias on non-military matters may affect his judgement of Haig's military role. In describing Haig's activities in South Africa and the Retreat from Mons, he criticises Haig more through insinuation than by providing hard evidence. Harris's criticism of Haig as commander is not wholly negative; he accepts Haig showed some willingness to adapt and to draw lessons from his mistakes, but nevertheless argues that he was slow to abandon set views. He gives Haig little credit for the final Allied success, and his overall assessment is that Haig was out of his depth in a command of the size and complexity he had to cope with. This is not an entirely unreasonable assessment, but had Harris given Haig more credit for what he did achieve in tactical and operational development, and an occasional benefit of the doubt, he might have produced a more rounded picture of Haig.

The men in charge of the German, French and British armies in 1914 had all been replaced by 1916. Of their respective replacements (von Falkenhayn, Nivelle and Haig) only Haig was still in command at the war's end: nothing Haig did was quite such disaster as Verdun or Chemin des Dames, although he recklessly continued the Somme Offensive, which led to the demoralization of the British army through horrific casualties. Nivelle was replaced by Petain who, like Haig, was still in charge of his nation's forces in November 1918. If one looks at the three original commanders and their four replacements, all to a greater or lesser degree failed to cope with the technological challenges of this war, and Haig was not the worst of the bunch, which is faint praise at best.

Haig was very controversial, his historical reputation has had its ups and downs and it is difficult for any writer about him not to take sides in the controversies about his career. This said, Harris presents his book as a dispassionate study, but there is no empathy for Haig in it. John Terraine's "Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier" takes almost the opposite view of Haig, and probably the only way to form a reasonable opinion is to read a number of accounts for and against Haig.
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on 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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on 5 August 2009
Every time a new book comes out on Douglas Haig, it seems that both the armchair and authentic academic historians, come out of the woodwork and begin throwing verbal stones at each other. It's as if the "battle of the memoirs" of the late 1920's and early 1930's, has been resurrected in the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's, into a second phase of brickbat throwing.

Reviewers who always find Haig without flaws, should recognize that Douglas Haig had real faults; and they were serious faults, both in the area of leadership and battle operations/tactics. Haig devotees also need to see the whole picture, and J.P. Harris has given us a more well-rounded appraisal of this man.
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on 7 March 2010
Books about Haig tend to fall into one of two extremes, he is painted either as military idiot or the misunderstood far sighted visionary who won the war for Britain (Terraine). The vilification of Haig peaked with Dennis Winter's 'Haig's Command'. Since that date the Haig book market has been dominated by fawning 'Haigiographies' written by zealous Terrainistas driven by an urge to rehabilitate their man). What has been missing until now is an authoritative and balanced analysis of General Haig's genesis and wartime performance.

Paul Harris has now closed this ideological gap with a meticulously researched (yes, I am in a position to know) delicately nuanced and above all, balanced assessment covering not just Haig's military evolution and handling of the war but crucially his often troubled interaction with the political elite. As you might expect the analysis manages to be both academically satisfying while retaining sufficient lucidity to engage and maintain the interest the general reader, the mark of a transcendent book.
What emerges is the portrait of a fundamentally decent (if flawed) man who did his level best in circumstances that were not of his choosing. If Douglas Haig's level best fell short of what was actually required, it was not for want of effort.

Where criticism is offered, it is offered fairly. General Haig's role in the 1918 advance to victory is roundly praised while his handling of the later stages of the 1916 Somme and 1917 Ypres campaigns attracts justified criticism. Some people just can't bear the truth. The Haig Fellowship (yes, there is one) will hate it and you can safely ignore negative reviews on this site contributed by a couple of the more ardent revisionists. I have no doubt that this masterful work is destined to become the definitive biography of Douglas Haig and I recommend it for military historian and general reader alike.
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on 20 January 2009
This stands out among the numerous Haig biographies, from the early uncritical ones, through the 'Butcher' and 'Donkey' period, the Terraine revisionists and the more academic modern versions. The author is an experienced lecturer at it shows, almost entirley in a good way. Didacticism is worn lightly and there is some repetitious language. But the flow of the narrative is superb. The use of sub-headings is common in text books, much less so in biographies. In this case, sometimes couched in question form, they make the text come alive. The assessments are well-balanced. If a biography can ever be said to be definitive, this one is, especially for this generation. The only Haig biography you will need, unless you're an enthusiast. Maps excellent generally. Photos so-so. But a masterpiece.
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on 18 May 2009
Great book for those interested in the first world war- Haig`s incredible misjudgements and his very occasional correct decisions before his lucky 1918 are all fully and most interestingly analysed.
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