If you have any interest in the British conduct of the war, this is a vital book for your collection. First published ten years ago and now in a welcome paperback reprint, it is an anthology of scholarly research and fine writing from some of the world's leading historians of the Great War.
As the title suggests, the fourteen papers that make up the book are centred on that most enigmatic and frustrating of soldiers, Sir Douglas Haig. The general stance is unambigious and clearly stated: the authors set out to refute the many myths, untruths and misunderstandings about Haig that for many make him the Devil Incarnate. And they do so with masterly skill, drawing upon a broad range of primary sources and making objective, balanced judgements.
The opening paper, by Dr John Bourne of the University of Birmingham, expresses his depression that arises from the apparent failure of such scholarly work to dislodge the popular view of Haig as a dull, remote, unfeeling butcher of men. The mythology, founded on press disenchantment late in the war, David Lloyd George's scurrilous "War memoirs", the 1960's class-war pacificism of the musical "Oh what a lovely war" and countless "sound bite" repetitions in books and TV since then, now has deep roots. If John was depressed in 1999, he surely will be today, for despite another decade of excellent research and characterisation of Haig, the man-on-the-street view seems unchanged.
You would be hard pressed to find as strong and engaging a collection of work as this in any historical field - and for the price of the paperback it is a steal. The papers by John Hussey, Ian Beckett, David Woodward, Keith Grieves and Stephen Badsey are, in my opinion, particularly strong and cover Haig as a man, his relationships with his predecessor Sir John French, the CIGS Sir William Robertson, the Asquith and Lloyd George Governments and the press. Haig is shown throughout to be a strong, steady, rational leader but his weaknesses and foibles are also ruthlessly exposed. Nigel Cave's work on Haig, his religion and and his lionisation by the British Legion is also novel and offers another insight into how the Haig myths developed. The writing remains fresh and relevant; John Peaty's paper on Haig and military discipline has been to a large extent been overtaken by events (the pardons of those men executed under military law), but even that is a weighty statement as to Haig's position on this and the arguments against pardons.
This is a first class work and strongly recommended.
on 6 August 2014
Unfortunately, despite extensive modern research, Haig seems doomed to be remembered as the comedy-villain as depicted in 'Blackadder', with Geoffrey Palmer casually sweeping toy soldiers off his battle map into a dustpan. This collection of essays delves into the many aspects of Haig, including his command style, his relationship with his officers, his allies and the ordinary 'Tommy' as well as his post-war work, founding what we now know as the Royal British Legion. Emerging from this book is of course a very different man from the one with which we are familiar - someone neither callous nor indifferent to battle casualties, hence Haig's opposition to continuing the war into 1919. We learn too that Haig was neither a 'reactionary cavalryman' or a 'technophobe' and that, in 1918, Haig's victories were achieved through the use of combined infantry/tank/aircraft offensives that left the Germans baffled.That being said, the book is does not seek to eulogise Haig, merely to place him in historical context, and treat him a character deserving of serious, unprejudiced study. The mistakes that led to the tragedy on the first day of the Somme are explained in detail, as is Haig's tactical and strategic plan for the Passchendaele offensive (where, the book concludes, his greatest mistake was his dismissal of General Plumer, the most able man who had won victory at Messines Ridge with minimal casualties). All in all an impressive, necessary work.
on 28 March 2015
Why a re-appraisal, atfer all, don’t we all know that Haig was stupid, inarticulate, inept and uncaring, willingly sending the flower of British youth to die on barbed wire in a hail of machine gun fire ? Well, no, we don’t.
This book presents a middle of the road view: the individual chapter authors are consistent in using high-quality sources for their opinions. This means one can see the whole person, not just a distorted caricature: cf “Oh ! What a Lovely War”, or Geoffrey Palmer arrogantly sweeping toy soldiers off the battlefield with a dustpan and brush (“Blackadder Goes Forth”, last episode).
A note on revisionism. Revisionist is the deliberate desire to re-write the past, eg Communists removing Trotsky from photos, trying to paint Progressive Rock as unpopular, writing plays with minimal historical veracity to make your own political point, that sort of thing.
It is not revisionist to look at lesser used - deliberately ignored ? - sources and to then come to an understandably different conclusion from a viewpoint that exists more in the repeated telling than in objective historical fact.
This book, therefore, is not revisionist. It is seeking to change a skewed view into a more realistic, less skewed view. This does seem to upset a lot of people who (to me, completely irrationally) prefer their skewed mythology to a viewpoint rooted in first order documentation.
(Please note, some chapter titles are long, I have reduced them. This is deliberate and is not ineptitude.)
As Chapter 1, “Haig and the Historians” points out, the gulf between the above short-hand myth (above) and what’s being revealed through cutting edge research just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Given the biting comments from the author, there is a palpable sense of frustration that historians are being (deliberately ?) ignored because their researches are continually at odds with the ‘Blackadder’ view.
Chapter 2, “Portrait of a Commander-in-Chief” gives us just that, based upon this current research into first order evidence, and not simply a re-tread of well-worn cliches. What is interesting to me is the difference between what Tommies wrote in poetry, and what they wrote in letters or said to people face-to-face. Disillusionment in poetry, but confidence and support in other media.
Chapter 3, “Ambition, Duty and Doctrine” is critical of Haig. While he may have had good points, eg excellent administration skills, DeGroot finds him of limited imagination, and thus too wedded to out-moded strategies and tactics.
Chapter 4, “Haig and French” bring us the long-term relationship between the two, and concludes that French is unfairly overlooked, that Haig’s reputation is still unduly clouded by stereotyped, lazy criticism, and that both were the best that could have been produced by the wider society of the time.
Chapter 5, “Robertson and Haig”, is critical and paints Robertson as someone who worked hard, only to be stabbed in the back, while Haig took the credit.
Chapter 6, “Haig and the Army Commanders” argues that Haig learnt how to work with other people and improve din these skills throughout the war, while the gradual transfer of power down the hierarchy meant that his influence was felt less as the war went on.
Chapter 7, “Haig and the Government” concentrates on the Lloyd-George years, and L-G does not come out of it well, overall this chapter is supportive of Haig’s attempts to resist outside interference.
Chapter 8, “Haig and Britain’s Allies”. Your viewpoint on this chapter will depend on whether you are pro- or anti-EU ! (Smile) Were Haig’s problems with the French because he was unremittingly racist, in line with the times, or did they really behave that badly ? WE are presented with the story and left to work it out. On a personal note, I see on p132 that Haig correctly anticipated in Summer 1917 that the Russians would pull out.
Chapter 9, “Haig and the Tank”, enthusiastically supportive of Haig’s support for new weaponry.
Chapter 10, “The Impact of Technology”, unfortunate pun aside (“Oh help, I’ve just been impacted by some new technology !”), this is a supportive chapter, the list of technological improvements that the British Army coped with not only bringing in, but the using successfully, is surprisingly long. The myth really bites the dust here.
Chapter 11, “Haig and the Press”, like Chapter 8, your response to this will depend on whether you can grasp the necessity, or not, of a reduction in press freedom during wartime.
Chapter 12, “Haig and Military Discipline” has been rendered a bit mute since the full pardon of the executed. This is still good for period detail on how and why people were prosecuted. The crime rate does seem to have been remarkably low, reflecting high self-discipline, army discipline, and high morale (my interpretation of the chapter).
Chapter 13, “Haig, the Common Soldier, and the British Legion”, is a positive chapter. I note in the outside world there is an arrogant dismissal of Haig’s involvement with wounded soldiers, consisting of the comment “Well, he’s responsible for them being injured !” (so much for the Germans actually pulling the triggers then ...), whereas the actual servicemen do not seem to have held Haig in such contempt. I wonder why this viewpoint is so ignored: should it not, therefore, be the one we have ?
Chapter 14, “Haig and Religion”, again, your response to this will be coloured by whether or not you are a Christian (therefore supportive), agnostic (“One the one hand .. But on the other ... And then on the third ...”), or atheist (dull sound of head being banged on a wall). Religion was ore widespread and influential then so this is an important topic regardless of one’s feelings about it now. Mr Winter’s writings get short shrift, with the implication Mr Winter is seeing what he wants to see. The Rev Duncan, as Haig’s chaplain, is seen as a reliable source.
While the editors describe this book as pro-Haig, pxiii, I did not find it so and enjoyed the range of opinions from informedly critical, through simply being told a well-researched series of events, to myth-crushing support. For those who hate Haig, this book is recommended as a mature compliment to the overly dismissive texts, and Haig haters are encouraged by me to broaden their reading. For those who don’t know what all the fuss is about, here’s a set of broadly-based writings to base a well-informed opinion upon. Haig supporters will find this a breathe of fresh air in the ‘gas attack’ from the ill-informed end of the critical spectrum.
Why only four stars ? I’m a fussy beggar. This is good, but not outstanding. Nonetheless heartily recommended whatever your viewpoint. If only this was the quality of programming on the BBC ...
on 22 August 2009
Brian Bond writes with blinders on. His revised edition has corrected errors in numbers of casualties, in the Vietnam War, for instance. But, he is adept at taking snippet quotes of, say, historian John Keegan, and turning it into a whitewashed revisionist position. Keegan, for instance, did NOT say that the best military leaders occurred during the Great War, as Bond implies. Keegan DID say, "On the Somme he (Haig) had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond." (John Keegan: "The First World War," p. 393). Bond is as flighty on facts as was Douglas Haig a liar about his.
Brian Bond is, after all, one of the new 21st century's revisionist historians, who, despite showing some merit here in examining some of the television and movie interpretations of the Great War, whines on consistently about the high moral leadership of the inept and self-righteous Haig, whilst undercutting more serious research/historians who have gathered the facts and presented them in a methodical way.
"Chateaux General" Haig never bothered to visit the forward field hospitals, speak to survivors as they came out of battle, or question the intelligence estimates which his fawning underlings gave him. As a result of the Battle of the Somme, Haig should be remembered as the greatest serial murderer in British twentieth-century history; guilty of the crime of stubbornness. This man was personally responsible for the slaughter of the cream of the British population, the new volunteer army that had been raised.
Brian Bond's Haigiography testifies to the power of British patriotism and loyalty into which, as a British general, Haig tapped. Bond's defense of Haig's asininity horsed cavalry convictions is only exceeded by defense of Haig when he was faced by the evidence that his major push into the Somme had failed...and let's not forget his deceit and outright lies to the British government and public in covering up the enormity of that failure. Brian Bond omits how Haig and his headquarter staffs concealed and ignored British casualties, while reporting only the numbers of enemy troops captured!
Bond ignores the fact that, by retrospectively changing the purpose of his non-battle plan, Haig was able to avoid disgrace or dismissal....it was brilliant strategy for keeping his position...but which squandered the lives of British and Commonwealth soldiers...it was, in essence, a most elaborate perversion of historical truth.
Bond's 101 page diatribe (I omit his 5 page self-congratulation in being part of the Lees Knowles Lectures, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the main thesis of his book) of glossed-over facts, and poor research, is quickly read and poorly researched. Don't waste your time or money. He is the archetype of revisionist history.
on 20 November 2009
He was a man of his time, trained to run a British Army that was a colonial gendarmerie and little prepared for dealing with an organisation like the German Army. He was well-networked, was a personal friend of the Duke of Cambridge and over-promoted.
The casualty lists tell their own story.
Passchendaele and the Somme Disaster were one thing on the first day, but the insistence of continuing to send men into a swamp after the artillery had destroyed all the land drains, in Northern Europe where it rains a lot, was unforgiveable.
Winter, in Haig's Command, has him rewriting his memoirs to coordinate them with a fictionalised Official History which is supported by the wholesale burning of unit records.
It is often said that he was popular with his troops.
However, many of these would have been people of their time, incredibly deferential and unquestioning, and without the sort of endless news and analysis that we receive 24 hours a day. Many had never been educated beyond contemporary Board School levels. and were from backgrounds so poor that to be given a headstone by the War Graves Commission would have represented a move up in the world.
On a personal note, an old friend of mine, long dead, was in the RA in France. One day they were sitting beside a lonely road alone with their gun and limber. A staff car pulled up. Haig and aides climbed out, had lunch on a collapsible table. My friend Bill said it would have bucked them up no end, had he come to speak to them. They sat and ate for half an hour, totalling ignoring these men, then drove off.