Top positive review
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Excellent revisionist account
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.