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An indispensible title in the Haig historiography,
This review is from: Haig: Master of the Field (Hardcover)
The importance of this key text in the historiography of Haig's role in the Great War cannot be overstated. It was first published in 1953, and is written by the then senior surviving member of DH's inner circle at GHQ, Major General Sir John 'Tavish' Davidson. Tavish Davidson was, successively, DH's Operations Officer and Director of Operations between 1915 - 1919. Davidson's first hand insight is supported by an Introduction by another with intimate knowledge of events at the highest levels during the Great War, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard. In his Introduction Trenchard writes, inter alia, that: "I hope the views I express here may help the historians of the future to write accurately about Field Marshal Earl Haig's influence on the world in those difficult days."
Now, for today's historians and interested laymen, Pen & Sword have republished this important text, to which is added a Preface by Douglas Scott, Haig's grandson and a respected military historian. Douglas corresponded with me during the writing of his Preface and was tremendously enthused that Davidson's book was once more going to be in print. Sadly, Douglas died at the start of July and so did not live to see Tavish Davidson's classic work republished.
Pen & Sword are to be commended for producing this republication, though it is to be regretted that they also replicated the original edition's major deficiency - the lack of an index. This is all the more exasperating an omission in the case of such a uniquely insightful work. Better by far that the illustration section, which was not part of the original edition, had been left out in favour of the index which would have made this book so much more user friendly as a reference tool. Make no mistake, however, 'Haig: Master of the Field' remains an absolutely essential title for the library of anyone wishing to fully grasp the British C-in-C and the British Armies in France's role in the dramatic final two years of the Great War.
Tavish Davidson wrote 'Haig: Master of the Field' to counter what he and many of his generation saw as what, by 1953, had developed into unjustified and uninformed criticism of the British Commander-in-Chief and the purpose and achievement of his armies role in the Great War. Much of the more extreme examples of course, had been inspired and co-ordinated by Basil Liddell Hart for his own career-making purposes. In his interesting Foreword, Tavish Davidson notes, inter alia, something of the nature of the encouragement which the genesis of his book had from senior officers of the Great War who knew whereof they spoke:
"Since the issue of the Official History, I have received a number of letters requesting that I should publish such records or notes that I may have on the subject of the war in 1917 and 1918. I quote a typical letter from one who commanded a Corps in Flanders during the period under review. He wrote a letter to me dated 18th February 1949:- 'My reason for writing to you is that you are perhaps one of the few remaining Officers who were on Haig's Staff who knows the whole truth about that period of the fighting. Would it not be wise therefore to let the facts be known rather more widely than by your letter to The Times (14th February 1949) or Edmonds' [the Official Historian] Preface. I think for Haig's reputation something should be done.'
"Feeling that Lord Haig would have been generally satisfied with the Official History, I concluded at first that no comments from me were either necessary or desireable. On seconds thoughts I felt that I was free and in a position to throw some light on certain aspects of the campaigns, and, in doing so, I would have had the approval not only of the Commander-in-Chief but also of the Commanders of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Armies, all of whom, after a speech which I made in the House of Commons on 6th August 1919 and in which I reviewed the events of 1917 and 1918, expressed to me their concurrence with what I had said. Lord Haig wrote to me on the 12th:- 'I was very pleased to see from Hansard how well you spoke out in the House regarding the critical period we went through in 1917. For this I thank you and congratulate you.' This speech was summarised in the notes to pages 127 and 128 in 'Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches.'
General The Honble. Sir Herbert Lawrence, who had served in the 17th Lancers and in the South African War with Lord Haig, and who was his Chief-of-Staff throughout 1918, had consistently advised and urged me to place on record such information as I possessed. He regarded it of importance and, on his death, he left me his papers connected with that period. General Sir Douglas Baird, who was for a long period on Lord Haig's Staff both in India and France and who subsequently commanded an Army in India, as well as Lt-General Sir Bertie Fisher, who was in the 17th Lancers with Lord Haig and was subsequently Colonel of the Regiment - both close friends of his - expressed their views to me that some record as I now propose should be published."
Davidson had sent a pre-publication of his book to Douglas Scott's mother, Victoria, Field Marshal Haig's second daughter. In a letter to her of September 1952, Davidson wrote:
'.....I much appreciate all you say & am deeply grateful to you. I agree with you that the book will not have a wide public & as you rightly say it will be limited to students of history, to military establishments etc., but what I think is important is that it will be treated as a book of reference & help to correct some historical errors and false conceptions. I have tried to show up your father's wonderful qualities under the most abnormal conditions and in critical situations. He will grow in stature as the years go by....'
As Douglas Scott concludes in his Preface to the new edition of Davidson's book:
"Sadly the book did little 'to correct some historical errors and false conceptions'. Most of the 'historians' evidently preferred their errors and misconceptions. They usually list 'Haig: Master of the Field' in their bibliography, but there was little evidence that they actually read what General Davidson said about the unfolding drama of 1917 and 1918.
"Tavish's judgement that my grandfather 'will grow in stature as the years go by' has started to come true. Let us hope that this edition of his fine book will help the process."
'Haig: Master of the Field' is a sober, rational and essential evaluation of Sir Douglas Haig's command and the influences which impinged upon it in 1917-18 by one of the last insiders who 'was there'.
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Initial post: 18 Feb 2012 21:41:19 GMT
A welcome addition to the material available for the student but there are some mistakes in the book. The difference between Gough and Plumer's methods at 3rd Ypres is magnified, the "cross-purposes" of Gough and Haig are exaggerated and the emphasis on the Gheluvelt plateau is overlooked. Nonetheless well worth the read.
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