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11-08-2015, 17:43

Douglas Haig (1861-1928)

Douglas Haig commanded the British army on the western front from the winter of 1 9 1 5- 1 9 1 6 to the close of the war. He is the most controversial of the prominent military commanders of World War I, and the debate over his leadership continues to rage. Haig first became the target of vigorous criticism for his leadership of the failed offensive on the Somme in July 1916. Critics have leveled equally negative judgments about the way Haig conducted the campaign in Flanders the following year. That 1917 offensive, known for its most bloody and futile encounter with the enemy at Passchendaele, was marked by hideous casualties and impossible fighting conditions in the fall rains and mud. Nonetheless, in the different conditions of 1918, a different Haig emerged. Or, better said, Haig's talents and attitudes appeared to better advantage. He kept his head and maintained the cohesion of his army in the face of the German offensives, then directed the British army in the final set of offensives that brought the war to a close. He played a key role in getting the Allied commander-in-chief, Ferdinand Foch, to make an all-out effort to win the war in 1918. Douglas Haig was bom in Edinburgh on June 19, 1861. The son of a family that had prospered in the distillery business, he entered the army as a cadet at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1884. He received his commission the following year. His early career, in which he was marked by superiors for his unusual energy and professional zeal, took place within the ranks of the cavalry. Shortly after he graduated from the Staff College in 1 898, his professional life took a crucial turn: he became chief staff officer to General John French, commander of the British cavalry force in the Boer War. Haig made a name for himself as both a staff officer and a field commander in South Africa. He became a major general in 1904 and reached his initial wartime rank of lieutenant general in 1911. His rise to eminence in the army had come partly through his connections to Britain's royal family, and he remained a confidant of King George V during the years of fighting in France. With the outbreak of World War I, Haig led the I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force to France. He distinguished himself initially at the First Battle of Ypres in October and November, holding the crucial portion of the Allied front adjacent to the English Channel against ferocious German attacks. As a reward, he got command of one of the two Brifish field armies forming in France at the start of 1915. He conducted offensives at Neuve Chapelle in March, then at Loos in September. Mismanagement of the Battle of Loos by General French led to his removal as commander of the British Expeditionary Force. In mid-December, Haig took over. During 1916, Haig's lasting reputation as an unimaginative, callous commander took shape. It contains several elements: his willingness to accept immense casualties; his conviction that the enemy was close to the limit of its resources; and his expectation of a breakthrough into open country that would end the war by destroying the German army. Haig's divisions, composed entirely of volunteers, started the British role in the 1916 campaign with an attack on the Somme on July 1 . His defenders are quick to point out that the British general bowed to his French colleague. General Joseph Joffre, attacking earlier than Haig wished, and in a sector Joffre had selected. Moreover, they note. Allied public opinion would not have tolerated a passive strategy for the western front despite the strength of the German defenses. Nonetheless, the first day was a disaster without precedent in military history: Haig lost 60,000 men, one-third of them fatalities. The British bombardment had failed to cripple German defenses, and enemy machine gunners mowed down the inexperienced soldiers General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Haig's subordinate, sent out in close formation. Haig continued the fruitless offensive into the autumn, losing perhaps 400,000 men in all. But Haig's defenders note that the Germans also suffered from this bloody attrition. In 1917 Haig once again took the offensive, this time in Flanders, on a sector of his choosing. Overcoming the opposition of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who feared another pointless bloodletting, Haig conducted the Third Battle of Ypres over a period of four months. It is better known as the Passchendaele campaign, named after the small village around which much of the fighting centered. As the attack began, the French armies were crippled by mutiny, and the Allies needed to distract German attention from the French sectors ofthe front. Moreover, Haig had high hopes; continued pressure on the Germans might even bring about their total collapse. But the British advance across watersoaked terrain saw Haig's men bogged down in the mud much of the time. Once again, Haig barely pushed forward, while young Britons died by the hundreds of thousands. Thus, Haig met the German onslaught in March 1918 in the shadow of Lloyd George's distrust. If the British prime minister had felt more politically secure, he would likely have replaced Haig by then. Some historians believe he deliberately avoided sending reinforcements to Haig in order to restrain the British commander from further offensives. In contrast to the panicky French commander-in-chief, Philippe Petain, Haig kept his composure during the dangerous German offensives Luden dorff launched from late March to mid-July. He accepted the need for an Allied supreme commander to control Petain. And he held tenaciously even after Ludendorff had begun to break through British defenses in the crucial sector around Amiens. Then, in August 1918, he directed an offensive at Amiens that precipitated the long German retreat that ended with the Armistice. Later that month, he helped persuade Foch that the war was winnable in 1918 if the Germans had to face a series of coordinated offensives all over the western front. Haig retired from the army in 1921, spending the remainder of his life as the commander of the British Legion, the nation's veterans' organization. He died on January 30, 1928, in London.

 

 

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