Douglas Haig

Haig was born in Edinburgh on 19 June 1861 to a prosperous middle class family involved in the whisky trade. He was thus by no means the upper class scion of legend. Educated at Clifton College in Bristol, he attended Brasenose College at Oxford University, before becoming a cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst from 1884-1885. He was commissioned into the 7th (Queens's Own) Hussars in 1885.

After successful regimental stint in India and various staff postings he returned to attend the Staff College at Camberley in 1896. By this time he had begun to gain a reputation as a very capable officer, blessed with a capacity for hard work and a mind that could cut through irrelevancies to focus on what was important.

In 1898, Haig was selected for duties in the Sudan, where he experienced active service for the first time, demonstrating a coolness under fire that would serve him well. Haig then served with distinction during the Boer War, both as a staff officer under the command of Sir John French and whilst leading a cavalry column, before promotion to colonel and the prestigious command of the 17th Lancers in 1901.

His abilities were evident and as a result he would be given several key staff appointments in the years that followed. First he became Inspector General of Cavalry, before promotion to Major General and acting as Director of Military Training at the War Office from 1906-1907. This was followed by the role of Director of Staff Duties in 1907-1908.

Next came the challenging appointment of Chief of Staff in India from 1909. Finally he was promoted to Lieutenant General and in 1912 given the Aldershot Command. This was a crucial appointment because he would then be responsible for the preparation and training of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, which would form I Corps under his command in the event of war.

Throughout his career, Haig prepared diligently for war, studying military history and in particular German military doctrine. To that end he had attended their manoeuvres and could read German. He was also reasonably proficient in French - the language of his likely allies. Not for nothing would he be known as 'The Educated Soldier'. 

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January 1915

By January 1915, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force, destined for the western front) was expanding rapidly. The original two corps had swollen to a total of six corps, which were formed into the 1st and 2nd Armies.

Yet the vast expansion brought other problems in its train. Who would lead the new armies, corps and divisions? There was a serious lack of officers with sufficient experience to take on high command. Of even more concern was the puzzle as to how the great masses of partially trained recruits could be transformed into warriors capable of facing the most dangerous opponent in the world – the German army.

There were already disquieting rumours that the politicians were considering employing troops on ‘Easterner’ campaigns against the Turks. General Sir Douglas Haig had good reason to be concerned.

 

"Lord Kitchener has recently published in the press that six armies will be formed each of about three corps! We all think these new formations with (rather elderly) doubtful commanders and untrained staff a great mistake. It was folly to send out ‘the New Army’ by divisions and armies. Much better to send out battalions, or even brigades, for incorporation in our existing divisions and corps. We all quite concurred, and thought that the new corps and new armies (which are insufficiently trained) might readily become a danger!

[Commander-in-chief of the BEF Sir John] French also read a letter from Kitchener in which the latter hinted that his New Army might be used better elsewhere than on the eastern frontier of France. A suggestion was made of co-operating with Italy and Greece. I said that we ought not to divide our military force, but concentrate on the decisive front which was on this frontier. With more guns and ammunition, and more troops, we are bound to break through."

Many of the key themes of the First World War were already being explored. It would be a gargantuan conflict, involving millions of men at the front, and the mobilisation of whole populations behind the wheel of conflict. This would be a long struggle, with constantly evolving defence tactics to thwart every new attacking initiative.

 

All Updates

 

January 1915

By January 1915, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force, destined for the western front) was expanding rapidly. The original two corps had swollen to a total of six corps, which were formed into the 1st and 2nd Armies.

Yet the vast expansion brought other problems in its train. Who would lead the new armies, corps and divisions? There was a serious lack of officers with sufficient experience to take on high command. Of even more concern was the puzzle as to how the great masses of partially trained recruits could be transformed into warriors capable of facing the most dangerous opponent in the world – the German army.

There were already disquieting rumours that the politicians were considering employing troops on ‘Easterner’ campaigns against the Turks. General Sir Douglas Haig had good reason to be concerned.

 

"Lord Kitchener has recently published in the press that six armies will be formed each of about three corps! We all think these new formations with (rather elderly) doubtful commanders and untrained staff a great mistake. It was folly to send out ‘the New Army’ by divisions and armies. Much better to send out battalions, or even brigades, for incorporation in our existing divisions and corps. We all quite concurred, and thought that the new corps and new armies (which are insufficiently trained) might readily become a danger!

[Commander-in-chief of the BEF Sir John] French also read a letter from Kitchener in which the latter hinted that his New Army might be used better elsewhere than on the eastern frontier of France. A suggestion was made of co-operating with Italy and Greece. I said that we ought not to divide our military force, but concentrate on the decisive front which was on this frontier. With more guns and ammunition, and more troops, we are bound to break through."

Many of the key themes of the First World War were already being explored. It would be a gargantuan conflict, involving millions of men at the front, and the mobilisation of whole populations behind the wheel of conflict. This would be a long struggle, with constantly evolving defence tactics to thwart every new attacking initiative.

 

 

December 1914

During a visit to the western front by the king, Douglas Haig tried to get George V to understand the awful nature of the fighting – to show that not everyone could stand up to the terrors of war.

 

"The king seemed very cheery, but inclined to think that all our troops are by nature brave, and is ignorant of all the efforts which commanders must make to keep up the morale of their men in war, and of all the training which is necessary in peace in order to enable a company to go forward as an organised unit in the face of almost certain death.

I told him of the crowds of fugitives who came back down the Menin Road from time to time during the Ypres battle, having thrown everything they could, including their rifles and packs, in order to escape, with a look of absolute terror on their faces, such as I have never before seen on any human being’s face."

 

 

November 2014

Douglas Haig had performed well as the commander of I Corps during the first battle of Ypres. He was, however, well aware that this was a team effort.

"Message from Sir J French that he had recommended me for “Immediate promotion to general for distinguished service in the field”. I reply, thanking him, and add: “Whatever success the I Corps has gained is mainly due to the untiring zeal of my staff and to the fine soldierly spirit fostered by commanders of divisions, brigades and battalions in their units during peace.”"

Haig was promoted to full general on 16 November 1914.

 

October 1914

At Ypres, Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig was faced with a real test of his abilities as a defensive general. On 31 October, he rode forward along the Menin Road, visiting his divisional and brigade commanders, trying to find out what was going on, at the same time sending forward any remaining scraps of troops to ‘putty up’ the gaps in the line and to counter-attack the Germans before they could consolidate their position. Haig was aware that one more successful German assault would doom them all; this was not histrionics or panic, this was a measured assessment.

 

"I got on my horse and rode forward to see if I could do anything to organise stragglers and push them forward to check the enemy. I ride to Veldhoek and see Generals Landon, Capper and FitzClarence and find that “Gheluvelt has been retaken by the Worcesters” and the situation has been restored. Troops very exhausted and two brigadiers assure me that if the enemy makes a push at any point, they doubt our men being able to hold on. Fighting by day and digging to strengthen their trenches by night has thoroughly tired them out."

 

August 1914

 

Lieutenant General Haig was commander of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the British Army which, in early August 1914, headed to France to face the advancing Germans

When war came on 4 August 1914, the mobilisation plans swung smoothly into action as the British Expeditionary Force – under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French – was prepared take up its place on the left flank of the French army. Douglas Haig had been designated to command the I Corps and was held by his contemporaries to be the ultimate ‘educated soldier’. Indeed, his whole life had been spent preparing for this moment. Yet Haig was beginning to doubt the suitability for command of Sir John French, a dashing cavalryman who had little time for the theory of war.

"From my experience with Sir John in the South African War, he was certain to do his utmost loyally to carry out any orders which the government might give him. I had grave doubts, however, whether either his temper was sufficiently even, or his military knowledge sufficiently thorough to enable him to discharge properly the very difficult duties which will devolve upon him during the coming operations with Allies on the continent.

In my own heart, I know that French is quite unfit for this great command at a time of crisis in our nation’s history."
 

July 1914

 
Lieutenant General Haig was commander of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the British Army, which, in July 1914, were primed to spearhead any British military engagement on the continent.
 
At the end of July the realisation had begun to dawn that war was indeed imminent and Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig could look with considerable satisfaction on the detailed arrangements that had been made to create a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of four divisions and a cavalry division for dispatch to France to take up their position on the left flank of the French army.
 
"On the afternoon of Wednesday 29 July 1914, I received an order (as general officer commanding Aldershot Command) by telegram from secretary of state for war to adopt ‘Precautionary Measures’ as detailed in Defence Scheme. All our arrangements were ready, even to the extent of having the telegrams written out. These merely had to be dated and dispatched."
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