Douglas Haig Named British Field Commander
On December 16, 1915, Douglas Haig became commander in chief of British forces replacing Sir John French the previous commander of the British Expeditionary Force. The circumstances of Haig's ascension to commander in chief and his resulting performance are subject to much speculation and controversy. Haig had previously distinguished himself in his command of the I Corps and 1st Army of the British Expeditionary Force at battle such as Mons and 1st Ypres. Haig lacked confidence in French as a commander, as did many in the British army, but Haig played an active and direct role in the replacement of French and his own subsequent elevation to command. He corresponded privately with King George V after the onset of the stalemate on the Western front and expressed his dismay with the military situation and French's command. The final blow to French's position came during the King's visit to British force in France. Haig told the King that French was "a source of great weakness to the army and no one had confidence in him anymore (Keegan, 1995, p. 288)." Added to this condemnation of French, Haig added he was willing to do his duty in any capacity (Keegan, 1995). The lobbying worked and, after a conference between the King, Asquith, and Kitchener, Haig was elevated to command in December 1915.
December 16, 1915
Douglas Haig was always regarded as ambitious. He was born in 1861 and was educated at Oxford and Sandhurst. Following his time at Sandhurst, Haig was commissioned a lieutenant in the 7th Hussars and embarked to India (Winter, 1991). Eventually, Haig went though Staff College at Camberley and served as a Staff Officer during the Sudan Campaign, seeing action at Omdurman, and the Boer War. Haig later commanded the 17th Lancers during the Boer War. During the Boer War, Haig's 17th Lancers were defeated by Jan Smuts' Boer forces at Elands Rivers and Haig's valet noted that Haig was reluctant to discuss the Boer War in later days (Winter, 1991, p. 30). Haig continued on to other posts such as Inspector General of Cavalry of India, Director of Military Training and Director of Staff Duties for the War Office, as well as Chief of the General Staff in India (Winter, 1991). While Haig was regarded as an efficient soldier, he also benefited from influential benefactors such as Evelyn Wood, Kitchener, and Esher. The combination of effectiveness as a soldier, influential benefactors, and his own campaigning resulted in Haig's attainment of command in the First World War.
Haig is forever linked with the Battle of the Somme in 1916. This was the first major offensive Haig supervised and is one of the most gruesome battles ever contested. Upon assumption of command, Haig took to improving the front by turning a twenty-five mile area from the front lines to Amiens into a military town. Haig ordered the cutting of new roads and for these roads to lead towards the front and be covered with shell dumps and encampments. The technical quality of Haig's command was not disputed, but the tactical quality would come under great criticism. Haig commanded twenty divisions at the Somme and most of the divisions were new to war. Haig envisioned utilizing a massive artillery barrage to demoralize the German lines and hopefully break the lines without necessitating a fight (Keegan, 1995). Full of confidence, Haig believed the British forces would be able to advance and take the German trenches without much trouble, this led to his decision to have British forces march upright and in lines towards the German lines. The plan failed and the artillery barrage failed to accomplish the decimation of the German forces Haig intended. The British forces were cut down by German fire and the British suffered sixty thousand casualties on the first day and some regiments ceased to exist. The Somme would end in a British victory, but Haig would earn the title "the Butcher of the Somme." Haig would serve until the end of the war and oversee such battles as Paschendale, Arras, Third Ypres, and Messines (Winter, 1991). After the war, Haig commanded British Home forces until his retirement. The performance of Haig in the war is still debated to this day and his tactics criticized. One can only wonder if more humane tactics could have accomplished the same goals. In the end, Haig did get what he wanted: command.
By Matt Church
University of Louisville
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Viking Press, 1995.
Winter, Denis (1991) Haig's Command: A Reassessment. New York: Viking Press
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