Haig: A Reappraisal 70 Years On. . – book review
Haig: A Reappraisal 70 Years On. Edited by Brian Bond and Nigel Cave. Leo Cooper, 1999. 271 Pages. $36.95. Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Harold E. Raugh, Jr., U.S. Army, Retired.
British Army Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during World War I, has become known as the epitome of the military “butcher and bungler.” He remains best known for the unprecedented carnage at the Somme in 1916, where a shocking 60,000 casualties were suffered on the first day of the battle with about a half-million total casualties incurred during the four-and-a-half month operation; and Passehendaele (Third Ypres) the following year, where another 275,000 British casualties were sustained. As a result, Haig’s reputation continues to arouse controversy and interest.
Through the ensuing years and the release of relevant documents, less emotional and more detached assessments of Haig’s wartime generalship have been made. This superb anthology, edited by Brian Bond and Nigel Cave to mark the 70th anniversary of Haig’s death in 1928, consists of 14 essays written primarily by members of the British Commission for Military History and the Douglas Haig Fellowship. As a result, this volume is “unapologetically ‘pro-Haig’,” not in terms of demonstrable bias, but “in the sense that the editors and a majority of contributors believe that [Haig] has been misunderstood, misrepresented and excessively criticized.”
This collective reappraisal includes controversial topics and others that illuminate less-known aspects of Haig’s career and personality. Haig’s relationships with his political masters, military superiors, and Allies–as well as his subordinate commanders (and subsequently with historians)–are chronicled and assessed in detail. Other essays show that, contrary to earlier perceptions, Haig generally supported the development and employment of tanks, various mortars, machineguns, and other technological innovations that would help break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front. Haig’s judicious use of punishment in maintaining the discipline of the BEF is the subject of another well-researched chapter. Concluding essays focus on Haig’s relationship with his soldiers and his association with the British Legion, and the role of religion in his life.
This interesting volume is revisionary in nature and reappraises many aspects of Haig’s generalship and character. The view of Haig that generally emerges from these essays is one of a much more competent and conscientious commander than previously recognized. Near the end of World War I, a young officer remarked that even under the most demanding combat conditions, Haig “managed to convey to every man who served under him his own resolution and singleness of purpose.” The achievements and attributes of such a leader are always worthy of study.
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