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Britain's Great War - Sir Douglas Haig???


War Hero
Super Moderator
One of the problems (IMO) was there was nobody in the British Army who had fought a major land war, Crimea being the last one as the Sudan, Zulu Wars and Boer War were entirely different types of warfare and these were where the Generals and Commanders had cut their teeth, maybe that's why we didn't do too badly in Africa and Mespotamia during WW1. As for Haig being a butcher, implying he didn't care about the men, he was the man who started hiring dentists for the troops which led to the Dental Corp, he was also one of the men who created the Royal British Legion, those of us old enough may remember that the black button in the middle of the poppies were stamped "The Haig Fund". hardly the actions of an uncaring butcher IMO.


War Hero
finknottle wrote
This could go on ad infinitum but if my source is correct in 1917 Haig gave the order for a cavalry charge at Arras involving the Household Cavalry.

Latin? You scholar you! ^_~

It seems to me unlikely that a Field Marshal would dictate to an individual battalion or regimental formation the manner in which they carry out his intentions. Later, Corporal Hitler would stick his oar in, despite the German doctrine of Mission Command/Auftragstaktik.

The charge was against heavy machine gun fire and barbed wire; our cavalry were slaughtered by the German defenders. As this was not early on in the war it would appear that Haig had not learnt the lesson that a cavalry charge against modern weapons would be suicidal.

Full frontal assaults went on into WW2 despite lessons identified in WW1 and before. Most spectacular fail I know of was the recce battalion of the 9th SS Panzer Division at Arnhem driving over the bridge, straight into the Paras' hail of lead and anti tank stuff. Minced, including the CO. Not necessarily SS fanaticism, their Commander wasn't a career, straight from central casting SS type but a short arsed pencil neck recent Army transfer ( despite the A Bridge Too Far portrayal) and his Division and Corps commanders didn't order him to do it. See: It Never Snows In September by Robert J Kershaw and almost any book on Operation MARKET GARDEN - index, Viktor Graebner.

Seadog, you seem to be obsessive in your belief that some service men hate the officer class. Have you considered the possibly that the men would only look upon them with disdain if they were utter tools, tools that do crop up now and again in all ranks.
Not just some service persons but a certain type of civilian who, despite no experience of matters martial / naval spouts ill informed prejudices, often in the Guardian, Independent and Daily Mail, especially in the online comments section. I suspect that a sub section of these toads fancy themselves as officer class and are resentful.

I do wonder if you had a bad experience during your service? I do hope not as you come across as being a jolly good chap.

Kind of you to say so. No bad experiences that would allow me to tar everyone with the same brush.
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Speaking as a WW1 historian.... (I've always wanted to write that) I'll put a word in for the generals, and indeed the general staff. Obviously there were the incompetents (Hamilton has been mentioned), but frankly you get incompetents at every level - it's just that the generals tend to get more people killed - and overall the record is pretty good.

If we deal with some of Finks' et al's points raised in this thread (paraphrased cum apologia, natch):

"The generals were all safe in their chateaus, sending the massses to their deaths armed only with a service revolver."

The statistics on the deaths of generals have been mentioned upthread, and are dealt with more fully in Corrigan's book, but they are also sobering. Generals were killed in numbers in the front and support lines, and in several cases ahead of them. One Major General, Kekewich, even shot himself in 1914 when informed he wouldn't be commanding his division in the field.

On the other hand, there was a lot of sitting around in HQs, but a simplistic swipe about being 30 miles behind the lines just doesn't cut it. At Waterloo Wellington was sitting up on some raised ground on his horse, and he couldn't see the whole battlefield. Imagine having several miles of front under your command. There were no radios, and comms (provided they hadn't themselves been destroyed by shellfire) were in the main via fixed line telephones. You've got to be at the end of a wire to know what's going on. The big problem as a consequence is breakdown of communication as soon as the troops leave their trenches and get forward of the front line.

Know what the solution on the first day of the Somme was? Tin triangles pinned to the backs of tunics/packs to reflect the sunlight and allow observers to see the glints and guestimate the extent of advance. This is a horrendous blend of modernity and heath-robinson style lash-ups. But it was the best they could do (and indeed, such necessity spurred the invention of the wireless set and the line of descent all the way to today's personal role radio.

The big problem, as we shall come to in a minute, is the impossibility of keeping your forces in being but just sitting around while you wait for all the things you need to have been invented, produced and got into service.

On the service revolvers, well yes, that's the swagger of the colonial officer for you, but it may interest you to know that from about 1916 the orders *from the generals* was for officers to equip and arm as ORs during advances to confuse the enemy and make themselves less conspicuous targets. The same is true of the move of rank insignia from large and on the cuffs to small and on the shoulder. Lessons learned meant that pretty quickly your subalterns simly weren't going over the top with a revolver and a stick, regardless of what Blackadder shows happening in 1917....

Full-frontal Assaults:

Right, well this is the ticklish one to be totally honest. However, again, who's doing what when? Haig wanted the big push in 1917, when the largely volunteer troops would be steadier, and the armaments better. Why did we go in 1916? Because the French were in danger of collapse at Verdun and as senior partners they largely got to call the shots. I'm emphatically not blaming the French per se, but we advanced to take the pressure off them at the expense of over 100,000 of our own men. Blame the politicians, the alliance, and the dynamics of Franco-British relations.

Anyway, back to frontal assaults. Without starting at the very beginning, the training of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 was first rate. Chaps with rifles held the line and stopped the German advance (at the cost of their almost total annihilation). But then what? What are your war aims? The Germans want to destroy France and are sitting in possession of a good chunk of it, the British and French want to turf them out. The British go for blockade in an attempt to starve the Germans (and, by about 1918, this is sort of working). The Germans settle for possession and grinding down the will of the Allies to fight. This is why their trenches are deep, with concrete bunkers and electric light. They're hunkered down and going nowhere.

The British and French on the other hand, are all about repulsing the Germans from Franco-Belgian territory. Their trenches are quite literally jumping-off points for taking the fight to the enemy. But with what? You've got machine guns and barbed wire - these weapons massively favour the defensive. The attacking forces have got artillery, which rearranges the dirt/rubble, and small arms. However, the imperative from the political lords and masters, to say nothing of the Allies who we're shoring up, is to get on with repulsing them. As I said above the truth is that once embroiled we just couldn't sit there for a couple of years until we had everything perfect, we had to get on with it. This caused massive casualties.

However, the story of the British army throughout 1914-18 is one of continual improvement - to the point where the British in 1918 may well have been the finest military force we've ever put into the field. The quest was on to work out how we could take and maintain the offensive without walking very slowly towards machine guns (and if there's any demand from the reading masses I can do a post on why even that was about the only thing which could be done on the 1st June). British generals encouraged the development of the material and associated doctrines/tactics for the tank, sound ranging, creeping barrages, counter-battery fire, etc; all of which helped to turn the tide but all of which just weren't on the table in 1914. The Canadian forces (60% of whom were British born incidentally apparently) pioneered assault in small groups. All of which leads to the situation by the back end of 1917, and certainly by the Hundred Days when these same benighted British Generals were controlling a total combined arms assault force which would be understood on the 21st century battlefield. Where am I going with this? Well, by and large, these *were the same generals* who were in command earlier in the war. It's not some youngsters coming in and supplanting the old and imcompetent, it's the supposed old and incompetent who were in reality getting to grips with and then mastering a total war machine for the first time in human history.

Finally, and because I think I've got a paragraph or two left in me yet, let's do the cavalry:

What is the cavalry there for? Well, it can fight as dismounted infantry. Did UK cavalry do that in WW1? Yes
It can ride into battle, then dismount and fight as dismounted infantry. Did they do that? Yes
But, above all, it's the arme blanche. The classic pursuit weapon which can get in amongst a retreat and cause mayhem. Could anything else offer that at any point in the war? Not really. Tanks by the end of the war were just about being converted into APCs and could have a go, but their top speed was far less than a horse. The British keeping a cavalry force in being was a deterrent, and, if/when the circumstances presented themselves, could have been a decisive weapon. Arguably, if the Germans hadn't sued for peace in 1918, the route would have continued to the extent that we would have really seen what the cavalry could still do in the second decade of the 20th century.

Ah but, the cynic, will say, looking for a get-out to pierce the argument, what about the cavalry's weaponry, it's too specialised. Well, yes, it's certainly that. Ideally you want lances against infantry and swords against other cavalry (hence the split into regiments of Lancers and Hussars respectively). But the British cavalry was unique in the first world war in training its regiments to handle both, and be skilled in both as the occasion demanded. Again, opportunities rarely arose, but we had a versatile force here which still had a role to play and arguably did right up to the mid-1930s.

Of course, in the battle cited upthread, this didn't get very far. But it was a rare idiot who ordered cavalry to charge machine guns. Cavalry is for pursuit. It would have made the difference on the Somme had the infantry assault been successful, and it would have been awesome if we'd come to a full-on pursuit in 1918 - a pursuit which circumstances meant never came.

One last thing on the generals, they presided over one of the most complex logistical and supply chains up to that point in human history. Ironically this led quite directly to weakening the German will to fight. During the brief successful German spring offensive of 1918 they overran British supply dump after British supply dump. The poorly nourished and equipped German troops realised that the Allies were in fact stronger and better equipped than their propaganda had led them to believe, and they realised that this depth of logistics and organisation was going to lead to the war only ending in one way... Shortly afterwards, as the German advance stalled (in no small part to units halting to gorge themselves on Allied supplies of food they'd been starved of for months, the tide turned.

Here endeth tutorial no1 in why Joan Littlewood didn't speak the gospel...

As a final point, the adulation of the bulk of soldiers at the time for Haig is well attested. For illustration, look at how many old soldiers lined the route for his interrment (*not* his funeral). Then look at where that interrment was. About the most difficult place to get to in the British Isles. And they hadn't all gone just to check he was dead....


A wonderful tome k_s but it's a shame that you did not read my post more carefully, I refer to your 3rd paragraph. I did not say that the generals were all safe in their chateaus and it was the subalterns that I was referring to when I mentioned the service revolver, now if what you say is true the generals certainly took their time in realising that these young officers needed to blend in with the soldiers. As a self-proclaimed WW1 historian I would have thought that you would pay more attention to what you are reading.


War Hero
Splendid post Kinross. Finks has read it and is clinging desperately to his Lions and Donkeys mantra. Speaking for myself it has explained a great deal.


Speaking as a WW1 historian....

Brilliant and interesting post KS, strong.

Vintage Finknottle: No noteworthy argument, simple contrary comments, a refusal to admit he's at all wrong and a final attempt to squirm away with diversion.

Lovely stuff.



Brilliant and interesting post KS, strong.

Vintage Finknottle: No noteworthy argument, simple contrary comments, a refusal to admit he's at all wrong and a final attempt to squirm away with diversion.

Lovely stuff.

Squirm; never and why would I change the habits of a lifetime, I need to maintain my street cred. It was recently pointed out to me that I was allowing my high standards to slide.

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War Hero
Super Moderator
If you want some reading matter to help you Finks, start with Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan which debunks the myths.

You could also try The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman which deals with the behind the scenes political machinations leading up to the outbreak and on to the start of the Allies offensive to halt the Germans (it's a very good book, basically covers the first month of the war)

Or, of course, to strengthen your beliefs, there's always Butchers and Bunglers of WW1 by John Laffin which is incredibly biased by an author with an axe to grind which is self-evident the further you get into the book (just my opinion).


War Hero
Forgotten Victory by Garry Sheffield is excellent, as is Tommy by richard Holmes.

The myth of shellshocked troops being shot is just that. During the entire war some 90% of death sentences were commutted, and most only occurred on those who'd carried out either capital offences by standards of the day, or who were multiple offenders. The 'shellshock' line is a convenient one to cover for the reality that those shot would likely have faced the hangmans noose in civvy street without a convenient pretext.


War Hero
Super Moderator
Further to P-T's post, I found these stats (more available from the National Archives)

"In all, 5,952 officers and 298,310 other ranks were court-martialled. This amounts to just over 3% of the total of men who joined the army. Of those tried, 89% were convicted; 8% acquitted; the rest were either convicted without the conviction being confirmed or with it being subsequently quashed. Of those convicted, 30% were for absence without leave; 15% for drunkenness;14% for desertion (although only 3% were actually in the field at the time); 11% for insubordination; 11% for loss of army property, and the remaining 19% for various other crimes. The main punishments applied were : 3 months detention in a military compound - 24%; Field Punishment Number 1 - 22%; Fines - 12%; 6 months detention - 10%; reduction in rank - 10%; Field Punishment Number 2 - 8%.

3.080 men (1.1% of those convicted) were sentenced to death. Of these, 89% were reprieved and the sentence converted to a different one. 346 men were executed. Their crimes included desertion - 266; murder - 37; cowardice in the face of the enemy - 18; quitting their post - 7; striking or showing violence to their superiors - 6; disobedience - 5; mutiny - 3; sleeping at post - 2; casting away arms - 2. Of the 346, 91 were already under a suspended sentence from an earlier conviction (40 of these a suspended death sentence)" . (Source: Chris Baker, 2010).
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