Gerard DeGroot argues that we still need Field Marshal Haig to be a great villain.
On February 3 1928, the British paid their respects to a departed hero. Crowds lined London streets as the funeral cortege bearing Field Marshal Earl Haig made its way to Westminster Abbey. Rarely in this century has a death been lamented so deeply. Then, not long after the funeral, Haig was transformed from war hero into the "Butcher of the Somme" whose stubborn adherence to outdated tactics caused needless sacrifice. When the British felt the need for a scapegoat, they created one in Haig.
Haig was his own worst enemy. During the great war, he began every offensive by boasting that he would drive the Germans back to the Rhine, and ended each with the facile justification that at least the enemy had suffered more. Haig underscored the physical separation between himself and his men by leading a life of luxury at his headquarters. And what are we to make of a commander who thought himself chosen by God and who saw death in battle as merely "a welcome change to another room"?
But was he so bad? He was in some respects singularly appropriate to 20th-century industrial war. A brilliant administrator, he made sure that his men were well fed and clothed, and that wounds were dressed with appropriate speed. We have Haig to thank for the fact that the British army was the only major force which did not suffer a serious collapse of morale.
He has commonly been blamed for causing a war of attrition. But attrition was inevitable. In this war, heavily laden men had to walk unprotected over broken ground enfiladed by machine gun fire, blasted by artillery, obstructed by barbed wire and poisoned by gas. Trenches were not Haig's invention, they were a natural human response to the problem of exposure and the risk of annihilation. Haig's mistake was that he thought he could restore movement to this inevitably static war. Lives were needlessly lost because of this error. But this loss should be measured in thousands of dead, not, as his detractors think, in hundreds of thousands.
Haig has been accused, perhaps justifiably, of being insensitive to suffering. His religious beliefs may have inspired a confident but dangerous fatalism. Certainty in life everlasting could have caused him to be careless with lives temporal. But, given that this war was destined to involve massive losses, would a more sensitive commander have succeeded?
While many soldiers would eventually remember Haig as the Butcher of the Somme, few thought of him in these terms at the time. What is striking are the countless examples of deep respect. Corporal H. Milward, given some food by Haig when the latter passed him in his car, later remarked: "how extraordinary it was that a man with so much responsibility could find time to think of the wants of a humble soldier." Anecdotal though such comments might be, they are nevertheless far more prevalent than derisory references.
The reaction against Haig was a post-1928 and largely middle-class phenomenon. As the years passed, sections of the middle class began to feel shame over what they saw as a betrayal of working-class trust by Haig. This upsurge of remorse was fuelled by disillusioned war poets, by anguished writers like Vera Brittain and Richard Aldington, and by the vitriolic memoirs of David Lloyd George. Every A-level English student today reads Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetical general "speeds glum heroes up the line to death" while he sits "guzzling and gulping in the best hotel". The great mistake is to assume that this outpouring of middle-class guilt was echoed across the social spectrum. The war poetry of Sassoon, Wilfred Owen et al has endured because it is stylistically "good" and because it embodies an accepted vision of the war as futile. We tend to forget (or remain blissfully unaware) that the vast majority of war poetry supported the war effort and idolised Haig right up to November 1918. Every Armistice Day renews the ritual of Haig-bashing in a ceaseless barrage of castigation. Hatred has been made up in retrospect; ordinary soldiers now swear that they always despised the butcher Haig.
But the explanation for Haig hatred goes deeper. A catastrophe of the great war's magnitude requires villains of proportionate ineptitude. By such measure do human beings reassure themselves of their ability to direct their own fate. To believe that Haig was merely a petty operative in a war which was beyond the control of any man is to accept a very bleak picture of the world in which we live and the power which we as individuals hold. Far better that a million men should have died because of one man's stupidity than because of the irresistible arithmetic of modern technological war.
Gerard DeGroot is senior lecturer in modern history at the University of St Andrews and was the historical consultant to the Timewatch documentary Douglas Haig: Lion or Donkey? aired earlier this month