Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig

Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig
The Earl Haig
Douglas Haig.jpg
Earl Haig
Nickname Butcher Haig.[1]
Born 19 June 1861
Charlotte Square, Edinburgh
Died 29 January 1928 (aged 66)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1884–1920
Rank Field Marshal (1917)
Battles/wars Mahdist War,
Second Boer War,
First World War
Awards CB (1901)
KCVO (1909)
KCIE (1911)
KCB (1913)
GCB (1915)
GCVO (1916)
KT (1917)
OM (1919)

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC, (19 June 1861 – 29 January 1928) was a British senior officer during World War I. He commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1915 to the end of the War. He was commander during the Battle of the Somme, the battle with one of the highest casualties in British military history, the Third Battle of Ypres, and the Hundred Days Offensive, which led to the armistice in 1918.[2][3][4]

Although a popular commander during the immediate post-war years,[5] with his funeral becoming a day of national mourning, Haig has since the 1960s become an object of criticism for his leadership during the First World War. Some dub him "Butcher Haig" for the two million British casualties under his command, and regard him as representing the very concept of class based incompetent commanders, stating that he was unable to grasp modern tactics and technologies.[5][6]

However, many veterans[who?] praised Haig's leadership[citation needed], and since the 1980s some historians have argued that British forces under his command did in fact adopt new tactics and technologies,[7] that the high casualties suffered were a function of the tactical and strategic realities of the time [8] and that Haig's critics ("blinkered by their hatred ... of Haig" [4]) give insufficient emphasis to the important role played by the British forces in the Allied victory of 1918.[2][3]


Early life

As a Hussar at age 23 in 1885

Haig was born in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh - he was not an aristocrat by birth, or even landed gentry[9]. His father John Haig - an irascible alcoholic - was middle class ("in trade"), and as head of the family's successful Haig & Haig whisky distillery had an income of £10,000 per year. His mother was from a gentry family fallen on straitened circumstances[10]. Haig attended Clifton College. Both Haig’s parents died by the time he was eighteen[11], leaving him financially independent from a young age. Until his marriage he was close to his sister Henrietta, ten years his senior.

After a tour of the USA with his brother, Haig, unusually for a British officer at that time, attended university, studying Political Economy, Ancient History and French Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, 1880–1883. He devoted much of his time to socialising - he was a member of the Bullingdon Club - and equestrian sports. Although he passed his exams (a requirement for university applicants to Sandhurst), he was not eligible for a degree as he had missed a term's residence due to sickness, and if he had stayed for longer he would have been above than the age limit (23) to begin officer training in the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, which he entered in January 1884. Because he had been to university Haig was considerably older than most of his class at Sandhurst, and was Senior Under-Officer, was awarded the Anson Sword and passed out first in the order of merit[12]. He was commissioned into the 7th (Queen's Own) Hussars in 1885 and promoted to lieutenant shortly afterwards.


Junior Officer

Haig played polo for England on a tour of the USA (August 1886)[13], then saw overseas service in India (sent out November 1886), where he was appointed the regiment's adjutant in 1888. He was something of a disciplinarian[14], but also impressed his superiors by his skill at sorting out paperwork and analysing recent training exercises. He became a squadron commander in 1892.

Haig left India in November 1892 to prepare for the entrance exam for the Staff College, Camberley, which he sat in June 1893. Although he was placed in the top 28 candidates (the number of places awarded by exam) he was not awarded a place as he had narrowly failed the compulsory mathematics paper. He concealed this failure for the rest of his life[15] and would later (circa 1910) recommend dropping the mathematics paper as a requirement![16] The Adjutant-General Sir Redvers Buller refused to award Haig one of the four nominated places, citing his colour blindness, despite Haig having his eyesight rechecked by a German oculist and despite Haig’s glowing testimonials from various senior officers, some of them lobbied by Haig and his sister. Haig's colour blindness would probably not have been an issue if he had passed the mathematics paper and it appears Buller wanted an excuse to give a place to an infantry officer[17].

Haig returned briefly to India (taking time on his way to write a 40-page report on French cavalry manoeuvres in Touraine) as second-in-command of the squadron which he had himself commanded in 1892, then returned to the UK as ADC to Sir Keith Fraser, Inspector General of Cavalry. Fraser was one of those who had lobbied for Haig to enter Staff College, and he was finally nominated in late 1894, a common practice in the day for promising candidates. While waiting to take up his place he travelled to Germany to report on cavalry manoeuvres there, and also served as staff officer to Colonel John French (whom he had met in November 1891 whilst French was Commanding Officer of the 19th Hussars) on manoeuvres. The careers of French and Haig were to be entwined for the next twenty-five years, and Haig helped French write the cavalry drillbook, published 1896[18].

As at Sandhurst, Haig worked hard at Camberley (which he entered early in 1896), and was not popular with his peer group – they chose Allenby as Master of the Drag Hunt despite Haig being the better rider[19]. Haig impressed the Chief Instructor, Lt-Col G.F.R. Henderson, and completed the course, leaving in 1897.

Some writers (e.g. Travers 1987) have criticised Camberley for its old-fashioned curriculum, which especially influenced Haig as he was an absorber of doctrine rather than an original thinker. Haig was taught that victory must come from defeating the main enemy army in battle, and that as in Napoleonic warfare attrition (the “wearing out fight”) was merely a prelude to the commitment of reserves for a decisive battlefield victory - traces of this thought can be seen at Loos and the Somme. Great emphasis was placed on morale and mobility, and on Murat's cavalry pursuit after Napoleon’s Jena campaign of 1806. Although the American Civil War was studied, the emphasis was on Stonewall Jackson’s mobile campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, rather than on the more attritional nature of that war[20]. The Franco-Prussian War was also studied, but Haig drew the conclusion from the Prussian victories of 1870 that cavalry would continue to be highly important in modern war.

Sudan War 1898

In early January Haig was picked by Evelyn Wood (now Adjutant-General) as one of three recent staff college graduates requested by Kitchener for the Sudan Campaign. He may have been picked to keep an eye on Kitchener, as Wood invited him to write to him frankly and in confidence (Haig needed little encouragement to (privately) criticise his superiors - he was especially critical of Kitchener’s dictatorial habits)[21]. Kitchener’s force was Anglo-Egyptian, and Haig was required to formally join the Egyptian Army, most of whose officers were British. The plan had been for him to train and take command of an Egyptian cavalry squadron, but this did not happen as Kitchener did not want a command reshuffle with combat imminent[22]. Unlike many British officers, Haig believed that the Egyptians could make good soldiers if properly trained and led[23]. Still without a formal position but accompanying the cavalry, Haig saw his first action in a skirmish south of Atbara (21 March), and in his report to Wood commented on the lack of British machine guns – despite persistent mythology that he did not appreciate machine guns, Haig had in fact made a special trip to Enfield to study the Maxim Gun, and throughout the campaign commented on its worth[24]. Four days later he was made staff officer of brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Broadwood’s cavalry brigade. Haig distinguished himself at his second action, the Battle of Nukheila (8 April) – where he supervised the redeployment of squadrons to protect the rear and then launch a flank attack, as Broadwood was busy in the front line - and was promoted to brevet major. He was present at the Battle of Atbara (10 April), after which he criticised Kitchener for launching a frontal attack without taking the Devishes in flank as well[25]. After Atbara Kitchener was given reinforcements and Haig received a squadron of his own, which he commanded at Omdurman (in reserve during the battle, then on a flank march into the town afterwards).

Boer War 1899-1902

Haig returned to UK, hoping for a position at the War Office, but was instead appointed (May 1899) brigade major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. Haig had recently loaned £2,500 (in a formal contract with interest) to the Brigade Commander John French to cover his losses from South African mining speculations, so that French, regarded as a talented cavalry commander, did not have to resign his commission[26].

Haig was soon (September 1899) appointed Assistant Adjutant General (i.e. chief staff officer) of French’s brigade-sized cavalry force as it was sent off to the Boer War. He took part in French’s first battle, Elandslaagte (18 October, near Ladysmith). French and Haig were ordered to leave Ladysmith as the four-month siege began, to take charge of the new Cavalry Division arriving from Britain - the two men escaped on the last train to leave Ladysmith (2 November 1899), lying down as it passed through enemy fire[27]. As in the Sudan, Haig continued to be sceptical of the importance of artillery, basing his opinions on interviews with enemy prisoners[28]. After Major-General French’s Colesberg Operations to protect Cape Colony, Roberts, newly arrived as Commander-in-Chief, appointed his protégé Colonel the Earl of Errol, over French’s protests, to the job of Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division, with Haig, who had been promised the job, as his deputy. Haig was briefly (21 February 1900) given command of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, then made AAG to the Cavalry Division at last after Errol was moved to a different job. Cavalry played a leading role in this stage of the war, including the relief of Kimberley, which featured a spectacular British cavalry charge, the capture of Bloemfontein (13 March 1900) and the capture of Pretoria (5 June 1900). Haig privately criticised Roberts for losses to horses (exhaustion and lack of feeding) and men (typhoid) and thought him a “silly old man”[29].

After Roberts had won the conventional war, Kitchener was left in charge of fighting the Boers, who had taken to guerrilla warfare. The Cavalry Division was disbanded (November 1900) and French, with Haig still his chief of staff, was put in charge of an all-arms force policing the Johannesburg area, later trying to capture the Boer leader de Wet around Bloemfontein. In January 1901 Haig was given a column of 2,500 men with the local rank of brigadier-general, patrolling Cape Colony, and chasing Commandant Kritzinger. As was standard British policy at that time, Haig’s duties included burning farms and rounding up Boer women and children into camps[30]. Throughout the war Haig’s sister Henrietta had been lobbying Evelyn Wood for her brother to have command of a cavalry regiment of his own when the war was over. French, probably not wanting to part with a valuable assistant, recommended Herbert Lawrence for the vacant command of the 17th Lancers, but Roberts, now Commander-in-Chief in the UK, overruled him and gave it to Haig (May 1901). Lawrence left the army in disgust at being passed over, although he later returned and was chief of staff to the BEF in 1918. As the 17th Lancers were in South Africa at the time Haig was able to combine that command with that of his own column[31].

As the war drew to a close Haig had to locate and escort the Boer leader Jan Christiaan Smuts to the peace negotiations at Vereeninging. Haig was mentioned in despatches four times for his service in South Africa.

Inspector-General of Cavalry, India

Haig, now reverting to his substantive rank of lieutenant-colonel, continued as the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers until 1903. The regiment was supposed to stay in South Africa but in the end returned home sooner than planned. Haig was appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry in India (he would have preferred command of the cavalry brigade at Aldershot, where French was now GOC), but had first to spend a year on garrison duty at Edinburgh until the previous incumbent completed his term. Haig was appointed Aide-de-Camp to King Edward VII in 1902, remaining in this position until 1904. From this time on Haig was keen to enlist royal patronage to help his career.

Haig's war service had earned him belated but rapid promotion: having been a captain until the relatively advanced age of thirty-seven, by 1904 he had become the youngest major-general in the British Army at that time. He was present at the Rawalpindi Parade 1905 to honour the Prince and Princess of Wales' visit to India.

At this time a great deal of the energies of the most senior British generals were taken up with the question of whether cavalry should still be trained to charge with sword and lance (the view of French and Haig) as well as using horses for mobility then fighting dismounted with firearms. Lord Roberts, now Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, warned Kitchener (now Commander-in-Chief, India) to be “very firm with Haig ” on this issue (in the event Kitchener was soon distracted, from 1904, by his quarrel with the Viceroy Lord Curzon, who eventually resigned), and wrote that Haig was a “clever, able fellow” who had great influence over Sir John French[32]. Roberts abolished the lance in 1904, but after his retirement in that year this reform would be reversed. A new edition of the manual “Cavalry Training” reflecting Haig's views was published in 1907, and a great deal of cavalry training was with sword and lance thereafter.

Marriage and children

On leave from India, Haig married Dorothy Vivian (1879–1939) on 11 July 1905 after a whirlwind courtship (she had spotted him for the first time when he was playing polo at Edinburgh two years earlier). She was a daughter of Hussey Vivian, 3rd Baron Vivian, and a lady-in-waiting at the court of King Edward VII.[33] His wife, known as "Doris", became Lady Haig in 1909 and the Countess Haig when her husband was granted an earldom in 1919.

The couple had four children:

  • Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Haig (9 March 1907—1997); Lady Alexandra Haig from 1919 until marriage; Baroness Dacre of Glanton from marriage in 1954
  • Victoria Doris Rachel Haig (7 November 1908—1993); Lady Victoria Haig from 1919; Lady Victoria Montagu-Douglas-Scott from marriage in 1929 (divorced 1951)
  • George Alexander Eugene Douglas Haig (15 March 1918—10 July 2009); Viscount Dawick from 1919; 2nd Earl Haig from 1928
  • Lady Irene Violet Freesia Janet Augustia Haig (7 October 1919—2001); Baroness Astor of Hever from marriage in 1971

Haig used had used his leave in 1905 to lobby for a job at the War Office, but the proposal was rejected by Arnold-Forster (Secretary of State for War) as too blatantly relying on royal influence[34]. Haig continued to lobby Lord Esher for such a post, and on being promised one left India in May 1906, five months early.

War Office

The Boer War had exposed Britain’s lack of a general staff and modern reserve army. In the new Liberal Government (December 1905), Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War, implemented the Esher recommendations accepted in principle by the outgoing Conservative government. In October 1906 Haig was appointed Director of Military Training on the General Staff at the War Office. Haldane later wrote that Haig had “a first rate general staff mind” and “gave invaluable advice” [35] Haig in turn would later dedicate a volume of his despatches to Haldane, who by then had been hounded out of office for alleged pro-German sympathies in 1915. Although both men later claimed that the reforms had been to prepare Britain for continental war, they did not create a continental-sized army and it would be truer to say that they created a small professional army within a budget, with conscription politically impossible despite Lord Roberts’ campaigning[36].

The reforms reorganised the militia, yeomanry and volunteers into the new Territorial Army. Haig was intolerant of what he regarded as old-fashioned opinion and not good at negotiating with strangers[37]. The militia (actually older than the regular army, with many socially-important officers) were the last to agree, and had to be turned into a Special Reserve by Act of Parliament. Haig had wanted a reserve of 900,000 men, but Haldane settled for a more realistic 300,000[38].

Haig’s skills at administration and organising training and inspections were better employed in setting up an Expeditionary Force of 120,000 men (6 infantry divisions and 1 cavalry - the force which would be deployed to France in 1914) in 1907. As an intimate of Haldane Haig was able to ensure high priority for cavalry, less for artillery, contrary to the advice of Lord Roberts (now retired as Commander-in-Chief) whose views were no longer very welcome because his campaign for conscription had made life hard for Haldane. Haig’s records of his time supervising artillery exercises show little interest in technical matters (aim, range, accuracy etc.)[39].

In November 1907 Haig was moved sideways to Director of Staff Duties. He required commanders to take the staff officers assigned to them (rather than choose their own by patronage) and also assigned staff officers to the new Territorial Army. He supervised publication of “Field Service Regulations”, which was later very useful in expanding the BEF in WW1, although it still stressed the importance of cavalry charging with sword and lance as well as fighting dismounted. At this time he was also completing a separate work, “Cavalry Studies” (on which topic Haig’s admiring biographer James Marshall-Cornwall later wrote that he was “not … among the prophets”[40]), and devoting much time to cavalry exercises[41]. He was also involved in setting up the Imperial General Staff (larger colonies were to have local sections of the General Staff, with trained staff officers), for which his work was praised by Haldane[42].

Chief of Staff, India

By 1909 it seemed likely to Haldane and Haig that an Anglo-German War loomed and Haig was at first reluctant to accept appointment as Chief of the Indian General Staff[43]. He passed the Director of Staff Duties job to his loyal follower Brigadier-General Kiggell (later Chief of Staff BEF), to whom he wrote with “advice” every fortnight. Haig, who had been knighted for his work at the War Office, was promoted to lieutenant-general in 1910. In India he had hoped to develop the Indian General Staff as part of the greater Imperial General Staff, and to organise despatch of Indian troops to a future European War (his plan for mobilising the Indian army to send to Europe in the event of war was vetoed by Viceroy Lord Hardinge - in the event only a single Indian Corps would serve briefly on the Western Front, although Indian troops were used in the Middle East), but the Indian Army was too chaotic to allow success at either[44].


Haig left India in December 1911, and took up an appointment as GOC Aldershot Command (1st & 2nd Divisions and 1st Cavalry Brigade) in March 1912. He was accompanied from India by Captains H.D.Baird and John Charteris (the two were known as “the Hindu invasion” although both officers were British). Charteris, an Engineer, was later Haig's Intelligence chief in WW1.

In the Army Manoeuvres of 1912 he was decisively beaten by Sir James Grierson despite having the odds in his favour, because of Grierson's superior use of air reconnaissance. At dinner afterwards Haig abandoned his prepared text, and although he wrote that his remarks were “well received” Charteris recorded that they were “unintelligible and unbearably dull” and that the visiting dignitaries fell asleep. Haig’s poor public speaking skills aside, the manoeuvres were thought to have shown the reformed army efficient[45]. On the outbreak of the First World War, Grierson was appointed commander of II Corps (alongside Haig as commander of I Corps) but died suddenly of natural causes before having a chance to command in battle.

World War I


Outbreak of War

Map of the Western Front in 1914.

During the Curragh Mutiny (March 1914) Haig urged caution on his chief of staff John Gough, whose brother Hubert Gough (then a cavalry brigadier, later GOC Fifth Army in WW1) was threatening to resign rather than coerce Ulstermen into a semi-independent Ireland. Haig stressed that the army’s duty was to keep the peace and urged his officers not to dabble in politics. Sir John French was forced to resign as CIGS after having made the error of putting in writing a promise that officers would not be required to coerce Ulster; Haig respected Gough’s principled stance but felt French had allowed himself to be used as a political tool by Asquith[46].

Upon the outbreak of war in August 1914, Haig helped organise the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French. As planned, Haig's Aldershot command was formed into I Corps, giving him command of half of the BEF. In a letter to Haldane (4 August) Haig predicted that the war would last for months if not years and begged Haldane to return to the War Office (Asquith had been holding the job since the resignation of Seeley during the Curragh Affair - it was given to Kitchener), and delay sending the BEF to France until the Territorial Army had been mobilised and incorporated[47].

Haig attended the War Council (5 August), at which it was decided that it was too dangerous to mobilise forward at Maubeuge, as British mobilisation was running three days behind that of France and Germany (i.e. the BEF might be overrun by the Germans as it formed up). There were no other contingency plans - Haig and Kitchener proposed that the BEF would be better positioned to counter-attack in Amiens. Sir John French (who was keen to fight as he had been advised by Henry Wilson that the war would be brief, who had confidence in Belgium's many fortresses, and who appeared to think that the Dutch were already in the war on Allied side – they would in fact remain neutral throughout) suggested landing at Antwerp, which was vetoed by Churchill as the Royal Navy could not guarantee safe passage. In his much-criticised memoirs, “1914”, French later claimed that Haig had wanted to postpone sending the BEF, which may be partly true in view of what he had written to Haldane the day before. Haig was so angry at this claim that he asked Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey to correct French’s “inaccuracies”. However Haig also rewrote his diary from this period to show himself in a better light and French in a poor one. Hankey’s notes of the meeting record that Haig suggested delaying or sending smaller forces, but was willing to send forces if France in was danger of defeat or if the French wanted them (which they did), and that Haig predicted that the war would last several years, and that an army of a million men, trained by officers and NCOs withdrawn from the BEF, would be needed. A critical biographer writes that Haig was “more clear-sighted than many of his colleagues”[48].

Haig was appointed Aide-de-Camp to King George V in 1914. During a royal inspection of Aldershot (11 August), Haig told the King that he had "grave doubts" about the evenness of French’s temper and military knowledge. He later claimed that these doubts had gone back to the Boer War, but there appears to have been an element of later embellishment about this: Haig had in fact praised French in the Boer War (he had criticised Kitchener, Roberts and others) and had welcomed his appointment as CIGS in 1911[49].

Mons to the Marne

Haig crossed over to Le Havre[50]. The BEF landed in France on 14 August and advanced into Belgium, where French took up positions on the left of General Lanrezac's French Fifth Army at Charleroi. Haig was irritated by Sir John French (influenced by Henry Wilson into putting his faith in a French thrust up from the Ardennes) who was only concerned with the three German corps in front of the BEF at Mons and who ignored intelligence reports of German forces streaming westwards from Brussels, threatening an encirclement from the British left. Although II Corps fought off the German attack at Mons on 23 August (the first British encounter with the Germans) the BEF was forced to withdraw after Lanzerac ordered a retreat exposing their right flank as well[51].

The retreats of I and II Corps had to be conducted separately because of the Mormal Forest. Both corps were supposed to meet at Le Cateau but I Corps under Haig were stopped at Landrecies, leaving a large gap between the two corps. Haig's reactions to his corps' skirmish with German forces at Landrecies (during which Haig led his staff into the street, revolvers drawn, promising to "sell our lives dearly") caused him to send an exaggerated report to French, which caused French to panic. The following day 26 August, Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps engaged the enemy in the Battle of Le Cateau, which was unsupported by Haig. This battle slowed the German army's advance. However, a biographer critical of Haig writes that too much has been made of the "moment of panic" at Landrecies, and that the 200 mile retreat, over a period of 13 days, is a tribute to the “steady and competent leadership” of both Haig and Smith-Dorrien[52].

On 25 August the French commander Joseph Joffre ordered his forces to retreat to the Marne, which compelled the BEF to further withdraw. Haig was irritated by the high-handed behaviour of the French, seizing roads which they had promised for British use and refusing to promise to cover the British right flank. He complained privately of French unreliability and lack of fighting competence, a complaint which he would keep up for the next four years. He wrote to his wife that he wished the British were operating independently from Antwerp, a proposal which he had rejected as “reckless” when Sir John French had made it at the War Council on 4 August[53].

The retreat caused Sir John French to question the competence of his Allies resulting in further indecision and led to his decision to withdraw the BEF south of the Seine. On 1 September Lord Kitchener intervened by personally visiting French and ordering him to re-enter the battle and coordinate with Joffre's forces. The battle to defend Paris began on 5 September and became known as the first Battle of the Marne. Haig had wanted to rest his Corps but was happy to resume the offensive when ordered. He drove on his subordinates, including Ivor Maxse, when he thought them lacking in "fighting spirit". Although Sir John French praised Haig’s leadership of his Corps, Haig was privately contemptuous of French’s overconfidence prior to Mons, and excessive caution thereafter[54]. The BEF did not participate in the battle until 9 September. The following day the battle ended when the German advance was defeated. The Germans abandoned the Schlieffen Plan and they were forced to withdraw to the Aisne, where - despite Allied hopes of chasing the Germans out of France altogether - the front stabilised on 15 September.

First Ypres

On 15 October, later than proposed after two weeks of friction between British and French generals, Haig’s I Corps was moved to Ypres in Flanders as part of the “Race to the Sea”[55]. In the belief that the German northern flank was weak, Haig was ordered to march on Ghent, Bruges and Courtrai in western Belgium, but the new German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn was trying to do the exact opposite, and roll up the Allied northern flank. Haig's Corps marched headlong into a thrust westward by fresh German forces,and the result was the First Battle of Ypres. German forces, equipped with 250 heavy guns (a large number for this early stage in the war), outnumbered Haig’s Corps by two to one, and came close to success. At one point Haig mounted his white horse to encourage his men who were retreating around Gheluvelt, although in the event the town had just been recaptured by a single battalion of the Worcesters before Haig’s ride [56]. Haig cemented his reputation at this battle, and Ypres remained a symbolic piece of ground in later years. Haig was also influenced by the fact that the Germans had called off their offensive when they were on the verge of success, and he drew the lesson that attacks needed to be kept up so long as there was any chance of success[57].

After a fortnight of intense fighting Haig’s I Corps had been reduced from 18,000 men to just under 3,000 effectives by 12 November[58]. After six days of bickering between British and French generals I Corps was relieved by French troops, Haig being very suspicious of the pro-French sympathies of Henry Wilson[59]. Following the success of the First Battle of Ypres, French, who had been ordered by his doctor to rest to relieve the strain on his heart, recommended Haig for immediate promotion to full general. Haig travelled to London on French's behalf (23 November) to consult Kitchener about the plan to expand the BEF and reorganise it into two armies[60]. The next day he saw the King who wanted to retain troops in the UK to defend against possible invasion - Haig told the King that invasion was best deterred by maintaining a large British force in France.

At this point it was thought that the war would soon end once the Germans were defeated by the Russians at Lodz (in the event, they were not), and the difficulties of attacking on the Western Front were not yet appreciated. A failed attack by Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps on Messines-Wytschaete (14-15 December) was blamed on poor GHQ staffwork, and on 18 December Haig met French, who said he wanted to sack the BEF chief of staff Murray, whose performance had been unsatisfactory throughout the campaign, and promote his deputy Henry Wilson. Haig thought that Wilson, besides being too pro-French, had “no military knowledge” and recommended Quarter-Master General “Wully” Robertson for the vacancy. This was also the view of Lord Kitchener, so Robertson received the promotion[61].

On 26 December 1914 the expansion of I Corps into the British First Army (I, IV and Indian Corps) became effective and Haig was given command. This force of 8 divisions was already twice the size of the original BEF of August.


Spring Offensives

Like French, Haig wanted to push along the North Sea Coast to Ostend and Zeebrugge, but Joffre did not want the British acting so independently[62].

Germany had recently sent 8 infantry divisions to the Eastern Front (as well as 12 newly-raised divisions), reducing their net strength in the west from 106 divisions at the time of First Ypres to 98, so French and Joffre, thinking that the war would be won by the summer, agreed that a French offensive in Artois and Champagne should be accompanied by a British offensive at Neuve Chapelle – French entrusted Haig with this, as he trusted him more than Smith-Dorrien after the latter’s failure at Messines in December.

At Neuve Chapelle Haig wanted a quick bombardment, his subordinate Rawlinson (GOC IV Corps) a longer and more methodical one. Shortage of shells meant that only a thirty-five minute bombardment was possible, but the small front of the attack gave it the concentration to succeed. Haig displayed great interest in the potential of aircraft - he met with Major Trenchard of the Royal Flying Corps (16 Feb) to organise photographic air reconnaissance, and a full map of German lines was obtained; aircraft were also beginning to be used for artillery spotting – signalling to British batteries by Morse - observing enemy troop movements, and bombing German rear areas[63]. Four British divisions attacked on 10 March, and penetrated to a depth of 1,500 metres, but no further progress was made on subsequent days as the Germans were able to bring in reinforcements. Casualties were around 12,000 on each side[64]. The Official History later claimed that Neuve Chapelle was to show the French the attacking ability of British troops (this was true of all the 1915 offensives) and was the first time German line had been broken[65].

Whilst Rawlinson felt that the offensive should have been halted after the first day, Haig felt that reserves should have been committed quicker, and on Rawlinson’s suggestion came close to sacking Major-General Joey Davies (GOC 8th Division) until it emerged that the latter had been holding back on Rawlinson’s orders – Haig then gave Rawlinson a severe reprimand although he thought him too valuable to sack. This may have made Rawlinson reluctant to stand up to Haig thereafter[66].

French and Joffre still expected victory by July. Whilst the Germans attacked Smith-Dorrien at the Second Battle of Ypres (April), new Allied offensives were planned by the French at Vimy and by Haig at Aubers Ridge (9 May). It was believed on the British side that the lessons of Neuve Chapelle had been learned – reserves were ready to exploit and mortars were ready to support attackers who had advanced beyond artillery cover - and that this time success would be complete not partial. However, the attack was less successful than Neuve Chapelle as the forty-minute bombardment (only 516 field guns and 121 heavy guns [67]) was over a wider front and against stronger defences – Haig was still focussed on winning a decisive victory by capturing key ground rather than amassing firepower to inflict maximum damage on the Germans[68].

Renewed attacks (Festubert, 15-25 May - only intended as a diversion[69]) gained 1,000 metres over a front of 4,000 metres, with 16,000 British casualties to around 6,600 German. Sir John French was satisfied that the attacks had served to take pressure off the French at the latter’s request, but Haig still felt that German reserves were being exhausted, bringing victory nearer[70].

Lack of shells at these offensives was – along with Admiral Fisher’s resignation over the failed Dardanelles attack - one of the causes of the fall of the Liberal Government (19 May). Haig did not approve of the Northcliffe press attacks on Kitchener, whom he thought a powerful military voice against the folly of civilians like Churchill (despite the fact the Kitchener had played a role in planning the Gallipoli expedition and was an opponent of the strong General Staff which Haig wanted to see). French had been leaking information about the shell shortage to Repington of “The Times”, whom Haig detested and which he likened to “carrying on with a whore” (possibly a deliberately-chosen analogy in view of French’s womanising[71]), as well as to the Conservative leaders, and to Lloyd George who now became Minister of Munitions in the new coalition government, and Haig was asked by Clive Wigram (one of the King’s press staff) to smooth relations between French and Kitchener. At Robertson’s suggestion Haig received Kitchener at his HQ (8 July – despite French’s attempt to block the meeting), where they shared their concerns about French. The two men met again in London (14 July), whilst Haig was receiving his GCB (awarded on French’s recommendation after Neuve Chapelle) from the King, who also complained to him about French. Over lunch with the King and Kitchener Haig remarked that the best time to sack French would have been after the retreat to the Marne – it was agreed that the men would correspond in confidence, and in response to the King’s joke that this was inviting Haig to “sneak” like a schoolboy, Kitchener replied that “we are past schoolboy’s age”[72]. Haig told the King that French was "a source of great weakness to the army and no one had confidence in him any more".

Haig had long thought French petty, jealous, unbalanced (“like a bottle of soda water … incapable of thinking … and coming to a reasoned decision”[73]), overly quick to meddle in party politics and easily manipulated by Henry Wilson, and was increasingly irritated by French’s changes of orders and mercurial changes of mood as to the length of the war, which French now expected to last into 1916[74]. Haig still thought Germany might collapse by November, although at the same time he was sending a memo to the War Office recommending that the BEF, now numbering 25 divisions, be equipped with the maximum number of heavy guns ready for a huge decisive battle, 36 divisions strong, in 1916[75].


The war was not going well – besides the failure at Cape Helles (landing 25 April), Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers (Serbia was soon overrun) and Italian attacks on the Isonzo had made negligible progress. Allied attacks in the west were needed to take pressure off the Russians, who were being flung out of Poland (Fall of Warsaw, 5 August). The original plan was to attack in July. At Joffre’s insistence the offensive was planned next to the French Tenth Army at Loos[76].

Haig inspected the Loos area (24 June) and expressed dissatisfaction with the ground (slag heaps and pit head towers which made good observation points for the Germans). French later did the same and agreed. French and Haig would have preferred to renew the attack at Aubers Ridge. Joffre was not pleased and called another conference (11 July) to urge a British attack on Loos[77]. Haig pushed for Aubers Ridge again (22 July) - French at first agreed until dissuaded by Foch (29 July), who felt that only a British attack at Loos would pull in enough German reserves to allow the French to take Vimy Ridge. French wrote to Joffre saying he was willing to go along with these plans for the sake of Anglo-French cooperation, but then wrote to Joffre again (10 August) suggesting an artillery bombardment with only limited British infantry attacks.

This was not what Joffre wanted. Kitchener, who had been invited to tour the French army (16-19 August) listened sympathetically to Joffre’s suggestion that in future Joffre should set the size, dates and objectives of British offensives, although he only agreed for the Loos attack for the moment. Kitchener met with Haig first and then with French. It is unclear exactly why Kitchener and then Haig agreed to go along with Joffre’s wishes - possibly the disastrous plight of the Russians, but it may be that a promise that poison gas could be used may have persuaded Haig. Having got their own way, the French then postponed the attack as they picked new attacking ground in Champagne and arranged for extra shelling at Vimy, in both cases because of the very reasons – German-held villages and other obstructions – to which the British generals had objected[78].

Only 850 guns (110 of them heavy) were available, too few for concentrated bombardment over a frontage far wider than at Neuve Chapelle (in 1915 the Germans had 10,500 guns of which 3,350 were heavy, whilst the British had only around 1,500, not to mention the shortage of ammunition[79]). There was also argument over the placement of the reserve (Haking’s XI Corps – 21st and 24th Divisions – both inexperienced new Army Divisions) which Haig wanted close to the front. Despite not originally wanting the offensive, Haig had persuaded himself that decisive victory was possible, and it may be that French wanted to keep control of the reserve to stop them being thrown into battle needlessly[80]. French tried in vain to forbid Haig to discuss his plans with Kitchener (on the grounds that Kitchener might leak them to politicians). Battle began (25 September) after Haig personally ordered the release of chlorine gas (he had an aide, Alan Fletcher, light a cigarette to test the wind)[81].

The attack failed in the north (Hohenzollern Redoubt) but broke through the German first line in the centre (Loos & Hill 70). The reserves, tired after night marches (to reach the front in secrecy), were not available until 2pm, but were thrown into battle without success on the second day, although it’s not clear that they would actually have accomplished much if available on the first day as Haig wanted[82]. The battle dragged on until mid-October with 50,000 British casualties (German losses were about half of this).

Haig replaces French

The reserves now became a stick with which to beat French, who by now was talking of making peace before “England was ruined”. Haig wrote a detailed letter to Kitchener (29 Sep) claiming “complete” (sic) success on the first day and complaining that the reserves had not been placed as close to the front as agreed (this turned out to be untrue) and that French had not released control of them when requested (in fact he had done so, but delays in communications and traffic control as they moved up to the front through other formations had meant that they were not available until 2pm). French protested that time for the commitment of reserves had been on the second day; when told of this by Robertson (2 Oct) Haig thought this evidence of French’s “unreasoning brain”. Haig strengthened his case by reports that captured enemy officers had been astonished at the British failure to exploit the attack, and by complaining about the government’s foot-dragging at introducing conscription, and commitment of troops to sideshows like Salonika and Suvla Bay (6 August), at a time when the Germans were calling up their 1918 Class early[83].

The failure of Loos was being openly debated in the British press. Kitchener demanded a full formal report (6 October) and Lord Haldane (former Cabinet Minister) was sent to France to interview French and Haig[84]. French in turn demanded a full report from Haig, in particular his claim to have penetrated the German lines (16 Oct). Haig claimed in his diary that a proposal that he be sent to report on the Gallipoli bridgehead was shelved because of the imminence of French’s removal.

Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Secretary, telephoned Robertson to ask his opinion of French, and Robertson conferred with Haig – who was pushing for Robertson to be appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff – before giving his opinion. The King also discussed the matter with Haig over dinner on a visit to the front (24 October) - Haig again told him that French should have been sacked in August 1914. Four days later the King, whilst inspecting troops, was injured when thrown by one of Haig’s horses and had to be evacuated to England on a stretcher, which caused Haig some embarrassment.

By now French was reduced to having his orders releasing the reserves published in “The Times” (2 November), along with an article by Repington blaming Haig. Haig demanded a correction of French’s "inaccuracies" about the availability of the reserve, whereupon French ordered Haig to cease all correspondence on this matter, although he offered to let Haig see the covering letter he was sending to London in his report, but French's fate was sealed by now. Haig met with the Prime Minister Asquith (23 November) and Bonar Law (Conservative Leader) the next day. By now rumours were rife that French was to be sacked - another reason given for sacking him was that his shortcomings would become more pronounced with the continuing expansion of the BEF, which would number 60 divisions within two years[85]. Matters had been delayed as Kitchener was away on an inspection tour of the Mediterranean and French was sick in bed. Kitchener returned to London (3 Dec) and at a meeting with Haig that day told him that he was to recommend to Asquith that Haig replace French[86].

Haig’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief BEF was announced on 10 December, and almost simultaneously Robertson became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London, reporting directly to the Cabinet rather than to the War Secretary – Haig and Robertson hoped that this would be the start of a new and more professional management of the war. Monro was promoted to GOC First Army in Haig’s place, not Rawlinson whom Haig would have preferred, and for reasons of seniority Haig was forced to accept the weak-willed Lancelot Kiggell, not Butler, as chief of staff BEF in succession to Robertson[87]. Haig and French, who seemed ill and short of breath, had a final handover meeting (18 Dec, the day before the formal change of command) at which Haig agreed that Churchill – recently resigned from the Cabinet and vetoed from command of a brigade – should be given command of a battalion[88]. It should be noted that although the King - who as Head of State and of the Armed Forces took seriously the concerns which were raised with him about French's performance - was involved in the moves against French, the ultimate decision was a political one, taken by the Prime Minister and the War Secretary.


Prelude to the Somme

For the first time (2 January) Haig attended church service with George Duncan, who was to have great influence over him. Haig saw himself as God’s servant and was keen to have clergymen sent out whose sermons would remind the men that the war dead were martyrs in a just cause[89]. Although sometimes criticised nowadays, such views were not uncommon at the time, on either side.

Robertson and Kitchener (who thought that a major offensive starting in March could bring decisive victory by August and peace by November) both wanted to concentrate on the Western Front, unlike many in the Cabinet who wanted more effort at Salonika or in Mesopotamia. Haig and Robertson were aware that Britain would have to take on more of the offensive burden as France was beginning to run out of men (and perhaps could not last more than another year at the same level of effort), but thought that the Germans might retreat in the west to shorten their line so they could concentrate on beating the Russians, who unlike France and Britain might accept a compromise peace. Haig thought that the Germans had already had plenty of “wearing out” and that a decisive victory was possible in 1916, and urged Robertson (9 Jan) to recruit more cavalry. Haig's preferred option was to attack in Flanders to bring the Belgian Coast (including key naval bases) into Allied hands, and where the Germans would also suffer great loss if they were reluctant to retreat there[90].

Lloyd George visited Haig at GHQ, and afterwards wrote to Haig to say that he had been impressed by his “grip” and by the “trained thought of a great soldier”. Subsequent relations between the two men were not to be so cordial. Haig thought Lloyd George “shifty and unreliable”[91].

Haig and Kiggell met Joffre and his chief of staff de Castelnau at Chantilly (14 February). Haig thought that politicians and the public might misunderstand a long period of attrition and thought that only a fortnight of “wearing out”, not three months as Joffre had originally wanted, would be needed before the decisive offensive. Arguments continued over the British taking over a longer section of line from the French[92]. Haig had thought that the German troops reported near Verdun were a feint prior to an attack on the British - in fact the Verdun Offensive began on 21 February[93].

Haig now decided that Verdun had "worn down" the Germans enough and that a decisive victory was possible at once. The Cabinet were less optimistic. Kitchener (like Haig’s subordinate Rawlinson) was also somewhat doubtful and would have preferred smaller and purely attritional attacks, but sided with Robertson in telling the Cabinet that the Somme offensive should go ahead. Haig attended a Cabinet meeting in London (15 April) – the politicians were more concerned with the ongoing political crisis over the introduction of conscription, which could potentially have brought down the government – and Haig was disgusted that Asquith attended the meeting dressed for golf and clearly keen to get away for the weekend[94].

The French had already insisted on an Anglo-French attack at the Somme where British and French troops were adjacent to one another, to relieve the pressure on the French Army at Verdun, although the French component of the attack was gradually scaled back as reinforcements had to be sent to Verdun. Haig wanted to delay until 15 August to allow for more training and more artillery to be available. When told of this Joffre shouted at Haig that “the French Army would cease to exist” and had to be calmed down with “liberal doses of 1840 brandy”. The British refused to agree to French demands for a joint Anglo-French offensive from the Salonika bridgehead. Eventually – perhaps influenced by reports of French troop disturbances at Verdun – Haig agreed to attack on 29 June (later put back until 1 July). This was just in time, as it later turned out that Petain (commander at Verdun) was warning the French government that the “game was up” unless the British attacked[95].

The government – concerned at the volume of shipping space being used for fodder - wanted to cut the number of cavalry divisions. Haig opposed this, believing that cavalry would still be needed to exploit the imminent victory. The Cabinet were in fact mistaken, as most of the fodder was for the horses, donkeys and mules which the BEF still used to move supplies and heavy equipment. Discussing this matter with the King, who thought the war would last until the end of 1917, Haig told him that Germany would collapse by the end of 1916[96]. This round of planning ended with a sharp exchange of letters with the Cabinet - Haig rebuked them for interfering in military matters and declared that “I am responsible for the efficiency of the Armies in France”. Lloyd George thought Haig’s letter “perfectly insolent” and that the government “had the right to investigate any matter connected with the war that they pleased”[97].

Stretcher bearers recovering wounded during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916. Photo by Ernest Brooks.

From 1 July to 18 November 1916, Haig directed the British portion of a major Anglo-French offensive, the British offensive at the Somme. The French insisted that Haig continue the offensive on the Somme and their insistence continued throughout the duration of the battle, even after the French went on the offensive at Verdun in October 1916. Although too much shrapnel was used in the bombardment, Haig was not entirely to blame for this: as early as Jan 1915 Haig had been impressed by evidence of the effectiveness of High Explosive shells and had demanded as many of them as possible from van Donop (Head of Ordnance in the UK)[98].

The forces under his command sustained an estimated 420,000 casualties while pushing the German front line back 12 km (7.5 mi). The campaign also resulted in heavy casualties to the German Army that it could ill afford. Haig's tactics in these battles were considered controversial by many, including the then Secretary of State for War Lloyd George, who felt that he incurred unnecessarily large casualties for little tactical gain. However, Lloyd George was unable to intervene in strategy, as General Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff had been given direct right of access to the Cabinet, in order to bypass Lloyd George's predecessor Kitchener.


On 1 January 1917, Haig was made a field marshal. The King (George V) wrote him a handwritten note ending: "I hope you will look upon this as a New Year's gift from myself and the country".[99] However, Lloyd George, who had become Prime Minister in December 1916, infuriated Haig and Robertson by placing Britain's forces under the command of the new French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle at a stormy conference at Calais. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 (which Haig had been required to support with a British offensive by Allenby's Third Army at Arras), and subsequent French mutiny and political crisis, discredited Lloyd George's plans for Anglo-French co-operation for the time being.

During the second half of 1917 Haig conducted another major offensive at Passchendaele (the 3rd Battle of Ypres). Haig had two objectives and one issue in mind when he set out the battle plans. The first of his objectives was to commit a large contingent the German Army to Belgian Flanders, away from the Aisne sector in France, where the aforementioned mutiny was worst, in order to give the French time to recover. The second objective was that he had hoped to break through and liberate the North Sea coast of Belgium from which German U-Boats were operating. The British Admiralty led by Jellicoe believed that the U-Boat threat could jeopardise Britain's ability to continue fighting into 1918.[100] In addition to his two immediate objectives, Haig was also worried that the Russian Revolution would result in Russia and Germany making peace and forming an alliance. If this happened the million or so German troops located on the Eastern Front would be transferred to the west by late 1917 or early 1918. This would have certainly motivated him in his eagerness to secure a decisive victory.[101]
Unfortunately, like the Somme Offensive the previous year, Passchendaele resulted in huge casualties for very little territorial gain, although at the same time inflicting enormous losses on the Germans, which contributed to their ultimate defeat. When he asked the Canadian Corps commander Arthur Currie to capture Passchendaele Ridge during the final month of the battle, Currie flatly replied "It's suicidal. I will not waste 16,000 good soldiers on such a hopeless objective".[102] After Passchendaele was captured the number of casualties were almost exactly what Currie had predicted. Although Lloyd George was unhappy about Haig's strategic operations he was unable to do anything about it, as it was considered unthinkable for politicians to overrule the generals' professional monopoly over strategy during war. Haig's predecessor Viscount French was invited to give the War Cabinet a "second opinion" of Haig's strategy, although in the event he had few positive suggestions to make and seemed to the Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey to be full of "hatred, envy and malice".


By the end of 1917 Lloyd George felt able to begin to assert his authority over the generals (at the end of the year he would also secure the dismissal of the other service chief, First Sea Lord Admiral Jellicoe). Over the objections of Haig and Robertson an inter-Allied Supreme War Council was set up. Whilst they were attending a meeting at Paris to discuss this, Lloyd George accused Haig of encouraging press attacks on him. Haig was making similar complaints about Lloyd George, whom he privately compared to the Germans accusing the Allies of atrocities of which they were themselves guilty. At the Versailles meeting where the Supreme War Council was inaugurated (11 November), Lloyd George attributed the success of the Central Powers to unity and scoffed at recent Allied “victories”, saying he wished “it had not been necessary to win so many of them”. His speech angered several leading politicians - Carson repudiated it and Derby assured Haig of his backing. Haig thought that Lloyd George’s political position was weak and he would not last another six weeks[103] (this was a false prediction – although Lloyd George did not have full freedom of action in a coalition government, his personal drive and appeal to certain sections of the public made him indispensable as Prime Minister).

Lloyd George finally had his wish to send British forces to Italy after the Italian defeat at Caporetto in November. Plumer was moved to Italy with 5 divisions and heavy artillery, which made renewal of the Ypres offensive impossible[104].

Byng’s Third Army attacked at Cambrai (20 November) with 7 divisions, 1,000 guns (using a surprise predicted barrage rather than a preliminary bombardment) and 325 tanks on unbroken ground. On the first day they penetrated to 10 km, with only 4,000 casualties. Haig's intelligence chief Brigadier-General Charteris told him that the Germans would not be able to reinforce for 48 hours, and when told by junior intelligence officers (one of them was James Marshall-Cornwall, later an admiring biographer of Haig) of fresh German divisions, refused to have them shown on the situation map as he did not want to weaken Haig’s resolution. The offensive continued but with diminishing returns. The gains (after the church bells had been rung in England in celebration) were retaken after 30 November when the Germans counterattacked using their new 'sturmtruppen' tactics. British casualties had mounted to over 40,000 by 3 December, with German losses somewhat less[105].

Lloyd George (6 December) was particularly angry at such an embarrassing reverse at the hands of a few German divisions, after Haig had insisted for the last two years that his offensives were weakening them. When told of this Haig wrote to Robertson that Lloyd George should either sack him or else cease his “carping criticism”. Haig’s support amongst the Army, the public and many politicians made this impossible – a plan that Haig be “promoted” to a sinecure post as generalissimo of British forces (similar to what had been done to Joffre at the end of 1916) was scotched when Lord Derby threatened resignation[106]. Another important consequence of Cambrai was that the press baron Lord Northcliffe lessened his support of Haig – “The Times” called (12 Dec) for the sacking of “every blunderer” at GHQ – Haig assumed Lloyd George had inspired the article[107]. The uninspiring results on the Western Front in 1917 were thrown into unwelcome contrast by Allenby's capture of Jerusalem (9 December 1917), a propaganda coup from a campaign which Haig and Robertson had regarded as a waste of resources (Allenby had in fact been sent out to the Middle East after his failure at Arras earlier in the year), and also by the beginnings of peace negotiations between Germany and Russia at Brest-Litovsk (22 December, after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November).

Haig was required to dismiss Charteris, whose overly-optimistic estimates of German losses had been a source of inspiration during his offensives. Robertson had arrived at Haig's Headquarters with orders (signed by Derby) for his dismissal in his pocket in case Haig refused to do as he was asked. Haig gave Charteris another job at GHQ where he was still on hand to give advice.


Political Manoeuvres

Over lunch at 10 Downing Street with Derby and Lloyd George in January, Haig predicted that the war would end within a year because of the “internal state of Germany”. Charteris’ final intelligence report had deduced that Germany was bringing 32 divisions, ten per month, from the moribund Eastern Front, so the most likely time for a German Offensive was in late March (a correct prediction)[108]. Bonar Law asked Haig what he would do if he were a German general: Haig replied that a German offensive would be a “gambler’s throw” as the balance of manpower would shift in favour of the Allies in August (this prediction was also correct) and that if he were a German general he would launch only limited offensives. He recommended that the British should keep the initiative and draw in German reserves by renewing the offensive around Ypres, a proposal which did not meet with political approval[109]. By now Haig’s 1917 offensives were being criticised in the press and in Parliament[110].

The purge of Haig’s staff continued, with the removal of Maxwell (Quartermaster-General) and Lt-Gen Launcelot Kiggell as BEF Chief of Staff. It is possible that Derby was covering Haig’s back, advising him to ask for Herbert Lawrence (a much stronger character than Kiggell and less subservient to Haig) as the new CGS not General Butler. If so, Haig was not grateful, likening Derby to “a feather pillow which bears the mark of the last person who sat on him”[111].

In January the Cabinet Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts and the Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey, whom Lloyd George had contemplated appointing to Kiggell's job, were sent to France to take discreet soundings among the Army Commanders to see whether any of them were willing to replace Haig - none of them were. Hankey formed the opinion that nobody important amongst the British generals thought a major German attack likely[112].

At the Supreme War Council at Versailles (29 January) Haig and Petain complained of shortage of troops, but Haig’s political credibility was so low that Hankey wrote that they “made asses of themselves”. It was agreed that an Allied General Reserve be set up, under Foch with Henry Wilson as his deputy; Haig was reluctant to hand over divisions to the General Reserve, worrying that they would be shipped off to Turkey [113] but thought the proposal would take time to be become operational. Clemenceau attacked Lloyd George’s wish to make offensives against Turkey top priority[114].

Lloyd George now had his showdown with Robertson. He proposed that the CIGS be reduced to his pre-1915 powers (i.e. reporting to the Secretary of State for War, not direct to the Cabinet) and that the British military representative at the Supreme War Council in Versailles be Deputy CIGS and a member of the Army Council (i.e. empowered to issue orders to Haig). He offered Robertson a choice of remaining as CIGS with reduced powers or else accepting demotion to Deputy CIGS at Versailles – either way, Lloyd George would now have been able to cut him out of the decision-making loop. Derby summoned Haig to London, expecting him to support him in backing Robertson. In a private meeting with Lloyd George, Haig agreed with Robertson’s position that the CIGS should himself be the delegate to Versailles, or else that the Versailles delegate be clearly subordinate to the CIGS to preserve unity of command. However, he accepted that the War Cabinet must ultimately make the decision, and according to Lloyd George “put up no fight for Robertson” and was contemptuous of Derby’s threats to resign - he persuaded him not to do so after Robertson was pushed out. Haig thought Robertson (who had begun his military career as a private) egotistical, coarse, power-crazed and not “a gentleman” and was unhappy at the way Robertson had allowed divisions to be diverted to other fronts, even though Robertson had in fact fought to keep such diversions to a minimum. Henry Wilson now became CIGS, with Rawlinson as British military representative at Versailles[115].

German Spring Offensives

By March 1918 Germany's Western Front armies had been reinforced to a strength of almost 200 divisions by the release of troops from the Eastern Front. With a German offensive clearly imminent, at a meeting in London (14 March), Lloyd George and Bonar Law accused Haig of having said that there would not be a major German offensive (which was not actually what he had said – he had said it would be “a gambler’s throw”) but agreed to shelve the General Reserve for the time being until enough American troops had arrived[116].

At this point Haig had 52 divisions in his front line Armies, and another 8 in GHQ reserve, and 3 cavalry divisions. Germany launched an attack, "Michael" (21 March 1918), with 76 divisions and 7,000 guns, a force larger than the entire BEF (German divisions were somewhat smaller than British) and enjoying superiority of 5:1 over the 12 divisions of Gough’s Fifth Army, which were spread thinly over line recently taken over from the French[117]. The offensive, with greater superiority of men and guns than Haig had ever had for his own offensives, almost destroyed Gough's Fifth Army, and threatened to split the British forces apart from the French Armies; Haig, whose own reserves had been massed in the north because of the danger of a German breakthrough reaching the Channel Ports through which his armies were supplied, accused the French Commander-in-Chief, Pétain, of being "in a blue funk" as he threatened to retreat on Paris. The German advance was halted by British and Australian forces east of Amiens, and a renewed German offensive ("Mars") was beaten back. However, Derby ordered Haig to sack Gough[118].

Petain sent only 2 divisions to help the British, not the 20 Haig demanded, vindicating Henry Wilson's warnings that relying on bilateral agreement with Petain would provide “very cold charity”[119]. At the Doullens Conference (26 March), Haig at last accepted the appointment of a Frenchman Ferdinand Foch to coordinate reserves of all nationalities wherever he saw fit.

During the second major German offensive, "Georgette" in Flanders (9 April), Haig issued his famous order that his men must carry on fighting "With Our Backs to the Wall and believing in the Justice of our Cause". Just as "Michael" had swept over the Cambrai and the Somme battlefields, won at such cost by Haig's own offensives in previous years, this one swept over Passchendaele although not Ypres itself. Foch sent some French divisions to help, and was given title of Generalissimo (he would have preferred “Commander-in-Chief”) (14 April) to give him more clout over Petain, who was still reluctant to release French reserves. Eventually, later in the year, Petain would simply be placed under Foch’s command, although Haig and Pershing retained their right of appeal to their own governments.

In April Haig’s political position was further weakened when Lord Milner, an ally of Lloyd George and a sceptic of British efforts on the Western Front, replaced Haig’s ally Lord Derby as Secretary of State for War. Rumours were rife in GHQ that Haig would soon be dismissed in favour of Robertson, Wilson (who may have been a prime mover for Haig's dismissal[120]), or more likely Plumer, Byng or Allenby.[121]

The near-debacle of March 1918 was an object of political controversy. Bonar Law claimed in a House of Commons debate (23 April) that Haig and Petain had agreed the extension of the British line, which was not wholly true as in January 1918 the Supreme War Council had ordered a longer extension than Haig and Petain had agreed between themselves in December 1917, only leaving them to sort out the details[122]. Lloyd George was accused (in the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918 in the House of Commons) of having hoarded troops in the UK to make it harder for Haig to launch offensives. Lloyd George misled the House of Commons in claiming that Haig's forces were stronger (1.75 million men) at the start of 1918 than they had been a year earlier (1.5 million men) - in fact the increase was caused by an increase of 335,000 in the number of labourers (Chinese, Indians and black South Africans), and Haig had fewer combat infantry (630,000, down from 900,000 a year earlier), holding a longer stretch of front (the rest of Haig's men would have been tank, air & artillery crews and above all logistical support personnel).[123] Haig had opposed Maurice in taking his concerns into public, but was disappointed at how Lloyd George was able to get off the hook with a “claptrap speech”[124].

A third major German offensive against the French on the Aisne ("Bluecher"), starting on 27 May, overwhelmed a British corps which had been sent there to refit after "Michael". At a conference at Versailles (1 June) there was friction between Haig, who was worried that the Germans would attack his sector again - this was indeed the German plan but the offensive in question, "Hagen", was repeatedly postponed and never actually took place - and Foch, who demanded that the US divisions trained by the British be moved to his sector to release French divisions (of whose fighting ability Haig was privately scornful) - Foch also accused Lloyd George of withholding British troops in the UK. After further friction at a meeting in Paris about the latter's request to move British reserves south (7 June)[125], it was agreed that Haig and Foch should meet more frequently to maintain a good relationship.

Cooperation improved when the Germans launched their "Gneisenau" Offensive on 9 June, to widen the "Bluecher" salient westwards. Lloyd George and Milner gave their full support to Foch on moving four British divisions[126]. They told Haig that he should consider himself subordinate to Foch for the time being and that they were no longer interested in sacking him (this may have been untrue – as late as August on eve of the battle of Amiens Lloyd George may have been trying to replace Haig with Cavan [127]). "Gneisenau" was quickly defeated by the French General Mangin at the Battle of the Matz (11 June), and the next Haig-Foch meeting proved more cordial as the arrival of more US divisions had begun to ease the situation, as had the moving of German reserves from Flanders to the Marne sector. The next German offensive was the "Peace Offensive" against the French at Rheims on 15 July - on this occasion the politicians told Haig to “exercise his judgement” about holding the British line. Haig felt that they would take credit for Foch’s victory but might dismiss him if disaster befell the British forces[128].

The Turn of the Tide & the Hundred Days

The "Peace Offensive" turned out to be the last German throw of the dice. "Hagen" was finally cancelled, and in July and August the Germans were defeated, by Franco-American forces at the Second Battle of the Marne, and by Rawlinson's Fourth Army (British and Australian, with the Canadian Corps attached) at Amiens. The latter victory, enjoying complete air and artillery superiority and using over 500 tanks,[129] was described by General Erich Ludendorff as "The Black Day of the German Army" after mass surrenders of German troops. On 11 August Haig, contrary to the wishes of Marshal Foch, insisted on a halt to the Amiens offensive (rather than engage new German troops with tired Allied ones who had outrun much of their artillery cover) and launched a new attack by Byng's Third Army on 21 August between the Scarpe and the Ancre. As with his previous offensives in 1916 and 1917, Haig encouraged his subordinates to aim for ambitious objectives, in this case a thrust from Albert to Bapaume, and this time with more success than in previous years, and more than the government were expecting: on 21 August Haig was visited by Winston Churchill, Minister of Munitions, who told him that new equipment (tanks, guns, new poison gases etc.) was being produced ready for what the government expected to be the war-winning offensive in July 1919.[130] On 10 September Haig, on a brief visit to London, insisted that the war could end that year and asked Lord Milner (Secretary of State for War) to send all available able-bodied men and transportation.[131] Milner afterwards shared with Wilson his scepticism and his concerns that Haig would embark on "another Passchendaele".[132]

Haig's forces continued to enjoy much success, but when they began to advance towards the Hindenburg Line Haig received a supposedly "personal" telegram from the CIGS Henry Wilson (31 August), warning him that he was not to take unnecessary losses in storming these fortifications. Haig, surmising that the War Cabinet were not forbidding him to attack but might dismiss him if the assault failed, telegraphed Wilson back that they were a "wretched lot" (Wilson replied that the government were worried about needing to retain troops in the UK because of a police strike) and wrote that attacking the Germans now would be less costly than allowing them time to regroup and consolidate.[133] When the Third and Fourth Armies reached the Hindenburg Line (18 September) Haig received a congratulatory note from Wilson saying “you must be a famous general", to which he replied that he was not (as this would have meant currying favour with Repington and the Northcliffe Press) but “we have a number of very capable generals”. Milner visited GHQ, and warned him that manpower would not be available for 1919 if squandered now[134]. The attack succeeded and by October the BEF had advanced into Belgium, almost as far as Brussels.

There is some dispute over how much direct operational control Haig maintained at this time, Tim Travers in particular arguing that he allowed his Army Commanders (Plumer, Byng, Horne, Birdwood and Rawlinson) a very free hand, whilst at the same time Ferdinand Foch, whose role had initially been confined to advice and deployment of reserves, was exerting ever-greater influence over strategy. Haig was irritated that Foch insisted that Plumer's Second Army remain part of an Army Group commanded by the King of the Belgians, so that the French and Belgians could take credit for liberating Brussels.[135]

Germany first requested an Armistice after the penetration of the Hindenburg Line Line at its strongest point, St Quentin/Cambrai, on 28 September, and the almost simultaneous capitulation of Bulgaria[136], and discussions continued for a month until the ceasefire on 11 November. Haig urged moderation, suggesting that Germany only be asked to give up Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine, and warning that intelligence reports suggested that the German Army was still "far from beaten" (an ironic claim in view of his willingness to pronounce Germany on the verge of defeat in previous years) and that humiliating terms might lead to a militarist backlash. After one set of talks on 21 October Haig suspected Wilson, a staunch Unionist, of wanting to prolong the war as an excuse to subdue southern Ireland by bringing in conscription there[137]. In the end the collapse of Austria-Hungary encouraged the politicians to demand stricter terms (although less strict than Foch or Pershing would have liked) and Germany was required to evacuate the Rhineland as well.[138] However, once Germany had accepted the strict armistice terms, Haig suggested Germany be split into independent states at the peace treaty [139] - this did not happen.

The forces under Haig's command - including Monash’s Australian Corps and Currie’s Canadian Corps - achieved impressive results: whereas the French, American and Belgian armies combined captured 196,700 prisoners-of-war and 3,775 German guns between 18 July and the end of the war, Haig's forces, with a smaller army than the French, engaged the main mass of the German Army and captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns - around half of these prisoners were captured by British cavalry. British daily casualty rates (3,645 per day) were heavier during this period than at the Somme (2,950) or Third Ypres (2,121) (but not Arras: 4,070 over a shorter period)[140], because British forces were attacking across the line, instead of being rotated through a single offensive.[141] The military historian, Gary Sheffield, called this, the so-called Hundred Days Offensive, 'by far the greatest military victory in British history'.[3]

Executions during WW1

As commander-in-chief, one of Haig's responsibilities was to give the final signature to the death warrants of British and Commonwealth (but not Australian - these went to the Governor-General of Australia) soldiers who had been first sentenced to death by Field General Court Martial.

Despite "assertions" that these were "kangaroo courts", they in fact had strict rules of procedure and a duty to uncover the facts.[142] Unlike a General Court Martial in peacetime, there was no legally qualified Judge-Advocate to advise the court, but from the start of 1916 a "Court Martial Officer" - usually an officer with legal experience in civilian life - was often present to do so.[143] The accused was entitled to object to the composition of the panel (e.g. if one of the officers was connected with the case or enjoyed a poor relationship with the accused) and to present his case, defended by an officer (a "Prisoner's Friend") if he chose. However, the courts were explicitly intended to be "speedy" and were sometimes encouraged by higher authority to make an example of certain offences, and in practice the leniency of the court and the ability of the accused to defend himself varied widely.[142] 89% of courts martial returned a guilty verdict,[144] the vast majority of cases being for less serious offences such as drunkenness and insubordination.

A death sentence had to be passed unanimously, and confirmed in writing by various generals as the verdict passed up the chain of command. Of the 3,080 men sentenced to death,[145] 346 men were actually executed, the vast majority of these (266) for desertion, the next largest reasons for execution being murder (37 - these men would probably have been hanged under civilian law at the time) and cowardice (18).[146] It was felt at the time that - precisely because most soldiers in combat were afraid [147] - an example needed to be made of men who deserted. Front line soldiers also sometimes felt that those who left their mates "in the lurch" by deserting "deserved to be shot".[148] By contrast, of 393 men sentenced to death for falling asleep on sentry duty in all theatres, only 2 were actually executed (sentries were usually posted in pairs and these two were both found sleeping, suggesting collusion).[149] Terms of imprisonment were often suspended, to discourage soldiers from committing an offence in order to escape the front lines, but also to give him a chance to earn a reprieve for good conduct[150].

At the time Posttraumatic stress disorder (known at the time as "shell shock") was beginning to be recognised and was admissible in defence. One historian has claimed that "in no case was a soldier whom the medical staff certified as suffering from shell shock actually executed" and that "there appear to have been very few cases where men who alleged shell shock, but whose claim was denied, were actually executed".[151] However, another historian has pointed out that there was a great deal of chance in whether a soldier's claim of shell shock would be taken seriously, and gives examples of soldiers being given cursory medical examinations or none.[152]

Such trauma was still poorly understood at that time.[153] After a long campaign, including previous refusals by the Major Government and again in 1998,[154] these decisions were reversed in 2006 by the British Government and all men given pardons and recognised as victims of World War I. However, their sentences were not overturned as it was impossible after this length of time to reexamine the evidence in every case.[155]

It has been pointed out that we have only anecdotal accounts, but no figures, for men who were shot on the spot by officers and NCOs for "cowardice in the face of the enemy"[156], nor are there figures for soldiers who shot their superiors. Although soldiers sometimes told lurid tales of men who refused to fight being shot by Military Police, no reliable first hand accounts exist of this happening.[157]

Promotion of army dentistry during WW1

During the war, Haig suffered from toothache and sent for a Parisian dentist. Consequently, within months the army had hired a dozen dentists and, by the end of the war, there were 831. This led to the formation of the Royal Army Dental Corps in 1921.[158]

Later life

Field Marshal Haig unveiling the National War Memorial in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Memorial Day 1 July 1924)
Haig's grave (right) next to his wife's, with the standard military headstone used in World War I.

After the conclusion of hostilities, Lloyd George arranged a ceremonial reception for Marshal Foch on 1 December - Haig was asked to travel in the fifth carriage with Henry Wilson, but not invited to the subsequent reception. Feeling that this was a snub and an attempt to win votes for the imminent General Election, Haig declined to attend at all, although he did swallow his dislike of Lloyd George enough to vote for the Coalition[159]. Haig returned home on 19 December 1918 to cheering crowds - a crowd of 10,000 descended on his home at Kingston Hill - for his first Christmas with his family for four years.

In November 1918 Haig refused Lloyd George's offer of a viscountcy, partly as he felt it was another snub as his predecessor Sir John French had been awarded the same rank on being sacked, and partly to use his refusal to bargain for better state financial aid for demobilised soldiers, whom Henry Wilson told him were amply provided for by charity.[160]. He held out despite being lobbied by the King[161], until Lloyd George backed down in March 1919, blaming a recently sacked pensions minister. Haig was created The 1st Earl Haig (with a subsidiary viscountcy and a subsidiary barony) and received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and a grant of £100,000 to enable him to live in the style appropriate to a senior peer (he had asked for £250,000)[162].

In January 1919 disturbances broke out amongst troops at Calais as men returning from leave were expected to return to full army discipline, and key workers with jobs to go to (who had often been the last to enlist) were – contrary to Haig’s advice – being given priority for demobilisation. Haig accepted the advice of Winston Churchill, now Secretary of State for War, that exercising his right to shoot the ringleaders was not sensible[163]. For much of 1919 Haig served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain, a key position as a General Strike seemed likely. Haig kept a low profile in this job and insisted the Army be kept in reserve, not used for normal policing [164]. His military career ended in January 1920. Haig arranged for his Despatches to be published in 1922 as the General Election loomed, although in the end his nemesis Lloyd George was ousted for unrelated reasons[165].

After ceasing active service, Haig devoted the rest of his life to the welfare of ex-servicemen, making many speeches (which did not come easily to him) and answering all letters in his own hand[166]. Haig pushed for the amalgamation of organisations, quashing a suggestion of a separate organisation for officers, into the British Legion which was founded in June 1921. He visited South Africa in 1921 and Canada in 1925 (visits to Australia and New Zealand were being planned when he died) to promote ex-servicemens' interests. He was instrumental in setting up the Haig Fund for the financial assistance of ex-servicemen and the Haig Homes charity to ensure they were properly housed; both continue to provide help many years after they were created[167].

An avid golf enthusiast, Haig was captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Andrews, 1920-21. He was involved in the creation of the Royal British Legion, which he was president of until his death and was chairman of the United Services Fund from 1921 until his death.

Haig maintained ties with the British Army after his retirement; he was honorary colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers (having been honorary colonel of the 17th Lancers from 1912), Royal Horse Guards, The London Scottish and the King's Own Scottish Borderers. He was also Lord Rector and, eventually, Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. In 1922 he became the first Chancellor of St Andrews to visit University College Dundee which was then a part of the University. This visit was made with his successor as Rector, J. M. Barrie and saw the official opening of University College's new playing fields.[168]

Haig's funeral

Field Marshal Lord Haig died from a heart attack, aged 66, on 29 January 1928 and was given a state funeral on 3 February.[169] "Great crowds lined the streets ... come to do honour to the chief who had sent thousands to the last sacrifice when duty called for it, but whom his war-worn soldiers loved as their truest advocate and friend."[169] The gun-carriage that carried the Unknown Warrior to his grave and, in active service, had borne the gun that fired the first British shot in World War I took the field marshal's body from St Columba's Church, Pont Street, London, where it had been lying in state, to Westminster Abbey. Three royal princes followed the gun-carriage and the pall-bearers included two Marshals of France (Foch and Pétain).[169] The cortege was accompanied by five guards of honour at the slow march, with reversed arms and muffled drums: two officers and fifty other ranks from each branch of the British armed forces (Royal Navy, the Irish Guards, and the Royal Air Force); 50 men of the 1st French Army Corps; and 16 men from the Belgian Regiment of Grenadiers.[169] After the service at the Abbey, the procession re-formed to escort the body to Waterloo Station for the journey to Edinburgh where it lay in state for three days at St Giles Cathedral.[169] He was buried at Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish borders, his grave marked by a simple standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission white headstone. The Earl Haig Memorial, an equestrian statue in Whitehall commissioned by Parliament, and sculpted by Alfred Frank Hardiman, aroused considerable controversy, and was not unveiled until just before Armistice Day in 1937.[170]


Post-war opinion

After the war Haig was praised by the American General John Pershing, who remarked that Haig was "the man who won the war".[171] He was also publicly lauded as the leader of a victorious army. His funeral in 1928 was a huge state occasion. However, after his death he was increasingly criticised for issuing orders which led to excessive casualties of British troops under his command, particularly on the Western Front, earning him the nickname "Butcher of the Somme". Haig's critics include many younger officers who served in the First World War.

The assault on Haig's reputation began with the memoirs of the politicians. Winston Churchill, whose World Crisis was written during Haig's lifetime, likened him to a surgeon who had to act dispassionately for the long-term good of the patient, no matter how messy were the short-term means, although in another passage he accused him of blocking enemy machine-gun fire with "the breasts of brave men".

Lloyd George pulled fewer punches in his War Memoirs, published in 1936 when Haig was dead and Lloyd George no longer a major political player. In Chapter 89 he poured scorn on Haig's recently-published diaries (clearly "carefully edited" by Duff Cooper), and described Haig as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task", and "second-rate" (compared to Foch, p. 2014) although "above the average for his profession—perhaps more in industry than intelligence". He attributed his own "distrust of his capacity to fill such an immense position" to Haig's lack of a clear grasp even of the Western Front (likening him to "the blind King of Bohemia at Crecy"), let alone the needs of other fronts, and his inability, given his preference for being surrounded by courteous "gentlemen", to select good advisers. He also criticised Haig for lacking the personal magnetism of a great commander, for his intrigues against his predecessor Sir John French, his willingness to scapegoat Hubert Gough for the defeat of March 1918 (although he had actually defended him, and the alternative would probably have been Haig's own dismissal to boot), and his claims to have subsequently accepted the appointment of Foch as Allied Generalissimo, a move to which Lloyd George claimed Haig in fact to have been opposed. On another occasion he is said to have described Haig as "brilliant—to the top of his boots". Lloyd George's biographer John Grigg (2002) attributed his vitriol to a guilty conscience that he had not intervened to put a stop to the Passchendaele Offensive. John Terraine also found some "faint stirring of consciousness" in the "shrill venom" with which Lloyd George sought to "exculpate himself", after he had destroyed trust between politicians and soldiers by the Nivelle Affair (making it impossible for Robertson to raise his concerns about the Third Ypres Offensive with the Prime Minister), and called the memoirs "a document as shabby as his behaviour at Calais".[172]

B.H. Liddell Hart, military historian who had been wounded during World War I, went from admirer to skeptic to unremitting critic. He wrote in his diary: He (Haig) was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple —who, to his overweening ambition, sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men. A man who betrayed even his most devoted assistants as well as the Government which he served. A man who gained his ends by trickery of a kind that was not merely immoral but criminal.[173]

Other historians

One of Haig's defenders was the military historian John Terraine, who published a biography of Haig (The Educated Soldier) in 1963, in which Haig was portrayed as a "Great Captain" of the calibre of the Duke of Marlborough or the Duke of Wellington. Terraine, taking his cue from Haig's "Final Despatch" of 1918, also argued that Haig pursued the only possible strategy given the situation the armies were in: that of attrition which wore down the German army and delivered the coup de grâce of 1918. Gary Sheffield stated that although Terraine's arguments about Haig have been much attacked over forty years, Terraine's thesis "has yet to be demolished".[2]

Australian historian Les Carlyon argues that while Haig was slow to adapt to the correct use of artillery in sufficient quantities to support infantry attacks and was generally sceptical that the science of such doctrine had much place in military theory, he was fully supportive of excellent corps and field commanders such as Herbert Plumer, Arthur Currie and John Monash, who seem to best grasp and exercise these concepts especially later in the war. Carlyon also points out that there is a case to answer for his support of more dubious commanders such as Ian Hamilton, Aylmer Hunter-Weston and Hubert Gough.[174]

Tactical Developments

Haig's critics, such as Alan Clark and Gerard De Groot, argued that Haig failed to appreciate the critical science of artillery or supporting arms, and that he was "unimaginative", although de Groot added that he has had the misfortune to be judged by the standards of a later age, in which the cause of Britain and her Empire are no longer thought worthy of such bloodshed[175]. Paul Fussell, a literary historian in The Great War and Modern Memory, writes that "although one doesn't want to be too hard on Haig ... who has been well calumniated already ... it must be said that it now appears was that one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant—especially of the French—and quite humourless ... Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig's performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm."[176]

Military historian Brian Bond argues this was not the case. Haig, although not familiar with technological advances, encouraged their use. Bond also refutes claims that Haig was a traditionalist and focused only on Cavalry tactics.[177] Bond points out that the Cavalry represented less than three percent of the British Army by September 1916, whilst the British Army was the most mechanised force in the world by 1918, supported by the world's largest air force. The British Tank Corps was the world's first such force and some 22,000 men served in it during the war. The Royal Artillery grew by 520 percent and the engineers who implemented combined arms tactics grew by 2,212 percent. Bond argues this hardly demonstrates a lack of imagination.[178] Yet some historians, most notably John Keegan, refuse to accept the British Army undertook a 'learning curve' of any sort; despite this example, Bourne explains that there "is little disagreement among scholars about nature of the military transformation".[179] Popular "media opinion" failed to grasp that under Haig, the British Army adopted a very modern style of war in 1918, something that was very different from 1914, 1916, or even 1917.[180]

There is no consensus on the speed of the learning curve. Canadian historian Tim Travers remains an influential critic in this regard. In his view, there is no one 'villain' but the pre-war regular army. Travers blames the management of early campaigns on the ethos of the pre-war officer corps. Travers argues that this was based on privilege, with a hierarchy that was based on self-preservation and maintaining individual reputations. As a consequence the army was poorly positioned to adapt quickly. Travers claims that initiative was discouraged, making advancement in a learning curve slow. Travers points to the ethos of the army as being initially pro-human and anti-technological. The offensive spirit of the infantry, quality of the soldier, rapid rifle fire and the idea of the soldier being the most important aspect of the battlefield prevailed. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and the power of artillery were ignored, which caused tactical mistakes that would prove costly in the first half of the war. The tactics that Haig pursued (a breakthrough battle deep into enemy territory) were beyond the mobility and range of artillery, which contributed to operational failures and heavy losses. Travers also criticised Haig and enemy commanders for (in Travers' opinion) seeing battle as perfectly organised and something that could be planned perfectly, and ignoring the concept of fog of war and confusion in battle. Travers argues that top-down command became impossible in the chaos of battle and lower levels of command were relied upon. Owing to the lack of attention at this level in the early years of the war, a command vacuum was created in which GHQ became a spectator.[181]

Some historians, like Bourne and Bond, regard this as too harsh. Haig belonged to the lower officer corps of the pre-war army, yet he progressed along with other commanders from battalion, brigade, division and corps commanders of the Edwardian era to the army group and commanders-in-chief of the First World War. The advances in operational methods, technology and tactical doctrine were implemented by these officers, Haig among them. Bourne and Bond argue that it is difficult to reconcile the commanders of 1918 with the dogma-ridden, unprofessional, unreflecting institution depicted by Tim Travers. They argue that he does not take into account the year 1918, when the officer corps succeeded in integrating infantry, artillery, armour and aircraft in a war-winning operational method, something that would have been impossible had these Edwardian officers been hostile to change in operational methodology and technological terms.[182]


Whilst Haig is often criticised for the high casualties in his offensives, it is argued by some historians that this was largely a function of the size of the battles as his forces were engaging the main body of the German Army on the Western Front, and that no realistic alternative existed. Although total deaths in the Second World War were far higher than in the First, British deaths were lower because Britain was fighting mainly peripheral campaigns in the Mediterranean for much of the Second World War, involving relatively few British troops, whilst most of the land fighting took place between Germany and the USSR (the Soviets suffered roughly as many dead, not including civilians, as every country in World War One combined[183]).[184] When British forces engaged in a major battle in Normandy in 1944, total losses were fewer than on the Somme in 1916 as Normandy was around half the length and less than half the size, but casualties per unit per week were broadly similar.[185] Another historian observes that British daily loss rates at Normandy - a battle in which divisions lost up to three quarters of their combat infantry - were similar to those of Third Ypres in 1917, while average battalion casualty rates in 1944-5 (100 men per week) were similar to those of the First World War.[186]

John Terraine wrote: "It is important, when we feel our emotions rightly swelling over the losses of 1914-18, to remember that in 1939-45 the world losses were probably over four times as many ... the British task was entirely different, which is why the (British) loss of life was so different: about 350,000 in 1939-45 and about 750,000 (British deaths, 1 million including the Empire) in 1914-18 ... - ... The casualty statistics of the Great War ... tell us ... virtually nothing about the quality of ... British generals. The statistics show that ... the British losses in great battles were generally about the same as anyone else's." In the same article he argued that British perceptions were coloured by the terrible losses of 1 July 1916 (57,000 in one day), but that it should also be remembered that the British never suffered anything like the losses of June 1916, when the Austro-Hungarian Army had 280,000 casualties in a week, or of August 1914 when the French Army lost 211,000 in 16 days, or of March and April 1918 when the Germans lost nearly 350,000 in six weeks (8,600 per day), or 1915 when Russia suffered 2 million casualties in a year.[187]

Total British WW1 deaths seemed especially severe as they fell among certain groups such as Pal's Battalions (volunteers who enlisted together and were allowed to serve together - and were often killed together), or the alleged "Lost Generation" of public school and university educated junior officers. In fact British deaths, although heavy compared to other British wars, were only around half those of France or Germany as a proportion of population.[188]

Alleged Falsification of Records

Denis Winter, in his book "Haig's Command", accused Haig of being self-obsessed, surrounding himself with sycophants and the petty-minded, devious and disloyal.

Winter also accused Haig of falsifying his diary in order to mislead historians and archivists as to his thoughts and intentions, which in turn would protect his reputation long after his death. These claims were rejected by a number of British and Australian historians, including Robin Prior and Correlli Barnett. Barnett's comments were supported by John Hussey and Dr. Jeffrey Grey of the University of New South Wales who wrote that "A check of the documents cited in the Heyes papers, collected for C.E.W.Bean in London in the 1920s, and in the correspondence between Bean and the British Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, not only fails to substantiate Winter's claims but reinforces still further Barnett's criticisms of (Winter's) capacity as a researcher ... includ(ing) ... misidentification of documents, misquotation of documents, the running together of passages from different documents ... and misdating of material..(including) misdat(ing) a letter by seventeen years ... to support his conspiracy case against Edmonds." [189] Donald Cameron Watt found Winter "curiously ignorant of the by-no-means secret grounds on which the Cabinet Office, or rather its secretary, Lord Hankey, initiated a series of official histories of the first world war and the terms which were binding on the authors commissioned to write them" [190]

Winter expressed doubt that Haig had passed out of Sandhurst top of his year or been awarded the Anson Sword.[191] Winter's claim was refuted by S.A.Anglim, who consulted the Sandhurst records.[192]

Dr John Bourne writes that (given the low regard in which Haig had come to be held by the general public) "Winter's perceived conspiracy would appear to be one of the least successful in history. The falsification of his diary seems equally inept, given the frequency with which its contents are held against the author's competence, integrity and humanity, not least by Winter himself."[193] Both Dr John Bourne and Bond point out that the critics of Haig tend to ignore the fact that the war was won in 1918[194] - Winter denies that there was any military victory in 1918.

Haig in popular culture

Haig appeared as himself in the films Under Four Flags (1918) and Remembrance (1927).

Journalism and popular history

Haig has commonly been portrayed as an inept commander who exhibited callous disregard for the lives of his soldiers, repeatedly ordering tens of thousands of them to supposedly useless deaths during battles such as Passchendaele. Sometimes the criticism is not so much of Haig personally, as of the generation of British generals which he is deemed to represent: a view aired by writers such as John Laffin (British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One) and John Mosier (Myth of the Great War). Alan Clark's book The Donkeys (1961) led to the popularisation of the controversial phrase 'lions led by donkeys' which was used to describe British generalship. Clark attributed this remark to the German generals Max Hoffman and Erich Ludendorff, but later admitted that he lied about the phrase.[195] A critical biographer finds “no evidence of widespread contempt for Haig; the claim that ordinary soldiers universally thought him a butcher does not accord with their continued willingness to fight” [196].

Norman Stone describes Haig as the greatest of Scottish generals, since he killed the highest numbers of English soldiers at any front in history, perhaps a slightly facetious point as Scotland in fact suffered one of the highest proportionate losses of any Allied nation (Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War).

Drama and literature

Haig was played by Sir John Mills in Richard Attenborough's 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War, in which he is portrayed as being indifferent to the fate of the troops under his command, his goal being to wear the Germans down even at the cost of enormous losses and to prevail since the Allies will have the last 10,000 men left.

In the 1989 BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, Haig, played by Geoffrey Palmer, makes a single appearance in the final episode. Referring to the limited gains made during the 1915–1917 offensives, Blackadder says: "Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches close[r] to Berlin". Haig is also portrayed sweeping up model soldiers from a large map with a dustpan and brush, and tossing them casually over his shoulder.[197]

In the 1985 Australian television mini-series Anzacs, Haig was played by actor Noel Trevarthen and the series included scenes featuring meetings between Haig and prominent Australian journalist Keith Murdoch. Haig was portrayed as a cold and aloof man who is sceptical about the fighting abilities of the Australian and New Zealand troops arriving on the Western Front in 1916. The series also portrayed British Prime Minister Lloyd George having a strong dislike of Haig and wishing to see him removed from command in 1917.[198]

Haig was one of the chief inspirations for the character of Herbert Curzon in C. S. Forester's novel The General, a sharp satire of the mentality of old-school British officers in the Great War.

Styles and honours

  • Douglas Haig (1861–1885)
  • Lieutenant Douglas Haig (1885–1891)
  • Captain Douglas Haig (1891–1899)
  • Major Douglas Haig (1899–1901)
  • Brigadier-General (local rank) Douglas Haig (1901-2)
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Haig CB (1901–1903)
  • Colonel Douglas Haig CB (1903–1904)
  • Major-General Douglas Haig CB (1904–1909)
  • Major-General Sir Douglas Haig KCVO CB (1909–1910)
  • Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig KCVO CB (1910–1911)
  • Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig KCVO KCIE CB (1911–1913)
  • Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig KCB KCVO KCIE (1913–1914)
  • General Sir Douglas Haig KCB KCVO KCIE ADC (1914–1915)
  • General Sir Douglas Haig GCB KCVO KCIE ADC (1915–1916)
  • General Sir Douglas Haig GCB GCVO KCIE ADC (1916–1917)
  • Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig KT GCB GCVO KCIE ADC (1917–1919)
  • Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig KT GCB OM GCVO KCIE ADC (1919–1919)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Earl Haig KT GCB OM GCVO KCIE ADC (1919–1928)


Earl Haig Secondary School in Willowdale, Ontario, was named after Lord Haig in 1928.

Club Atlético Douglas Haig, a football club from Argentina, was also named after him.

In the early 1920s, several years before his death, a new road of council houses in Kates Hill, Dudley, Worcestershire (now West Midlands) was named Haig Road in honour of Haig.[199]


  1. ^ "Douglas Haig". National Army Museum. Retrieved 27 February 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c Sheffield 2001, p. 21.
  3. ^ a b c Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory, p. 263.
  4. ^ a b Hart 2008, p. 2.
  5. ^ a b Field Marshal Douglas Haig would have let Germany win, biography says
  6. ^ World War I's Worst General
  7. ^ Todman, D. The Great War: Myth and Memory, (London, 2005), p. 73-120.
  8. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 298-30, p406-10.
  9. ^ Neillands 2006, p29
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  11. ^ Groot 1988, p.18
  12. ^ Groot 1988, p.29
  13. ^ Groot 1988, p.31
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  33. ^, Person Page 1602
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  35. ^ Groot 1988, p.118
  36. ^ Groot 1988, p.119
  37. ^ Groot 1988, p.121-4
  38. ^ Groot 1988, p.126
  39. ^ Groot 1988, p.125-6
  40. ^ Neillands 2006, p31
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  42. ^ Groot 1988, p.130
  43. ^ Groot 1988, p.133-4
  44. ^ Groot 1988, p.137
  45. ^ Groot 1988, p.141-2
  46. ^ Groot 1988, p.143-5
  47. ^ Groot 1988, p.146
  48. ^ Groot 1988, p.147-9
  49. ^ Groot 1988, p.151
  50. ^ Groot 1988, p.156
  51. ^ Groot 1988, p.156-7
  52. ^ Groot 1988, p.157
  53. ^ Groot 1988, p.159
  54. ^ Groot 1988, p.160
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  56. ^ Groot 1988, p.165-6
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  60. ^ Groot 1988, p.169
  61. ^ Groot 1988, p.171-2
  62. ^ Groot 1988, p.175
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  65. ^ Neillands 2006, p80
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  67. ^ Neillands 2006, p132
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  69. ^ Neillands 2006, p152
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  71. ^ Groot 1988, p.193
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  73. ^ Groot 1988, p.216
  74. ^ Groot 1988, p.191, 195
  75. ^ Groot 1988, p.202
  76. ^ Groot 1988, p.203-4
  77. ^ Neillands 2006, p192-4
  78. ^ Neillands 2006, p204
  79. ^ Neillands 2006, p193
  80. ^ Groot 1988, p.205
  81. ^ Groot 1988, p.205-7
  82. ^ Neillands 2006, p256-7
  83. ^ Groot 1988, p.208-9
  84. ^ Neillands 2006, p261
  85. ^ Neillands 2006, p257
  86. ^ Neillands 2006, p266
  87. ^ Groot 1988, p.219-20
  88. ^ Groot 1988, p.215
  89. ^ Groot 1988, p.218-9
  90. ^ Groot 1988, p. 223-6, p230, p232
  91. ^ Groot 1988, p.226
  92. ^ Groot 1988, p.228-9
  93. ^ Groot 1988, p.230
  94. ^ Groot 1988, p.238-9.
  95. ^ Groot 1988, p.243-4
  96. ^ Groot 1988, p.243
  97. ^ Groot 1988, p.245
  98. ^ Groot 1988, p.177, parking this snippet here for the moment until I flesh out this section
  99. ^ Terraine, John; Douglas Haig: the Educated Soldier, p. 245.
  100. ^ First World Battles - The Third Battle of Ypres, 1917
  101. ^ Passchendaele cemented Canada’s world role
  102. ^ Berton, Pierre. Marching as to War, 2001, Toronto.
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  104. ^ Groot 1988, p.349
  105. ^ Groot 1988, p.350-1
  106. ^ Groot 1988, p.353
  107. ^ Groot 1988, p.354-5
  108. ^ Groot 1988, p.355
  109. ^ Groot 1988, p.356
  110. ^ Groot 1988, p.358-61
  111. ^ Groot 1988, p.359-60
  112. ^ Groot 1988, p.360
  113. ^ Groot 1988, p.368-9
  114. ^ Groot 1988, p.361-2
  115. ^ Groot 1988, p.363-6
  116. ^ Groot 1988, p.369
  117. ^ Groot 1988, p.376
  118. ^ Groot 1988, p.376
  119. ^ Groot 1988, p.368-9
  120. ^ Groot 1988, p.380.
  121. ^ Hart 2008, p. 250.
  122. ^ Groot 1988, p.357
  123. ^ Hart 2008, p. 229.
  124. ^ Groot 1988, p379.
  125. ^ Groot 1988, p.381.
  126. ^ Groot 1988, p.382.
  127. ^ Groot 1988, p.385.
  128. ^ Groot 1988, p.382.
  129. ^ Hart 2008, p. 311.
  130. ^ Hart 2008, p. 360, p364.
  131. ^ Hart 2008, p.421.
  132. ^ Groot 1988, p.390.
  133. ^ Hart 2008, p. 421.
  134. ^ Groot 1988, p.390.
  135. ^ Groot 1988, p.392-4.
  136. ^ Groot 1988, p.391.
  137. ^ Groot 1988, p.393.
  138. ^ Groot 1988, p.392-4.
  139. ^ Groot 1988, p.400
  140. ^ British Military Leadership in the First World War
  141. ^ Hart 2008, p. 364.
  142. ^ a b Holmes 2004, p. 563.
  143. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 561.
  144. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 225.
  145. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 229.
  146. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 230.
  147. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 236.
  148. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 559.
  149. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 232.
  150. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 565
  151. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 235.
  152. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 565
  153. ^ "Shot for cowardice, desertion and insubordination - or murdered for shell shock? url=". UK National Workplace Advisory Line. 
  154. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 569
  155. ^
  156. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 570
  157. ^ Holmes 2004, p. 571
  158. ^ Stephanie Pain Histories: Can't bite, can't fight (preview only) New Scientist Issue 2594, 10 March 2007, pp. 50–51.
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  160. ^ Groot 1988, p.397-8.
  161. ^ Groot 1988, p.398.
  162. ^ Groot 1988, p.400.
  163. ^ Groot 1988, p.401.
  164. ^ Groot 1988, p.402.
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  167. ^ Groot 1988, p.403-4.
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  169. ^ a b c d e The Times, 4 February 1928, pp. 14–16.
  170. ^ 'A Kick in the Teeth' by Nicholas Watkins.
  171. ^ Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock, p. 204.
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  173. ^ Geoffrey Norman, Military History Magazine, Vol. 24, No.4, June 2007, p. 41
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  179. ^ Bond 2009, pp. 5-6.
  180. ^ Bond 2009, p. 6.
  181. ^ Bond 2009, pp. 6-7.
  182. ^ Bond 2009, pp. 7-8.
  183. ^ British Military Leadership in the First World War
  184. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 70.
  185. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 298-30, p408.
  186. ^ French 2000, p. 154.
  187. ^ British Military Leadership in the First World War
  188. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 55.
  189. ^ Times Literary Supplement 19 April 1991, 10 May 1991, 9 August 1991, quoted here:
  190. ^ Sunday Times book review, quoted here:
  191. ^ Winter 1991, pp. 28-9.
  192. ^ British Army Review August 1992, quoted here:
  193. ^ Bond 2009, p. 3.
  194. ^ Bond 2009, pp. 4-5.
  195. ^ Corrigan 2002, p. 213.
  196. ^ Groot 1988, p.236
  197. ^ Blackadder Episode Guide: Captain Cook
  198. ^
  199. ^ [1]


  • Arthur, Sir George Lord Haig (London: William Heinemann, 1928)
  • Bond, Brian and Cave, Nigel (eds) Haig – A Reappraisal 70 Years On. Pen & Sword. (2009 edition). ISBN 184415887
  • Carlyon, Les The Great War (Sydney: Pan MacMillan, 2005)
  • Charteris, Brigadier-General John. Field Marshal Earl Haig. (London: Cassell, 1929)
  • Charteris, Brigadier-General John. Haig. (London: Duckworth, 1933)
  • Corrigan, Gordon. Mud, Blood & Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2002) ISBN 0304366595
  • De Groot, Gerard Douglas Haig 1861–1928 (Larkfield, Maidstone: Unwin Hyman, 1988)
  • Dixon, Dr. Norman F. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence Jonathan Cape Ltd 1976 / Pimlico 1994
  • French, David Raising Churchill's Army Oxford 2000
  • Harris, J.P. Douglas Haig and the First World War. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-521-89802-7
  • Hart, Peter (2008). 1918: A Very British Victory, Phoenix Books, London. ISBN 978-0-7538-2689-8
  • Holmes, Richard. Tommy (London: HarperCollins, 2004) ISBN 0007137524
  • Keegan, John. The First World War. Pimlico. 1999. ISBN 0-7126-6645-1
  • Marshall-Cornwall, General Sir James Haig as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1973)
  • Neillands, Robin The Death of Glory: the Western Front 1915 (John Murray, London, 2006) ISBN 978-0719562457
  • Reid, Walter. Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig (Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2006.) ISBN 10: 1 84158 517 3
  • Sheffield, Gary, Forgotten Victory. The First World War: Myths and Realities (Headline Review, 2002), p. 263
  • Sixsmith, E.K.G. Douglas Haig (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976)
  • Terraine, John. Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier. (London: Hutchinson, 1963) ISBN 0-304-35319-1
  • Travers, Tim The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front and The Emergence of Modern War 1900–1918 (Allen & Unwin 1987)
  • Warner, Philip Field Marshal Earl Haig (London: Bodley Head, 1991; Cassell, 2001)
  • Winter, Denis Haig’s Command (London: Viking, 1991)

Primary sources

  • Haig, Countess The Man I Knew (Edinburgh & London: The Moray Press, 1936)
  • Haig, F-M Sir Douglas Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches (December 1915-April 1919). Ed. by Lt.-Col. J.H. Boraston, OBE, Private Secretary to Earl Haig. Dent. 1919
  • Secrett, Sergeant T Twenty-Five Years with Earl Haig (London: Jarrods, 1929)

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Thomas Arthur Cooke
Colonel of the 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own)
Regiment amalgamated
Preceded by
Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien
GOC-in-C Aldershot Command
Succeeded by
Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon
New creation GOC I Corps
August 1914 – December 1914
Succeeded by
Charles Monro
New creation Commander of the British First Army
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Rawlinson
Preceded by
Sir John French
Commander of the British Expeditionary Force
End of World War I
Preceded by
Sir Evelyn Wood
Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards
Succeeded by
Sir William Robertson
New title
Regiment formed
Colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers
With: Sir Herbert Lawrence
Succeeded by
Sir Herbert Lawrence
Preceded by
Sir Charles Woollcombe
Colonel of the King's Own Scottish Borderers
Succeeded by
Duncan Macfarlane
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair
Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Sir J. M. Barrie
Preceded by
The Lord Balfour of Burleigh
Chancellor of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
The Viscount Haldane
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl Haig
Succeeded by
George Haig

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