Field Marshall Douglas Haig : the Butcher of the Somme

Discussion in 'World War I' started by Maestro, Aug 29, 2009.

  1. Maestro

    Maestro Active Member

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    #1 Maestro, Aug 29, 2009
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2009
    Greetings ladies and gentlemen.

    Lots of peoples complained about Haig's leadership during WWI. And I can't really desagree with them. So let's settle this matter once and for all...

    Haig was a crappy staff officer who looked at new technologies and new tactics as a kid looks at fireworks... "It looks good, but won't do much."

    He was proved wrong when he lost thousands of troops to machine gun fire for very little gain.

    He also used tactics of the stone age, telling his troops to "walk slowly in a line toward the enemy"... Making an easy target and giving plenty of time for the machine gunners to reload.

    He also never visited the frontline, all the info he got was comming from staff officers serving under him. So, when he ordered a shelling of enemy positions with fragmentation shells in order to cut the barbed wire, and that the operation failed, he didn't know. (Something he would have known if he had been at the frontline.) And when he was told that his first wave had failed, he didn't believe it and just kept sending waves after waves of men ready to die "For King and country". And when he was shown any alternatives, he turned them down.

    Also, all of his assaults were preceded by heavy shelling... Which warned German gunners that an assault was coming. A weak point that Germany noticed and modified from its own attack strategies during the Kaiserschlacht in 1918.

    The way he trained his troops also lacked realism... And never evolved to reflect the reality of trench warfare. In his training, there were no shells, no enemy bullets, no mud, no barbed wire, no trenches... So his troops were not prepared to face the enemy.

    Of course, some points were not under his control, like weather or enemy decisions, which could greatly influence the outcome of an operation. But his lack of vision, his stone age tactics and his attitude toward new technologies made him a nightmare to serve under.
     
  2. vikingBerserker

    vikingBerserker Well-Known Member

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    I've never of anybody complimenting the man on anything, so I have to agree with you.
     
  3. GrauGeist

    GrauGeist Well-Known Member

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    You'll see a number of commanders in WWI acting along Haig's mindset.

    I'm not sure if these commanders were so set in thier ways of the "old school" of thought, or impervious to the rapid change of technology that WWI brought about. Perhaps a little of both, but they sure cost thier armies dearly in needless casualties.
     
  4. timshatz

    timshatz Active Member

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    #4 timshatz, Aug 30, 2009
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2009
    I am no great fan of Haig. But, to give the guy his due, there really wasn't much of an effective counter to the technology of the day but more technology (tanks airplanes and communications). In 1918, when the German Storm tactics were implemented, they still suffered massive casualties and lost some of their best remaining men. That was two years after the Somme.

    The problem, in the big picture, is the technology of defense had gotten far ahead of the tactics of offense. The machine gun, barbed wire and artillery, along with defense in depth was an impossible problem for attacking infantry. The affect of air support, armored support and call for fires were all well in the future. Haig did try to develop a tactic that would lead to a successful battle. His idea was to pound the enemy to bits using artillery. Then, the infantry, which were not well trained proffessionals but semi-trained "Pals" for the most part, would walk over and occupy the trenches. Given the caliber and the situation, it made sense. Especially when you consider the Germans had tried something similar at Verdun and met with some success.

    However, Haig's failing (IMHO) was not that his plan was horrible. It was a logical plan. It was a problem with ceeding power to make decisions forward to deal with the flow and ebb of a battle. His plan was centrally designed by staff officers in the rear, with limited experience in actual operations. The decisions that needed to be made, after the shelling stopped, had to happen in the front lines and needed to be made by the officers in those lines. That power was not extended to them. They were told when and how to go, even the speed of the march. In developing this plan as such, it stripped all initative from the lower level leaders. When the plan went to pieces and flexibility was required, those officers were not allowed (or trained) to make quick, on the spot decisions. And WW1 was a platoon sized war, even if it took the leadership years to figure it out.

    Haig was no genius as a leader. He was competent and a man of his time. He was an Eduardian Leader, top down, who did adapt as situations occured. A butcher? Probably. The job was such that nobody was going to be able to launch attacks (along the learning curve) and not get scores of men killed. But the problem was, if not Haig, then who should be in command? Lloyd George faced that very problem in the Fall of 1917 and he couldn't think of anyone to replace him (even though he wanted to very much).
     
  5. timshatz

    timshatz Active Member

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    A question that has always bothered me about WW1, especially in the West, was how to win it with a minimum number of casualties. That is really the bottom line of this thread. After the battles of the Summer and Fall of 1914 and the race to the sea, what next. The war, in the end, was won because the blockade destroyed the Central Power to wage war. Not because the German Armies were destroyed in the field (something that caused on end of problems later with the "Stab in the Back" myth).

    But, if the 4 years of war really lead to no decision in the field (and this is totally in hindsight), is the best way for the Allies to win the war to simply dig in and wait for the blockade to destroy the Central Powers?
     
  6. trackend

    trackend Active Member

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    Haig was a captive of the times as much as he was a bad leader the tactics employed in WW1 were not confined to just Haig the german and french high commands used the same methods, as for walking towards the enemy it would be interseting to see any troops cover the mile or more of no mans land that consisted of usually a muddy moonscape (some shell holes 15ft deep) carrying their kit at the run then be able to assault trenchs with bullet and bayonet.
     
  7. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    #7 renrich, Aug 31, 2009
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2009
    Pershing and the American commanders made many of the same mistakes during the Meuse-Argonne offenses. Their casualties were awful.
     
  8. olbrat

    olbrat Member

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    Late in the war, when they developed more accuracy in their artillery, one of the major improvements they did on the straight march across no-man's land was the creeping barrage. Instead of just the bombardment, which also alerted the Germans to the attack, they co-ordinated the advance of the troops with the shelling. They would have a barrage, and systematically creep it forward, toward the enemy, with the soldiers following up closely. If someone miscalculated, it got kind of rough for the soldiers.
     
  9. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    And whats unfathomable was the same types of results (troops marching en mass to trenches against rifle fire) were seen in the US Civil War.

    Seems like no commander in any army bothered to study the (recent) historical lessons of warfare.
     
  10. timshatz

    timshatz Active Member

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    Some of them did. The Prussians in particular, paid attention to the way the troops were moved around via railroads during the American Civil War.

    However, The Euros didn't think much of the war. Von Schliefen once called it "Two armed mobs chasing each other around the country". Seems the Euros really didn't "get" the way the war was being fought.Just wasn't their way of doing things.
     
  11. Colin1

    Colin1 Active Member

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    When did they start implementing this?
    I know the French further south in the Allied line used the method with some success but I thought the British never got over warning the Germans that

    a. here comes a barrage, it should signal to you that we're on the offensive.
    b. the barrage has now stopped, it should signal to you that we've got boots on the ground and they're coming towards your machine-gun positions in a nice, long, convenient line-abreast formation and at a speed where you shouldn't have too much trouble reloading.

    Haig may have been a man of his time but it makes it no less acceptable that he sent countless young men on a one-way trip into the killing fields of France. Blame the system or blame Haig and his peers but he had a responsibility at that level of command to move with the times; deploying 19th century tactics against 20th century weapons proved him abysmally negligent in his observance of intelligence, modern warfare and casualty reports vs gains for the engagements thus far.
     
  12. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    Haig did in the end learn from his mistakes and his forces were probably the best trained and equipped at the end of the war.
    His forces participation in the final 100 days offensive was impressive. These were a series of co ordinated battles that broke the German Army

    Battle Of Amiens 8th August 1918
    By the end of the first day a gap 15 miles long had been made in the German lines.

    Second Battle of the Somme 21st August 1918
    The German forces were pushed back of a 30 mile front forcing the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line

    Hindenburg Line 26th September
    Initial attacks were launched by the US, Belgian and British 2nd Army which made some progress but lost momentum.

    Hindenburg 29th September
    Main attack by Haigs 4th Army called Battle of St Quintain broke through the entire depth of the German defences

    So yes he was responsible for dreadful losses for which he cannot be forgiven but in the end he did do some good.
     
  13. davebender

    davebender Well-Known Member

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    That's not true. A decentralized system of command as practised by the German army prior to WWI and most western nations today is the solution to battlefield chaos. Once you implement that the army performs better at all levels of command. However such a sweeping change must be made at the national level. Kitchner would need to introduce it.
     
  14. Ferdinand Foch

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    Well, here I go. To me, Haig should be given a bit more credit for his role in winning the war. Even though he was slow to adapt to the technology of WWI (as many other generals were, like Joffre), I believe that the repeated attacks against the German trenches did help to finally break the German Army (probably not to the same effect as the blockade, but still enough). It did led to a terrible casualty rate, but at the same time it did eat away at the German Army as well. If Haig had the same defeatist feelings as Petain during the French Army mutinies of 1917, and the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918, the war could have taken a much different turn than it did (least that's one theory). Still, between Foch and Haig, I'm gonna have to go with Foch.
     
  15. jamierd

    jamierd Member

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    despiute the number of deaths laid at the feet of lord haig he is still regarded as somewhat of a hero figure here in the uk,at the time most of the british officers "bought "there commisions which often led to incompetent men being in charge of the troops at the front.so a devolved command structure just would not have worked the only way for haig to make it work would have been for Haig to actually be on the ground during the attacks and see what was happening .This may not have changed anything because in truth we do not know how Haig would have reacted to seeing failure in the field first hand
     
  16. Maestro

    Maestro Active Member

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    #16 Maestro, Sep 4, 2009
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2009
    The creeping barrage in the British Army was implemented (as far as I know) by Arthur Cury, commander of the Canadian Corps, during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. It was one of many requests made by Cury in order to accept the task.

    1 - Enough guns (about 120 or 160) for the creeping barrage.
    2 - Launch the attack when he (Cury) sees fit.
    3 - Take all the time needed to pound the living sh*t out of the Germans in the days prior to the attack.

    Haig had to accept those requests or assign the task to an other corps... He chose to accept them.
     
  17. Maestro

    Maestro Active Member

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    That is an other thing I never understood... Why did they have to carry all of their stuff during an assault ? Keep your helmet, your weapons and your ammunitions and dump everything else. It should help you to move faster.
     
  18. Glider

    Glider Well-Known Member

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    That was one of the changes that was made during the war. The main packs were left behind.
     
  19. Maestro

    Maestro Active Member

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    Ah... Thanks for the info.
     
  20. Negative Creep

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    I can honestly say I've never heard anyone refer to him as a hero. He seems to be, rightly or wrongly, the personification of wasteful attrition tactics
     
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