Field Marshall Douglas Haig is most associated with the Battle of the Somme in the Great War. He was Britain’s commander-in-chief during the battle and took much criticism for the sheer loss of life in this battle. Historians of past and present argue about whether Haig alone was responsible for so many casualties. John Laffin wrote his book, ‘British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One’, in 1996 and was strongly against Haig as a commander. Gary Sheffield wrote, ‘Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities‘ in 2002 and argues that Haig should be given credit for aiding the French cause at Verdun and ultimately winning the Great War. In fact his current research project is Field Marshall Haig. You have the opportunity to judge yourself in Year 9. The more information you find, the easier the task of developing a judgment will be. However, as always, as historians you should be careful with the origins of the evidence. Watch the clips below, make use of the websites listed here and read my comments about what you should think of when establishing a judgment.
The clip above is a student’s piece of work on Field Marshall Haig. Is he correct with his interpretation?
The clip above may give you an idea of how the war was fought. Survivors recall memories so what impression does this give of Haig.
When analysing Haig you must build on your skills developed in Year 8. Most pupils anaysed Oliver Cromwell and several battles last year. Interpretations of historical events depend on many factors. People are influenced by emotions, current political events, the media and what evidence they read. For example when the book, ‘All quiet on the western front’, was published in 1929 it was one of the first anti-war publications. Previously people thought of the war as something to be remembered and celebrated. Other types of media changed people’s attitudes to war. A movie was made from the book above and made this view more widespread. The anti-war feeling was further developed in the 1960’s and since this period more and more books and documentaries have targeted Haig as a very poor commander.
A common debate in history is how historical figures are judged from modern perspectives. There were 58,ooo casualties on 1st July 1916 at the start of the Battle of the Somme. Would this be acceptable today? Warfare in recent times, despite more destructive weapons being available, generally does not produce huge casualty lists. You only have to watch news programmes today to see how the deaths of 2 soldiers is reported for example. Should a historian judge from a different time period or show a degree of empathy? There are always two sides to a story so which do you agree with.
The Battle of the Somme was fought in northeast France. The map shows where the River Somme is although the battle was also fought alongside the River Ancre. The British and French armies over a four and a half month period only achieved a maximum distance of 11 km. At a cost of about 620, 000 casualties. Can the battle be considered a success and what impact does it have on the ability of Field Marshall Haig?