Was Haig a butcher?

Posted: December 1, 2009 in Year 9
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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.

Evidence about the war with references to Haig.

Evidence from the same website about Haig.

Article from a history website.

A useful answer from a web page that may help. 

Haig from Spartacus.schoolnet

Haig from the History Learning site

A summary of the battle from the BBC

How the Daily Mirror reported the battle at the time?

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?

  1. Mr Gagan,

    Where is the video you showed us last lesson(the animation explaining the first world war)

  2. Dave says:

    It is my personal opinion that Haig was an unspectacular and stubborn commander who’s lack of imagination and inability to improvise when plans went awry cost the lives of thousands of his men. I don’t, however, believe the man was a butcher. In the context of this article, the word butcher implies bloodlust or at least a certain fulfillment Haig gained in the carnage. Killing his troops wasn’t his aim, although Haig was aware that casualties would likely be heavy, due to the fact that the British main purpose was to draw the Germans toward them away from the French at Verdun. For an excellent general such a task would be daunting, for one who’s abilities are mediocre the task becomes the nightmare that was The Somme. For all commanders The First World War was one which they were neither prepared nor trained to deal with. Although The American Civil War and several colonial conflicts gave stark previews of the trench warfare system that would dominate the Western Front, European armies still maintained traditional doctrines. The never before used industrial age weapons combined with outmoded tactics combined to kill millions in little more than 4 years. The bottom line is, nobody knew then or even today how WWI should have been waged.

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