Douglas Haig, War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918; Edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne, Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2005, 550pp.
Douglas Haig probably holds an unique position in British military history. Firstly he commanded the largest British army to ever take the field, over 2 million at its peak; secondly Haig is probably one of the most easily recognised military figures of modern times, creating a stereotype which still haunts the public conscience and who divides opinion on great war Generalship to this day.
As the 90th anniversary of almost forgotten battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle pass, a new battle is being fought between the “Butchers and Bunglers” brigade and the growing force of revisionist historians. In this book the editors have continued their efforts from earlier works, such as Forgotten Victory, to cause people to re-evaluate their views on the Generalship of the First World War, this time using the words of this central figure himself.
Two versions of Haig’s diary are thought to exist and this book is based on the original manuscript, but identifies the differences in the later typescript that has been commonly used by previous biographers. Editing a document from close to 750,000 words down to 200,000 could lead to a selective cut, but the editors have shown Haig “for richer or poorer”. Comparing the two versions the manuscript version gives a slightly rawer, less polished view of events, many of the additions in the typescript copy can be seen as purely clarifying the entry, something a modern day publisher would probably insist upon. This relative lack of polishing could possible be due to the diary being originally written with a view to its publication or at least circulation. One criticism of the book is the lack of mapping to assist with tracking the troop movements, this is a very minor flaw.
Ultimately Douglas Haig’s diaries are just that, his diary; most diarist use them to document their feelings which they may not have expressed openly, to record gossip or emotions, and this book provides both a fascinating insight into the relationships between the principal characters of the war and a timely counter to some of the lingering ideas on Douglas Haig. In a court of law the accused is allowed to defend themselves, this book now belatedly gives Haig that chance.
Some commentators credit Haig with a low level of intelligence for his position, but the diaries show him to be a serious thinker with relation to military situations, in a letter to a flavored junior officer dated 4th August 1914, he expresses a long-term outlook on the war with Germany, wanting to build a force of 300,00. This entry however can be used as “evidence” for one of the other common charges against Haig, that of a butcher, as he recommend reserves to allow for “wastage say 200,000”.
The typescript version shows even greater foresight, or perhaps hindsight, about “a war of several years” at a meeting before the deployment of the BEF in August 1914.
A related misconception about the Officers of the period and Haig in particular is that of contempt, or a least indifference towards the troops. Haig’s later work with the Royal British Legion has always been a visible counter to this, but the diary entries show a concern for and understanding of the rank and file that would exceed a modern employers “duty of care”. Whether its trench conditions, the welfare of troops he encounters on visits to units or even the potential for disorder after the armistice, all receive his attention. Haig even resisted the traditional honours and awards after the war, insisting that action be first taken to care for the army’s casualties.
One area in which Haig is often judged on is his lack of tactical innovation, throughout the diaries Haig resists a chance in tactics, avoiding the “bite and hold” technique developed by Rawlinson and others, even during the great offensive of 1918 disappointment is expressed that the ground is unsuitable for his beloved cavalry. His interest and openness towards new technology is shown in his diary; gas, tanks, aeroplanes in a reconnaissance role and advances in artillery techniques all receive Haig’s backing.
Haig, as shown by this edition of his own diaries wasn’t fault free, nor was he a buffoon in the Blackadder model, instead he worked his way to leadership of the British army through its famous “learning curve” into the only organisation capable of repelling the German western front offensive of 1918 and then delivering a successful all arms offensive which would be recognisable to the British soldier of today.