When Idols Topple

February 5, 2015 by Legion Magazine

When Idols Topple

By Captain B. H. Liddell Hart

October, 1953

 

Robert Blake, Editor of The Private Papers of Douglas Haig, 1914-1919, states that “Haig had his diary typed out and bound in 38 substantial volumes” and that “it is clear from his will that he expected them, or parts of them, to be published.” It is thus the more significant that Haig should have been blind to the impression they were likely to make. They reveal how difficult he could be in working with a government and with allies. They show an unquestioning self-righteousness and unbound contempt for other people. The French are “rascally,” the Italians “wretched” and “greedy,” and “the ignorance of the Americans is appalling.” Lloyd George is naturally anathema – “funk,” “a thorough imposter” and a “cur” are among the terms applied to him.

 

CASTIGATED GENERALS

Many of Haig’s fellow-generals, and also the admirals, receive biting of contemptuous treatment. Even Robertson, his closest military ally in Whitehall, is castigated as “unsound” when in 1917 he cautioned Haig about the danger to Britain’s situation of undertaking “large and costly attacks,” and also suggested that there was something to be said for Lloyd George’s idea of sending a number of guns “to support Italy.”

Haig, on the contrary, was sure that the “one sound plan” was to send “every possible man, aeroplane, gun” to France to back his own cherished plan of attack in Flanders, as “the German was now nearly at the end of his resources.” He got his way, but not his imagined victory. That autumn the Italian front collapsed. In the spring the Germans broke through the front of the physically and morally depleted British Army. Yet Haig never seems to have had a qualm about his own judgment or its consequences.

 

THE TRUTH ABOUT PASSCHENDAELE

It is to be observed that the diary does not confirm his post-war statement, in 1927, that he only went on with the Passchendaele offensive – in the deep autumn mud – under pressure of Petain’s appeals, and of what Petain told him “in confidence” about “the awful state of the French troops.”

Here I can add a point. Petain said privately that, far from pressing Haig to continue the Passchendaele offensive, he deprecated it at the time but did not wish to correct Haig’s statement publicly out of regard for him. Significantly, the secret “Memorandum on Operations on the Western Front 1916-18,” which Haig deposited in 1920 at the British Museum, bears out Petain’s correction of Haig’s excuse – for there it is admitted that Petain’s view (which events confirmed) was that any large break-through operation “could obtain no decisive result,” and that he wanted the British, as well as the French, to confine themselves to “small local offensives with limited objectives” during the second half of 1917.

Furthermore, Haig’s diary shows that the date when Petain met him and told him of the “bad state” of the French Army was June 7 – nearly two months before Haig embarked on his would-be decisive offensive in sodden Flanders. According to Haig’s own diary, too, he heard from Petain on July 16 that the state of the French Army was now “very much better.” But it is evident that this merely encouraged him to pursue his dream of early victory through the Flanders offensive.

 

THE 1918 BREAK-THROUGH

The diary also explodes another post-war argument – that the collapse of the British front in March, 1918, was due to the Cabinet withholding the reinforcements that Haig required to hold it. There is no complaint of that kind in Haig’s diary. On the contrary, it records that on February 16 he held a conference of his Army Commanders, when “we discussed” the defence problem and “all felt confident on being able to hold their front.”

On March 2 Haig says that, at a further conference, he told them how “very pleased” he was with the defence preparations and that he was “only afraid that the enemy would find our front so strong that he will hesitate to commit his Army to the attack with the almost certainty of losing very heavily.”

The diary provides an illuminating but unedifying picture of the conduct of men in high places, political and military, and their disregard of proper loyalty to their chiefs and colleagues. Indeed, Haig himself, who was apt to denounce or suspect others as “intriguers,” repeatedly went behind the backs of his official chiefs to gain his ends in opposition to theirs.

 

IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE

The most important disclosure is the way he used the King as a lever. When the King visited his Corps before it went to France in 1914, Haig told him he had “doubts” about Sir John French’s capacity for the chief command of the Expeditionary Force. Haig’s criticisms of his chief became increasingly severe during the next year, and he communicated them to the King, who urged Haig to write letters secretly to him about the way things went on.

After the abortive Loos offensive in 1915, Haig and Robertson – then French’s Chief of Staff – made a concerted effort to get French sacked and at the same time oust Kitchener from the higher direction of the war. The aid of the King and others was secured. It resulted in French’s replacement by Haig and Robertson’s appointment as C.I.G.S., with powers that made him the military adviser of the Cabinet in place of the Kitchener.

Haig records that the King “told me how he had insisted on the Prime Minister removing Sir John French.” What the Editor himself terms the “close alliance between Haig and the King,” continued, as also did the flow of letters sent “in strictest confidence.”

 

HAIG AND LLOYD GEORGE

When Lloyd George, after becoming Prime Minister late in 1916, came in conflict with Haig over the project of an inter-allied command, the King sent Wigram, his private secretary, out to France to assure Haig “of his support.” Then, when Haig saw him in London, the King “stated that he would ‘support me through thick and thin’…he was furious with Lloyd George.” This diary will compel a revision of prevalent ideas about George V’s role as a constitutional monarch.

The extracts printed comprise only one-fifth of Haig’s war-time diary. Mr. Blake’s selection appears both able and honest. If some significant passages are omitted, the circumstances of the task compression required to have to be borne in mind. At the same time it deserves emphasis that Haig’s diary is unjust not only to others but also to himself.

 

A BIGGER MAN THAN IMPRESSION CONVEYED

He was better and bigger than the impression conveyed by the faults and limitations shown there. The source of these needs understanding. He was typical of the soldiers of his time in the too simple black-and-white way he saw things, and in his intemperate way of expressing himself.

He was typical, too, in his prejudices, particularly against “politicians.” But he also had a tremendous sense of a God-given mission – to lead the British Army to victory – which barely emerges in this volume. The sense of a divine call easily produces a sense of divine right. This enabled Haig, without apparent qualms, to push himself to the top by steps that could hardly be justified by ordinary standards.

In many respects, he was better fitted for the chief command than any of his fellows. He was professionally more competent, and had more firmness of character in crisis. Despite an excessive bias, his views of men were often shrewd. Despite blind spots, he often showed vision – not least in seeing how the French desire for “revenge” and for twisting the Armistice terms to Germany’s further damage, was likely to prejudice the world’s future.

He would have been a greater asset to his country if he had not been so sure of his own rightness and divine inspiration. That sureness, when it proved wrong, had tragic results for the cause to which he had dedicated himself.

 

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