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“Butchers and Bunglers” of the First World War

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Field Marshal Douglas Haig was born on the 19th June 1861. He was a British soldier and senior commander during World War I. He commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 to the end of the War. Most notably he was commander during the Battle of the Somme, the 3rd Battle of Ypres and the series of victories leading to the German surrender in 1918. Haig was the son of John Haig, who was head of the family’s successful “Haig & Haig” whisky distillery. Haig studied at Brasenose College, Oxford. He left without a degree, partially due to sickness. He graduated the following year in 1884 as an officer.

Was Sir Douglas a Butcher or a Bungler of the First World War? Historians have varying views with many reasons to support either theory. There are many reasons saying that he should be included in a list of Butchers because he sent thousands of men to their deaths at the battle of the Somme believing that there was every chance of success, and there are many reasons saying that he should be included in a list of bunglers because he believed that he was right about things even though his most trusted men told him otherwise, he misunderstood the battlefield, mainly because he was never at the battlefield. Instead he was 40 miles behind the front line living in a chateau. He also believe that because he had so much experience he could never be wrong and was correct about everything.

World War I was a global war fought chiefly in Europe from 1914 to 1918. The scale and intensity of the conflict were unprecedented, with more men fighting and more casualties in action than any prior human conflict. About 70 million soldiers took part in the fighting, including 60 million Europeans. New technologies – machine guns, better artillery, advanced logistics, poison gas, aerial warfare and submarines – increased the scale of the carnage. The war claimed over 40 million casualties, including approximately 20 million civilian and military dead.

World War 1 was Trench Warfare and in July 1916 Field Marshall Douglas Haig became the Commander at the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was among the largest battles of the First World War and is one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded. The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1 July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead! This battle was very important because at the Battle of Verdun the French were in danger of being overrun by the Germans and the point of the battle of the Somme was to draw Germans away from the battle of Verdun, so they could reinforce their lines and recover, and to draw them to the river Somme where the French could then flank them from the side and attack them from the side. Eventually the allies won the First World War.

There are many views on why Haig should be included in a list of Butchers and Bunglers. Here are some views on why Haig should be included into a list of Butchers;

“The nation must be taught to bear losses. No apart of skill on the higher commanders, no training, however good, on the officers and men, no superiority of arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of men’s lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualties’ lists.”

Written by Haig in June 1916 before the battle began.

Haig is essentially saying there are going to be a lot of lives lost no matter how god the commanders, the men or the weapons. He is preparing the country for a lot of deaths. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of his men for the glory of victory.

“Very successful attack this morning . . . All went like clockwork . . . The battle is going very well for us and already the Germans are surrendering freely. The enemy is so short of men that he is collecting them from all parts of the line. Our troops are in wonderful spirits and full of confidence.”

From a report by Haig on the first day of the attack, 1 July 1916.

Haig is saying how the ‘Tommie’s’ have the Germans surrendering freely and the men are full of confidence. He’s is saying that the first day went perfectly even though there were 40’000 injured and 20’000 dead!

“While Haig slept in a cosy bed in a quiet country chateau and dined on the best food available, his men lived in muddy, noisy trenches sharing their bully beef and biscuits with big, bloated rats. It apparently did not bother Haig that his war was so much more comfortable than that of the men he commanded.”

Written in 1988 in a biography of Haig by Gerrard De Groot.

De Groot is saying that while Haig sits 40 miles away from the battlefield his men have to live in mud and share their cold food with ‘bloated rats’ and are under constant threat of being shot or bombed.

“I view with the utmost pain this terrible killing of our troops. We have not gained in a month’s fighting as much ground as we were expected to gain in the first two hours. We have not advanced two miles in a direct line at any point . . . nor are we making for any point of military importance; it is all open country which can easily be defended by the use of trenches.”

A personal memoir written by Winston Churchill MP in August 1916

Churchill is saying that so far we are losing this battle and is not going as planned. He is saying that Haig is sending men into the battle when there is no need to and is carelessly wasting lives and also that there is no need for us to actually be fighting that battle.

Here are some views on why Haig should be included in a list of Bunglers;

“The men are in splendid spirits. Several have said that they have never been so so instructed and informed of the nature of the operation before them. The barbed wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparation so thorough. All the commanders are full of confidence.”

Written by Haig on 30 June 1916, the day before the attack started.

Haig is saying how nothing can go wrong and that everyone is full of confidence. However, we have the power of Hindsight and know that the barbed wire wasn’t cut by the bombardment. If Haig had gone to the battlefield and checked it out he would have known this but he stayed 40 miles away in his chateau.

“Hundreds of dead were strung out [on the barbed wire] like wreckage washed up to a high water mark. Quite as many died on the wire as on the ground. . . It was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack. The Germans must have been reinforcing the wire for months. It was so thick that daylight could barely be seen through it. . . . How did the planners imagine that Tommie’s could get through the wire? Who told them that artillery would pound such wire to pieces? Any Tommie could have told them that shellfire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before.”

From an interview with Private George Coppard, who survived the Battle Of The Somme.

Coppard is saying that leadership by the commanders is rubbish. He’s saying any Tommie could do a better job at leading the army. He is essentially making out that because of Haig’s mistakes more men died on the wire than on the ground.

“We formed into one line and walked slowly forward. We had only gone a few yards when my mate, Billy Booth, was hit. Then the man on my left fell against me. Lines of men were just disappearing. The Germans’ machine guns fires at us like it was target practice. The wire was 60 yards away but only a few made it as far as that they became fastened on the barbs and the machine guns tore their bodies to shreds. It was all over in ten minutes. It was slaughter. The Commanders, Haig and Rawlinson, didn’t care about us. I don’t think they bothered about human life.”

George Morgan was a member of the Bradford Pals Battalion. Sixty years later, he recalled 1st July.

Here Morgan describing how they got the stupid order to walk across No-Man’s land and how that the shell fire had not destroyed the German trenches or cut the wire, Because of this Haig caused hundreds of deaths. If Haig had checked the battlefield before the attack he would see this. But he was certain this would work and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“We were told to walk over. Walk. This in itself was stupid. And you had to go over in a line, walking. That was a stupid idea. But, Still, we had to do what we were told.”

Frank Lindley of the Barnsley pals explained the orders in a T.V. programme (1980s)

Here Lindley is saying that the order to walk across no mans land was one of the stupidest orders he’d been given, and he is questioning the orders of the commanders but still he had to do what he was told.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig is criticised for his actions and orders at the Somme because nit is believed that victory could have been achieved without the death of so many ‘Tommie’s’ and that he sent so many to their death to gain only a few metres of land to only lose that in the next German offensive. People believe that he made some silly and mistakes in his authority. The main People who seem to be criticising Haig is the men that he commanded. I think this is because his orders sent so many to their death and they had seen so many of the friends and family die beside them and also that they had to live in such awful conditions while he lived 40 miles away from the front line.

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