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Does Haig deserve his reputation as “Butcher of the Somme”

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On 10th December 1915, a new commander of British forces was appointed – Field Marshal Haig. Aged 54 he had already had a successful military career, but what he now faced were the high expectations of the British population and the challenging task of ending the stalemate. On 1st June 1916, Haig launched an attack along the line of the River Somme after a week of non-stop artillery bombardment in order to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. That day, 60,000 soldiers were injured or reported missing; 20,000 died.

It was the worst singe day of fighting known in British history, yet the battle was continued for a further five months. Indeed pressure was relieved at Verdun, but was the heavy cost necessary? Some think that it was. Firstly, Haig had no other alternatives. Nobody knew how to win a war like this and those that criticised Haig’s methods often did not offer any alternatives. According to source 3, “Haig’s methods were in line with the ideas of the time, when attrition was the method all sides used to achieve victory”. This source was written the historian Philip Warner in 1991, 74 years after the war and after Haig had died.

Though he himself was not involved in the war, it is likely that he used many sources and writing after Haig’s death meant that he would have been able to be objective. The source itself is balanced and considers the context of the battle, making it trustworthy Also, Haig was not as unimaginative with his tactics as many think. He was after all the first person to use tanks. He realistically accepted that advances would be more limited and concentrated on the southern sector after the “decisive breakthrough” failed, contrary to the popular belief that he simply carried on as before.

He did in fact realise the importance of morale, as shown by Source 1 on page 40 of the text book, which is a statement that Haig made himself and therefore can be considered trustworthy. Furthermore, in Source 1 Haig warns the nation of the losses expected. This source is written by Haig before the battle of Somme and therefore can be considered entirely trustworthy. His warning shows that he is completely realistic, not intending to create excuses for himself and that he was good willed and wanting to do what was best for the country. Also, his beliefs expressed in this source are not untrue – a war cannot be won without casualties.

Moreover, although the losses were appalling, the crucial objective of relieving the pressure on Verdun was definitely achieved. Verdun was a historic French sentiment and the Germans believed that the French simply could not allow these forts to fall as the national humiliation would have been too much. After five months of fighting, the French were desperate and only just hanging on. They had suffered from approximately 400,000 casualties (source: bbc history), which is not much less than the British suffered from at the battle of Somme and the Battle of Somme allowed the French to recapture lost forts and prevented further casualties.

Also, even though the battle did not turn out to be the “decisive breakthrough” it was intended to be, astonishingly, the Germans suffered from more casualties than the British and the French put together – by the end of the war, the British suffered from 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans 650,000 (source: bbc history). While it could be argued that Haig could have ended the battle when he realised the full-frontal attacks were not breaking through, he did not however realise that this was the case.

Source 6 on page 42 of the text book, written by Haig himself (making it completely trustworthy) shows that he thought that the battle was going extremely well on the worst day of fighting in British history. This suggests that he was not being told accurate information, probably due to men being afraid to tell the truth, but many believe Haig should not be in any way blamed for this and after all, he did eventually end the attack in November when it started snowing.

Haig is also blamed for never visiting the front line and sleeping in a country chateau whilst his men were in trenches, as shown by Source 2. This source was written in 1988 by the historian Gerard de Groot. Like Philip Warner, Gerard de Groot was not personally involved in the war, and wrote several decades after it finished, so it can be argued that his information may not be accurate, but it is probable that he used many sources. Also, writing after Haig had died meant that he was able to be objective.

However, his source doesn’t consider context and uses unnecessarily descriptive language which expresses his personal opinion instead of factual information and it unbalanced. He wrote that “it apparently did not bother Haig”, but he was born after Haig had died, thus making it impossible for him to actually ask him. This therefore makes the source not entirely trustworthy. However, many other more reliable sources also blame Haig, such as source 7 and 11 on pages 42 and 43 of the text book, which were written by soldiers involved in the war.

These arguments are defended by opinions that Haig ‘s job was to lead, not to fight and that the reason Haig did not go to the front line was that it would have taken 2 days for him to get there and back, in which time the British forces would have had no leader. The comfort of the chateau, it is argued, made it easier for Haig to think of tactics and it was necessary for Haig to be cold in order to do his job – not visiting the front line made this possible.

Haig’s indifference to the amount of deaths is further disproved by the fact that after the war he spent most of his time on the welfare of ex-servicemen (instigated the Royal British Legion, Poppy appeal etc). Lastly Haig was an extremely experienced soldier when he was appointed commander and he had already had a long and successful military career. Some use this to argue that he knew what he was doing and he did what was best for the country, but he was made a scapegoat for the losses. On the other hand, some believe that the costs were largely unnecessary and were caused bad leadership from Haig.

Firstly, his tactics were unimaginative and poor. Many blame him for the using tactics that had been successful during previous war, such as the cavalry which Haig had used to win the Boer war fifteen years earlier. However in that war, the British had fought against a poorly equipped enemy on the dry plains of Africa, whilst at the Battle of Somme, Haig faced one of the most powerful armies in the world and no man’s land was covered with mud, shell holes, dead bodies and barbed wire, making it completely unsuitable for the use of cavalry. Some think that Haig failed to learn from these mistakes.

For example, in 1926 he wrote an article about the impact that the First World War had on military tactics: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse – the well-bred horse – as you have ever done in the past. ” As this was written by Haig himself, it can be considered an accurate representation of Haig’s own opinion.

Another mistake Haig made was the artillery bombardment. A total of 1. 6 million shells were fired over seven days before the battle without stopping. The British commanders were so certain that nothing could still be alive in the German trenches that they ordered their troops to walk slowly. However, they were much mistaken. Not only did the Germans survive the bombardment by staying in bunkers, but the sudden stop gave them a clear warning of the approaching attack and gave them time for preparation.

Furthermore, the equipment was poor and many shells failed to explode and those that did were completely ineffective at cutting the barbed wire, as stated by source 7 on pg 42 of the text book – “It was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of attack… Any Tommy could have told them that a shell fire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before. ” This source was written by a soldier who actually fought at the battle of Somme and therefore would know best about the views of the soldiers.

Although the source is unbalanced and does not consider things from Haig’s point of view, it gives and accurate representation of the soldiers’ side. Additionally, Haig is criticised for carrying on the attack for 5 months using the same tactics even after the high amount of casualties and it being clear that nothing was being gained. Even the government were concerned, as shown by source 12 on page 44 of the text book. This source was written by a MP at the time of the battle and thus can be considered trustworthy. However, the source is not very balanced and only criticises Haig’s methods without offering any alternatives.

Besides this, some people also see Haig’s warning of heavy casualties in Source 1 as him being unconcerned about the losses of life and not trying to preserve life. Haig’s methods are seen as being clumsy and expensive in the loss of life. By the end of the battle of Somme everyone in England knew someone who had died. Many people were angry and who else could they blame except Haig? Moreover, many people believe that it was inexcusable for Haig not to empathise with his men in any way and to live in luxury whilst his men lived in extremely poor conditions.

Although source 3 is not balanced or entirely trustworthy, there is still some truth in it, as shown by source 12 on page 43 of the text book. This source, written by a soldier who fought in the war to his family, describes the conditions in much the same way as Source 2. However, this source is a lot more trustworthy since he would have known about the conditions clearly and since it is written to his family, he had no reason to exaggerate. If anything, he may even not have told of the full horrors so as not worry those back at home.

Conversely, he would not have known about difficulties Haig faced and therefore everything he writes can only be treated as his opinion and not as facts. Also, many think that it was Haig’s own fault that he was not being told accurate information and for believing it. Maybe if he had visited the front line, he would have known the truth. Source 5 sand 6 on page 42 show that Haig was much mistaken and was completely unaware of everything that was going on in the front line, which can be seen as inexcusable since it is a commander’s job lead his troops to victory and this cannot be done if he is unaware of what is going on.

This lead to some people believing that Haig did not consider morale, but I can find no evidence to support this claim. In my opinion, Haig was not to blame, since in the end, he did win the war and achieve the objectives. I think that losses are inevitable in a war and had it been another commander, there would still have been heavy casualties. I believe that many of the things Haig is blamed for are either not entirely true or not entirely Haig’s fault. Any commander makes mistakes, Haig simply was made a scapegoat due to the population being angry.

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