Douglas Haig and the Battle of the Somme
In December 1915, Haig was appointed commander in chief of the BEF. He was put under extreme pressure by the French to produce a diversion from Verdun. The first Battle of the Somme was fought from July to November 1916. In that time Allied forces advanced 12km and suffered 420,000 British and 200,000 French casualties.
In 1918 Haig took charge of the successful British advances on the Western Front which led to an Allied victory later that year. After the war Haig’s management of the major campaigns, notably on the Somme in 1916, and at Passchendaele in 1917, was criticised by David Lloyd George, the British prime minister. Some military historians have claimed that Haig tactics were deeply flawed. Others have defended his actions and claimed that his approach was largely determined by French demands for continuous action at that part of the Western Front.
As to whether it were wise or foolish to give battle on the Somme, there can surely be only one opinion. To hve refused to fight then and there would have meant the abandonment of Verdun to its fate and the breakdown of co-operation with the French.
From the biography of Haig, officially aithorised by Haig’s family, by Duff Cooper – ‘Haig’ (1936)
Hundreds of dead…were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground…they hung there is grotesque postures.
How did the planner imagine that Tommies would get through the German wire? How told them that artillery fire would pound such wire to pieces, making it possible to get through. Any Tommy could have told them that shell fire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before.
From ‘With a Machine Gun to Cambrai.’ By George Coppard.
The men are in splendid spirits. Several have said that they have never been so instructed and informed of the nature of the operations before them. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparations so thorough
Dairy of Sir Douglas Haig, written 30 June 1916
They knew nothing except by hearsay about the actual fighting of a battle under modern conditions. Haig ordered many bloody battles in this War. He only took part in two. He never even saw the ground on which his greatest battles were fought, either before or during the fight.
David Lloyd George, after the war
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 confidence.
Written by Haig on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme
We had heavy looses in men and material. As a result of the Somme we were completely exhausted on the Western Front… Defeat seemed inevitable
Autobiography of the German General Ludendorff, ‘My Wartime Memories 1914-1918’, written in 1919
‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.