Was General Haig deserving of the name Butcher of the Somme?
From 1 July to 18 November 1916, the Battle of Somme unfolded along the River Somme in France. The British and French empires clashed with the German Empire in this significant historical conflict. Sadly, all sides suffered numerous casualties and injuries during this brutal and devastating war. Moreover, it marked a pivotal moment that shifted perspectives on war from being thrilling to being tragic.
General Douglas Haig, a British army commander during the Battle of Somme, gained notoriety for his role in the high casualties suffered during this battle. Following his death in 1928, he was dubbed “Butcher Haig” or “Butcher of the Somme” due to his decision to send numerous British soldiers to their demise. Nonetheless, there is ongoing debate as to whether this title is justified or if there were misunderstandings surrounding the battle. In this discussion, I will present evidence and explanations supporting both sides of the argument regarding Haig’s deservingness of this infamous label.
The offensive by Britain and France was aimed at draining the German forces of reserves through a battle of attrition, with territorial gain as a secondary objective. On the first day of the Somme battle, the fourth army of Britain, commanded by Haig, suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths. The French achieved a “complete success” in the southern area of the Albert-Bapaume road, causing the German defenders there to collapse. The south bank of the German defense became incapable of withstanding another attack, leading to the order to abandon Fricourt. The German army then moved to the north bank and inflicted a major defeat on the British infantry, resulting in numerous British soldiers being killed.
A significant number of individuals referred to Douglas Haig as the Butcher of the Somme; the following evidence reflects their perspective.
“The biggest murderer of the lot was Haig. I’m very bitter; always have been and always will be and everybody else that knew him. He lived almost 50 kilometers behind the line and that’s about as near as he got. I don’t think he knew what a trench was like. And they made him an Earl and gave him £100,000. I know what I’d have given him” (Fred Pearson, commenting on Haig in a local newspaper in 1966).
Pearson, a private on the Western Front, expresses his bitterness towards Haig, whom he considers the biggest murderer. The fact that Haig lived far from the front line suggests his lack of understanding of trench life. Pearson also highlights Haig’s elevation to an Earl and the substantial monetary reward he received. This later evaluation is from a trustworthy source, as it was written by someone who experienced the war and observed Haig’s actions.
Haig stated that their army was completely worn out and had a strong belief that they would be defeated if the war continued. Despite the fact that the Germans had lost 680,000 men and retreated 10 kilometers from their trenches, Britain and France also suffered a significant loss in human lives. The first day of the battle resulted in a large number of casualties, which caused bitterness and anger among the people. The soldiers on the Front line were particularly infuriated when they saw Haig stationed kilometers behind them, perceiving him as a coward. The anger grew even stronger due to the loss of family and relatives on July 1st.
P.Smith, a private in the 1st Border regiment fighting on the Somme, expressed his anger towards Haig, referring to him as a Butcher. In his diary, he wrote, “It was pure bloody murder. Douglas Haig should have been hung, drawn and quartered for what he did on the Somme. The cream of the British manhood was shattered in less than six hours.” This statement, made in July 1916 during the battle of the Somme, highlights P.Smith’s dissatisfaction with Haig’s actions. The significant loss of over 50 thousand soldiers on the first day further fueled P.Smith’s belief that Haig should suffer consequences for his leadership. The reliability of this source is supported by the fact that P.Smith wrote in his private diary solely for personal reflection. Being present at the battle and witnessing the deaths of numerous comrades only reinforces P.Smith’s conviction that Douglas Haig is indeed the Butcher of the Somme.
According to David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister during the First World War and author of War Memoirs (1935), General Haig was lacking in imagination, vision, and personal magnetism. George also believed Haig was incapable of planning large-scale campaigns on such a vast battlefield. George’s assessment of Haig as a “second-rate commander” was based on the high death count at the Somme. This quote from a reliable source is indicative of Haig’s war planning abilities and his inability to be an effective leader in such challenging circumstances.
In a cartoon from the British satirical magazine Punch (February 1917), the difference between a rehearsal and the real thing is emphasized. The cartoon humorously highlights three essential differences. According to the Regimental Sergeant-Major, the first difference is the absence of the enemy. Furthermore, the second difference, as pointed out by the Sergeant Major, is the absence of the General. This cartoon serves as a useful source for understanding General Haig and his team during that time period. It provides insights into Haig’s leadership, as he addresses his men before an attack behind the lines. Written after the battle of the Somme in 1917, this source is considered reliable for gathering information about Haig and his team.
John Laffin, an author in the modern era, voiced his criticism in his history book, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (2003), claiming that Haig and other British generals deserve blame for deliberate blunders and merciless slaughter. Despite their potential incompetence and the hindrances of a restrictive system, Laffin acknowledges that they were aware of their actions and holds them accountable, asserting that their actions are unforgivable. While Laffin made a living by leading battlefield tours and extensively researching the war from the soldiers’ perspective, it is important to note that he did not witness the events firsthand nor observe Haig’s actions at the time. Instead, his understanding is based on accounts from others throughout history. Therefore, this source may offer varying reliability and it might not be entirely fair to label Haig as a butcher.
On one hand, some argue that Haig was simply carrying out his duties as a general. Various individuals present varying pieces of evidence supporting this interpretation.
According to historian John Terraine in his 1980 Study of the Somme called “The Smoke and the Fire,” the generals of the war were often portrayed as ruddy-cheeked, bristling-mustached, heavy-jawed, and frequently inarticulate. However, these generals consistently rose to the challenges they faced, incorporating new weapons into their battle systems and adapting to constant change with remarkable success. Despite their achievements, no one bothered to create a legend around them. Terraine specifically referred to Haig in his analysis, highlighting that although Haig was successful during the war, his accomplishments were largely overlooked and disregarded. This observation might support the notion that Haig was merely performing his duty and achieved great success in the war.
A letter to the Daily Express from a Lieutenant in the Yorkshire Light Infantry, who was gassed on the Somme and sent back to Britain, praises Sir Douglas Haig as a flawless leader and genius. According to the letter, Haig’s leadership during the first half of the war was perfect and placed him among the greatest generals of all time. The letter also suggests that Haig led his team and Britain to victory, making him a hero. The quote “Which has made Sir Douglas Haig fit to rank with any general of past or modern times?” indicates that Haig was highly regarded by the locals and considered a top British leader. This source, written in December 1916 immediately after the war, is deemed reliable as the author had knowledge of the events, although he may not have personally witnessed them in the trenches.
The photograph displayed depicts the enthusiastic reception of Sir Haig upon his return from France. It was captured on 12th April 1919, a few months subsequent to the conclusion of the war. This photograph signifies the immense number of people who welcomed him back and their absence of blame towards him for the considerable loss of life during the conflict. The public considered him a British hero who guided his army to victory and safeguarded Britain. However, it is essential to note that this photograph alone may not provide a comprehensive representation. Its reliability may be questioned as it could potentially be fabricated by the government to generate support for Haig. In contrast, videos are often deemed more trustworthy as they encompass a sequence from start to finish. Photos only capture a solitary moment and may fail to convey other events that occurred prior or subsequently.
The source, written by S. Warburton in a 1998 article for “Hindsight” magazine, challenges the notion that blaming Haig as an individual for the failures of the British war effort is unjustly burdening one man with guilt. According to the source, Haig’s actions were influenced by his time period, upbringing, education, training, and previous military experience. The author contends that Haig’s ultimate victory and the lack of a better replacement for his role further weaken the argument against him. Even a German officer’s comment on the Somme battlefield as the “muddy grave of the German army” suggests Haig’s success. Despite being written years after the Battle of Somme, this reliable source insists that Haig should not be labeled as a butcher as he exerted significant effort and planning in contributing to Britain’s triumph.
There is an increasing amount of evidence supporting both sides of the argument, making it challenging to determine who is correct or incorrect. In my opinion, I believe General Haig should be given the title “the Butcher of the Somme.” He recklessly dispatched 50,000 British soldiers to their deaths in a single day, indicating a lack of understanding about warfare. Although experts proposed the plan, Haig should have evaluated its feasibility before putting it into action. Despite his belief in emerging victorious, the reality was different. The German empire suffered 680,000 casualties while the combined British and French casualties equaled that number.
Haig rejected pleas for more hospital trains before the attack, prolonging the war and unintentionally impeding victory against the Germans. His misconception of true warfare led him to falsely believe in his accomplishments. He insufficiently prepared by deploying inexperienced soldiers, resulting in July 1 becoming one of the deadliest days in history. Continuously making disorganized errors, he has earned the moniker Butcher of the Somme.
There is a debate about whether he was a butcher or simply carrying out his duty during the Battle of the Somme. Regardless, a significant number of individuals died and many lost their homes and loved ones. General Douglas Haig sent them to their deaths, but there may be some misinterpretation involved.