Field Marshal Douglas Haig was a senior commander in the British army during World War I. He was a warrior with difference. He led the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of Somme and the 3rd Battle of Ypres. During the tenure as commander of the British Expeditionary Force, he became controversial for his actions. The mass causalities in the Battle of Somme, earned him a nick name of “Butcher of Somme”. He was heavily criticized for his tactical mistakes. However, he won many battles for the British Force with effective planning and tactical moves.
Background of the Battle of Somme
“When the World War I broke out in August 1914, Haig got the responsibility of organizing the British Expeditionary Force. The battle intensified in the Western Front in 1914. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in France on 14 August and advanced into Belgium. Haig led the BEF in the 1st Battle of Ypres. After his success in the battle, he was promoted to the post of General and made second-in-command of the British forces in France under John French. Haig replaced French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF in December, 1915” (Strachan, 1998).
Haig was an ambitious person. His hunger to win the battles made his higher authorities to believe that he was the right person to lead the BEF in the World War. In his victory march, the Battle of Somme was very significant. Somme was a strategic point for the German forces to advance further and Haig was determined to halt their advance. “To check the advancement of German troops, an offensive was launched on a 30 kilometer front, from north of the Somme river between Arras and Albert. Although the offensive was planned in 1915, it was finally carried out in 1916” (Simpson, 1991).
Haig’s Role in the Battle of Somme
Haig prepared the detailed maps and battle plans for the final assault in the Battle of Somme. Before the battle began, British guns pounded the German trenches for seven days on a trot. Haig was confident that he would win the battle easily. However, heavy rain, blustery winds, sleet and cold delayed the marching of the BEF.
There is a consensus among the historians that Haig was soft on his staff who failed to match the requirements of the Western Front battlefield and the technological innovations. Inadequate planning led to serious operational failures at the First Battle of the Somme. “Haig modified General Henry Rawlison’s Fourth Army Plan for the First Battle of the Somme at the last minute. The deployment of troops was not tactical and failed to meet the objectives of the BEF. It resulted in the loss of about 60,000 British soldiers in a single day on the 1st July 1916. At least 20,000 of them were killed. It was an unprecedented disaster for both the British Army and Haig” (Strachan, 1998).
Haig expected that the ferocity of the bombardment would destroy all forward German defenses and enable British troops to take possessions of the German front lines from the battered German troops. Haig’s long experience in cavalry convinced him that the attack would be effectively carried out by cavalry troops. “27 divisions comprising 750,000 men were deployed in the attack out of which 80% belonged to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). In the other hand, there were only 16 divisions of German Forces” (Simpson, 1991).
However, to the utter surprise of Haig, the advance artillery bombardment failed to destroy the German front line attack. Germans had robustly constructed their concrete bunkers. “The ammunitions used by the British Force proved to be ineffective. Many of the artillery did not explode. Even today, farmers of the Western Front unearth tons of unexploded ammunitions” (Simpson, 1991).
The British troops were often forced back into their trenches by the effectiveness of the German machine gun attack. Despite the heavy casualties on the British side, Haig persisted with the offensive. Haig was convinced that the German troops were exhausted and could give up at any point of time. That belief guided him to maintain the offensive for months. The British attack was strengthened with the inclusion more divisions, tanks and machine guns. French forces attacked the Germans from the other side. “During the attack, the British and the French had gained 12 kilometers of ground. However, the battle resulted in heavy casualties on both the sides. About 420,000 British troops were killed in addition to the French casualties of 200,000. German casualties were estimated at around 500,000” (Strachan, 1998).
Critics blamed Haig for the heavy casualties. He was nicknamed as the “Butcher of Somme” for the large scale death toll. It was believed that the British Forces suffered heavy losses because of the flaw in the tactical moves of Haig. Despite the heavy casualties, the gain from the Battle of Somme was insignificant. Although he was made Field Marshal in 1917, he remained the center of controversies for his action in the Battle of Somme.
Tactical Mistakes made by Haig
The Battle of Somme created dissatisfaction within the British political establishment. British ministers expressed the displeasure because the operations had not come up to their expectations. Douglas Haig had to explain the importance of using heavy artillery at the Battle of the Somme although they yielded little result. One of the major tactical mistakes made by Haig was to underestimate the strength of the enemy force. He allowed British soldiers to move under the cover of heavy artillery bombing. As the artillery bombing failed to destroy the German bunkers and barbed wire fence, British Force suffered heavy casualties. That earned Haig the nickname of “Butcher”. Haig did not realize that he had to face the artillery and machine guns from German troops. His over-confidence of his ability had resulted in heavy loss for the British Force.
When Britain lost 60,000 soldiers in a single day, it was a wake up call for Haig to change his strategy in order to minimize the casualties. However, he continued the offensive despite of heavy losses. Eventually, Britain had to lose about 420,000 soldiers in the Battle of Somme. “Some historians pointed out Haig himself did not witness the horror of the war in the battlefield and therefore, bothered little about the lives of the soldiers” (Simpson, 1991).
There is little doubt that Haig was a great soldier and won many battles for the British Force. Until his death, he remained a popular figure and had been adored even by the ex-servicemen. Whatever happened in the Battle of Somme may have been a tactical mistake by Field Marshal Haig. However, he did not put the lives of his forces in danger intentionally. Although he was called as the “Butcher of Somme”, he must be praised for his lifetime achievement while serving the British Army. It may not be proper to call a person as “Butcher” who was given a state funeral in the presence of about 100,000 people.
- Simpson, K. (1991). The Haig Debate’ in Bond, B. (Ed.). The First World War and British Military History. Oxford University Press.
- Strachan, H. (1998). The Battle of the Somme and British Strategy. Journal of Strategic Studies 21(1).