Is General Haig A Butcher? Essay, Research Paper
The Battle of the Somme: Haig was ultimately responsible for the planning and direction of the series of battles known collectively as the Battle of the Somme. Despite his awareness of what had gone wrong at Neuve Chappelle, and again at Loos, and the failure of these battles, Haig still repeated the same principles of attack, although on a vastly greater scale. Yet again, he made no allowance for the failure of the artillery to cut the wire and completely misjudged the capacity of the Germans to survive his artillery bombardments, despite the tremendous bombardments they were still able to fire their machine guns and cause immense carnage on his unprotected men. One important reason why the bombardments were not successful was because about one in three of the British shells failed to explode! Haig was aware of the deficiencies in his ammunition but failed to realise how seriously this affected the effects of the shelling.
The Germans had built a complex system of defence in depth, involving a strongly fortified front line with deep dugouts where the defenders could shelter, safe from all but a direct hit from a very large shell. When the barrage eventually ceased, they were able to emerge and set up machine guns before their attackers could reach them. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, The British soldiers were actually ordered to advance in line abreast into their fire!(9)
The unavoidable result was 61,816 casualties on the first day of the Somme, July the 1st, 1915.(10) and even Terraine admits that there was a great tactical blunder. (11) Yet, on the first day of the battle, Haig was quite unaware of the magnitude of the disaster; Terraine wrote: “What is difficult to grasp, from the vantage of today, is how a disaster of such proportions could fail to be instantly apparent. Yet such was the case. It is perfectly clear from Haig’s Diary that he had no sense whatever, on July 1st, of the catastrophe that had befallen his army.”(12). Even at the end of July 2nd, according to his diary, Haig still believed that the losses had been 40,000 in two days, instead of over 61,000 in one day.(13)
Importantly, in view of what was to happen at Passchendaele, Haig made no allowance for the weather and this deteriorated into rain on July 7th, turning the chalky battlefield into a swamp and the trenches became knee-deep in mud. Despite this, the main assault was planned for the 14th. July. There was an initial success but, because Haig had allowed himself to be persuaded by Joffre that operations should continue as a ‘Battle of Attrition’ to wear down the German forces, the battle then bogged down and dragged on for a further four months.
The ostensible reason for this ‘Battle of Attrition’ was to divert the Germans from Verdun but Brigadier General Marshall did not agree. He considered that Haig “…by self hypnosis, became convinced that the Somme was an open-sesame to final victory. He would cut the German army in two, and do it in one day. He would have the Cavalry Corps under bit and ready to charge through the shell-cratered gap and ‘into the blue’ as proof of his intent to crush the enemy… By February 11 his plan was tentatively set. By late April a great part of Europe knew that the British were organising the Big Push…but by then the German attack on Verdun had slackened. …When General Fritz von Below …reported that he sensed that a great attack was coming, Falkenhayn told him it was a wonderful hope. Having splintered his own army by throwing it against the immovable object (Verdun), Falkenhayn couldn’t imagine that the enemy would be equally stupid.”.(14)
Bean, the Australian historian, like Marshall, was also convinced that Haig never really intended to fight a battle of attrition and originally intended a breakthrough battle. He wrote: “A general who wears down 180,000 of the enemy by expending 400,000 men…has something to answer for(15)” and “Haig failed to break through, and, because he failed, his literary supporters have argued that it was never his main purpose; if that were true – which it is not – the most comprehensible reason for his conduct of the battle would disappear”.(16)
Haig’s losses now numbered hundreds of thousands but he still insisted on continuing the slaughter, despite the rain and the freezing conditions at the beginning of October. Although he was frustrated by the dreadful weather and the stubborn German defences, he still would not abandon the now useless and unwinnable conflict. The battles of the Somme did, indeed, wear down the enemy and cause them immense loss, but the British and Dominion forces, too, suffered horrendous losses, fighting under the most appalling conditions. Marshall wrote that: “…this hideous turmoil must be recorded as the most soulless battle in British annals. The Somme deteriorated into a blood purge rivalling Verdun. It was a battle not so much of attrition as of mutual destruction, and it continued until November 18.” (17)