Field Marshall Haig: Butcher of the Somme?

No-one expected the First World War to last very long. This belief was shared between both sides. The Germans planned to sweep through Belgium and capture Paris. They were thwarted however by the French Army and were pushed back and a front-line was established. This did not change much for the next three years.

In 1916, General Haig formed a plan to break this stalemate and the battle that took place is now known as the Battle of the Somme. Despite plenty of careful planning many losses were sustained by all parties. The Total Allied Forces had 623,907 casualties, 419,654 of them were British, while the Germans lost 465,000 men.

This was a huge number of casualties and historians have debated about General Haig’s role in this. Did General Haig attempt to achieve something at the Battle of the Somme, or was he a butcher who sent thousands of men to their deaths?

One of the arguments against Haig is how much he cared for his men. Source A written by Haig in 1916, just a day before the battle, talks of sacrifice and its importance in war. He warns that ‘the nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists’ and you can’t win a war without ‘the sacrifice of men’s lives’.

At first Haig’s tone indicates that he doesn’t care much for the men fighting the war. However, what he says does make sense. He is only trying to warn the country that sacrifices will be made.

In my opinion General Haig was more worried about the bigger picture and wining the war than the individual lives of his men.

Sources B and C contain contrasting accounts of the first day of the battle.

Source B is written by Haig and he claims that it was a ‘very successful attack’. With hindsight, we know that that first day was one of the worst days in British military history, but at the time, Haig didn’t. He would have been relying on his officers to give him news, and the chances are they were scared to tell him how bad things were. Communication was also very bad in World War One and it is possible that the news was passed on incorrectly.

On the other hand, there is Source C, written by a private soldier after the battle. His account contrasts that of Haig greatly. He describes the horrors of the first day and ‘the dead strung out on the barbed wire’. His story is likely to be more accurate as he was there to see everything, but if he was still bitter about the war he may have exaggerated parts of his story.

However, now that we know what happened at the Somme we know that Source C is much more accurate and therefore more trustworthy.

Sources G and H give David Lloyd George’s opinion on the Battle of the Somme.

Source G is written two months after the start of the battle and it seems Lloyd George is positive about the progress that has been made so far. He has written to congratulate Haig on his work and believes ‘the tide has turned in our favour’

This completely contrasts his opinion twenty years later in Source H. He claims the Battle of the Somme was a failure and that he ‘expressed his doubts’ about the plan at the time. Some historians might argue that Lloyd George had always felt this way, but only revealed his thoughts after Haig had died, probably because he was scared to criticise him during the war.

Source H comes from Lloyd George’s war memoirs and I believe he deliberately changed his opinion to cover up his mistake in supporting the battle. He wouldn’t want to seem foolish in supporting the battle, and now in the 1930’s when the facts had come out and everyone was discussing the failures of the war he would prefer it if the public thought that he had made the correct decisions.

Source D comes from the book called ‘British Butchers and Bunglers of World War’. The first line reads: ‘Haig was stubborn as a donkey and unthinking as a donkey’. The title suggests that this the book is going to be biased against the generals in the war and there is hardly any evaluation of what happened. Because of this, I don’t think this Source is useful to a historian trying to study a balanced argument about the Battle of the Somme.

Source E comes from a German account of the First World War. It is important when studying something to look at both sides of the argument. so Source E should be useful to a historian. Many British accounts say that the Battle of the Somme didn’t achieve much strategically. The account by the Germans talks about the consequences the Battle had on the army’s morale. A German would be better placed to talk about the effects on the country, and this Source provides an opinion from a different viewpoint. Because of this, this source is useful for a historian.

Source F is written by a British general in 1917. It is full of praise for Haig and the way he ran the battle. It’s written during the war and at that time, no-one said anything negative about the war. The fact it’s also written by a fellow general might also give the impression of bias. I feel that the account from the general is too much in Haig’s favour for it to be fully useful.

But was Field Marshall Haig the ‘Butcher of the Somme’ who sacrificed the lives of his men for no good?

Although the Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in history, it wasn’t a complete disaster. People forget that the Allies actually ‘won’ the Battle of the Somme. They succeeded in breaking the stalemate and pushing the Germans back as far as 12km at some points.

Source A gives the impression that General Haig wasn’t too worried about losing men. Although he was looking at the bigger picture, it does seem that he didn’t care for his men.

On the other hand there is Source B. Although many of the facts are incorrect e.g ‘the battle is going very well’, he is happy to learn that the men are in ‘splendid spirits’. This shows that he did care for morale amongst his men and it’s unlikely that he would send them to their deaths for no reason.

Source C questions the tactics from the men in charge. Private George Coppard isn’t trying to say that Haig intended to send so many men to their deaths but is saying the generals are incompetent.

Source D also says that General Haig was incompetent. The writer says that Haig employed an ‘appalling kind of strategy’ when fighting the war. He also claims that General Haig ‘knew he had no chance of a breakthrough but still sent men to their deaths.’ It is important however to remember that this source is quite biased.

Source E argues that the Battle of the Somme was a success for the allies. If any young men were sent to their deaths, they were German.

Source F praises Haig and says he was one of the ‘main architects’ of the Allied victory. Source d says that Haig’s stubbornness let the Allies down, but hear the general says that it was because Haig ‘never wavered’ from his purpose that the Allies were successful.

Source G by the Prime Minister is also in support of General Haig and praises him on the ‘skill with which plans were made’. This contradicts Sources C and D who claim that Haig’s strategy was foolish and negligent.

Source H written by the same person is contradictory to his previous account and claims the whole attack was a failure.

I think it would be silly to say that Haig was a traitor and deliberately sent thousands of men to their deaths. But you could question his tactics.

You could say there were some things that Haig didn’t know. For example, he was not to know that the Germans would be so well entrenched and therefore survive the 7-day assault. This was also a very different type of war to previous ones, and no one had any experience in trench warfare.

My conclusion is that Haig did care for his men in battle but cared more about protecting his country. It would be unfair to call Haig incompetent as this was a completely different kind of war and he did not have any experience in fighting this type of war. Let’s also not forget that he succeeded in his goal of pushing the Germans back. The Battle of the Somme was a tragedy for all involved and therefore Field Marshall Haig was not the Butcher of the Somme.