Last month’s meeting of the Western Front Association welcomed Professor Emeritus John Derry speaking about Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
While not a good conversationalist, Haig was very good with the written word and he proved to be a very professional, competent soldier.
He was soon identified as someone of potential, which was realised under Richard Haldane’s 1906-1909 Army reforms.
Haig then became Chief of Staff in India where the reform of its Army was badly needed. He also applied his mind to the sending of a contingent from India to Europe.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Haig was in command of the First Corps of the British Expeditionary Force.
Sir John French, in overall command, is generally now seen as having been out of his depth and was replaced by Haig in 1915.
As the Army in France grew rapidly, Haig realised that it was little more than a ‘collection of divisions’ rather than a cohesive Army. It needed time to become ready for battle but Haig was forced to attack on the Somme in July 1916 in order to take some pressure off the French at Verdun. Without the British attack, the French Army was likely to have collapsed.
Despite the tremendous pressures of his post, Haig continued, in his professional way, to lead the British Army on the Western Front and under his leadership it became widely acknowledged as the most effective and efficient army in the west.
John then spoke about the accusation that Haig showed a lack of feeling and pity when considering death sentences. He believes this is an unfair accusation that fails to look at the facts – 86 per cent of those sentenced to death were reprieved by Haig.
The evidence is that he applied the policy of clemency whenever he could. Of those who were actually executed, some had already been reprieved previously and some were murderers.
Lloyd George’s criticism of Haig was dismissed as being undeserved and reflecting a self-interest theme.
John concluded that Haig, while not comparable to Marlborough or Wellington, was the best soldier Britain had at the time to undertake a very difficult task. His men respected and admired him; this was confirmed by the very large numbers who turned out for his funeral.
The WFA’s next formal meeting will be on Monday, April 28, with Dr Dan Jackson’s talk The Martial Traditions of the North East of England: Understanding the rush to the Colours in 1914.
WFA meetings take place at 7.15pm (for 7.30pm) at Alnmouth and District Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth.
A warm welcome awaits visitors and WFA members new to the branch. The suggested minimum donation is £2, to include a light finger supper.