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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 13:28 GMT


Earl Haig: Villainous victor?

The statue of Field Marshal Haig at Whitehall

The son of Field Marshal Earl Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) in World War I, has come to his father's defence as debate rages over his deserved place in history.

World War 1:Special Section

Earl Haig says his father should be remembered as one of the great figures of the 20th century. "It is high time that my father was given credit for the job he did and the victories he achieved," he said.

However, many historians believe Haig was a callous leader who should bear the responsibility of dispatching hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths on the Western Front. He also stands accused of being a "Chateau-General" who lived in luxury a safe distance from the front line.

On his victorious return home in 1918, Haig was awarded the Order of Merit, given 100,000 and made the first Earl of Bemersyde.

A statue of him on horseback has held pride of place on Whitehall since 1937. His critics say it is time for it to be replaced with a memorial to the soldiers lost in his campaigns.

The Western Front

When World War I broke out Haig commanded the British Ist Corps as part of the BEF and became commander in chief of the BEF in 1915.

[ image:  ]
As the war became bogged down in the trenches he oversaw the terrible battles of the Somme which cost more than 400,000 casualties and the campaign in Passchendaele which claimed another 230,000 lives.

His tactics finally won out in the last 100 days of battle, when the BEF engaged and defeated 99 of the 197 German divisions in the West capturing 188,700 prisoners.


Haig's approach to trench warfare followed a similar pattern throughout the war. His campaigns always started with heavy artillery bombardment to destroy the German barbed wire in front of their trenches, followed up by a massed infantry attack over No Mans land.

[ image:  ]
The bombardment was designed to kill or demoralise the machine-gun armed German front line and allow Haig's men to cross safely to the trenches before they were exposed to deadly fire.

However, often the artillery did not cut the wire and disable the German artillery at the front. The result was that swarms of British troops went over the top into a hail of German machine-gun fire.

The military historian Alan Clark has described Douglas Haig's strategy as blinkered. He claims that the military leader should bear a heavy and perhaps unforgivable responsibility for the British slaughter and calls into question the Commander's judgement and humanity.

Earl Haig, who says he has received "hate mail" because of his father's reputation, says te perception that British troops were "lions led by donkeys" is extremely hurtful.

He says his father has never been given the credit he deserved for the victories he achieved in 1918, which ended the war.

The Earl says he believed historians were coming to the view that "it had to be fought out".

"My father and the other commanders did not start the war and they faced so many problems. My father was doing his best."

In his own final despatch Field Marshal Haig said that the victory of 1918 could only be understood if "... the long succession of battles which commenced on the Somme in 1916... are viewed as forming one great and continuous engagement."

Chateau General?

Haig has also been criticised for being a distant leader who was stern and unapproachable even to his own officers. Historians claim that Haig did not share the suffering and deprivations of his troops who endured a miserable existence in the rat-infested trenches.

In turn his supporters say that little is known about the problems he faced in France between 1914 and 1918. They say that Haig's hands were tied by coalition warfare and that lead by him his men became familiar with a chemical warfare, aerial and armoured weapons technologies.

Above all his advocates say that he maintained the faith and loyalty of his subordinates throughout the harshest of battles.

Earl Haig says: "He is portrayed as this callous man. He was the most humane man. He did his best."

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