Haig and The Hundred Days
The Douglas Haig Fellowship Lecture January 2008
When I started to think about the subject of my Fellow's address my first plan was to talk about Haig and the politicians. But I was persuaded by Lord Haig and by Douglas Scott that this year, the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, was the obvious occasion to deal with that great campaign which brought the war to an end – The Hundred Days.
I needed little persuading - Haig And the Politicians can wait for another occasion, but it really is monstrous that the great achievement of the British Army in France and of its Commander-in-Chief during these historic three months is scarcely known in this country let alone celebrated and honoured.
The great victories of the Napoleonic War are still remembered in Trafalgar Day and Waterloo Day and in countless stations and squares. But most people, asked what the phrase 'The Hundred Days' meant to them, would talk about – if anything – the period between Napoleon's return from Elba and the restoration of the Bourbons.
And yet Haig's Hundred Days was a far greater British achievement than the battle that ended Napoleon's hundred days. The British forces that fought under Wellington at Waterloo were only a small part of an international coalition. The British forces that Haig commanded in France in 1918 were far more numerous; and they were the component which contributed most to victory.
I cannot condense the whole history of these three months into the time available to me. I shall attempt rather to pick out some of the themes of the campaign. The key theme is the way these months vindicate Haig. They reveal him as the man we celebrate. He was at last fighting the war the he wanted to fight.
To understand 1918 we have to go back to 1917 and that dreadful but fortunately botched Calais Conference, when Lloyd George as you know tried unsuccessfully to secure Haig's subordination to Nivelle. There were two consequences, one to Haig's advantage, and one to his disadvantage. First, Haig's position was consolidated. He was able to do more or less what he wanted for the rest of 1917.
But the corollary of independence was an even wider gap between the politicians and the military. So Haig entered 1918, this momentous year, without the confidence of the Prime Minister, without his trusted lieutenants, and starved of troops. He knew what 1918 would bring. He was entirely ready for the Kaiserschlacht, and when Ludendorff unleashed that great spring offensive, Haig was as impressive as he had been in the Retreat from Mons. There was never any hint of a weakening of nerve. On the contrary, a magnificent fighting retreat took place.
It was Haig too who appreciated the threat to the allies if Britain and France were separated. Late on the night of 24 March he met Pétain to stress that they must not part. He wasn’t satisfied with the response, and on 26 March he sent a telegram to Henry Wilson, now CIGS, asking him to come out for a meeting. The result was the historic conference at Doullens, the most dramatic of the war-time meetings. As troops fresh from battle marched through the town and shells fell nearby it was Haig who argued there should be a Supreme Commander, in the person of Foch.
Again, it was Haig who recognised the moment when the momentum of the German attack faltered, and because France was further and irretrievably weakened by the thrust of the final German attacks, it was Britain which played the principal part in what followed.
During these last three months, with an army smaller than that of France and even taking account of Belgian and American successes, Britain took 49% of all prisoners captured by the allies and 43% of all guns. It was a British achievement, and by far the greatest victory that Britain has ever won. Foch acknowledged as much: 'Never at any time in history has the British army achieved greater results in an attack than in this unbroken offensive'. Moreover, although Foch was Supreme Commander, in many ways the direction of the campaign was Haig's, and the initiative for it certainly lay in his recognition that there had been a key change.
You can see from the diaries that he sensed this change. The tone becomes increasingly confident and upbeat. And when Haig meets his army commanders on 29 July, his remarks indicate clearly that he has sensed a different character to the war. He was at last able to contemplate the sort of fluid war which had been planned in 1914 but had come to an end with the end of that year.
Amiens unrolled on 8 August in a huge attack in conditions of great secrecy, protected by deceptive ruses. This could have been a Second World War Battle. It did not drag on like earlier battles. Most of the fighting was over by 1.30pm. An advance of almost 8 miles had been completed.
After the battle Churchill and Haig met to discuss munitions for 1919. Haig was more optimistic (and accurate) than even the sanguine Churchill. He told Churchill that 'we ought to do our utmost to get a decision this autumn.’ Churchill said that the General Staff in London did not think that the decisive point of the war would arise until July 1919.
Haig spoke to his army commanders on 22 August in terms which showed how much more aware he was than the General Staff of the changes that had taken place in the enemy: 'To turn the present situation to account, the most resolute offensive is everywhere desirable. Risks which a month ago would have been criminal to incur, ought now to be incurred as a duty.'
The Germans knew what was happening. Ludendorff offered his resignation. Although the Kaiser refused it, he said that 'we have nearly reached the limit of our powers of resistance. The war must be ended.'
So Haig and Ludendorff and the Kaiser were pretty close, but here was Churchill talking of 1919. Henry Wilson was thinking of 1919 or 1920. Lloyd George even spoke of 1922. Even the wonderfully belligerent Foch, as late as 4 September, was still thinking of 1919.
I maintain that Haig was in essence a romantic, a cavalier; and the cavalier was exhilarated by the scent of victory. His vigour and dash in 1918 give the lie to the notion that he was cautious and unimaginative.
They also give the lie to the argument that the war, and the campaign of The Hundred Days, was won by his commanders and not by Haig. It’s a bit much that having been criticised for interfering too much earlier in the war, Haig is criticised for interfering too little at this stage. But he did still intervene, though mainly to prod, stimulate and drive on. Freed from involvement in the detail of the operations of his armies, he was able to function truly as a Commander-in-Chief. His Operations Staff was crucial in phasing the offensives that his armies carried out. Haig had always wanted to devolve command. Until now that had been difficult because of the limited experience of his subordinates. But he was the first to say that they were much better by 1918, and it was devolved command that characterised the Hundred Days.
In just four weeks Haig had brought the army up to the Hindenburg line. He was rolling up the crumbling German armies, rather than attempting flanking operations. Foch watched in admiration, describing him quite simply as 'the greatest general in the world'.
But as Haig now stood facing the Hindenburg line and as his cavalry probed ahead, reconnoitring and harrying, he faced difficulties at home. The Cabinet was fearful. On 1 September Haig received that notorious telegram from Henry Wilson marked 'Personal', highlighting the Cabinet’s fears about the losses that might be incurred in an attack on the Hindenburg line. He replied the same day: 'My Dear Henry, with reference to your wire re casualties in attacking the Hindenburg line – what a wretched lot! And how well they mean to support me! What confidence!'
But even as Wilson's dismal telegram arrived, the advance was continuing. German High Command reacted dramatically by pulling back behind the Canal du Nord and the Hindenburg line itself. Haig said 'The end cannot be far off…’
The pace of movement throughout The Hundred Days is comparable to that of Hitler's Blitzkrieg and the response to the logistical challenge of this new warfare is amazing. Between August and the end of the war the Royal Engineers had to build and install 330 steel bridges for assault river crossings.
The way in which the army fought had been transformed by the tactical changes that had taken place under Haig’s leadership. They were the distillation of 'the learning curve' – the move away from a reliance on the rifle to the multi-weapon use of Lewis guns, machine-guns, trench mortars, hand grenades and rifle grenades. And the new infantry tactics were part of a new, all-arms co-operation that involved a revolutionised application of artillery, together with air support.
Haig presided over the change; he stimulated it, he encouraged it. The new spirit he created permeated the new army that he had created. An interesting feature of The Hundred Days is the way in which a flurry of pamphlets, drawing lessons and giving advice, was issued not just by Maxse’s Inspectorate of Training or GHQ but at Army, Divisional or even lower levels.
But despite the speed of the advance it is important not to let hindsight create an illusion of inevitability about German collapse. The fact that the British forces fought so well in The Hundred Days and won the victory which they did does not mean that they had an easy time. Far from it. Between August and the end of the war Britain suffered 350,000 casualties. The fighting was amongst the most costly of the whole war. The difference was that the army was achieving all of its objectives.
In early September Haig was in England, trying to impress on Milner, the Secretary of State for War, the scale of the prize that was within the army's grasp. Milner told him that he agreed and would do his best to get the Cabinet to respond appropriately. But Milner wasn't Derby. He told Wilson that Haig was 'ridiculously optimistic'. That’s the gap between Haig's vision and the blinkered view of the government and War Office.
It is clear from his diaries that by now Haig was aware that something critical was under way and that 1918, rather than 1919, would be the crucial year. On 1 October he met Byng and Rawlinson and told them that they could now press on without further orders from him. He was no longer talking of wearing-down. Breakthrough had been achieved. The final steps followed swiftly. Turkey signed an armistice on 30 October, Austro-Hungary on 3 November. On 4 November the allied armies made significant advances.
After the war, Haig wrote to Churchill: 'As for criticism of what I did or did not do, no one knows as well as I do how short of the ideal my command was…’ And then he said, as he was so entitled to do, ‘but I do take credit for this, that it was due to the decisions which I took in August and September 1918 that the war ended in November.'
On 8 November the German Armistice Commission train pulled into a siding in the Forest of Compiègne. Foch's carriages already stood nearby. Talks began at 9 am in Foch's office on the train. The armistice conditions were read. Between 7 and 8pm on 10 November the German government communicated that it accepted the conditions. The guns fell silent on the following morning at 11am, French time.
The Hundred Days were at an end. The First World War was at an end. The victories of The Hundred Days ended it and Haig and the British Army won those victories. And yet no one remembers that. No credit is given to Britain and no credit is given to Haig. We owe it to Haig and to the men he commanded that his achievement – their achievement – should be better known.
So my plea today is that we all go out in this 90th anniversary year of the victory of The Hundred Days, telling everyone we meet about the scale and magnificence of that victory. Let's try to ensure that justice is done to this wonderful achievement of the British nation and of the great Field Marshal whose memory we are here to honour.