A Field Marshal on a Field Marshal
The Douglas Haig Fellowship Lecture January 2008
Field Marshal Lord Bramall of Bushfield, KG, GCB, OBE, MC
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel greatly honoured to have been invited to be the Douglas Haig Fellow for 2009 and to address you at this the annual lunch; but the theme I have been given: A Field Marshal on a Field Marshal fills me with great humility because only in our common rank can there be any similarity in our experience, achievements and impact on our country's history.
In the early part of our careers, up to perhaps even Brigadier, (or Brigadier-General in his case), we may have had some similar spells of sustained active service, and experience of warfare of one sort or another; but the Field Marshal always seemed to be playing more significant roles which were marking him down, with the most senior commanders in the British Army, for rapid advancement, achieving major-general at the very young age of 43 - I had to wait another five years! And after that, my command of a division in the Cold War, the British Forces in Hong Kong, Home Commander-in-Chief and, finally, eight years on the Chiefs of Staff - three of them as head of the Army when it was not much more than 200,000 and with but one proper, and then very short conflict, the Falklands – doesn’t begin to compare with the command of a corps, at the First bitter Battle of Ypres, followed progressively by the command of first an army and then five armies and almost two million men, over a sustained period of four years, all leading through his foresight, steadfastness and perseverance to complete victory against a very formidable foe.
Afterwards, of course, the Field Marshal, rightly elevated to an earldom, was for the rest of his life to make an enormous impact on the social structure of this country through the organisation he set up in England and Wales and in Scotland to care for the needs of the returning soldiers who had served him and their country so well to the very end. So my humility has plenty of substance and my assessment of him is made as a student of military history rather than in any sense an equal.
The trouble has always been, for the Field Marshal himself and for all those of us who have so respected him, that in every sense, he was the product of the late Victorian and Edwardian age, in which honour and the defence of the Empire, without counting the cost too much, was all that really mattered. Indeed, it was in itself sufficient reward for those who followed this heroic path. Yet soon he and his contemporaries came to be judged by some very different standards of a very different age in which it was no longer enough just to win. The costs, consequences and the impact on the individual became all-important. So it is right, that from time to time, the record has to be re¬balanced in its proper perspective, something the Field Marshal never himself bothered to do in the less than a decade he lived after The Great War. He kept a dignified silence. This is what I will now endeavour to do, covering ground many of you will know well.
Douglas Haig was, of course, a professional soldier through and through - probably the most professionally qualified in the whole Army - and indeed recognised as such throughout it. He had studied his profession intensely and had carried out important tasks both in command and on the staff on the various rungs of the military structure. Indeed, to the end of his career no military man seriously doubted that he was the best and perhaps the only man to lead the BEF on the Western Front, or one who more deserved the victory when it came. This is a view, I may say, to which the Field Marshal, with his great self-confidence, would, I am sure, have entirely subscribed! Although a very private person, difficult to get close to, he was so very self-assured and self-reliant that he did not really need encouragement and assurance to bolster his morale or to confirm his decisions. He was completely confident of his professional ability and qualifications and, I have not the slightest doubt, believed that Destiny had had a part in bringing him to the role he was about to assume, just as Winston Churchill did in 1940. All this, of course, actually strengthened his hand as a commander and his ability to ride through ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, which were inevitable in so protracted and bloody a conflict.
Douglas Haig, who had done well in the smaller but more flexible and wide-ranging conflict in South Africa, first came to prominence and, under the national microscope as a top battlefield commander when, at the outbreak of war in August 1914, and as a Lieutenant-General, he took the First British Corps to France as part of the BEF, under his old South African War cavalry boss, Sir John French. After the retreat from Mons to the Marne and the bounce back to the Aisne and further north still, his corps held the Germans at the First Battle of Ypres. This battle had started, as Haig thought all battles should start, with an attempted offensive to drive the Germans before them (indeed he tended to judge subordinate commanders almost exclusively on, to use his own phrase, whether they showed ‘a sincere desire to engage the enemy’). But it soon became clear that the enemy were in far greater strength than expected and indeed were at the point of launching, with fresh divisions, a major offensive themselves, designed to separate the British from the French and drive them back to the sea.
The attack when it came was massive and prolonged over a whole month (mid-October - mid-November 1914. The enemy’s artillery support was overwhelming, yet somehow, thanks to the great heroism of the First British Corps units, some of them fighting almost literally to the last man, the line which probably saved the Empire was held. Haig handled all this (as he did his corps’ part in the retreat to the Marne) with cool-headedness, determination and firm control; and he himself was ever under shellfire, for example, once occupying and often visiting the chateau on the Menin Road where two of his divisional commanders were mortally wounded. Indeed, at the critical point in the battle when it looked as if the Germans had indeed broken through before Gheluvelt - a key village on the Menin Road - was miraculously re-captured by a brilliant charge of the Worcestershire Regiment, he mounted his charger and rode down that road towards the enemy to encourage and inspire those still fighting so hard and rally the inevitable stragglers, a device he was to repeat over three years later after the German offensive at Saint Quentin which so nearly captured Amiens, when he issued his memorable Order of the Day (‘backs to the wall’). He had come through his baptism of fire in that new style of warfare which earned him the gratitude of the C-in-C and promotion to full General. After this promotion, first to command of an army and then, in December 1915, to be the British and Dominion Commander-in-Chief, he followed the only path he thought right which was to defeat the enemy.
This was his one and only aim. Throughout 1916-17 he based his strategy to achieve that aim on three golden rules; (a) the war could only be won on the Western Front, (b) it could only be won by attrition, by the side that lasted longest, and (c) the best way to achieve this was by continually attacking the enemy, to wear him down and, if possible, to do this with such speed and to such depth that the cavalry could be released into the enemy’s rear areas, thus forcing him to commit even more of his precious reserves. He was also very ready to come to the assistance of his French allies whenever he could, so that they, too, could play their full part (often a major part), in the attrition of battle.
On the first two he was proved right, although on the third there were doubts, (since increasingly expressed), as to whether prolonged and continuous attacks with deep objectives were the best way of achieving attrition rather than short, sharp attacks followed by consolidation and destruction, by fire, of the inevitable enemy counter attacks. But certainly at the Battle of the Somme, ever on the conscience of the British people, in which the British suffered horrendous casualties, (60,000 on the first day) the Germans suffered even more heavily. And if Haig had a marked tactical weakness, it was his conviction that battle should, and indeed could, still be finally won by the shock action and deep penetration of horsed cavalry - the cavalry charge, if you like. No doubt encouraged by the wide open spaces of South Africa (his most recent war experience) when cavalry did have a free rein (for example, in the capture of Kimberly. And later, of course, military thinkers who were able to substitute tanks and motorised infantry for horse cavalry followed a similar concept very successfully. All these battles, largely offensive against the Germans holding more dominating ground, continued, to varying degrees, because lessons were being learned all the time, to show the strength and weakness of the C-in-C’s strategy, and all contributed (at a price) to the attrition and eventual downfall of the enemy.
But, in the time I have, I want to concentrate mostly on the events of 1918 which, a year earlier than had been intended, but which he himself had predicted, brought the War to an end, and in which Haig’s reputation and right to be recognised as one of this country’s greatest commanders should have been well and truly enhanced and for which he has never really had the full credit he deserves.
As the Commander-in-Chief dressed on the morning of 21 March 1918, immaculately, as always, in boots and breeches, he received the news that the major German offensive on his front, which he had anticipated, had begun, with a massive onslaught forty-three miles wide, the weight of which fell on General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army, on ground recently taken over from the French Army. Its aim was clearly to split the allied front and cut off the BEF from the Channel ports.
In complete contrast, only six days before, he had received the far more welcome and indeed, for him, momentous news that his wife had borne him a son. He was fifty-seven and had almost lost hope of an heir to the ancient title of Laird of Bemersyde. His biographer, Duff Cooper, recounts how Haig, usually a taciturn and undemonstrative man, had embraced the Medical Corps colonel who had been in attendance and to his astonishment had kissed him, like a Frenchman, on both cheeks! And not long ago we happily marked Dawick Haig’s ninetieth birthday. But I digress slightly.
Yet it was desperation as much as anything else that had turned the German Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army, Field Marshal Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff (or Quarter Master General), Ludendorff, away from their shrewd, largely defensive strategy on the Western Front. The vast cost in men and crucial resources which was to result from the March 1918 offensive was really forced on them by the Kaiser’s approval of unrestricted submarine sinking of neutral shipping, together with the madcap scheme, which came to the ears of the Americans, to create a diversion in conjunction with Mexico in the event of that provoking the United States into declaring war, as of course happened. The Germans felt they had to do something before the Americans could arrive in sufficient strength to tip the manpower balance; if they could not win they had, to their mind, lost, having no interest in a negotiated peace, for which they might have been in an advantageous position to achieve.
Haig’s generalship in readiness for the offensive could hardly be faulted. He positioned his reserves in the north, where the front was twenty-five miles from the sea at the nearest point and, anticipating the main German attack in the south, ordered Gough’s Fifth Army to give ground but keep his front intact, while striving to maintain contact with the British Third Army on his left and the French Sixth Army on his right.
Gough, whom I once met when he was as sprightly as ever, was, of course, to be made Lloyd George’s scapegoat for the British casualties sustained and the ground lost, but his withdrawal was in exact accord with the instructions Haig had given him. He handled his divisions like a flexible chain. When it broke, as it often did in places pretty chaotically, he cobbled it together, often using dismounted cavalry or improvised groups of lines of communication troops, to grant Haig time to bring the French to his aid over the ground they had held until recently.
On March 23, Ludendorff, the de facto commander of the German forces in the West, delivered a new attack with fresh divisions in the north of the BEF front at Arras but this brought him little more than crippling casualties. In his sop to public opinion, Lloyd George had insisted that Gough be replaced by General Sir Henry Rawlinson and the Fourth Army staff but by then the worst was over in the south. The BEF, still remarkably effective after four years of war, had fought six gruelling defensive battles between March 21 and April 5, retreating almost to the gates of Amiens.
Ludendorff than swung still further north against Ypres and Hazebrouck, where the BEF fought eight more costly battles. The total bill for March and April was 40,000 dead, 180,000 wounded and 93,000 missing from every part of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. They had had to bear a very heavy burden, but the endurance of the survivors had thwarted the breakthrough on which Ludendorff had so depended.
Foresight, resolve and persistence were earning their reward. Ludendorff conceded the BEF was too much for him, turned on the French and Haig began preparations for his ultimately decisive offensive in August, in concert with Foch, who was now co-¬ordinating the whole allied effort on the Western Front.
This began on August 8, 1918, the day which Ludendorff described as the ‘black day of the German Army’. In this so-called hundred-day offensive, which ultimately brought the Great War to an end, the British Expeditionary Force, including many fine divisions from the Dominions, won under the Field Marshal and his Fourth Army Commander Rawlinson the greatest succession of victories in the history of the British Army. During those hundred days they engaged ninety-nine German divisions, some more than once, and by the Armistice in November had taken 188,700 prisoners, captured 2,840 artillery pieces and defeated the formidable Imperial German Army. No mean achievement. This performance cannot, of course, be seen in isolation. The Germans had themselves prepared the ground for their own defeat. Ludendorff, having exhausted the German Army’s resources with not nearly enough to show for it, now left himself vulnerable to counter attacks over country much more conducive to manoeuvre and exploitation. On the allied side, the Americans, Belgians, Portuguese and, of course, the French Army, nursed back to discipline and full effectiveness by the humanity and leadership of Pétain, all made key contributions.
There was also the part played by the confidence, optimism and determination of Foch, who had been named, at Haig’s insistence, at the crisis meeting at Doullens in March, as General-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in France. It was he who, with Haig, shaped the winning strategy of attacks at different points along the whole front, from the Argonne Forest in the south to Ypres in the north, to be followed by the coup de grâce on September 29, when the BEF, supported by the American First Army, stormed the Hindenburg Line. In the following week the German High Command could only advise the Kaiser to seek an armistice.
And here it is important to dismiss the myth of the German Army being ‘stabbed in the back’ by failure of its manufacturing base and supply organisation. In March and April 1918 irreparable damage had been inflicted on it by first the blunting and then the halting of Ludendorff’s offensive in Picardy and Flanders which had denied it an opportunity to divide the BEF from the French; but much of the German Army was still fighting in that autumn with all the tactical skill and tenacity that characterised the German soldier in both World Wars. But by November 1918 there was no doubt the enemy was being defeated in the field. As Haig put it, they were capable neither of accepting nor refusing battle.
Although Haig himself was by nature very much an orthodox soldier not prone to risky flights of imagination, his victory had, in fact, been the product of a steep learning curve under him from December 1916 after the Somme that had raised his British and Dominion divisions to the tactical and technical cutting edge of the Allied Armies on the Western Front. It could be seen in the re-organisation of infantry platoons and in small unit tactics, using new infantry weapons; in the greater use of wireless, motor machine gun units, armoured cars and of aircraft in the ground attack role, disrupting enemy troop concentrations and movements ahead of any advance, the forerunner of the Blitzkrieg. In particular, tanks were used tactically in co-operation with the infantry as well as in mass for the initial shock action, while ‘silent registration’ by the artillery, obviating the need for compromising preliminary bombardments, and new fire control techniques, now allowed creeping barrages of great weight and accuracy to lead the infantry and now tanks right on to the very edge of their objectives. Even the maligned staff officers made a vital contribution. Sustaining an army of nearly two million men in the field was a colossal commitment, not least in the final weeks of the war when Haig’s divisions were almost constantly on the move.
Even if Haig and his army commanders may never escape entirely criticism for the mistakes, technical and tactical, and horrendous casualties of 1916 and 1917, mirrored, I may say, by the Germans, they do deserve full credit for the successes they achieved in 1918. While Haig himself, having displayed the character and fortitude needed to bear the burden of Commander-in-Chief over three-and-a-half hard-fought years, had been proved right in his unswerving conviction that the war could be won only on the Western Front and by the side which sustained the pressure and lasted the longest.
And just ponder for a moment what a burden it was: the strategic and tactical problems, the ghastly casualties, battle after battle, because deep down, as revealed after the war, he was not by any means an insensitive man; dealing with allies of whom he had to take full account; and then the ‘frocks’, or politicians, who naturally saw everything rather differently, ever breathing down his neck, and some seeking to remove him. It was all there, combined with perplexing and contradictory intelligence; intricate negotiations and difficult personal relations, all weaving a web of heavy and persistent anxiety. And the Field Marshal bore it all with detached and majestic equanimity, never complaining, never departing from his convictions, never courting popularity or losing heart, just continuing to apply himself with all vigour to the task he had set himself. And never, and this was remarkable over such a prolonged and dangerous period, losing the support of his soldiers, which had never wavered. In all this he displayed personal character, fortitude and determination of the very highest order.
Essentially, the Allied victory was won by the prolonged and persistent courage and endurance of the soldiers from Britain, France, Belgium, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland (then, still, independent of Canada), India, Portugal and South Africa and the United States. And the greatest disservice that we can do to all their memories nearly a century on is to allow their final victory to be submerged by endless recriminations, to forget that in 1918 they, Haig and his army, actually achieved what they had been fighting for, and fail to acknowledge the part that not only their endurance and courage but also the foresight, steadfastness and increasingly professional skill of Haig and his senior commanders had played in that victory, in itself quite enough, I would say, particularly when you take into account the size of the command and the length of the tenure, to put the Field Marshal in the very top flight of British military commanders over the last three hundred years.Certainly, none would deny that his character both as a soldier and a loyal subject of his King and Country still remains today a strong example to us all.
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An Extract from The Times Obituary of 31 January 1928 :
Haig: Master of the Field
The greatest soldier that the Empire possessed has passed away suddenly, while still in the fullness of his powers. Lord Haig not only shouldered the heaviest burden that any Briton has ever borne, but, when the war was over, and with the same foresight that distinguished him in his campaigns, he took up a task which probably no other could have accomplished, and devoted all of his time and energy to the service of his old comrades in the field.
The British Legion is essentially the work of one man, Haig. It is a work carried through in the face of no little doubt and suspicion in its early days, when partisans still feared that a single organisation of ex-Service men under the lead of a single soldier might have curious political consequences. That the work of demobilisation, and after that the yet vaster work of absorption of the discharged millions of the Army, went through without active civil commotion is very largely due to the work that Haig did in 1919 and 1920 in giving the ex-Servicemen an object to work for; and thereafter, when the Legion had been formed, in directing its activities into right and worthy channels.