Douglas Haig and the Newfoundlanders

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Ed Roberts

Historical reputations come and go like the seasons, and almost as predictably.

Shakespeare described men "seeking the bubble reputation" in As You Like It. A century earlier, the French essayist Montaigne — in French, of course — marvelled at "how many valiant men have we seen survive their own reputation!"

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with the reputations of statesmen and soldiers, and nowhere more strikingly than in the way the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment viewed Douglas Haig, the man who led them during the Battle of the Somme and throughout the final years of the First World War.

Haig was a professional soldier who rose steadily through the ranks of the British Army. He commanded an army corps during the first months of the war, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) — the "Old Contemptibles" — were pushed back by the Germans through Belgium and into northern France.

He became commander-in-chief of the BEF in December 1915, when Prime Minister Asquith and Lord Kitchener, the secretary for war, fired Sir John French. David Lloyd George became prime minister a year later. He argued strenuously against Haig's strategy and tactics, but nonetheless did not replace him, and Haig commanded the British Army in Europe for the rest of the War.

A cheering crowd of 10,000 met him when he returned home in December 1918. King George V made him an Earl — a high rank in the peerage. Both Houses of Parliament thanked him formally, and voted to give him £100,000 — a very large fortune indeed in 1918.

Unequal to his task

But the tide soon turned. Winston Churchill censured Haig in the World Crisis, his history of the war. Lloyd George was even more critical in his war memoirs, describing Haig as "intellectually and temperamentally unequal to his task" and "second-rate."

Churchill published his opinion during Haig's lifetime, but Lloyd George's account of the war was not published until 1936, 10 years after Haig's death. He told his private secretary that "he intended to blow [Haig's] ashes to smithereens," adding that "unfortunately, he could not get at [him] personally."

As the years passed, many, if not most, military historians treated Haig's leadership harshly, and condemned his conduct in the war. He was frequently called "the Butcher of the Somme."

But Lloyd George, too, had cause to recognize that an historical reputation is only a bubble. In November 1918, he was hailed throughout Britain and the Empire as "the Man who Won the War." He quickly called a general election, and was returned to office with an overwhelming majority.

His downfall was just as spectacular. By 1922, his parliamentary and political supporters had turned on him and forced him to resign as prime minister. Although he remained a Member of the House of Commons until shortly before his death in 1945, he never again held office. His political legacy was the destruction of the Liberal party that brought him to cabinet office in the first place, and his place in history was irrevocably tarnished by the failure of the Treaty of Versailles, the post-war settlement he helped to bring about.

Heralded by regiment

Newfoundlanders — and particularly the men who wore the regiment's caribou badge during the Great War — had a very different opinion of Haig. They remembered the men who attacked at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, the first day of Haig's plan for "the Big Push" on the Somme.

The Newfoundlanders were sent forward in an attack that had no hope of success and would have changed nothing even if it had succeeded. That Beaumont Hamel was a military folly does nothing to diminish the courage and gallantry with which they fought that morning. They were the men whose comrades had died at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917, when the Newfoundlanders were ordered forward in an ill-planned assault on the German front line; their losses that morning were second only to those at Beaumont Hamel.

If any group of men anywhere in the British Empire had reason to dislike or even to despise Douglas Haig, their commander-in-chief, surely it was the Newfoundlanders.

And yet they did not. The irrefutable proof came long after the end of the war, when the regiment had been stood down and its members had returned to civilian life. They staged two great ceremonial events to honour those who fought and particularly those who died.

On July 1, 1924, the eighth anniversary of Beaumont Hamel, the National War Memorial in St. John's was unveiled. Less than a year later, on June 7, 1925, the Caribou Memorial at Beaumont Hamel was dedicated officially.

The regiment's soldiers, through the Great War Veterans' Association, were the driving force behind the memorials and both events. They invited Earl Haig to be the principal figure in each ceremony, and unveil each of the memorials. He did so.

The men who fought under his leadership gave the strongest possible testimony of the great esteem in which they held him. No greater tribute could ever be paid to him. And the Bennett Brewery's Haig Ale became a favourite tipple of many Newfoundlanders.

Only realistic way

History and historians have been much kinder to Haig than to Lloyd George. Indeed, for Haig, the tide has come in; most recent studies of the Somme Battle and the balance of the war on the Western Front, have endorsed his conduct of it, while still taking into account his acknowledged failings.

Peter Hart, a director at the Imperial War Museum in London, summed it up in a short sentence in his study The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (2008): "Haig's way was excruciatingly painful but it was the only realistic way at the time."

The men of the Newfoundland Regiment were right. William Philpott, another leading British military historian, concluded his Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme on the Making of the Twentieth Century (2009) by recalling that General Erich Ludendorff, the German commander-in-chief, acknowledged that the Battle of the Somme "was the military turning-point of the war."

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

Organizations: British Army, House of Commons, British Empire Imperial War Museum in London

Geographic location: Somme, Belgium, Northern France Europe Britain Monchy-le-Preux St. John's Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Mark Bristow
    January 17, 2015 - 05:45

    For a nuanced, historical assesment of the Somme campaign see:

  • Don II
    March 16, 2012 - 14:53

    What utter nonsense! Haig was a product of his times when devotion to King and Country trumped common sense and compassion for humanity. The enemy was to be defeated at all costs.Haig was not a military tactician and as a consequence he was more than prepared to send other peoples sons to their deaths to accomplish his goals! The Newfoundland Regiment was ordered to attack by crossing open ground against well entrenched and high powered German machine guns. Regrettably, the Newfoundlanders were too naive and indoctrinated in the British system to refuse such a suicidal and immoral order. The battle of Beaumont Hamel and the senseless loss of life or the men of the Newfoundland Regiment has been romanticized and made the subject of myth in order to mitigate and justify that carnage. The men who died on July 1, 1916 were sacrificed and slain without any real reason. Any Officer who would permit his soldiers to wear a metal triangle on their back packs which reflected the suns rays and allowed the German gunners any easy target every time a wounded Newfoundlander moved was clearly incompetent! The Officers who did not have the courage to resist or refuse the order to go over the top on July 1, 1916 bore the responsibility for the senseless massacre of their men in a futile, ill conceived and useless attack against dug in and heavily armed German resistance. Many questions about the battle of July 1, 1916 have been ignored and gone unanswered in favor of covering up the stupidity displayed by the Officers of the Newfoundland Regiment and the British Army on July 1, 1916 and throughout the battle of the Somme. Without a doubt, considering the number of British and Newfoundland soldiers who were needlessly killed as a result of his orders General Haig was deserving of his nickname "Butcher Haig"!

    • Dafyyd Mac
      July 02, 2016 - 20:16

      Sorry, Don, but you're dead wrong. Haig was not incompetent by a long shot. He was an experienced career soldier, who had seen service throughout his career in the British Army and was nothing like he was depicted in Blackadder or "Oh What a Lovely War". He was indeed a military tactician, and a good one, which is why he was selected to replace Sir John French, who had almost led the Old Contemptibles to utter defeat after Mons. Haig saved the BEF and wanted to save it again, because he knew a static front line would mean more lives lost. The Somme plan was a sound one, but the German attack at Verdun meant it had to be moved up a month sooner than Haig would have liked. The French were suffering at Verdun and needed to be relieved if they were to survive, and moving the Somme offensive from August to July was the only way this could be done. It meant Haig did not have the time he needed to properly train Kitchener's Army, and despite the horrible losses, Verdun was relieved. But it also served a secondary purpose; it drained General Falkenhayn's reserves which were already suffering from Verdun. Falkenhayn was determined to use his men to smash through Verdun and then the British lines all the way to Paris. Verdun, and the Somme Offensive prevented this, and in fact put the Germans on the losing foot for the rest of the war, though no one knew it at the time. But back to Douglas Haig. He wasn't incompetent, and he didn't despise technological advances. That he said only "two machine guns" per battalion should be enough has been refuted as a myth. He liked the machine gun, having seen Maxim guns in action in Sudan. He also was enthusiastic about developing tank warfare and air warfare, but could never get the amount he needed of either. He wasn't a micromanager, trusting the expertise of his subordinates in matters he admitted he did not know as much of as he would like, artillery for instance. While he was wary of colonial troops from Newfoundland, Canada, and Australia, he soon came to admire them and trust them implicitly, as he did all his men. He wrote to his wife he felt saddened when he watched them march past on their way to battle, but could not help but admire them. That admiration went on long after the war when he established the Haig fund, not out of guilt, but out of concern for them, and rage at the government of Lloyd George for abandoning them so heartlessly. He was, in return, deeply admired by his men, all of them, none of whom would appreciate the accusation of naivete that you just leveled at them. The attacks on his character have been largely refuted. His detractors have been struck down, even Winston Churchill thinking kinder of him in later years. Scholars, such as Dennis Winter, who made their name lambasting him, have been forced to admit they based their opinions on hearsay, rumours and popular opinion, by noted and and reputable scholars, historians and researchers such as John Terraine, Robin Prior, Correlli Barnett, John Hussey and Dr. Jeffrey Grey of the University of New South Wales. Haig's depictions in popular media are likewise inaccurate, and are based on those same rumours, innuendo and hearsay, but any real study of Haig, any real research would reveal a man faced with an impossible task, to fight the first major industrial war in Europe, a war where pieces of hot metal flew across the mud at men who wore little more than thick cloth to protect themselves. The stage was already set for tremendous casualties, and Haig was well aware those men were and always would be his responsibility. I'm glad he's being vindicated. I'm glad the truth is being told. I'm glad opinions like mine are no longer "sympathy for the devil."