Douglas Haig and the Newfoundlanders

Published on February 28, 2012
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.