How Far was Haig responsible for the failings of the British War effort on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917

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On the 10th December 1915 a new commander of the British Army was appointed, Field Marshall Haig. He went on to command the British army for the rest of the war that earned him a reputation for throwing many thousands of young soldiers into battle to die a pointless death. There are two views on this, the accepted view, which states Haig was responsible for everything and the revisionist view, which gives more balance to the argument, this says Haig bears some of the blame but he alone can not take all the blame.

Both views are easy to support as there is evidence either way and so it is hard to come to a conclusion as to how much responsibility for the failings Haig should carry. For example Lloyd George had to chance to remove to remove Haig at any point so should he not share the blame? However Haig is often criticised for his lack of imagination and poor tactics. Haig was appointed Field Marshall to replace John French because he was deemed to be a failure. Haig was 54 and had enjoyed a successful army career so far.

He had been a cavalry commander in the Boer War which had taken place fifteen years earlier where he had lots of success but against poorly equipped South Africans. Haig inherited an extremely poor situation. The Western Front was at a stalemate with both sides suffering heavy losses because of the trench warfare which had arisen after the Germans’ Schlieffen Plan had failed. The war had turned into a war of attrition with both sides just sending men to attack the other sides’ trenches then retreating meaning no one gained or lost land but huge casualties were endured by both sides.

Haig was accepted by most to be the best man for the job. He had no experience in trench warfare, but no one did, the trench warfare system was new to everyone. At his previous battles against South Africa he had fought on open plains – completely different to the muddy mess he had inherited on the Western Front. He was a specialist cavalry commander but cavalry had become almost obsolete with the advances in more powerful weaponry making his skills as a cavalry commander practically useless.

Haig is known to have said that the machine gun was a much overrated weapon in 1915, after the Germans had already used it in the war to cause destruction against the British, which proves he hadn’t taken notice of the battlefield. After the war Haig was given the title ‘Butcher of the Somme’ because of the large loss of life that happened there. In the last week of June 1916 1. 7 million shells were launched from 1500 guns at the Germans front line to devastate the German defences, giving the Germans plenty of time to prepare for the coming battle.

Two mines were detonated under German defences at 7:00 and at 7:30 on July 1st as 750,000 men on the Somme front were sent over the top. Despite the bombardment the German defences and barbed wire were in relatively good condition. The Brits advanced at walking pace, as ordered, and were massacred. The French however made quick gains as they were not weighed down by heavy packs but had to retreat as they found themselves isolated from the British. The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest day in British military history with 57,000 casualties with a 1/3 of these killed.

But was Haig to blame for the chaos? Some historians and many of the soldiers on the front instantly blamed Haig. Haig’s tactics are often criticised. He launched the shells to try and cut the Germans barbed wire. But what it actually did was to just throw the barbed wire up in the air and get it in an even bigger twist. This proved very costly to the British army because where the wire had been cut they would all have to rush that point where the Germans would just kill them with the machine guns.

Haig also launched the shells to try and destroy German dugouts despite him knowing that the Germans dugouts were reinforced and easily took the battering from Haig’s shells. The bombardment also gave the Germans a perfect warning for the coming battle. Haig told all troops to advance at walking pace. There is no reason why he should tell his men to do this, apart from because he thought all the Germans were dead which is a stupid way of thinking, this just made them very vulnerable to German attacks.

The men were also carrying very heavy packs, containing trench repair kits, so when the British easily took the first line of trenches they could be repaired and used against the German counter attack, but these packs just slowed down the British advance making them easy targets. Haig still hadn’t realised the uselessness of cavalry in modern warfare. The cavalry were supposed to break through gaps in the German line but were just mowed down by the Germans. Haig refused to move from the tactics which were successful in earlier wars into more advanced tactics.

He considered the machine gun overrated and still believed that grit and determination were the main ways to win, not firepower. He just sent wave after wave of troops over the top to their death despite constant failings. Haig was very inflexible, he refused to change his tactics, and this led to several thousand needless deaths. After the first day of slaughter Rawlinson, Haig’s assistant, recommended the attack be called off but Haig refused and used the same tactics yet again on the second day. Haig was also very inflexible on his views of the German Army.

He constantly felt that it was on the verge of defeat and ‘one more push’ would finish it off. Haig was often criticised for not visiting the front line, which he rarely did. He would never know the real horrors of what was going on. However many others believe Haig was not entirely to blame for the mass losses at the Somme. Some argue there are many things that couldn’t have been predicted about the battle which contributed to it being a disaster. The shells which were bombarding the Germans were of a poor quality. Haig could not have known this in advance.

The plans which were made for the attack were primarily not his, they were devised by the French and he inherited them. He would have preferred an attack further north. The Germans were also very good tacticians. They targeted the officers in the field first, leaving the soldiers confused, Haig could do nothing about this. Haig had no other choice but to launch the attack as the French army was on the verge of defeat at Verdun. For five months the Germans had been attacking Verdun, a small town held by the French, where both sides were taking heavy losses and the French were on the verge of collapse.

Haig had no other choice but to launch the Somme, if the French were defeated and with the Russians looking like they would withdraw, the British would have been alone to fight the Germans. Haig was also given poor intelligence about the Germans, including the information the German army was on the verge of defeat, if Haig had known this information to be false he might not have gone for the massive attack he had planned as he hoped to wipe out the Germans. Despite the large number of failings at the Somme there were many positives to come out of the battle.

Some of the failings could also have been blamed on the messengers which Haig had. They wouldn’t have dared to tell the full truth because of Haig’s rational character in fear of losing their jobs. The tank was used for the first time here. Haig got to test them out in the field and discover their real strengths and weaknesses. New tactics for defeating the Germans were developed. The British learnt to gather more intelligence first so the aeroplane started to be used more. Haig also realised that he must be more flexible in the field.

The field officers that were considered to be inflexible were removed and were replaced by flexible commanders. But would these new tactics be used by Haig in other major battles? The next major battle for Haig was Passchendaele. This is what Haig had wanted for a long time, an attack in Flanders. The battle began at 03:50, in darkness as apposed to the Somme were he attacked in daylight, on the 31st July 1917 but since the 18th July, as usual, a heavy preliminary bombardment had been pounding the German defences, giving the Germans full awareness an attack was coming.

The Allies initially made small gains but any further gains became almost impossible with extremely heavy rains turning the battlefield into a muddy swamp. The bombardment, which Haig ordered, had destroyed the drainage system. Haig still pressed on but was unable to launch any major offensives until 16 August which saw the British make small gains but take heavy casualties. Haig replaced Gough, a British commander, as he was unsatisfied with his progress and replaced him with Plumer who made big gains but from then on the British made little gains.

Haig refused to accept failure and pressed on with three assaults eventually capturing the village on 6th November, claiming success. The British took 310,000 casualties and the Germans 260,000. With huge casualties like this Passchendaele seemed to have become just like the Somme. Some argue Haig yet again had sent huge numbers of soldiers to their death for relatively small gains and he did it again and again throughout this battle. He had yet again began his attack with a bombardment losing the element of surprise, just as they had at the Somme with disastrous consequences, and there was similar loss of life at Passchendaele.

Once again Haig had failed to plan in case the bombardment was not as successful as it was intended to have been. Recently Ludendorff, German commander, had made changes to the way that the Germans fought on the Western front, he had decided to leave as few men as possible in the forward trenches, to avoid bombardment, and then to counter attack the British with fresh men supported by large firepower. Haig knew about this plan because of prisoners but didn’t change his tactics.

The British had a very good chance to capture the Gheluvelt plateau after several successful gains and Plumer asked for a 3 day halt to the attack to move his artillery into place but Haig refused to wait this long as he believed it would allow the Germans to recover and bring in reinforcements instead he appointed Gough but to transport Gough’s army to the plateau was going to take longer than 3 days anyway, proving Haig did not always think things through clearly. Haig also had full knowledge of the drainage system which was in the area he was bombarding but bombed it anyway, with disastrous consequences.

Haig believed before the battle as well as all the way through the battle that the German army was on the verge of defeat and this is what inspired him to keep attacking. Others argue Haig did eventually capture Passchendaele, proving him a success. The Battle of Passchendaele’s failings could not all be his fault. No one could have predicted such heavy rainfall on the days of the attack Haig’s tactics are wrongly criticised as he did only what everyone else would have done as no one understood how to win trench warfare.

Haig tried to use technology effectively but failed with the tanks just getting stuck in the mud which the rain brought. When attacking Passchendaele Haig had no other choices but to attack as he did, therefore the losses were inevitable. Haig did show improvement over the Somme, there were fewer losses at Passchendaele and Haig didn’t rely as heavily on cavalry at Passchendaele. He also introduced new tactics such as the creeping barrage this is when the artillery is timed to fire just in front of the soldiers marching creating a smokescreen and destroying trenches.

He was also more flexible at Passchendaele compared to the Somme. He switched commanders during the battle and also postponed some attacks until a later date because of how things were going. There are questions about whether Haig used technology to its full extent. He used horses for cavalry at the Somme and other battles but learnt they were useless in modern warfare and from then on just used them as transport as they were the best option. Haig also used dogs and pigeons to send messages.

These were effective and relatively fast ways of transporting messages. They were more reliable than the telephone lines which were just destroyed by shells and were more reliable than the newly developed radio. Although the Germans were first to use gas to attack their enemies Haig used it effectively and also issued good gas masks for his troops. But there were still problems with gas. If you used gas and the wind changed the gas would come blowing back in your face.

Haig tried to use the tank well but the tank let him down. Tanks were slow and very prone to breaking down and after the initial battle of the Somme they were practically useless as Germans developed anti-tank ditches. Haig also tried to use the machine gun effectively but the Allies were fighting an attacking war and the machine gun was most effective when defending positions, such as Passchendaele. With such limits in technology this could be the reason why there was such a big loss of life.

On top of all this Haig wasn’t the only person who could have been blamed. There are several other people who could be blamed for Haig’s failings in 1916 and 1917. The politicians could share quite a lot of the blame, they were responsible for the start of the war and are ultimately answer for all the deaths that happened in the war, including Haig’s losses and they appointed Haig in the first place. It was Prime Minister Asquith who was prime minister at the time, but he lost his job because he was not energetic enough.

Lloyd George took over as he said he would be more energetic in the war. This means that he would have had to have put pressure on Haig to be more vigorous in the war, and the only way to do this would be to attack. Haig would be forced to do as Lloyd George says in fear of his job. There are also other commanders which could be blamed, Haig’s partner, General Sir William Robertson, did not do anything to stop Haig and also helped Haig with a lot of strategies so he should get some blame.

General Joseph Joffre should also share some of the blame. He was commander of the whole of the Western Front, Haig was answerable to him so surely he should share some of the blame. Although Haig should be given some of the blame for his obvious lack of imagination and variety in his battle tactics, he should not be given full blame. There has been no alternatives suggested to Haig’s plans which would have been guaranteed to work or to lose any less men. I think Haig’s reputation came about because of the government.

The people of Britain would have been very angry with the government because nearly everyone knew someone who died in the war so to keep in power the government must have needed to pass the blame to someone else, who happened to be Haig as he would be easiest to blame as he was the army commander. Overall I feel that Haig played a part in the failings of the Western Front but the role he played in them was exaggerated by the government in an attempt to shift the blame.

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