Failed British Generalship in World War One

General Haig – Failed British Generalship in World War One

Book Review of Denis Winter’s Haig’s Command by Brendan Clifford.[1]

Thirty years ago Alan Clark’s book on the command of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914/15, The Donkeys, caused a bit of a sensation. This biography of Haig is a sort of continuation of Clark’s book. And it would have caused a sensation this year but for the absolute loss of coherence in Britain’s public life which has happened since the early sixties.

I read Clark’s book thirty years ago. In those times I also read books by academic historians. Around 1970 I pretty well stopped reading current academic history, concluding that the art of writing narrative history had been destroyed by the form university life had taken, and that only monstrous footnotes stuck in some tedious ‘methodological’ goo could now be produced in the academic rat race.

But the art of narrative history survived in the military form. I suppose the reason for this is that military historians did not form part of the intelligentsia, usually being military men in the first instance, and were therefore immune to the Marxist malaise which infected British intellectual life, and the liberal malaise which preceded it. Perhaps it also had to do with the nature of the subject. A battle is a very definite event, though a complex one. It has technical, social and theoretical pre-conditions and consequences. Warfare can be scientifically organised up to a point, the point being the moment of battle. In battle the outcome frequently depends on the ability of the commanding general to clear his mind of all he has learned, taking it for granted, so that he can see what is happening and act as if on impulse to take advantage of opportunities which only become generally visible after he has taken advantage of them. More often than not generals commanding in battle only see confusion and they keep going by remembering some rules and applying them arbitrarily.

The battle, then, is a complex but definite event. It usually has a definite immediate outcome. And the way that outcome is handled is a precondition of the next battle.

Much of this can be represented in game form, which is why I consider the war game to be the only useful sociological model.

One of my great weaknesses as a Marxist was a need to understand the part wars played in history as something other than “the continuation of politics by other means”. Dealing with Irish history it seemed more sensible to say that politics was a continuing of war by other means. War was a catastrophic sort of activity that easily got out of hand, and it was as likely to subvert the politics which set it in motion as to be its continuation. But politics must function in the situation which is the outcome of war.

It used to be said that the defeat of the British and French in France in 1940 was the result of moral decay in France and the spirit of appeasement associated with Chamberlain in Britain, on the one hand, and an extraordinary military vigour communicated to the German army by Nazism on the other. That was the first war I ever tried to understand in detail. I was surprised to find I could follow it. And it was crystal clear that this was a pure military event. The well-prepared and superior Allied armies were broken in the field in the course of a fortnight by a new military tactic devised by an element of the German army under pressure of the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. Britain and France were organising their superior force with a view to suffocating Germany at leisure when Guderian punched a hole in the line, poured his forces through it on the instant, and ended the career of the Allied armies by getting behind them. And that was that. On the experience of the 1914 war it was something that was assumed not to be possible. And it is unlikely that it would have been attempted if the prospect for Germany in a conventional slogging match was not so poor.

The long-term outcome was not determined by anything that Britain did in defeat, but by the capacity for mobile warfare developed by the Red Army. Britain’s twenty year war against the French Revolution was a case of “the continuation of politics”, in that a settlement was made at the end of it which corresponded with the declared purpose at the outset. Whether one sees that purpose as good or bad, it took great durability of character to stay with it over twenty years.

In the greatest possible contrast with this, Britain a hundred years later made on Germany and lost itself in the process. In this amazing war the British ruling class did not merely get the working class killed by the hundred thousand: it also threw itself into the furnace.

Britain in 1914/18 resembles a great blundering giant – a kind of Frankenstein monster programmed with high ideals but lacking a feedback mechanism, an apparatus of perception that would enable it to see what it is doing, and therefore wreaking havoc in the world and on itself – a Don Quixote who has been made Commander in Chief and has dismissed Sancho Panza.

Alan Clark’s book begins:

“This is the story of the destruction of an army- the old professional army of the UK that has always won the last battle, whose regiments had fought at Quebec, Corunna, in the Indies, were trained in musketry at Hythe, drilled on the parched earth of Chuddapore, and were machine-gunned , gassed and finally buried in 1915 … Again and again they were called upon to attempt the impossible, and in the end they were all killed. It was as simple as that”.

The Donkeys is chiefly an account of the Battle of Loos in September 1915 in which the old professional army was marched against barbed wire and machine guns to be killed.

“One of the German battalion commanders spoke later of the revolting and nauseating impressions made on them as they watched the slaughter; so much so that after the retreat had begun they ceased to fire. Before them was the ‘Leichenfeld (field of corpses) von Loos’ “(p 160 of the 1967 edition).

There were no German casualties.

Clark describes how the professional army was wasted in 1915. (The mass cannon fodder of the New Armies was wasted on an even grander scale at the Somme nine months later.) And he describes how Sir John French and Douglas Haig rose to the top command much more through their social connections and skills than through military ability.

Denis Winter’s book on Haig also does both of these things, carrying the story right through the war. But it does more than that. It demonstrates how comprehensively the supposed documentary record of events, kept daily by those in command in war and politics and made available to future generations through the Public Record Office, has been doctored.

It became the fashion about twenty years ago to write history from Government and private papers put in the PRO. The way it was done rather put me off that sort of public record. Before I encountered that approach I had already begun to deal with historical events according to a “method” that nobody had taught me- that is, through newspapers, Parliamentary reports, pamphlets, and the major actions of the time, political and military. I could not see that, for the last two hundred years in Britain, private papers in the PRO would be likely to add much to that real public record of events. At best they would supply some footnotes. At worst they would stir up a dust of trivia that would obscure the real public record. And the worst is what they tended to do.

I thought if I had the handling of a group of history students I would put some of them to making summaries of those collections of papers so as to make them more usable, and in the process they might learn to read. Then I saw that these new historians were in fact only overgrown students who had become lecturers. Having to make books for career purposes, and being without experience, they could not take the great sprawl of an actual event as their subject. These collections of papers were ideal material for them. But what they did was much less useful than unpretentious summaries would have been because they felt obliged – perhaps the academic situation is such that they actually were obliged – to indulge in grand theoretical displays using this material as an ingredient.

While I was fairly sure that I was missing nothing vital with regard to British and Irish history by spending little time on private papers, I was certain that when it came to Anglo-German relations the private “public record” was fatal to understanding. For one thing the German state archives have twice in the past eighty years been thrown open to scrutiny by the dedicated enemies of Germany, while the British state archives have remained securely closed. And for another thing the British civil service has been for four hundred years perfecting the art of falsifying the current record kept by the State of its deliberations. The policemen who have recently been caught doctoring their diaries only did what the higher levels of the state have been doing as a matter of course ever since the time of the Cecils. And that doctored record is then carefully weeded before any bits of it are let into the PRO. The German state, on the other hand, seemed to have been naively honest in the way it kept its records.

I’m not saying that the German practice is better than the British. I’m only saying that there is such a great difference in the two ways of keeping the record, and such a massive difference in the way that the two records were made public, that if you hope to gain any realistic sense of what lies behind each you must discount an awful lot of the apparent wickedness revealed by the record of the Kaiser’s Germany and treat the impeccably virtuous record of Asquith’s Britain as a whited sepulchre.

A few years ago a Lord who had been a Brigadier General in 1945 brought a libel action against Nikolai Tolstoy for saying that the forced repatriation of Cossacks across the Iron Curtain for killing was a war-crime. (It was naturally found not to be a war-crime because the Nuremberg procedure laid down that only Germans and Japanese were allowed to be war-criminals.) Aman who had been a company officer at the time gave evidence that his men were sickened by their task of herding Cossacks into trains and sending them off to virtually certain death. He said this in his company report. The report was given back to him for re-writing on specified lines. Under orders he wrote out a pack of lies which then became the official truth. All that was unusual about the incident was that he should not have known to do that in the first place.

Denis Winter’s book is largely about the British “public record” of the Great War, and how the history of the war can only be written despite it For example:

“Checking Haig’s diary .. .! noted a substantial discrepancy between the typed version (invariably used by historians) and the handwritten original. On top of that, entries in both sources were sometimes at odds with contemporary documentation elsewhere. This meant that it was unlikely that all Haig’s entries had been written when they were supposed to have been”. (p 3)

Realistically supposing that it would be pointless to raise this matter of falsification with the official keepers of the truth in Britain, Winter went off and looked at the public record kept in Australia and Canada, both of whom sent armies to fight in the Great War, and used it to monitor what had been done in the way of falsification and destruction of the record in Britain:

“Three conclusions emerged … The first was that Haig had systematically falsified the record of his military career … the second … was that the official record of the war – political as well as military – had been systematically distorted both during the war as propaganda and after it, in the official history … the third was that huge gaps in the war’s documentation remain. Some of the most important in this area include the record of Britain’s preparation for war with Germany which began with the setting up of the Committee of Imperial Defence … a decade or so before the war. A miserably thin fragment of the CID’s papers at the Public Record Office continues to distort our understanding of that crucial institution. Another gap covers political discussion in the Cabinet during the war and the memoranda on which decision was based”. (p 3/4)

A very strange thing happens here. If you look up Committee of Imperial Defence in the Index you are referred to pages 4 and 303. I have just given the page 4 reference. Page 303 is in Appendix I “Sources Used: An Evaluation”. In the copy sent for review by the Publisher page 303 is blank. So I went to a bookshop to have a look at it. The shop had a dozen or so copies in stock and in all of them page 303 was blank. So we phoned the publisher to ask for a copy with writing on page 303. but the person we dealt with could not find such a copy.

Page 302 ends in mid-sentence and page 304 begins in mid-sentence. Finding a blank page between them you naturally assume that there is piece missing and that page 304 does not follow from page 302. But it does.

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation of this, but I can’t imagine what it might be. And there is nothing in the Appendix about the records of the CID before the war.

Thus the most important material of all, the detailed preparations by the state over many years for precisely the military operation which it set in motion on August 4th, 1914, is off the record.

The record of the actual conduct of the war by the generals and the politicians – a thing of much less interest to the world at large – is on the record after a fashion. Winter suggests that many of the orders for battles which are on the record were written after the battle. Monthly reports from fighting units to GHQ were burnt wholesale:

“The last stage in the holocaust came in 1945, when Edmonds began sorting all documents into three files – for the Public Record Office, for valuation in the Cabinet Office and for burning as “of no permanent value”.

The end result was … that any real check on Edmonds’s Official History volumes today is all but impossible. The strongest evidence for this fact is in the thickness of war diaries. The rule here is that the more important the unit, the greater the destruction and the thinner its surviving records. Corps diaries are thus about twice the thickness of army diaries – a preposterous state of affairs”. (p 308)

Edmonds was James Edmonds who served the Committee of Imperial Defence before the war, was commissioned to organise the record at the start of the war and the writing of the Official History after the war, and finally to weed out the documentation.

“Only a profoundly knowledgeable man could have produced an Official History so misleading in detail and yet with a ring of plausibility which led to a general acceptance for so long”. (p 273/4)

And at the political level:

“In September 1917, for example, the Germans offered peace terms so attractive that even Lloyd George hesitated before pressing ahead with the policy of military victory. The Cabinet’s agenda on the 24 and 27 September indicates that the German proposal was discussed, yet minutes on the shelves of the Public Record Office relate only to German air raids. In the same way, Hankey’s handwritten secretarial notes for 28 December 1917, though consecutively numbered, have pages missing. Broken sentences prove as much”. (p 305/6)

Maurice Hankey was secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence before the war, when he drew up plans for putting public administration on a war footing the moment war was launched, and Cabinet Secretary during the war.

Winter’s account of the war itself is no less interesting than his account of how it was recorded. For example, he explains the Battle of the Somme, which I had supposed to be a simple act of insanity. The attack on the Somme was planned as a feint to draw the German reserves down from Flanders, where the real would be launched:

“The Flanders battle … was to start fourteen days after a short-lived diversion on the Somme, hence the meagre scale of preparation for the Somme”. (p 52)

Haig had 15 divisions for the Somme, which was nowhere near enough to cause the Germans to move their reserves from the North. The French offered to put in three times that number:

“Joffre’ s promise of 45 divisions made when the planning began must have seemed promising, and 45 plus 15 might have seemed enough to accomplish what Haig hoped.  Unfortunately … all the indications are that Joffre was never serious about committing a large French force, that his promises were pure deception and that they were made only to get the British fighting on a large scale, somewhere in France”. (p 55)

Joffre gradually reduced the French contribution until it was finally no more than the British, but held Haig to the time-table of July 1st. Thus instead of being a diversionary thrust, the Somme became the main battle for the British Army for the rest of the year, soaking up British resources after the ill-prepared opening, and leaving the Germans ample time to reinforce without moving reserves from Flanders:

“Nevertheless 1 July was a day of two battles. The French in the south gained all their objectives at a cost of 7000 casualties. The British to the north failed to make any significant impression and lost 60,000 men in their failure”. (p 59)

And Winter reckoned that

“the French sent as many troops to the Somme as the British and took on about the same number of German divisions”. (p 66)

The attack continued until November, by which time the British casualties were 161,000 according to Haig and 600,000 according to the War Office estimate, and the French casualties were 181,000.

Among the factors accounting for this difference Winter gives first place to the fact that French artillerymen were trained to aim their guns and the British weren’t. British artillery was under order not to shoot at anything less than 300 yards from their own infantry, which meant that it had to shoot beyond the German front line. French artillery could fire as close as sixty yards to French infantry, and therefore could shepherd the infantry forward behind a creeping barrage. And the French had twice as many guns for a given stretch of front, as well as making ten times better use of them.

There was also a difference in the mode of infantry advance. The British advanced in a series of rigid lines a few yards apart and were mown down by the undamaged line of German machine guns. This was officially laid down in a 1915 manual. Experience taught that in an attack “infantry burns away in this furnace like bundles of straw”, and therefore “to keep them at their duty” they must be made to walk in orderly lines towards the machine guns in the hope that eventually a line of infantry will get there. Winter quotes as follows from the training manual of the 4th Army issued just before the Somme: “the men must learn to obey by instinct without thinking. The whole advance must be carried out as a drill”. (p 61)

Otherwise the attack would break up in chaos.

In earlier times it used to be a British attitude in Ireland or India or Africa that great slaughters enacted there were not nearly as bad as they might seem because those peoples lived in a sort of collective consciousness in which individuals did not greatly mind being killed. On the evidence of the Somme and Passchendaele one is tempted to conclude that it was British culture that induced people not to mind being killed.

The French infantry line, shepherded close to the German line by artillery fire, changed into smaller formations for the final charge.


Neither Wintern or Alan Clark goes in to the reasons why the old professional army in 1915, Kitchener’s Volunteer army in 1916 and the conscript army in 1917/18 were handled so wastefully. It seems to me to hinge on the fact that in 1914 Britain launched itself into an unnecessary war, which was therefore a catastrophic war. It could probably have prevented the war by declaring at the outset of the crisis its intention to declare war on Germany if Germany went to war with France. Or it could have stayed neutral in terms which limited the scope of the war and ensured that it was not endangered by the outcome either in its national existence or in its imperialist dimension realistically conceived. What it did was give grounds for thinking it would stay neutral, and then declared war on Germany “in defence of civilisation”.

Britain in the generation leading up to 1914 was ultra-imperialist. This culminated in the Liberal Imperialism of the Asquith Government. Its culture was intensely militaristic. But its militarism had no basis in necessity. Though immensely stubborn it was also very incompetent, and the political world outlook guiding it was profoundly unrealistic. Therefore we get Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele.

Now that the aberration of the Cold War is out of the way, it is being realised that August 1914 remains the great watershed in modem civilisation, hence the flood of books on the subject in the last few years. The best one by far that I have come across is by another military historian: Corelli Barnet’s The Collapse of British Power which it would be useful to review in a future issue.


This article appeared in November 1992, in Issue 32 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and


[1] Denis Winter: Haig’s Command: A Reassessment. Penguin, 1992, 362pp, £8.99