The negative reputation of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces on the Western Front during World War One, rests to a large degree on his performance at the Somme. Indeed, the bloodshed of the summer of 1916 has more or less been roundly laid at his door. But is the blame justified?
The offensive on the Somme was initially conceived as part of a wider strategy to wear down the German Army by attacking it on all fronts in 1916. The French took the lead in planning the offensive on the Western Front and Haig played second fiddle to commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre.
The Somme was not Haig’s favoured battleground. He would have preferred to launch an attack in Flanders, where the terrain was better and the objectives of greater strategic value.
By the summer of 1916, the German attack at Verdun had left the French unable to commit forces on the scale they had envisioned. The result was an under-resourced attack in an unfavourable location of little to no strategic value.
The first day
It is well-known that, by the end of the first day of fighting on the Somme, few objectives had been secured while 19,000 British soldiers were dead. The scale of loss suffered in the first attacks can be attributed to the failure of the Allied artillery to neutralise German defences.
Like the British Army at large, the artillery was on a steep learning curve. Many of the shells fired during the week-long preparatory bombardment were duds. Of those that did explode, too many were shrapnel shells rather than high explosive, which made little impression on barbed wire and reinforced dug outs.
Haig had been convinced of the efficacy of the preparatory bombardment and believed Allied forces would face little to no resistance as they crossed No Man’s Land.
The problem of scale
In 1914, Britain went to war with a small professional army. By 1916, the British Expeditionary Force in France numbered two million. This rapid expansion in scale caused major structural challenges for Haig, whose staff had no experience of commanding such large forces.
Not only were the armies bigger, but so were the fronts. The Battle of the Somme took place over a front stretching 15 miles.
Proponents of the “lions led by donkeys” argument point to the fact that senior commanders tended to be stationed a distance away from the front lines, while the humble soldier slogged it out in the trenches.
But there was good reason for this. The length of the front meant commanders needed to be a further away to get a complete picture of what was happening. However, communications technology was not yet up to the task of keeping commanders updated about the rapidly changing situation at the front. As a result, at the Somme, Haig often made decisions based on out-of-date information.
Where Haig is undoubtedly guilty, is in his decision to continue the offensive into November 1916. By October, poor weather and continuous artillery bombardment had created a hellish environment for both the Allies and the Germans. Yet Haig prolonged this hell for no real strategic or tactical purpose.
Was it worth it?
Over the course of the battle, about one million men were killed, wounded or captured. Haig maintained that the battle achieved the goal of eroding the German Army and its will to fight. But attrition swallowed up Allied manpower and material just as quickly as it did the Germans’.
The scale of the Allied offensive on the Somme had nevertheless come as a shock to the Germans. It was clear that victory on the Western Front was nowhere in sight and planners feared that German industry would not be able to keep up with demand.
In 1917, the Germans carried out a planned retreat to the Hindenburg Line, a line of fortifications that could be defended with fewer men. It may have looked like a victory for the Allies but the reality was quite different, as subsequent operations against the line in 1917 would show.
Haig has been nicknamed “The Butcher of the Somme”. But the idea that he wilfully and knowingly sent tens of thousands of Allied soldiers to their deaths is overly simplistic and fails to acknowledge the severe challenges facing a commander in charge of an inexperienced mass army, on a scale unlike anything seen before.