Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s name is inextricably linked to World War One: he headed up the forces on the Western Front for nearly 3 years, achieving monumental losses alongside, ultimately, victory.
He presided over both the best and worst days of the war for the British Army, earning him praise as the ‘man who won the war’ as well as the nickname ‘Butcher Haig’. Unsurprisingly, his legacy has been somewhat mixed as a result.
However, Haig had a long and distinguished military career prior to World War One, and he continued to campaign for ex-servicemen long after he had retired. Here are 10 facts about Douglas ‘Butcher’ Haig.
1. He had a privileged upbringing
Born in Edinburgh, the son of a whisky baron and gentry, Haig had a thorough education. He studied in Scotland, Clifton College in Bristol and later at Brasenose College, Oxford.
At Oxford, Haig showed sporting prowess and was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club. He decided to train as a British Army officer at the military academy, Sandhurst, following his final exams. He passed – placing first in the order of merit – and was commissioned as a lieutenant into the 7th Hussars in February 1885.
2. He travelled a lot in his early years as an officer
In his early years as an officer, Haig was stationed in India. He eventually earned a promotion to captain before returning to England.
In 1898, he was hand-picked to join Lord Kitchener in a campaign in the Mahdist War in Sudan: Haig was required to join the Egyptian Army (a formality) in order to serve.
He saw plenty of action and commanded a squadron of his own, launching several important attacks and offensives. Haig was, at least in part, there to report on Kitchener, who he had plenty of criticism for. He was promoted to the position of brevet major on his return to England in 1898.
3. He served in the Second Boer War
The Second Boer War erupted in 1899 after diamonds and gold were found on Boer land in South Africa. It has become known as one of the most destructive wars fought by the British: the brutal conflict saw the implementation of scorched earth policies and the introduction of internment camps (also referred to as concentration camps) with extremely high mortality rates.
Haig escaped the town of Ladysmith on the last train before it was besieged by the Boers, and went on to command a cavalry brigade, and later an all-arms force and column. As per the norms of the time, he burned farmsteads as part of a scorched earth policy and rounded up Boer women and children to send to British-run concentration camps.
His service saw him showered in praise, earning him several mentions in despatches, an appointment to the role of Companion of the Order of the Bath and a promotion to the role of lieutenant colonel. Haig’s time in the Boer War, which involved plenty of guerrilla warfare, led him to hold the belief that cavalry was more important than artillery: a belief which, when acted upon during World War One, would cost the lives of thousands of soldier.
4. His strengths lay in organisation and administration
In 1906, Haig was appointed Director of Military Training on the General Staff at Britain’s War Office: one of his colleagues described him as having a “first-rate general staff mind”. Having served in the Boer War, Haig was all too aware of Britain’s lack of a modern, healthy army.
He helped create a reformed, more professional, smaller army. It wasn’t the army Britain would need if it were required to fight a continental war (like that on the Western Front), but there was no pressing reason why that would be necessary at that point: the rumblings of the conflict that would become World War One were still far away.
He also helped create a new Territorial Force comprised of older ex-servicemen, 300,000 which could be drawn on in times of need. Haig also helped create an Expeditionary Force of 120,000 men, prioritising cavalry over infantry.
5. He became commander of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915
Haig began World War One as a general and was one of those who believed the fighting would last weeks or months rather than years. He helped achieve a notable victory at the First Battle of Ypres and after another year of successful service and leadership, he was made Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (the 6 divisions of the British Army sent to the Western Front).
Haig hoped that in his new role, he would be able to oversee a more professional and efficient management of the war. He began by launching major offensives, most famously at the Somme (1916) and Passchendaele (1917).
6. Despite heavy losses, he helped bring an ultimate British victory
Haig’s offensives were undoubtedly bloody and brutal: millions of soldiers died on the Western Front, and many deem Haig’s directives to have caused an excessive and unnecessary loss of life.
Whilst the number of casualties (around 1 million soldiers fighting for the British Empire died) sustained on the Western Front was, and remains, unthinkably horrific, it proved a tough lesson for generals, including Haig, in the kind of tactics and warfare they would need to defeat the Germans: particularly with regards to the use of tanks, aircraft and creeping barrages.
7. Haig promoted the formation of the Army Dental Corps
Dentistry had originally belonged to a sub-section of medicine within the army, and there was virtually no specialised dental treatment available for soldiers: civilian dentists were sometimes contracted to help.
Haig reportedly suffered from severe toothache in the early years of World War One and was forced to summon a dentist from Paris to help. As a result, he ensured the army hired several dentists within months, and by 1918 they employed over 800 dentists. In 1921, the Army Dental Corps was formed as its own military division, separate from the general medical corps.
8. After the war, he spent his time improving the welfare of ex-servicemen
Haig was made an Earl in 1919. With the title, he was granted £100,000 to enable him to live in a way appropriate to a senior peer. He retired from service in 1922 and then devoted much of his time to highlighting the plight of ex-servicemen on a public platform and doing his best to ensure they were looked after.
It was on his initiative that the Haig Fund and Haig Homes were set up, initiatives which provided financial assistance and adequate housing for ex-servicemen. Both organisations long outlasted Haig and helped thousands of ex-servicemen.
9. At his funeral he was dubbed ‘the man who won the war’
In the years following the war Haig was widely remembered as the leader of the victorious British Army, and his reputation was golden. When he died of a heart attack in 1928, Haig was awarded a state funeral and American General John Pershing dubbed him the ‘man who won the war’.
10. He later became known as the ‘butcher of the Somme’
Haig’s actions and legacy were quickly reassessed following his death. Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and David Lloyd-George both criticised his willingness to send men into the face of enemy fire, acknowledging that Haig’s ‘tactics’ led to an excessive loss of life and weakened the Allies, hence the nickname the ‘butcher of the Somme‘.
Many also criticised his personal qualities, believing him to be egotistical, out of touch with the realities of modern warfare and not intellectually up to the task in front of him.
There have been some attempts to rehabilitate Haig in more recent years as some have acknowledged that high casualties were a feature of early 20th-century warfare, and Haig’s forces nonetheless played an important role in the Allied victory.