Monday, January 29, 2018

Haig’s ‘unique’ WWI diaries

‘I spoke to Admiral Bacon regarding preparations for landing on Belgian coast. In view of the successes obtained by the ‘Tanks’, I suggested that he should carry out experiments with special flat bottomed boats for running ashore and landing a line of Tanks on the beach with object of breaking through wire and capturing Enemy’s defences.’ This is from the diary of Douglas Haig, the British army commander during the Battle of the Somme, days after tanks were used for the very first time. Haig, who died 90 years ago today, was a controversial figure in his time, and no less so in historical terms, but what is not in doubt is the value of his diaries, recognised internationally as ‘unique’ and as ‘the most detailed and extensive account kept by any senior commander during the war’.

Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861, the son of a wealthy whisky distiller, and educated at Clifton School, Bristol. His parents died when he was still in his teens. After a tour of the US with his brother, he studied at Brasenose College, Oxford. He was an accomplished horseman, and excelled at polo (a sport he would remain involved in all his life). He went on to train as an officer in the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and was commissioned as a lieutenant into the 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars in 1885. He was sent to India, where he impressed others with his discipline, paperwork, and analysis of training exercises. In 1892, he returned to Britain hoping to be awarded a place at the Staff College, Camberley, but just missed out. He was appointed aide-de-camp to Sir Keith Fraser, Inspector General of Cavalry, who helped him be nominated for Camberley. Before taking his place in 1894, he visited Germany, where he served as staff officer to Colonel John French, and from where he reported on cavalry manoeuvres.

After completing the course at Camberley, Haig was picked as a cavalry officer for the Sudan, serving with Lord Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army. He distinguished himself, in particular, at the Battle of Nukheila. Thereafter, he received various promotions, and further distinguished himself in South Africa serving under French during the Boer War, eventually being given command of the 17th Lancers cavalry regiment. In late 1900, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath, and six months later was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He served as Inspector-General of Cavalry in India, and then aide-de-camp to King Edward VII in 1902-1903. By 1904, he was a major-general, the youngest in the British Army at the time. The following year, he married Dorothy Maud Vivian, with whom he had four children.

In 1906, Haig was appointed to a senior post at the War Office where he spent several years enacting reforms in the British Army, and setting up the Imperial General Staff. He served as Chief of General Staff in India for a couple of years, and then as General Officer Commanding Aldershot Command. At the outbreak of the First World War, Haig was Commander of the First Army Corps of the British Expeditionary Force, and shortly after, in 1915, he was promoted to its Commander-in-Chief. Although greatly admired among his fellow officers, he was mistrusted by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who considered he was wasting soldiers’ lives without any prospect of victory. During 1919, he took over as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain.

Haig was created an earl in 1919, and retired in 1920, thereafter devoting much energy to improving the welfare of ex-servicemen. He died on 29 January 1928. His role during the war remains controversial to this day, with some claiming he was a butcher, a class-based incompetent commander, unable to grasp modern tactics and technologies, and others maintaining that his role was crucial in defeating the German army through a war of attrition. Further biographical information is readily available online, including at Wikipedia, Historic UK, Spartacus, History Net, the BBC, or Biography Online.

Haig kept a detailed, daily diary during the First World War, of which there are two versions extant - the handwritten manuscript and a version typed up after the war with additions and alterations. Both of these are held by the National Library of Scotland, and have been publicly available since 1961. In 2015, the international importance of Haig’s handwritten diaries (1914-1919) were acknowledged when the resource was inscribed into UNESCO’s International Memory of World Register - one of only 14 UK inscriptions (others including the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the 1215 Magna Carta, a register of British Caribbean slaves, and the Churchill papers) - see Haig and Wordsworth for more on this.

UNESCO says of the diary: ‘The First World War shaped the world throughout the 20th century, and profoundly affected the combatant nations in an unprecedented way. Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the largest British Army ever assembled. His diary provides insight into how and why decisions were made, and of the interplay between Haig and other Allied generals. As undoubtedly the most detailed and extensive account kept by any senior commander during the war, the diary is unique. Written in these circumstances, it offers an immediacy that few documentary sources can in the day-to-day record of this cataclysm.’

The diary was first edited by Robert Blake and published in 1952 by Eyre & Spottiswoode as The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919. This is freely available online at Internet Archive. It would be more than 50 years before the diaries re-appeared in a new edition: Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, edited by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne). Parts of this can be read online at Googlebooks. Sheffield and Bourne say, in their preface, that their book differs from Blake’s in ‘two significant respects’. Firstly, they say, their book is based on the manuscript version of the diaries (Blake’s used the typescript); and, secondly, they have sought to emphasise Haig’s military role (while Blake’s emphasis was more on the politics of the war).

Sheffield and Bourne also discuss why Haig kept a diary. They suggest part of the reason might have been habit - he’d kept diaries since his student days (his pre and post war diaries, also held by the National Library of Scotland, are described as ‘very summary’). Lady Haig, they say, thought he kept them for her (she received carbon copies of his daily entries by post). The
 editors believe, however, that he knew he was living through historic times, was a major actor in them, and wanted to leave a systematic record. 

In addition, the editors take a close look at the differences between the manuscript and typescript versions. In particular, they dispel this claim by Denis Winter in his Haig’s Command: A Reassessment (Viking, 1991)‘[Haig] systematically falsified the record of his military career, underpinning the most important years with a diary written for circulation in his own cause during the war and re-written in his own favour after it.’ Sheffield and Bourne find that the changes made after the war by Haig were ‘generally mundane’ with only two exceptions, and that the diary’s ‘overall authenticity’ is ‘not in doubt’.

Here are several extracts from Haig’s diaries as edited by Sheffield and Bourne.

4 September 1915
‘The CGS (Robertson) arrived . . . He came to let me know at once, very secretly, that the operations had been postponed by the French for another ten days. The reason given is that Castelnau’s Army is not ready. This extra delay may well jeopardise the success of what I am undertaking, because at present we know that the Enemy’s troops have no further protection against gas - only small ‘respirators’. They may hear of our getting up the gas cylinders and issue effective ‘gas helmets’. On the other hand it would be foolish for a portion of the Allies to attack until the whole are ready for a combined effort.

General Gough came to see me about the amount of gas available. I told him to arrange to provide the whole of his front south of the Canal with sufficient gas for 40 minutes’ attack before giving any cylinders to the Givenchy section; and that his Corps, and IV Corps, would attack simultaneously along the whole front from the ‘Double Crassier’ on Rawlinson’s right, up to the Canal on the left.

Later in the morning General Rawlinson arrived and asked me regarding the front on which the 1st Division is to attack. After discussion I agreed that one brigade should move east with its left on the Vermelles-Hulluch road. All the Enemy’s communication trenches run in that direction, so that the troops would, whether they were ordered or not, move against Hulluch! That another brigade of the 1st Division should advance against Puits No. 14 and the north end of Loos, so as to maintain communication between the attacks against Hulluch and Loos . . .

I motored to La Buissiere (HQ of IV Corps) as I had arranged for Lieutenant Colonel Foulkes (gas expert) to meet me there. The gas cylinders had not yet been off-loaded at Bethune Station, so I was able to send them back to Boulogne at once. The ‘gas companies’ also went back to St Omer without having mixed with our troops, so I hope the fact that we are able to use gas will remain a secret from the Enemy . . .

We arranged for several officers of the Cavalry Corps to go forward to our lines and reconnoitre the country with a view to advancing.’

18 September 1916
‘I spoke to Admiral Bacon regarding preparations for landing on Belgian coast. In view of the successes obtained by the ‘Tanks’, I suggested that he should carry out experiments with special flat bottomed boats for running ashore and landing a line of Tanks on the beach with object of breaking through wire and capturing Enemy’s defences. This is to be done in cooperation with troops from Lombartzyde, attacking eastwards.

The Admiral was delighted with the idea, and is to go to Admiralty with a view to having special boats made.

I asked him also to urge the loan of personnel from Navy for manning 100 ‘Tanks’ . . .

Trenchard reported on work of Flying Corps . . . By taking the offensive and carrying the war in the air beyond the Enemy’s lines, our artillery airoplanes are free to carry on their important duties of observation and photography unmolested. Our communications too on which so much depends are undisturbed.’

19 June 1917
‘I saw the CIGS at 10.45 am and then walked to Lord Curzon’s Office (Privy Council) for a meeting of the War Cabinet at 11 am . . .

We discussed the military situation till 1 o’clock when the Prime Minister left to marry his daughter. The members of the War Cabinet asked me numerous questions all tending to show that each of them was more pessimistic than the other! The PM seemed to believe the decisive moment of the war would be 1918. Until then we ought to husband our forces and do little or nothing, except support Italy with guns and gunners (300 batteries were indicated). I strongly asserted that Germany was nearer her end than they seemed to think, that now was the favourable moment, [for pressing her] and that everything possible should be done to take advantage of it by concentrating on the Western Front all available resources. I stated that Germany was within 6 months of the total exhaustion of her available manpower, if the fighting continues at its present intensity. [To do this, more men and guns are necessary.]’

19 November 1917
‘Charteris reported that all reports indicated that Enemy is in absolute ignorance of our preparations for tomorrow’s attack. No airoplane activity: no wireless: no listening telephone work: no artillery fire! All seems favourable!! So far prisoners taken by Enemy have apparently told them nothing about the attack for tomorrow.

At 9.45 am I saw Sir H. Rawlinson Commanding Second Army. He told me of his views to extend the front northwards of Passchendaele. He does not wish to take Westroosebeke. I suggested attack by small units by night, because up to the present nothing of this nature has been attempted by us at the Ypres battle front. I directed Rawlinson to work out his plans, but not to give effect to them until the result of tomorrow’s attack is known, and I can decide on our future plans.

[Haig visited Horne at HQ First Army.] His Army is weak in numbers of infantry and in guns. The Canadian Corps is back with him. General Currie (Commanding Canadians) was relieved on battle front yesterday. I explained to Home my proposed operations and pointed out that by crossing the Sensee River east of Arleux, I turned all the Enemy’s defences facing First Army and the Drocourt-Quéant line. I could not expect the First Army, owing to weakness in guns and numbers, to do more than reconnoitre until our advance from Cambrai direction caused Enemy to withdraw from his front. Then he must do his best to follow up and press the Enemy.’ [The Battle of Cambrai began on 20 November at 6.20 am.]

27 January 1918
‘After dinner I received a copy of a paper compiled by War Council at Versailles in which certain offensive projects were recommended to the Allied Government. All their proposals are based on theory and hard facts are ignored. I had a long talk with Lawrence on the personnel situation which seems to me likely to be very serious in the autumn owing to lack of men. Auckland Geddes only asks for 100,000 men for the Army. We must therefore look forward to having to reduce 16 to 18 divisions; against this we may put 7 or 8 American Divisions at the most. The French if attacked must reduce some 50 divisions, and at most can put only a dozen American Divisions in their place. Yet with these facts before us, the Versailles War Council writes a volume advising an offensive to annihilate the Turks in Palestine, as well as a great combined Franco-British one on the Western Front.

Repington has certainly stated the true case in his articles in the Morning Post, yet few seem to believe him.

The problem seems to me to be how to bring home to our Prime Minister’s mind the seriousness of our position and to cause him to call up more men while there is yet time to train them.’

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