Thursday, July 11, 2013

Haig and Wordsworth

The diaries of Field Marshal Douglas Haig and of Dorothy Wordsworth have just been added to the UK Memory of the World Register, a Unesco initiative to list documentary heritage of cultural significance. Haig’s diaries are considered important for the insight they provide into army operations during the First World War; and Wordsworth’s journal is judged a literary work of international significance, as well as having been an inspiration to her more famous poet brother.

Unesco announced on 9 July that 11 items had been selected from the UK’s libraries, archives and museums to represent the outstanding heritage of the United Kingdom. From the Domesday Book to Hitchcock’s Silent Films, it said, these priceless items span nearly 900 years, come from across the country and embody pivotal moments in the history of their communities and the UK as a whole. Included among the 11 new items are two diary-based collections: the Haig diaries, held by the National Library of Scotland, and the Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, held by the Wordsworth Trust.

This was the third group of inscriptions to Unesco’s UK Memory of the World Register, an online catalogue created to help promote the UK’s documentary heritage across the UK and the world, and follows two earlier groups of inscriptions in 2010 and 2011 - the latter of which included Anne Lister’s diaries. See The Diary Junction for more on Lister’s diaries.

As well as country-specific registers, Unesco also administers an International Member of the World Register (‘a catalogue of documentary heritage of global significance and outstanding universal value’) which includes a number of UK collections.

For the UK Memory of the World Register, Unesco’s announcement said this of Haig’s diaries: ‘The role of the British Army in the First World War and the competence or otherwise of her generals continues to be a subject of debate. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Douglas Haig commanded the largest British Army ever assembled and, for his role in the war, has become arguably the most controversial general in the Army’s history. Haig kept a diary throughout the war, and this momentous document now forms part of Haig’s personal papers at the National Library of Scotland.

The diary is vital to understanding key battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele through Haig’s own words, recorded on an almost daily basis. It is of national importance because, although no one single document can tell the whole story, it is at the heart of the documentary evidence that has informed modern opinion on the First World War. Whilst research in more recent years has begun to move away from focusing on the successes or failures of a small number of generals, the diary has remained central to an understanding of not just the role played by Haig, but of the British Army, her generals and her allies. It offers an insight into how and why decisions were made as events unfolded in the fields of Belgium, France and beyond. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on Haig’s own character or abilities, the diary is an essential element of the documentary heritage of the First World War. Written in these circumstances, the diary offers an immediacy that few documentary sources can in the day-to-day record and analysis of this cataclysm.’

Haig was born in Edinburgh in 1861, and educated at Clifton School, Bristol, and Oxford University. He entered the army in 1885, serving as a cavalry officer in the Sudan and distinguishing himself in South Africa during the Boer War. He served under Lord Kitchener in India. From 1905 to 1909 he played an important role in reforming the British Army. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Haig served as Commander of the First Army Corps of the British Expeditionary Force, and shortly after, in 1915, was promoted to Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.

Although greatly admired among his fellow officers, Haig was mistrusted by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George who considered he was wasting soldiers’ lives without any prospect of victory. During 1919, Haig served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces in Great Britain; he retired in 1920, devoting much energy to improving the welfare of ex-servicemen; and he died in 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 available from Wikipedia and the National Library of Scotland website. Here is part of Haig’s diary entry for the day the war ended.

11 November 1918
‘Fine day but cold and dull. –

Reports from Foch’s H.Q. state that meeting with German delegates (which took place in train in the Forest of Compiègne, not in Château as previously reported) began at 2 a.m. and at 5 a.m. the Armistice was signed. The Germans pointed out that if the rolling stock & supplies of the Army (which have to be handed over by the terms of the Armistice) are given up, then Germans East of the Rhine will starve. Report says Foch was rather brutal to the German delegates, and replied that that was their affair!

The Armistice came into force at 11 a.m.

The state of the German Army is said to be very bad, and the discipline seems to have become so low that the orders of the officers are not obeyed. Capt[ai]n von Helldorf who tried to get back to Spa from Compiègne with the terms of the Armistice by night was fired at deliberately by the German troops [ ] and could not pass, while on another they broke up the bridges so that he could proceed.

At 11 a.m. I had a meeting in Cambrai with the 5 Army Com[mande]rs’ and Gen. Kavanagh Com[mandin]g Cavalry Corps. I explained that for the moment my orders are to advance onto a sector of the German frontier 32 miles wide extending from Verviers (exclusive) to Houffalize in the South. The Northern half of this sector would be held by the 2nd army; South[er]n half by 4th army. The other armies w[oul]d for the present either stand fast, or send back behind railheads such divisions as could not be easily supplied. Each army sent forward would consist of 4 Corps = 32 Div[isio]ns. The remaining 28 Div[isio]ns w[oul]d be under the command of the 1st, 3rd, & 5th Army Commanders. The selection of Div[isio]ns had been made for reasons of man-power & recruiting, but I sh[oul]d be glad of any suggestions from Army Com[mande]rs in the subject.

I then pointed out the importance of looking after the troops during the period following the cessation of hostilities – Very often the best fighters are the most difficult to deal with in periods of quiet! I suggested a number of ways in which men can be kept occupied. It is [as much] the duty of all officers to kept their men amused, as it is to train them for war. Staff officers must – If funds are wanted, G.H.Q. should be informed & I’ll arrange for money to be found.

After the Conference, we were all taken on the Cinema! Gen. Plumer, whom I told to ‘go off and be cinema’ed’ went off most obediently and stood before the camera, trying to look his best, while Byng, & others near him were chaffing the old man and trying to make him laugh.’

‘Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal,’ the Unesco announcement said, ‘is a work of literature of international significance. It was also the inspiration for her brother William, one of the leading figures of British Romanticism. The journal gives readers today a unique insight into the lives of these two remarkable people.  William and Dorothy Wordsworth arrived at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in 1799, when they were both in their late twenties. In May 1800, William left Grasmere for a short absence and Dorothy decided to write a journal for his ‘pleasure’ when he returned. So began a journal that she continued to write for the next thirty or so months.

Four notebooks survive; a fifth, covering most of 1801, is now missing. The journal was written largely within the Dove Cottage household and describes in Dorothy’s beautiful prose her observations of domestic life, her neighbourhood and the natural world. It also records one of the world’s greatest poets at work.  From the journal we can picture the scene of brother and sister walking, talking, reading and writing together. It is an intimate portrait of a life in a place which, to them, was an earthly paradise.’

Further information on Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal can be found at the Wordsworth Trust website, The Diary Junction and The Diary Review. Here is one extract from the diary considered particularly interesting for it is known to have inspired Wordsworth’s most famous poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

15 April 1802
‘The wind was furious... the Lake was rough... When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up -- But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway... -- Rain came on, we were wet.’

The Diary Junction

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