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Does General Haig deserve to be remembered as the Butcher of the Somme?

Who was General Haig? What was the Somme?

Douglas Haig
This is a painting of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig painted in 1917. He is arguably one of the most important soldiers in British history. Under his command, the British army helped to defeat the German Army in 1918 and won the First World War. Never heard of him? Although he won a great victory for his country he is not remembered as a national hero. Some people remember him as the exact opposite and far from remembering him as a hero they have called him a butcher who didnt care how many of his soldiers were killed. How did this man who led Britains biggest-ever army to one of Britains greatest victories, come to be called a butcher? Did he deserve it?

The First World War

The First World War took place between August 1914 and November 1918 between the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). Much of the fighting took place on the 'Western Front' which was a line reaching mainly across France from the English Channel down to the Alps.

Trench Warfare
The First World War was the first of its kind because there had been advances in technology. Previously war had taken place in the open, on horse back with fighting at close quarters. Now there were heavy artillery, machine guns and tanks. In order to maintain their positions and defend themselves both sides dug trenches. Trenches were ditches about two metres deep and one and a half metres wide and they were protected by barbed wire. The enemy's guns (rifles and machine guns) which were trained on the opposition 24 hours a day were a real hazard. The heavy artillery were more dangerous again. They fired metal shells from several kilometres behind the front. The shells burst into jagged, razor sharp pieces as they exploded. So, because it was dangerous for soldiers to even put their heads above the trench, let alone attack the enemy, both sides spent most of the time in their trenches guarding their positions.

The Somme 1916

The Somme is a river in France and as the fighting tool place near it the Battle was so named. General Haig was Commander-in-Chief by this time so he was in total control of the attack. What he wanted was a 'breakthough' to get through the German trenches and defeat the army once and for all.

The Plan
The plan was very simple. 1. Smash the German's trenches with a bombardment of shell fire to last 7 days and nights 2. Send Infantry (foot soldiers) to capture what was left of the trenches. 3. Send a charge of cavalry (horses) through the captured trenches into the free land the other side. Haig claimed that 'not even a rat would be alive' at the end of the week long bombardment and the rest would be a piece of cake.

Haig gathered nearly 700,000 men for the attack although many of these were new to the Army and had very little experience of battle. They were given rehearsals of what to do. Huge areas of ground were lined with ribbons to show imaginary trenches and then the soldiers were sent to capture the ribboned areas. They were told to imagine the barbed wire and officers held up flags to show imaginary shells exploding. All rehearsals were completed in silence. The most important thing these soldiers were taught was that they were never to charge at the German trenches or run from cover to cover. They were told to approach them at a steady walk to avoid confusion.

A Change of Plan
Haig had to change his plan because of problems the French were having in a place called Verdun. The Germans had the city of Verdun practically surrounded and the French had to use a lot of men to defend it. The French thought that if the British attacked the Germans in another place it would reduce the number of German soldiers in Verdun. Haig had not wanted to attack the Somme until August but the French got their way and the attack was brought forward by a month.

The Attack
The attack on the Somme began on 1st July 1916. For a week beforehand 1,537 British guns had fired over one and a half million shells at the German trenches. They had two targets: 1. the trenches themselves 2. to cut up the barbed wire At 7.30 am the guns stopped firing and more than 100,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches in a line 25 kilometers long. In the bright sunshine they walked across no-man's-land towards the German trenches. Many were expecting it to be easy, one officer said, you will not need rifles. You will find all the Germans dead.

The Reality
The Germans had been expecting an attack. German spy planes had seen British soldiers moving 'up the line' which gave the Germans time to prepare. They put up extra barbed wire and dug deep shelters beneath their trenches. When the British guns started firing the Germans simply went into their shelters and when they stopped, they quickly went up to their machine gun posts. They hardly had to aim all they had to do was point their guns at the neat rows of soldiers walking towards them. The British soldiers still kept walking forwards but their next problem was the barbed wire. It had not been destroyed . The wire had simply been lifted in the air and then dropped it in a worse tangle than it was before. Thousands of men were shot at as they tried to pick their way through dense tangles of wire.

What did Haig do?

General Haig did not however stop the battle. Day after day, British soldiers went over the top to attack the German trenches. Every time the British attacked the Germans counter attacked and forced them to retreat. This went on for 140 days (nearly 4 months) Every metre of ground was fought over time and time again. The longer the fighting went on, the worse the conditions became. Shellfire churned up the land into a sea of mud. When the autumn rains came the mud dissolved into slime metres deep in places. In the trenches themselves shellfire killed thousands of men every day. Sometimes it was impossible to bury the dead properly so they were put into disused trenches. British soldiers attacking the German trenches sometimes found that the trench they captured was full of corpses and deep in maggots. In November the British made a last great attack. This time it actually worked and they captured the village of Beaumont Hamel and took thousands of Germans prisoner. At last they had made the breakthough that Haig had so wanted. However, it then started to snow and the battlefield was already deep in mud, it was swept by icy winds and blizzards. General Haig had no choice but to call off the battle.

Who won the Battle of the Somme?

General Haig really believed he had won the Battle. The Germans had lost approximately 680,000 men and had retreated 10 kilometers from their trenches. One of the German generals admitted later that this broke the heart of the German Army. We were completely exhausted, he wrote, if the war lasted, our defeat seemed certain. Also the British had helped to save Verdun by keeping a million German soldiers occupied on the Somme. But the human cost was very high. 420,000 British soldiers and 200,000 French soldiers had been killed, almost as many as the Germans when added together. Although the Germans had been driven back 10 kilometers the Western Front was still there and the German Army was unbeaten.

Does General Haig deserve to be remembered as the butcher of the Somme?

Notes for teachers / candidates Your assignment should start with an introduction. Here you should briefly outline the history of the battle of the Somme You should also refer to the different ways that people have interpreted Haig role in the battle of the Somme. This section should be around 300 words.

You should then consider the view that Haig was a butcher Explain WHY many people hold this view. What evidence is there to back up this view. You should consider four pieces of evidence that back up this view. When looking at the evidence you should consider points such as: whether this is a valid source in finding out about Haig what it says about Haig and the war who the author / artist was when it was written why it was written (if you can) the type of source it is whether you consider the source to have any negative aspects

You should comment on whether you consider this view of Haig as a butcher to be a fair one or not. This section should be about 500 words.

You should then consider the view that Haig does NOT deserve to be remembered as the butcher of the Somme. Explain WHY many people hold this view. What evidence is there to back up this view. You should consider four pieces of evidence that back up this view. When looking at the evidence you should consider points such as: whether this is a valid source in finding out about Haig what it says about Haig and the war who the author / artist was when it was written why it was written (if you can) the type of source it is whether you consider the source to have any negative aspects

You should comment on whether you consider this alternative view of Haig to be a fair one or not. This section should be about 500 words. Having considered the evidence for both sides, you should be in a position to reach a judgement on the question. Which interpretation do you think is more valid a butcher or a general doing his job? Give reasons why you think Haig was called a butcher Give reasons why you think Haig was a general doing his job Summarise the kind of evidence which has led people to their different conclusions Make a final judgement. This should be about 300 words.



SOURCE 1a The biggest murderer of the lot was Haig. I'm very bitter; always have been and always will be and everybody else that knew him. He lived almost 50 kilometres behind the line and that's about as near as he got. I don't think he knew what a trench was like. And they made him an Earl and gave him 100,000. I know what I'd have given him. [Fred Pearson, a private on the Western Front, commenting on Haig in a local newspaper in 1966]

SOURCE 1b It was pure bloody murder. Douglas Haig should have been hung, drawn and quartered for what he did on the Somme. The cream of British manhood was shattered in less than six hours. [P. Smith, a private in the 1st Border regiment fighting on the Somme, writing in his diary (July 1916)]

SOURCE 2 Haig was a second-rate Commander in unparalleled and unforeseen circumstances.. He was not endowed with any of the elements of imagination and vision ... And he certainly had none of that personal magnetism which has enabled great leaders of men to inspire multitudes with courage, faith and a spirit of sacrifice ... He was incapable of planning vast campaigns on the scale demanded on so immense a battlefield. [David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister during the First World War, writing in his War Memoirs (1935)]

Reg. No
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Pte. Pte. Pte. Pte. Pte. Cpl. Pte. C.S.M. Pte. Pte. Pte. L/Cpl. Pte. Pte. Pte. Pte. Pte. Pte. L/Cpl. Pte. Pte. Pte. L/Cpl. L/Cpl. Pte. Pte. Pte.

Bagshaw, William Bailey, Joseph Barlow, Wilfred Batley, Edward Baylis, Lawrence Braham, George Bramham, George Bright, Arthur Willey Brookfield, Fredk. Harold Bedford, Norman Beniston, Aubrey Blenkarn, William Bowes, Frank Bratley, Clifford William Brindley, Charles W. Brown, Arthur Brown, Samuel Busfield, Harry Craven Barnsley, Frank Barrott, John Henry Barton, John Arthur Bennett, Joseph Arnold Binder, Walter Bertram Bland, Ernest Brammer, Archie Brown, Stanley Buttery, John Arnold

Date of Death
1/7/16 1/7/16 16/5/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 13/10/18 12/4/18 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 10/9/16 1/7/16 1/4/18 14/3/17 1/7/16 6/12/17 18/5/17 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16 1/7/16

[A page from the list of dead and wounded suffered by the Sheffield Pals Battalion on the first day of the Somme. The Sheffield Pals suffered 548 casualties on the first day of the battle.] SOURCE 4 Good morning, good morning!, the general said, When we met him last week on our way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of em dead, And were cursing his staff for incompetent swine. Hes a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack, As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both by his plan of attack. [A poem by Siegfried Sassoon called The General. He served as a Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Western Front, but later threw away the Military Cross which had been awarded to him for bravery.]

SOURCE 5 Idealism perished on the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer. They had lost faith in their cause, in their leaders, in everything except loyalty to their fighting comrades. The war ceased to have any purpose, it went on for its own sake, as a contest of endurance. The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War: brave, helpless soldiers; blundering, obstinate generals; nothing achieved. After the Somme men decided that the war would go on for ever. [A.J.P.Taylor, a socialist historian, writing in a specialist history book, The First World War, (1963)]


Major-General (addressing the men before practising an attack behind the lines). "I want you to understand that there is a difference between a rehearsal and the real thing. There are three essential differences: first, the absence of the enemy. Now (turning to the Regimental Sergeant-Major) what is the second difference?" Sergeant-Major. "The absence of the General, Sir."

[A cartoon from the British satirical magazine Punch (February 1917)]


Blackadder: (winds the telephone) Hello? Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig please. (Haig picks up telephone, while looking over a model of the battlefield) Blackadder: Hello Sir Douglas Haig: Good Lord ! Blacky ! (Knocks down an entire line of model British soldiers) Blackadder: Yes sir. Haig: I havent seen you since (Knocks down the second line of model British soldiers) Blackadder: 92 sir Mboto Gorge. And do you remember? Haig: My God yes. You saved my damn life that day, Blacky. Blackadder: Well exactly sir. And do you remember then that you said that if I was ever in real trouble and I really needed a favour that I was to call you and youd do everything you could to help me? Haig: (sweeps the fallen soldier models into a dustbin) Yes, I do, and I stick by it. You know me not a man to change my mind. Blackadder: No, weve noticed that. Haig: So what do you want? Spit it out man. (Throws the model soldiers over his shoulder) Blackadder: Well you see, sir, its the Big Push today, and Im not that keen to go over the top.

[Taken from the BBC TV comedy series, Blackadder, which continually portrayed Haig and the generals as fools and murderers. In this scene Blackadder is trying to persuade Haig to get him sent home while Haig plays games with toy British soldiers. The series was broadcast in the 1990s.] SOURCE 8 Haig and other British generals must be blamed... for wilful blunders and wicked butchery. However stupid they might have been, however much they were the product of a system which obstructed enterprise, they knew what they were doing. There can never be forgiveness. [John Laffin, writing in his history book, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (2003). Laffin earned his living taking people on battlefield tours and researched the war entirely from the soldiers standpoint.]




SOURCE 8 The truth is that those ruddy-cheeked, bristling-moustached, heavyjawed, frequently inarticulate generals rose to challenge after challenge, absorbed weapon after weapon into their battle-systems, adapted themselves to constant change with astonishing success. But no one cared to make a legend out of that. [Historian John Terraine, writing in his study of the Somme, The Smoke and the Fire (1980)]

SOURCE 9 A considerable portion of the German soldiers are now practically beaten men, ready to surrender if they could, thoroughly tired of the war and expecting nothing but defeat. It is true that the amount of ground we have gained is not great. That's nothing. We have proved our ability to force the enemy out of strong defensive positions and to defeat him. The German casualties have been greater than ours. [Part of a report sent by Haig to the British cabinet about the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme (December 1916)]

SOURCE 10 During the first half of the war, our leadership was flawless perfect. There was an obvious genius for pure generalship which has made Sir Douglas Haig fit to rank with any general of past or modern times. [A Lieutenant in the Yorkshire Light Infantry who was gassed on the Somme and invalided back to Britain, writing in a letter to the Daily Express (21st December, 1916)]

SOURCE 11 The belief that the generals were responsible for the holocaust quickly took root and has spread. There is a large literature of condemnation, including the scripts of plays Oh What a Lovely War! and films. The British generals were no worse than those of any other combatant nation. All Great War generals faced an insoluble problem; how to break a strong front of trenches, barbed wire, machine-guns and artillery with the weak instrument of human flesh. Blame Haig as we will, his soldiers proved ready to follow him to the end. They did so because the national will to sustain the war effort remained strong. Britain was a different society at the time, a nation that was patriotic to a degree unimaginable today. The humblest Briton took pride in his country's possession of the history's greatest empire. Haig was, as he himself believed with religious intensity, actually doing the people's will in continuing to direct the war. We should remember that this November when we commemorate their suffering. [From an article by military historian John Keegan, published in The Daily Mail (7th November 1998)] SOURCE 12 The men are in splendid spirits. Several have said that they have never before been so instructed and informed of the nature of the operation before them. The barbed wire has never been so well cut, not the artillery preparation so thorough. All the commanders are full of confidence. Very successful attack this morning... All went like clockwork... The battle is going very well for us and already the Germans are surrendering freely. The enemy is so short of men that he is collecting them from all parts of the line. Our troops are in wonderful spirits and full of confidence. [Excerpts from the reports of Sir Douglas Haig, (30th June / 1st July 1916)]

SOURCE 13 As we read the history of the Great War and the mists created by prejudice, propaganda and false witness begin to scatter, the figure of Haig looms ever larger as that of the general who foresaw more accurately than most, who endured longer than most and who inspired most confidence amongst his soldiers. Haig believed from the first that the German line could be broken and it was. In moral stature, Haig was a giant. It may be easy in history to find a more brilliant man, but it would be hard to find a better one. [Alfred Duff Cooper, a soldier in the Grenadier Guards during the war, writing in his biography of Sir Douglas Haig. He was a family friend to the Haigs and was officially invited to write Haigs biography by his family after Haigs death. He later became a Conservative MP and Secretary of War from 1935-37] SOURCE 14

[A photograph showing crowds welcoming Haig home from France, (12th April 1919)]


SOURCE 15 Blaming Haig the individual for the failings of the British war effort is putting too much of a burden of guilt on one man. Haig was the product of his time, of his upbringing, education, training and previous military experience. One argument goes that he was, ultimately, victorious and, even if he had been replaced would there have been anyone better for the job? Even on the Somme a German officer called the battlefield 'the muddy grave of the German army'.

[S. Warburton, writing in an article in the history magazine, Hindsight, which takes a fresh look at historical issues (1998)]