Down the Rabbit Hole with the Butcher of the Somme

In a chance conversation, I referred to General Haig as “The Butcher of the Somme” and mentioned his supposed disdain for machine guns. [Haig was the Commander in Chief of the British forces in France during the WWI Battle of the Somme in July 1916.]

I decided I’d do a little research to justify my words (or not). I ended up going down an uglier rabbit hole than I’d intended. Occupational hazard for authors.

The Butcher of the Somme, showing off some bling and two curtain sashes. [Wikimedia ]

If you want the short version results of my visit down the rabbit hole:

  • The lack of British army machine guns was army and political bureaucracies dragging their feet, and probably not Haig’s fault. My bad. He was not anti-machine gun (just pro-cavalry!).
  • The disaster at the Battle of the Somme, however, was pure Haig butchery, delusion, self-aggrandizement and incompetence.

Haig’s bungling and butchery is borne out by Haig’s own diaries. I’ll get to those shortly. But before that, some Haig background from some biographies that I skimmed:

Douglas Haig came from a millionaire (by today’s measure) background. His father, John Haig, was the founder of Haig Whisky. Duggie’s inherited money connected him with the right set – including the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. The money and connections also got Haig into officer school at Sandhurst.

He worked hard at the academic side of officer school, was seen to be a good administrator, played polo with the right crowd, brown-nosed anyone who could help his career and neglected everyone else.

Haig was a keen polo player. He rode for exercise and pleasure almost daily from his Chateaux behind the lines. Here by contrast, French WWI soldiers try to pull an exhausted mule from a muddy shell hole. [Wikimedia]

Haig added two new twists to brown-nosing by

  • Lending his then commanding officer, John French, a large sum of money that took French several years to repay. You wonder how objective French’s reviews of Haig were during that time.
  • Sending letters to his friend, the Prince of Wales, and other highly placed contacts about how badly some of his superiors and fellow officers (with whom he was competing for command or advancement) were performing.

Young Haig got some active military exposure in Sudan, and then in the Boer War. He seems to have handled neither with particular brilliance. More importantly, though, he wasn’t seen to have bungled, or at least, not as badly as some of his fellow officers.

The Boer War was a shocker for Britain. Britain expected to quickly win the war against a ragtag militia of farmers. Instead, Britain suffered some spectacular military defeats before finally grinding through to an ugly victory by methods including mass internment camps for civilians and burning farms. Some of the big shocks for Britain included military defeats at Stormberg, Colenso, and Magersfontein. By Haig’s good luck, his duties placed him elsewhere during these debacles, and he came through the Boer War untainted by them, unlike many of his fellow officers.

Several Boer War participants became household names later outside of South Africa: Churchill, Haig, Baden-Powell and not least, Mohandas Gandhi, who was part of a Boer War Indian ambulance corps. He is shown here middle row, fifth from left. [Wikimedia]

My take on all this is that Haig, without the wealth and connected friends we could all wish for, would have been a minor, forgotten figure in history. In Haig’s case, his fortunate background, coupled with his ambition, relentless self-advertising, back-stabbing, and not least with his luck of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, saw him rise steadily through the ranks.

The other thing I noted during my visit down the rabbit hole was that for much of Haig’s time up to and including WWI, Haig was a staff officer. As a staff officer, he didn’t command a combat unit – he was a back-room boy helping his superiors with planning, intel (which he was horrible at) and admin. Following the Boer War, Haig was named Inspector General of the British army in India. If you’re as puzzled as I was about what the hell an Inspector General does, he’s an auditor. He inspects various army units and reports whether they’re up to the standards of the day as laid down in various standards documents. Presumably, you don’t have to be a great strategist for this. Following that stint, Haig took on other admin roles – Director of Military Training, Director of Staff Duties and the like.

If you ask how effective Haig, the auditor, was pre-WW1 in further military operations – or simulations thereof – the answer seems to be: not very. In 1912, the British Army held the largest simulated war exercise up to that date. Two mock armies, red and blue were pitted against each other over a four-day period. Haig commanded the red force. Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson commanded the blue force. Haig was judged to be the loser, and worse still, appears to have given a very confused account of red force strategy during the subsequent debriefing.

Haig’s career does not seem to have suffered. Brown-nosing and being well connected is as effective in army life as in any other hierarchy.

Now comes WWI.

Stretchers in the mud at the Somme. [Scene from “The Battle of the Somme”, a British documentary and propaganda war film, shot by two cinematographers attached to the British army, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, during the battle of the Somme. Some scenes of the wounded and dead were cut from the publicly released version at the time. See e.g., posted by the Imperial War Museum, and IWM: Geoffrey Malins and the Somme.]

I am not a war buff. I dislike the topic. I don’t research crossbows or replay what Napoleon should have done at Waterloo. I have a low opinion of top brass and armies. That’s based on my year as an unwilling conscript in one. I am no historian, and I am definitely not impartial. And I have no patience to weed through all the early manoeuvres and battles of WWI. I want to fast forward to the clincher, to why I labelled Haig as a delusional, incompetent butcher. For me, that clincher is the Battle of the Somme.

To fast forward to the Somme, I need to only touch on one preceding WWI battle, the battle at Loos. After the British failures at Loos, Haig wasted no time to write to Kitchener, the British Secretary of War, and laid the blame on his boss, John French. French was duly replaced as Commander-in-Chief of the British army in France by Haig. My view: Haig was better at back-stabbing one-on-one scuffles than in larger-scale battles.

That brings us to 1916 and the Somme. Haig’s plan was for British artillery to batter the German trenches at the Somme for one week. This was supposed to weaken the German opposition, and most importantly, cut the barbed wire that the German forces had strung in front of their trenches. Then the British artillery barrage would cease, and the British infantry would march forward to take over the German trenches. For better control of the British troops, they would march (not run) forward in semi-parade ground formation.

Here’s what Haig’s diary says on June 30 – the night before the infantry attack at the Somme.

“The men are in splendid spirits… The wire has never been so well cut nor the artillery preparation so thorough”

This grand plan backfired. The German army had dug deep bunkers in which they sheltered during the multi-day artillery barrage. Once the barrage ceased, it was a signal for the German troops to emerge from the bunkers and man their machine gun nests. Worst of all – and contrary to Haig’s diary – the British artillery barrage had not cut the barbed wire. The slaughter that followed was horrific. The British losses on July 1, the first day (after the artillery barrage) of the Somme attack was 57,000 British casualties: of which about 20,000 dead, 37,000 wounded. It was the largest single-day loss for a British army to present day, including WWII. [I don’t disregard the horror of French or German losses on July 1, but my argument here is about Haig’s butchery of his own.]

Here’s what Haig wrote about a visit to two behind-the-lines casualty clearing stations on July 2, day 2 of the attack:

They were very pleased at my visit, the wounded were in wonderful spirits The A.G. reported today that total casualties are estimated at over 40,000. This cannot be considered severe in view of numbers engaged and the length of front of attack Rode home.”

In my army experience, no working unit is pleased by a top brass visit. You have to suspend all normal duties; waste time on spit and polish for a grand show; watch the local brass and NCOs panic, scream and shout; hide the skeletons and bring out only the happy stories. In a casualty clearing station, this would likely mean staging a show at the expense of real treatment; hiding the worst cases and prepping the least injured to smile and say, “I’m proud to be doing my duty for King and country, Sir. My only wish is to get back to active duty, Sir, and I never needed my legs anyway, Sir.”

Haig’s belief that the clearing stations were pleased to see him while also coping with an unprecedented flood of casualties is delusional.

His belief that the wounded were truly in good spirits (aside perhaps from the lucky few who were happy to be shipped away from the front with no permanent damage) is idiotic as well as delusional.

His belief that 40,000 casualties (a gross underestimate) “cannot be considered severe” is psychopathic as well as delusional.

The final macabre touch to this diary entry is: “Rode home.”

Haig’s headquarters was a chateau behind the front lines. He had a great attachment to his daily horse ride. Remember: polo and cavalry. Even if he motored to visit something like a casualty clearing station, he would often have assistants meet him with his horse on the return so that he could ride home. Imagine the self-centred gall of presiding over a catastrophe with over 57,000 casualties and still diarising your pleasure in your daily horse ride.

By contrast here’s how George Coppard, a lowly British machine gunner at the Somme, wrote of July 2, the second day (after the artillery barrage) of the attack:

“…  we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of our trench. There was a pair of binoculars in the kit, and, under the brazen light of a hot mid-summers day, everything revealed itself stark and clear. The terrain was rather like the Sussex downland, with gentle swelling hills, folds and valleys, making it difficult at first to pinpoint all the enemy trenches as they curled and twisted on the slopes.

It eventually became clear that the German line followed points of eminence, always giving a commanding view of No Man’s Land. Immediately in front, and spreading left and right until hidden from view, was clear evidence that the attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead, many of the 37th Brigade, were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. From the way the dead were equally spread out, whether on the wire or lying in front of it, it was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack.

Concentrated machine gun fire from sufficient guns to command every inch of the wire, had done its terrible work. The Germans must have been reinforcing the wire for months. It was so dense that daylight could barely be seen through it. Through the glasses it looked a black mass. The German faith in massed wire had paid off.

How did our planners imagine that Tommies, having survived all other hazards – and there were plenty in crossing No Mans Land – would get through the German wire? Had they studied the black density of it through their powerful binoculars? Who told them that artillery fire would pound such wire to pieces, making it possible to get through? Any Tommy could have told them that shell fire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before.”

And if that doesn’t get you angry, perhaps you need to read some of the testimonies of the medical personnel that dealt with the mangled living. I could quote from ambulance nurse Claire E Tisdall who had to meet the ambulance trains distributing the Somme human wreckage to hospitals across the UK, but I’m not ghoulish enough. The reference is below if you really want to go there.

I should also mention the relative treatment of Butcher Haig and the ordinary soldier once the war ended. I’ll quote again from machine gunner, George Coppard, who by the time the war ended was recuperating in Britain from a machine gun wound that nearly killed him at Cambrai . Here’s what he wrote:

“Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air … It was a common sight in London to see ex-officers with barrel-organs, endeavouring to earn a living as beggars … there were no jobs for the ‘heroes’ who haunted the billiard halls as I did. The government never kept their promise … During this time the government were busily engaged in fixing the enormous sums to be voted as gratuities to the high-ranking officers … Heading the formidable list were Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and Admiral Sir David Beatty. For doing the jobs for which they were paid, each received a tax-free golden handshake of £100,000 (a colossal sum then), an earldom and, I believe, an estate to go with it … If any reader should ask, ‘What did the demobbed Tommy think about all this?’ I can only say, ‘Well, what do you think?'”

The Somme butchery still has relevance. I was going to list several morals from the above about not trusting people who have power over you, the horrors of rah-rah patriotism, how every government lies, how leadership by the ambitious does not guarantee competence, the dangers of idolization of the military and its command, the psychopathy of people who seek positions of power, the masses as pawns in a game for the powerful, how with the passage of time historians become ever more forgiving of these psychopaths and bunglers, etc. But, on reflection, meh, I’ll let you pick your own moral to the story. There are plenty to choose from.


Almost a year after I’d researched and written the above, I was re-reading some Robert Graves short stories. Graves had enlisted at the outbreak of WWI, rose to the rank of captain and was severely wounded at the Somme. However, since most of his short stories are NOT about the war I hadn’t been thinking about my research into Haig until I came upon a Graves story titled “Christmas Truce.” In that story two fictional (I suppose) ancient WWI soldiers talk to a modern-day anti-nuke protester. And there inside one tiny paragraph, one of the two ancients lays out my entire Haig research in a nutshell. The old soldier is talking about Christmas 1915 and says:

“Haig was our new Commander-in-Chief. You hear about him on Poppy Day – the poppies he sowed himself, most of ’em! He’d used his influence with King George, to get General French booted out and himself shoved into the job.”


  • Haig’s damning diary entry about his visit to the casualty clearing stations:

  • George Coppard’s memoir of the Somme and of demobilization:

With a Machine Gun to Cambrai – George Coppard, Publisher: Imperial War Museum, 1980

  • Haig’s journal entry on how well the wire was cut, quoted in

The Chief – Douglas Haig and the British Army – Gary Sheffield, Publisher: Autumn Press Limited, 2011

  • Haig’s general background:

Douglas Haig and the First World War – J. P. Harris, Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2008

  • The machine gun issue:

The British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and the Machine Gun – Dominick Graham,

Publisher: Military Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 190-193

Accessible through, e.g., JSTOR.

  • Claire Tisdall and the British Ambulance Trains

The Roses of No-Man’s Land, – Lyn MacDonald, Originally Published: Michael Joseph, 1980.

See e.g., Claire E Tisdall’s account:

See also the account of Sister Helen Dora Boyle, ibid.

  • Robert Graves’s Short Story – Christmas Truce

See e.g., Robert Graves, Complete Short Stories, Penguin Books, Republished 2008.

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