Field Marshall Douglas Haig is most associated with the Battle of the Somme in World War One. Douglas Haig was Britain’s commander-in-chief during the Somme battle and took much criticism for the sheer loss of life in this battle.
Haig was born in 1861 in Edinburgh. He was commissioned in the cavalry in 1885 and served both in the campaigns in the Sudan and in the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. In the Boer War Haig served with distinction and he was swiftly promoted to the War Office. Here Haig helped to implement the military reforms of Richard Haldane.
In August 1914, when the war started, Haig was the general commanding the First Army Corps. He and his men fought at the Battle of Mons and the first Battle of Ypres. In December 1915, Haig succeeded Sir John French as commander-in-chief of the British Army in the Western Front.
Haig had little time for new military ideas. He was very much steeped in the ways that he knew – conventional tactics. In 1916, Haig put his belief in one final mighty push against the Germans to be executed in the Somme region of France. The French had been asking for some form of military assistance from the British to help them in their battle with the Germans at Verdun. Haig’s plan was to launch an attack on the Germans that would require them to remove some of their troops from the Verdun battlefield thus relieving the French in Verdun.
The Somme led to the loss of 600,000 men on the Allies side; 400,000 were British or Commonwealth troops. When the battle had ended, they had gained ten miles of land. Haig has been criticised by some for his belief in the simple advance of infantry troops on enemy lines. With 20,000 Allied soldiers killed on Day One and 40,000 injured, some historians have claimed that Haig should have learned from these statistics and adjusted his tactics. He did not. However, the Somme attack was not just about antiquated tactics as the battle witnessed the use of the rolling artillery barrage that should have helped the Allied troops as they advanced. That it did not was more a comment on the fact that the Germans had dug in more deeply than British intelligence had bargained for and was less susceptible to artillery fire. Once the artillery firing had stopped, the British had all but signaled that the infantry was on its way.
The tank was first used en masse at the Somme but it did not receive the enthusiastic backing of Haig – though many senior cavalry officers were against the tank and Haig was not alone in his suspicion of it as a weapon.
Haig served until the end of the war. He was created an earl for his leadership in 1919. He died in 1928, but spent the last few years of his life working for ex-servicemen, though primarily those who had been disabled in the war. Haig was a leading light in the “Poppy Day Appeal” and the British Legion movement.