Haig and the New­found­lan­ders

The Compass - - OPINION -

His­tor­i­cal rep­u­ta­tions come and go like the sea­sons, and al­most as pre­dictably.

Shake­speare de­scribed men “seek­ing the bub­ble rep­u­ta­tion” in As You Like It. A cen­tury ear­lier, the French es­say­ist Mon­taigne — in French, of course — mar­velled at “how many valiant men have we seen sur­vive their own rep­u­ta­tion!”

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with the rep­u­ta­tions of states­men and sol­diers, and nowhere more strik­ingly than in the way the men of the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment viewed Dou­glas Haig, the man who led them dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme and through­out the final years of the First World War.

Haig was a pro­fes­sional sol­dier who rose steadily through the ranks of the Bri­tish Army. He com­manded an army corps dur­ing the first months of the war, when the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (BEF) — the “Old Con­temptibles” — were pushed back by the Ger­mans through Bel­gium and into north­ern France.

He be­came com­man­der-in-chief of the BEF in De­cem­ber 1915, when Prime Min­is­ter Asquith and Lord Kitch­ener, the sec­re­tary for war, fired Sir John French. David Lloyd Ge­orge be­came prime min­is­ter a year later. He ar­gued stren­u­ously against Haig’s strat­egy and tac­tics, but nonethe­less did not re­place him, and Haig com­manded the Bri­tish Army in Europe for the rest of the War.

A cheer­ing crowd of 10,000 met him when he re­turned home in De­cem­ber 1918. King Ge­orge V made him an Earl — a high rank in the peer­age. Both Houses of Par­lia­ment thanked him for­mally, and voted to give him £100,000 — a very large for­tune in­deed in 1918.

Un­equal to his task

But the tide soon turned. Win­ston Churchill cen­sured Haig in the World Cri­sis, his his­tory of the war. Lloyd Ge­orge was even more crit­i­cal in his war mem­oirs, de­scrib­ing Haig as “in­tel­lec­tu­ally and tem­per­a­men­tally un­equal to his task” and “sec­ond-rate.”

Churchill pub­lished his opin­ion dur­ing Haig’s life­time, but Lloyd Ge­orge’s ac­count of the war was not pub­lished un­til 1936, 10 years af­ter Haig’s death. He told his pri­vate sec­re­tary that “he in­tended to blow [Haig’s] ashes to smithereens,” adding that “un­for­tu­nately, he could not get at [him] per­son­ally.”

As the years passed, many, if not most, mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans treated Haig’s lead­er­ship harshly, and con­demned his con­duct in the war. He was fre­quently called “the Butcher of the Somme.”

But Lloyd Ge­orge, too, had cause to rec­og­nize that an his­tor­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion is only a bub­ble. In Novem­ber 1918, he was hailed through­out Bri­tain and the Em­pire as “the Man who Won the War.” He quickly called a gen­eral elec­tion, and was re­turned to of­fice with an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity.

His down­fall was just as spec­tac­u­lar. By 1922, his par­lia­men­tary and po­lit­i­cal sup­port­ers had turned on him and forced him to re­sign as prime min­is­ter. Although he re­mained a Mem­ber of the House of Com­mons un­til shortly be­fore his death in 1945, he never again held of­fice. His po­lit­i­cal legacy was the destruc­tion of the Lib­eral party that brought him to cab­i­net of­fice in the first place, and his place in his­tory was ir­re­vo­ca­bly tar­nished by the fail­ure of the Treaty of Ver­sailles, the post-war set­tle­ment he helped to bring about.

Her­alded by reg­i­ment

New­found­lan­ders — and par­tic- ularly the men who wore the reg­i­ment’s cari­bou badge dur­ing the Great War — had a very dif­fer­ent opin­ion of Haig. They re­mem­bered the men who at­tacked at Beau­mont Hamel on July 1, 1916, the first day of Haig’s plan for “the Big Push” on the Somme.

The New­found­lan­ders were sent for­ward in an at­tack that had no hope of suc­cess and would have changed noth­ing even if it had suc­ceeded. That Beau­mont Hamel was a mil­i­tary folly does noth­ing to di­min­ish the courage and gal­lantry with which they fought that morn­ing. They were the men whose com­rades had died at Monchy-le-preux in April 1917, when the New­found­lan­ders were or­dered for­ward in an ill-planned as­sault on the Ger­man front line; their losses that morn­ing were sec­ond only to those at Beau­mont Hamel.

If any group of men any­where in the Bri­tish Em­pire had rea­son to dis­like or even to de­spise Dou­glas Haig, their com­man­der-in-chief, surely it was the New­found­lan­ders.

And yet they did not. The ir­refutable proof came long af­ter the end of the war, when the reg­i­ment had been stood down and its mem­bers had re­turned to civil­ian life. They staged two great cer­e­mo­nial events to hon­our those who fought and par­tic­u­larly those who died.

On July 1, 1924, the eighth an­niver­sary of Beau­mont Hamel, the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial in St. John’s was un­veiled. Less than a year later, on June 7, 1925, the Cari­bou Me­mo­rial at Beau­mont Hamel was ded­i­cated of­fi­cially.

The reg­i­ment’s sol­diers, through the Great War Vet­er­ans’ As­so­ci­a­tion, were the driv­ing force be­hind the me­mo­ri­als and both events. They in­vited Earl Haig to be the prin­ci­pal fig­ure in each cer­e­mony, and un­veil each of the me­mo­ri­als. He did so.

The men who fought un­der his lead­er­ship gave the strong­est pos­si­ble tes­ti­mony of the great es­teem in which they held him. No greater trib­ute could ever be paid to him. And the Ben­nett Brew­ery’s Haig Ale be­came a favourite tip­ple of many New­found­lan­ders.

Only re­al­is­tic way

His­tory and his­to­ri­ans have been much kinder to Haig than to Lloyd Ge­orge. In­deed, for Haig, the tide has come in; most re­cent stud­ies of the Somme Bat­tle and the bal­ance of the war on the Western Front, have en­dorsed his con­duct of it, while still tak­ing into ac­count his ac­knowl­edged fail­ings.

Peter Hart, a di­rec­tor at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in London, summed it up in a short sen­tence in his study The Somme: The Dark­est Hour on the Western Front (2008): “Haig’s way was ex­cru­ci­at­ingly painful but it was the only re­al­is­tic way at the time.”

The men of the New­found­land Reg­i­ment were right. Wil­liam Philpott, an­other lead­ing Bri­tish mil­i­tary his­to­rian, con­cluded his Bloody Vic­tory: The Sac­ri­fice on the Somme on the Mak­ing of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury (2009) by re­call­ing that Gen­eral Erich Lu­den­dorff, the Ger­man com­man­der-in-chief, ac­knowl­edged that the Bat­tle of the Somme “was the mil­i­tary turn­ingpoint of the war.”

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