An edited version of this review (cut for length and minus the comments about nicknames) has just gone in
to the Journal of Military History.
Full and frank disclosure: I have co-edited and co-written with Gary Sheffield, and consider him a friend as well as a colleague. But I’d still tell him if I thought he’d written a bad book. That I know him personally made it more of a pleasure to write as I’ve done below, but it didn’t change what I wrote.
G. Sheffield and J. Bourne, eds, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005), ISBN0 297 84702 3, pp550, £25.00
A. Wiest, Haig: The Evolution of a Commander (Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2005), 137pp, ISBN 1 57488 683 5, $19.95.
Douglas Haig stands with Neville Chamberlain as one of the two most controversial figures in British twentieth century history. Both men took difficult decisions in situations which baffled contemporaries. Both were certain they were right. Both arguably laid the groundwork for final victory in their respective world wars. Neither has ever been forgiven by their countrymen.
Throughout the war, Haig kept a detailed diary, written by hand and sent back at regular intervals to his wife to be copied up. Rather like the Bible, the Qu’ran (and countless other religious texts), excerpts from this diary have often been used to back up commentators’ existing beliefs. Either it demonstrated beyond all doubt that Haig was a far-sighted general, educated in the ways of modern war, or that he was a callous butcher, blind to technology and more concerned with kings and horses than the lives of his men. Those who wished to read the diary in context had to rely either on a version published in 1952, heavily edited by Robert Blake and reflecting his interest in political, rather than military history, or on the original diaries, held in the National Library of Scotland. Haig’s diary has itself been a subject of controversy. The keeping of manuscript and typescript versions, and differences between the two, has led some to see a conspiracy designed to advance the Field Marshal’s career or to shield his post-war reputation.
John Bourne and Gary Sheffield, two of Britain’s best historians of the Great War, have therefore rendered an enormous service to the field by publishing as full as possible an edition of this diary, together with a number of letters from Haig. Although inevitably edited for reasons of space, this volume indicates omissions and divergences between manuscript and typescript versions. Sheffield and Bourne argue powerfully (following the work of Elizabeth Greenhalgh) that Haig did not in general re-write his diary in an attempt to deceive the reader. Sheffield and Bourne would both interpret Haig’s command in a more positive light than some other historians – but they do not press their opinions on readers and their editing has been to produce a publishable volume rather than to support a particular interpretation. Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters is well supplied with an introduction, which narrates Haig’s life, explanatory footnotes, appendices and biographical sketches. There is great pleasure and much information to be gained from the editors’ expertise.
Sheffield and Bourne are ideal guides to this material because of their detailed knowledge of the British army in this period. The footnotes giving Haig’s subordinates’ nicknames are a work of wonder in themselves. If the derivations of ‘Fanny’ Fanshawe (99)and even ‘Stiff ‘Un’ Stephens (102) are reasonably apparent, what incidents in far off imperial hill stations led to the appellations awarded to ‘Meat’ Lowther (96) and ‘Gobby Chops’ Mullens (348)?
For those who wish to see it, there is copious evidence here for a more positive interpretation of Haig’s command. Entries in the diary clearly show Haig’s interest in his men, his recognition of the problems of command on the Western Front (even if he struggled to find solutions), his faith in technology and his acceptance of the need to bring in civilian expertise to manage the logistical efforts of the British army. By 1918 Haig had not only recognised that tactical manoeuvre in this war was possible only at the most junior level, but through the focus of his attention at inspections and training exercises, was clearly part of the BEF’s reinvention of itself as a skilled all arms modern force.
This volume will not, however, end debates about Haig’s character, nor convince those who continue to condemn him. They will find here evidence of Haig’s misreading of the confusion of war, of his self-belief obscuring any reasoned analysis of the reasons for failure, and of his appalling prejudices against Catholics in general and Italians, Frenchmen and Irishmen in particular.
It is for the scholar who is able to clear his or her mind of the detritus of previous interpretations of Haig’s life, that this volume will offer the greatest rewards. Read in full, rather than in excerpt, Haig’s diary gives a remarkable impression of a man of his age (his prejudices, religion and belief in technology were typical of his gender and class) struggling with the difficulties of the First World War. Haig was not a man given to introspection or self-doubt – no Alanbrookian worries over his own competence or the perils his troops were undertaking here – but he did leave a remarkably detailed account which can help us to reconstruct the past whilst avoiding psychological anachronism. As a source for understanding how Britain managed to fight the First World War, Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters is invaluable. For the history of Britain in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and for British military history, it is probably the single most important publication in the past year.
Andrew Wiest’s Haig: The Evolution of a Commander is a good guide to those new to the topic. Wiest guides his readers through the mass of writing on Haig, indicating areas of controversy and providing helpful suggestions for further reading. In a book of this length and purpose there is not room for really detailed historiographical analysis: but this means that Wiest is able to sum up both what we must still call the ‘revisionist’ case and to indicate where Haig’s command should be criticised. For undergraduates, cadets, or those unable to understand what all the fuss is about, this would be a good place to start.