Review: Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Sheffield)

Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory.

“The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.” The back cover blurbs praise this biography for being “objective and well-rounded” and “a balanced portrait,” but after two full readings of the book, I remain unconvinced that Haig was anything but a very lucky shyster.

The author is very obviously a staunch admirer of the man. What betrays this is that exactly the same kind of behavior that he condones in respect to Haig’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C French, he condemns in respect to Rawlinson’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C Haig. When he does criticize his hero, it’s mild, and often excuses are made for him, such as in one period when Haig’s shortcomings are justified on the basis of his recently having been afflicted with a diarrheal illness.

While lauding Haig’s supposed adherence to the notion of noblesse oblige on the part of an officer towards his men, Sheffield also cherry-picks the diary entries he quotes, leaving out Haig’s scathing and mean-spirited remarks about the performance of the “PBI.” Haig’s steep learning curve in regard to Rawlinson’s commonsense “bite and hold” is brushed aside, and the fact that towards the end of the war Haig was finally forced to use it – with much better success than in his years of pursuing the evanescent cavalry breakthrough – is camouflaged by calling the methodology a “step-by-step” approach, and insisting it was Haig’s idea all the time.

Haig was a consummate politician. He surrounded himself with people for whom he’d done favors (such as Gough and Rawlinson), so he could depend on them to bail him out when his own poor performance threatened his position – and then, when he was through with them, he sacked or sidelined them. Military men of democratic nations may have been enjoined to be apolitical in regard to the government of their countries, but a highly developed talent for back-scratching and double-dealing served the savvy Haig very well.

In other respects, the book has a deceptive title, because it treats the whole life and times of its subject, not just the period “from the Somme to victory.” The author excuses this because it’s “a revised version of The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army . . . (the change of title reflects the exigencies of commercial publishing)” – in other words, the book wasn’t selling under its original title. There’s a small central glossy section of photographs. Its in-text citations are collated in end notes, it lists “Sources and Select Bibliography,” and it possesses a tolerably useful index. The text has relatively few grammatical glitches, and no obvious typos, indicating fairly good editing and compositor work. It’s a hefty volume that presents well in hardcover with gold leaf printing on the dust jacket.

A reasonably thorough source of information about how Douglas Haig made a name for himself on the necks of his colleagues and the backs of the Poor Bloody Infantry.

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