Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Douglas Haig, later Field Marshal Haig, was born in Edinburgh in 1861. He gained fame – some might say notoriety – for his actions in the First World War during which he commanded the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the end. Two million British soldiers lost their lives under his command, a distinction for which he was dubbed Butcher Haig.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July, 1916 the British army lost 60,000 men, the highest number of one-day combat casualties in its history. It was also the battle in which tanks were first used. Haig, a cavalry man, had little time for and no faith in modern weaponry. He said, "The machine gun is a much over rated weapon” and made similar remarks about tanks. Then aged 54 he had been a cavalry officer all his military life. He became the representative of incompetent commanders, unable or unwilling to adapt to modern strategies and technology. Despite this, the British and their allies were ultimately victorious, at the cost of huge loss of life on all sides.
At a time when little was understood about the effects of battle fatigue, (sometimes called shell shock and now defined as combat stress reaction) soldiers who were afflicted were accused of cowardice or malingering and were sent back to the front. Officers were usually sent home to recover.
Some soldiers committed suicide, others deserted, many refused to obey orders and were shot on the spot. Some were court-martialled, found guilty and shot by execution squads drawn from their fellow soldiers. 304 soldiers were executed during the war and a further 18 were shot after the Armistice. The vast majority of these men had served in the trenches on the western front. Haig was responsible for signing their death warrants. As a soldier trained in older days and ways, he would have been assured that he was doing his duty, unpleasant though it might be. In 2006 the British government reversed all those decisions and the men were given full pardons and recognised as victims of war – no good to them, of course, but bringing some sense of justice and peace to their descendants.
Haig was also incidental to the formation of the Royal Army Dental Corps in 1921. Suffering toothache, he sent for a dentist from Paris. Following this, the army hired a dozen dentists and by 1918 there were 831.
After the war Haig was created 1st Earl Haig and on retiring spent his time looking after the welfare of ex-servicemen. He helped to establish the Royal British Legion which continues to assist ex-soldiers, their wives and dependants, their most obvious and recognisable fund-raising being the annual Poppy Appeal.
Thanks are due to the Honourable Denise Nesbitt and Her Happy Helpers who organise and host this weekly meme. Click here to read more Hs.