by Gary Mead
London: Atlantic Books / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2014. Pp. xviii, 322.
Illus., maps, biblio, index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 1782392246
Rethinking Douglas Haig
The reputation of Douglas Haig (1861-1928), who commanded the BEF from mid-1915 to the end of the Great War has been one of radical extremes, ranging between, as The Times Literary Supplement put it in its review of the original 2007 edition of this book “Hagiography and donkeydom”.
In The Good Soldier, journalist and historian Mead, also the author of The Doughboys: America and the First World War, gives us a more nuanced Haig. Mead sees Haig as an intelligent, seasoned veteran and good military administrator, well aware of the many innovations in military practice, including the machine gun. But he was also a man rather lacking in imagination, and overly optimistic, particularly about the possibility of the long-desired “breakthrough” and the imminent collapse of the German Army. Mead observes Haig that ran a tightly controlled staff, discouraging dissent, while disliking virtually everyone who was not British and Protestant, and thus virtually all of his allies.
Despite these faults, Mead notes that Haig strongly supported new technologies and tactics, including aviation and the tank, and was more concerned about the welfare of his troops than most Great War commanders. He also reminds us that many of the blunders attributed to Haig were due to the inherent flaws of the British Army, and most notably to its painful change from the small highly professional force of 1914 to the improvised mass citizen army of 1916, and finally to the highly sophisticated veteran force of 1918, arguably the most able army in the world.
So Haig emerges as a rather able commander who for much of the war was both overly optimistic and expected too much from the tools that he had to work with, but who finally got it right. As he tells us about Haig, Mead also contributes to the refutation of some of the continuing myths of the war, such as the endless rows of stoic Tommies marching forward with fixed bayonets on the first day at the Somme, or that Haig dwelt in an elaborate chateau well behind the lines.
The Good Soldier
is a necessary read for any serous student of the Great War.