Haig’s War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918

Extract

‘Reports up to 8am most satisfactory. Our troops everywhere had crossed the Enemy’s front trenches.’

Haig, Diaries and Letters, p.195, 1 July 1916

Introduction/Context

This is an extract from the volume of Haig’s War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918, published in 2005. Douglas Haig was a senior officer of the largest British Army to date, and commander during the Battle of the Somme.[1] This particular extract documents Haig’s understanding of the first few hours of the Somme offensive, part of a wider series of offensives conducted by the British and French either side of the river in 1916.[2] Haig’s conduct is still being evaluated by historians because of the unnecessary scale of casualties on the first day on the Somme.

Content

This extract is particularly insightful as it tells us what Haig wanted potential readers to believe he knew about the first day of fighting on the Somme (we must be sceptical as he may have been aiming to protect his reputation, thus writing optimistically about the situation). This is extremely relevant to historians as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) suffered 57,000 casualties by the end of 1st July, igniting controversial debates about its futility.[3] Ultimately, what Haig writes is incorrect; he states that by 8am the results were most satisfactory and that troops everywhere had crossed the enemy’s front trenches. On the contrary, Donald Cameron (12th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment), recalls that “the first wave went over at 0720. They lay down about 100 yards in front of our own barbed wire. The send wave went over and lay down about 30 yards behind them”.[4] Reginald Glenn (of the same battalion) depicts a similar effect, stating that soldiers were “just mown down like corn,” highlighting the dramatic rate of casualty that is absent from Haig’s entry which suggests that, contrary to Haig’s belief, troops barely made it past their own front line – let alone reach enemy trenches.[5] Haig appears to be ignorant of the human cost of this first day of fighting as he makes no reference to any casualties. In fact, his tone would make us believe that everyone had crossed the line unscathed.

Similarly, Haig appears confident about the preparations for the offensive in his entry on the 30th June, stating that they had never been “so thorough, nor troops better trained. Wire very well cut, and ammunition adequate.”[6] It is questionable whether this optimism is genuine, self-protection, or a morale booster, as once again he is disproved by accounts from the front line. Don Murray (8th Battalion, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) testified that “the barbed wire [at Thiepval-Mametz] that was supposed to have been demolished had only been cut in places”.[7] As a result, it is unlikely that the majority were able to get to the enemy’s front line as Haig suggests in his account on the 1st. Furthermore, the German machine guns had failed to be subdued by the preliminary bombardment, meaning that even if individual members of the BEF managed to cross No-Man’s-Land unscathed and finding the wire cut, they would have been met by enemy riflemen.[8]

Comment

The stark inconsistencies between Haig’s diary and the testimonies of those who actually fought in the offensive mean that historians cannot take Haig’s word at face value, particularly with regards to the Battle of the Somme as it completely fails to convey the scale of catastrophe; we cannot be certain whether Haig was limited by information or whether he was deliberately trying to downplay this. Haig’s seeming ignorance, however, does contribute to the popular British view that patriotic soldiers were slaughtered by stupid generals who were never near the front line, and were “oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the men in the trenches”. [9] Whilst it was unsuitable for generals to be at the front as the British Army could simply not afford to lose such highly trained men, this source begs to question how useful he was during the offensive, given that he seems completely unaware of the truth of the situation.

Bibliography

Corrigan, Gordon. Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004).

Haig, Douglas; Sheffield, Gary (Ed.); Bourne, John (Ed.). Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

Harris, J. P. . Douglas Haig and The First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Hart, Peter. The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (Pegasus Books, 2010).

Levine, Joshua. Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009).

Prior, Robin; Wilson, Trevor. The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory (UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).


[1] J. P. Harris, Douglas Haig and The First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 531.

[2] Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004), p.249.

[3] Corrigan, p.13. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.112; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001), p.190.

[4] Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009), p.111.

[5] Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (Pegasus Books, 2010), p.137.

[6] Douglas Haig and Gary Sheffield (Ed.) and John Bourne (Ed.), Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), p.197.

[7] Levine, p.123.

[8] Prior and Wilson, p.77, p.279.

[9] Corrigan, p.10, p.189

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