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To what extent does Sir Douglas Haig deserve the epithet
Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was heavily criticised
after the First World War for issuing orders which led to excessive casualties of British, French
and German troops. Many historians feel that the epithet `The Butcher' was due to his conduct
of his armies on the first day of the Somme. The British and French armies combined suffered
67,000 casualties on the first day, the highest in its history, and the Germans suffered 8,000.
From the large number of casualties, we can see that Haig does deserve his nickname `The
Many people believe that Haig's epithet is hugely deserved because of his management
of his forces during the whole of the war. However, one day that stands out when it comes to
talking about Sir Douglas Haig, is the first day on the Somme. In terms of British casualties, the
first day on the Somme is only exceeded by the Fall of Singapore when over 80,000 allied
soldiers became prisoners of war. On 1st July 1916, Haig ordered the Somme offensive. This
plan called for a massive artillery bombardment, which was to knock out all German resistance
along an eighteen mile front. Haig employed the use of 1,500 British guns backed by almost the
same amount of French artillery. The British infantry would then go into the front line trenches in
order to prepare to charge gaps in the German line. If the taking of the German lines proved
successful, the British would then sweep through to Cambrai and Douai, breaking the German
line in two.
However, the preliminary bombardment was hugely ineffective many shells failed to
explode, but when they did explode, they failed to cut the German wire. The relative
inexperience of the British assault troops at the beginning of the battle was also responsible for
the stalemate at the battle. On the other hand if Haig's army had pulled off the Somme offensive
he would have been hailed as a hero.
The objectives of the Somme offensive were to gain territory, to draw German troops
away from Verdun and kill as many German soldiers as possible as part of the `war of attrition'.
Haig realised that the offensive would bring with it many allied causalities, however he believed
that they were fighting for a just cause and that God was on their side. Haig also had some
rather old fashioned views on modern technology such as the machine gun he described it as `a
much overrated weapon' that could be captured by `grit and determination'. One weapon that
Haig did believe in was a relatively new weapon to war, the tank.
`The nation must be taught to bear losses. No amount of skill on the part of the higher
commanders, no training, however good, on the part of the officers and men, no superiority of
arms and ammunition, however great, will enable victories to be won without the sacrifice of
men's lives. The nation must be prepared to see heavy casualty lists.' This was written by Haig
in June 1916 before the battle began. It shows how Haig was aware of what he was getting his
soldiers into he knew of the mass numbers of casualties and that it would not be able to be
stopped by anyone.
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It can also be argued that Haig was not to blame for the huge number of casualties of
the battle. John Keegan, a historian from the First World War, writes that it was inevitable that
large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, was bound to result in
heavy casualties.…read more