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But Haig’s attachment to the horse was abiding and stubborn, and he went so far as to argue that the machine gun was an overrated weapon—especially against the horse.Generals, the cynics like to say, are always fighting the last war.
But Douglas Haig may be the great exception to this rule.
First, because he still has defenders who—in spite of those many graveyards and inconclusive, costly battles—would claim he was not in fact an unsuccessful commander.
By then, Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties. They are artists of a kind, blending in one person intelligence, intuition, courage, calculation and many other traits that allow them to see what others cannot and to act when the time is right.
For the British, in the grave judgment of noted military historian John Keegan, “the battle was the greatest tragedy…of their national military history” and “marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” But Haig was not finished yet. For students of military history, the question of what makes great commanders is inexhaustibly fascinating.
He failed in a much grander sense; failed classically in the fashion of Pyrrhus, who lamented after the battle at Asculum, “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” While the controversy over Haig has never been settled, there was no question about his fitness for command when he took over the British forces on the Western Front after the failures of 1915.
Was Earl Douglas Haig The Butcher Of The Somme Essay
The battles at Arras and Loos had been badly planned and managed, captured little ground and resulted in what seemed at the time heavy casualties.He had obtained every qualification, gained every experience and served in every appointment requisite for the General Command.” And Haig was as confident as he was qualified.Churchill, again: “The esteem of his military colleagues found a healthy counterpart in his own self-confidence….(It failed even on that score, since the Allies lost more men than the Germans.) Haig, popular thinking goes, attacked and kept on attacking—even when the ground his men gained, yard by bloody yard, was useless by any military measure—in order to wear down the Germans.Attrition is never an inspired strategy and is usually the refuge of a commander who cannot come up with anything better. As Paul Fussell writes in his indispensable volume The Great War and Modern Memory, “In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention…Haig had none.” Still, in his defense, it’s clear Haig honestly believed a massive frontal assault by British infantry would punch a hole in the German line, through which his cavalry would then charge to glory.On the day after the debacle, stating that the enemy “has undoubtedly been shaken and has few reserves in hand,” he discussed with subordinates methods for continuing the offensive.Which he did, with a kind of transcendent stubbornness, for another four months, until winter weather forced an end to the campaign, if not the fighting. Of course, truly great generals seem to possess all these qualities to some degree.Then–BEF commander Sir John French was exhausted, demoralized and lacked confidence in himself and that of his immediate subordinates.He was replaced by Haig, who was, in the words of Winston Churchill, “first officer of the British Army.One sees so many of these cemeteries and so many stones—along with the vast memorial at Thievpal bearing the names of some 70,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered—that after a few hours of it, you feel numb. The magnitude of the battle still stuns the imagination.The Somme was an epic of both slaughter and futility; a profligate waste of men and materiel such as the world had never seen.