Douglas Haig (1861-1928) was the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force and is often criticised for the high death tolls on the Western Front, particularly those sustained in the Battle of the Somme.
Before World War I Haig was involved in the military and given leadership roles. He attended the Royal Military Academy (Sandhurst) and served with the British Cavalry firstly in India and later during the Sudan War and the Second Boer War. He was recognised as a potential leader and in 1906 was appointed the Director of Military Training at the War Office and helped construct the British Expeditionary Force. In 1909 he was made Chief of Staff in the Indian Army and helped to train many men.
During World War I Haig was promoted to the top of his army. Initially Haig was given command of the 1st Army Corps in 1914 however by 1915 Sir John French, then commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was seen to be unfit for the nature of the campaign and instead Haig was appointed head of the British Expeditionary Force and remained as such until the end of the war. He was heavily criticised for many of his choices. His support of calvary charges despite their ineffectiveness against machine gun fire, which he said was “an over-rated weapon”, led to a high casualty rate in battles, earning him the nickname ‘Butcher Haig’. The Battle of the Somme, for which he was responsible, had 60, 000 casualties in its first day, the highest number of British casualties in a single day during the war, and by the end of the battle 600, 000 allied troops had become casualties. Similarly the Battle of Passchendaele, achieved its objectives at a great cost. Haig’s strategies relied on large numbers of soldiers throwing themselves at the opposing forces in order to break through the German defences and gain ground.
At the conclusion of the war he helped set up the Red Poppy Fund which provided assistance to ex-soldiers and their families.
Following his death, Haig was given a state funeral and was mourned by many. Close to 1, 000, 000 were said to line the streets to pay their respects and “the queue to pass the coffin stretched for a mile, despite driving sleet”.
Douglas Haig was an effective leader during World War I and he exhibited this before and after the war until he died. However the sheer number of deaths which occurred under his leadership meant that in the decades following his death he was severely criticised for many of his choices.