The Battle of the Somme was the first campaign launched by Sir Douglas Haig after he took over command of the British Army on the Western Front. His leadership during the battle made him one of the most controversial figures of the war and has been intensely disputed ever since.
Haig entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1884 and then served with his regiment, the 7th Hussars, in India. He attended the Staff College, Camberley, in 1896 and saw active service during Sir Herbert Kitchener's 1898 campaign in the Sudan.
Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, 1918
Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, 1918.
Haig served under Sir John French on the staff of the Cavalry Division in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. When the British Expeditionary Force went to war in August 1914, Haig commanded I Corps at Mons, the Marne, the Aisne and First Ypres. He led the renamed First Army from December 1914, including during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle and Loos in 1915.
Haig succeeded Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force on 19 December 1915. His period in command remains a much-debated subject among historians. He predicted a breakthrough in his offensives on the Somme in 1916 and at Ypres in 1917, but neither campaign delivered on this. Haig tended to emphasise the use of bigger forces and weightier artillery bombardments rather than tactical flexibility. He is also accused of persisting with costly operations longer than necessary, justifying them as battles of attrition when no decisive strategic advances were possible
Union flag (Haig)
Flag carried behind Haig on his various inspections of Troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) whilst he was Commander in Chief British Forces, 1915-1919.
At the Somme, his armies suffered more than 400,000 casualties for no significant gain. With the French still under pressure at Verdun, operations on the Somme were prolonged into the autumn, when poor weather meant the battlefield was little more than mud. Haig finally agreed to end the campaign on 18 November 1916, after nearly five months of battle.
Jacket worn by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
Jacket worn by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief British Expeditionary Force, France & Flanders 1915-1918.
However, Haig displayed great tenacity during the crises in the spring of 1918 and acknowledged the value of a unified Allied command under Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Between 8 August 1918 and the end of the war, the forces led by Haig defeated the main body of the German Army in the greatest succession of victories in the British Army's history, a fact often obscured by his previous failures.
He was created Earl Haig in 1919 and worked after the war to assist men who had served in it. In 1921, he helped establish the Earl Haig Fund, with the aim of providing help in time of need to all who served in the Armed Forces and their dependants. Douglas Haig died aged 66 in 1928.