By Roger Pike
The First World War was decidedly great in terms of casualties.
It was also the result of great blunders as politicians were unable to stop European tensions from escalating. More important is the fact that the “Great War” left great scars.
One only has to visit the Somme battlefield in Northern France to truly appreciate the disaster this war inflicted upon society. The graveyards are everywhere, some of them very small comprising only of a handful of white marble stones bearing the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War/Known Only Unto God”.
When visiting France there are many of these cemeteries and so many stones that bear the names of many of our young men. On a recent visit to France I was hard pressed to find many over the age of 25 years.
The Battle of Somme was an epic of both slaughter and futility, a waste of men and material. On the morning of July 1, 1916 over 110,000 British and Commonwealth infantrymen went “over the top.” In a few hours, 60,000 of them were casualties. Nearly 20,000 were either dead in minutes or would die of their wounds, many lingering for days in trenches in no man’s land. The attacking forces did not gain a single one of their objectives.
According to Military History magazine, a staff colonel had the cheek to write: “The events of July 1bore out the conclusions of the British Higher command and amply justified the tactical methods employed.”
Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, chief of staff of the British Expeditionary Force (BFF) and architect of the battle, evidently agreed. 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 of continuing the offensive, which he did with a kind of transcendent stubbornness for another four months. By then Haig’s army had suffered more than 400,000 casualties, some of them Newfoundlanders.
For the British, in the grace judgment of noted military historian John Keegan, “the battle was the greatest tragedy of their national military history,” and Haig was the architect.
General Haig envisioned a vital role for horses in the Somme offensive. Douglas Haig’s battle, according to Military History magazine, attacked and kept on attacking even when the ground his men gained was useless by any military measure.
“Attrition is never an inspired strategy and is usually the refuge of a commander who cannot come up with anything better. And Haig was, if anything, unimaginative. A dead soldier is no good to anyone. Lives are not meant to be thrown away,” said the magazine.
As Paul Fussel 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.”
After the war, Haig became something of an awkward figure for the British government. He was popularly portrayed as a hero in the British fashion, given money and titles, but never another job.
In Grand Falls-Windsor a street was even named after him. He worked on veterans’ causes and early biographies are laudatory.
Then came the inevitable reappraisals. B.H. Liddell-Hart, a distinguished military historian who had been wounded on the Western Front, went from admirer to skeptic to critic. He wrote in his diary: “He (Haig) was a man of supreme egoism and utter lack of scruple who, to his overweening ambition sacrificed hundreds of thousands of men.”
Still in his defense, it’s clear to me that Haig honestly believed a massive frontal assault by infantry would punch a hole in the enemy line through which cavalry would charge to glory. This man was so confident in his outdated ideas that he never allowed actual battlefield experience to challenge them.
The time has now come to reappraise our assessment of Douglas Haig and the street, Haig Road, in Grand Falls-Windsor named in his honor. Douglas Haig was, in my opinion, a classic example of the colonial British mindset of the day, which was based on arrogance. Time has proven he does not deserve the adulation given to him.
On Saturday Nov. 25 at 8p.m. the Arts and Culture Center here in Grand Falls-Windsor will present “Dedication,” a play about Haig’s dedication of the war memorial in St. John’s and the controversy created by his attendance. I encourage area residents to take in this play and to reflect on the decisions made by this man in our history.
As we reflect on anther anniversary of this Great War (1914-1918) and the many people of Grand Falls-Windsor and surrounding communities who gave their lives, I call on our town leaders to reappraise our assessment of Haig and to rename Haig Road.
Haig Road should be renamed, if nothing else, Victory Hill.