Douglas Haig: The Greatest Betrayal
by Alan Clark
from Daily Express November 1998
IN 1913 Britain was the most powerful country in the
world. She straddled global trade routes with a Navy quite consciously designed to
challenge, and defeat, all the other navies of the world in combination and
We were a contented people. Confident, loyal
and, by today's polluted standards, innocent. Twice weekly the doorstep of every terraced
house would be scrubbed white; and if wages were low - why a pint of beer could be bought
for 4d (2p).
All too soon these standards, or rather the
manner in which they were perverted, would exact a terrible price. Sir Edward Grey the
Liberal Foreign Secretary and an early personification of the word "Europhile",
decided on August 4, 1914, to commit the greatest maritime power in the world to a land
war in defence of Belgium.
Belgium went under in 10 days and Britain
spent the next four-and-a-half years in full-frontal, set-piece attacks on the Western
Front, trying to get it back by heedless expenditure of blood and treasure.
First into the furnace was the British
Expeditionary Force, a tiny professional group of sharpshooters. Photos show their
magnificent physique. Every one in the Guards regiments had to be over 6ft tall. Soon they
were all killed.
By 1915 the volunteers were starting to
arrive from the recruiting offices. General Haig, the Army commander, had got into
difficulties attacking the Germans at Loos. On the second day he put into the battle two
complete divisions of volunteers That had just arrived. They had no rest, food, water or
combat training and the machine-gunners scythed them down in rows.
The following year came the Big Push on The
Somme - 10 times the scale of Loos, which Haig kept going for three months without
advancing half a mile.
Unbelievably Haig was allowed to try again in
1917 (this time with conscripts, as the volunteers were mostly dead). He chose
Passchendaele, the vilest morass of all The great battlegrounds, and poured in bodies from
July until November, gaining barely a yard.
Many years ago, when I was writing The
Donkeys - whose climax is the second day at Loos - I managed to buy the Victoria
Cross won in that battle by 2nd Lieutenant Freddy Johnson [pictured right]
at the age of 23. With the medal came some yellowing press cuttings put aside by his
parents. One describes a visit to his old school and the hero's speech when he joked to
the boys: "This is far more alarming than anything at the Front."
A classic example of the "stiff upper
lip", no more than would have been expected of him. But in the photos Johnson's eyes
look haunted. He never took leave again and was killed at Passchendaele in 1917.
The scale of this butchery can hit one in
different ways. For me it came as I watched for the first time the crowd of runners
assembling for the London Marathon. "Must be around 40,000," said the
commentator. Suddenly I realised that if they had been waiting to go over the top on July
1, 1916, every single one would be dead by nightfall.
None complained, although many were turned in
their minds and, half-mad, shot for cowardice or desertion. Only the poets, quite
privately (because editors sitting comfortably in their London offices, would never print
anything "unpatriotic" ) on scraps of paper in ill-lit dug-outs did record what
GREATEST of them all was Wilfred Owen, who
died from bullet wounds 80 years ago, on November 8. His most passionate poem was Anthem
For Doomed Youth, from its opening line: What passing-bells for those who die as
cattle? through to the final ones:
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds
This last was a reference to the fact that
when the death telegram was delivered in its orange envelope, all the blinds in rooms
facing the street were drawn a silent signal to friends and neighbours of private
So if, when on holiday in the North-east, or
Devon, or Scotland, you are curious, then take a look at the war memorial on any village
green and see how many carry one family name - and note their ages.
Because the four-year-long haemorrhage of the
Great War was as much a betrayal of youth by age as of one class by another. The working
classes, particularly in the countryside, had been brought up to believe that the
aristocracy would always look after them in a jam (some hope!), while the middle classes,
particularly the younger sons, were cut to ribbons. A complete future generation -
designers, farmers, industrialists and inventors - just ceased to exist.We still wear the
poppy on the 11th day of the 11th month and at the 1th hour we fail silent, very briefly
in memoriam of those young.
Until recently the black button at the
poppy's centre used to carry the inscription "Haig Fund".. No longer Most people
now realise, even while trying to avert their minds from the subject, that it was Haig who
threw it all away. How did Haig survive? Politics came into it, naturally The then Prime
Minister, Lloyd George, became increasingly uneasy at the casualty lists but he was
leading an uncomfortable coalition. He feared that if he quarrelled with the
Commander-in-Chief his partners in the Cabinet would exploit the opportunity to get rid of
Haig's own colleagues were imprisoned by
their hierarchic loyalties and nervousness about their own careers (one Army commander was
sacked by Haig for retreating under a gas attack, even though his men had not been issued
with gas masks). Besides, no one knew what the Western Front was really like, except those
who fought in it and their attrition rate was rapid.
SO THE Field-Marshal, in bronze effigy still
sits astride his horse and surveys, each year, the ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Does he ever perhaps in the small hours when the street is empty and silent, reflect on
the most horrifying statistic of the whole conflict?
Two years after its end, when every corpse or
human fragment that could be found was laid to rest founder of the War Graves Commission
Sir Fabian Ware calculated that if the dead could march side by side in continuous proces
sion down Whitehall, it would take them four days and nights to get past the saluting
The late Alan
Clark was Member of Parliament for Kensington & Chelsea, a former Minister of
Defence and a military historian.