Aftermath - when the boys came home

Monday 27 February 2012

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Douglas Haig & his troops
from Blighty (1996) by Gerard J.DeGroot

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...what is striking, given the circumstances, are countless examples of extraordinary reverence felt by soldiers toward senior officers during the war and immediately afterwards. Many examples exist of soldiers feeling extraordinarily fortunate to have caught a glimpse of Haig when his car passed while they were marching. Corporal H.Milward, given some food by Haig when they passed each other (Haig in a car, the soldier on foot) remarked:

 

I thought how extraordinary it was that a man with so much responsibility could find time to think of the wants of a humble soldier. To how many men in his position would the thought of my well-being have occurred?

What a contrast there must have been between us. He, handsome, well-groomed, spick and span, smart as a good soldier should be, I dirty, unwashed and wretched.

In the army's social order, Haig was almost the equivalent of royalty. Like present-day royals, he was not expected to show humanity or familiarity, therefore the effect was all the greater when he did, Reverence was encouraged by the mystery, pageantry and pomp which senior commanders cultivated. Visual symbols of power reinforced authority: the commander's dress and deportment under-lined his superiority and inspired common soldiers to trust in his leadership. Ordinary soldiers who saw Haig at all saw him on a tall, handsome horse or in an impressive car. His uniform was perfectly appointed and his hat shielded his gaze - thus preventing eye contact and accentuating the distance between him and them. 'I remember being asked on leave what the men thought of Haig', one soldier recalled. 'You might as well have asked the private soldier what he thinks of God. He knows about the same amount on each.'  C. E. Carrington, who knew the ordinary soldier well, argued: 'The problem of Haig's personality is not whether his grand tactics . . . were right or wrong; it is how he was able to retain the loyalty of his troops, as he did in 1917, and in 1918, and until his life's end.'   Most ex-soldiers heartily welcomed Haig's Honorary Presidency of the British Legion. When Haig died in 1928, the crowds lining the streets of Edinburgh and London as the cortege passed were nearly as large as those for a deceased monarch. Prominent in the crowd were many old soldiers.

haig.jpg (8533 bytes)
Douglas Haig

Senior officers were under no illusion that this was a democratic war which required them to share the suffering of their men. Along with power went privilege. The fact that his men slept in muddy holes was no reason for Haig to decline a soft bed in a luxurious ch�teau. Grouse, salmon, fine wines and the best brandy were sent to him by rich friends at home. Nor did he perceive anything wrong with sending whole lambs and butter from the army stores to his wife so that she would not have to endure food shortages. Luxuries were the confirmation of high authority. In the same sense, extravagant rewards were perfectly justifiable after the war. Already in 1916, Haig assured his wife that 'a grateful nation will not allow me to have a smaller income than I am receiving now! So we will be well enough off to make ourselves comfortable.' Few objections were raised about the luxuries Haig enjoyed during the war, or the rewards he received after it. These were the accepted standards of his class and rank. Greater restraint would have seemed peculiar.

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