Aftermath - when the boys came home

Monday 1 July 2013

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Douglas Haig (and Lloyd George)
by Andrew Grimes

from Manchester Evening News November 1998

Blood on their HandsBlood on their hands.

HAIG, the commander-in- chief of British forces on the Western Front during the First World War; is still honoured in the Poppy Appeal though arguably he killed as many of his own men as Stalin and Hitler put together.

Lloyd George who, as prime minister, cowardly kept him on in spite of railing privately at the incompetent as a bloody waster of young British lives, is to have a statue put up to him. There should be no statue to Lloyd George. No self respecting sculptor should accept the commission. And it is time the British Legion removed Haig's loathsome name from the poppy fund.

It was right to do reverence this week on the 80th anniversary of the 1918 armistice to the hundreds and thousands of soldiers whose bones lie in foreign battlefields. However I could not help feeling, throughout the solemn commemorations, that it really is time for a universal acknowledgement that these brave men were the victims of idiots and of psychopaths.

No one summed up the lunacy better than Thomas Hardy, still going strong in his 80s during the massacres, in his marvellous poem, Channel Firing, in which he imagined the dead in a Dorset graveyard shaken from their coffins by the bombardments in distant France and Flanders.

"All nations striving to make/Red war redder Mad as hatters/They do no more for Christ's sake than you who are helpless in such matters."

It is still erroneously described as the first modern war. It was, in fact, the last war fought on feudal values and with an anachronistic medieval strategy.

The young men who volunteered to fight were not very different, in their deferential attitudes, from their 14th century ancestors, summoned from the harvesting to join in the brawls of their lords. They thought their lords knew what they were doing. Four years of attrition in the trenches was to teach them a dreadful and embittering truth.

Haig kept thousands of horses on stand-by throughout the war. The Navy supplied more ships to fodder them than ships carrying men and munitions were sunk by German submarines.

Haig, contemptuous (or possibly ignorant) of the scything effects of the machine-gun, believed the Germans could be overwhelmed by infantry advancing with flintlock rifles, followed up by glorious cavalry charges.

He first put the initial stage of this theory to the test at the Battle of the Somme. On July 1, 1916, 13 British divisions marched towards the enemy like ceremonial troops down Whitehall, led by subalterns blowing whistles and clutching one-shot revolvers. At the end of the day 19,000 lay dead.

Brothers fell alongside brothers, fathers alongside sons. Towns, such as Colne and Ashton-under-Lyne, were overnight denuded of men of procreative age. Hardly a home in long, milltown streets was not in mourning.

Haig, surveying the carnage from a French chateau miles behind the front, where once he boasted of never getting his boots wet, remained wistful for his horses.

He went on ordering suicide waves until November when so many men were drowning in mud, that even he thought it wise (temporarily) to call it a day The resumed slaughter was, of course, to continue for another two years.

Did any good at all come out of the First World War? Far from being the war to end all wars, it turned out to be the prologue to the longest and bloodiest in world history. Would Hitler have built his Third Reich in 1933 had Germany not been humiliated by the Allies at Versailles in 1918? Would six million have perished in gas chambers?

Haig makes a point to Lloyd George
Haig in conversation with Lloyd George, watched by General Joffre

One indirect benefit was that the working-class began to grow up and to realise that the jingo swell with the lardy-dah voice and a chestful of medals was very likely ripe for a lunatic asylum.

By 1939, even the bishops and the generals conceded that war, even when unavoidable, was a thoroughly bad thing. But one can never be satisfied that Britain's rulers have thoroughly digested the lesson of the Somme while they hanker to put Lloyd George on a plinth and still keep Earl Haig on a poppy-seller's collecting box.

WHILE researching this column, I discovered that Lloyd George spent 10 days after the Armistice in the Lord Mayor's bed at Manchester town hall. The goatish prime minister lay for once, on his own. He had contracted flu during a speaking tour and was in no state to frolic with anyone.

The flu he got was of the virulent strain which in 1918 swept the globe, killing several million more people than the First World War. I cannot help thinking that it would have been kinder to Lloyd George's reputation if, instead of living on to 1945, he had died in the Lord Mayor's parlour. As it was, he became a silly and interfering old man, one of the appeasers who sucked up to Hitler.

He was born in Manchester - of which no Mancunian should be proud, If there has to he a statue to Lloyd George, it must not be in Albert Square.

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