A comparison of Commanders: John French and Douglas Haig

A comparison of Commanders: John French and Douglas Haig

At the outbreak of the “Great War” the officer class was the result of a strict and old-fashioned education based on nineteenth-century military manuals derived from those of the Napoleonic period. The military staffs of the main European armies were supporters of tactics and skills – such as bayonet assault, cuirassiers, the cavalry, showy uniforms – which were obviously outdated. After the American Civil War, even though whole regiments had been wiped out by ever more powerful weapons, including the first machine guns, the only solution suggested by the French military command was to increase the thickness of the cuirassiers’ armour. At the beginning of the 1900s, although the Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated the effectiveness of artillery, machine guns and trenches, many British officers still believed that the intervention of the cavalry on the battlefield was crucial. These conflicts were, however, far from the old continent. High commands, whilst continuing to draw up ambitious and minutely thought-out military plans such as Plan XVII and the Schlieffen Plan, were actually trained to fight against far weaker nations or in small colonial conflicts. In this context two British commanders in the First World War - John French and Douglas Haig - are important examples.

John French was born in Ripple on 28th September 1852. In 1874 he joined the army as a cavalry officer. Between 1884 and 1885 he served in Sudan in the Mahdist War with the rank of lieutenant colonel. During the Second Boer War he was in command of the cavalry division, going from success to success. After his experience in Africa, French climbed the military hierarchy: promoted to general in 1907, he became Chief of Staff of the British Army in 1911 and from 1912 to 1913 held the office of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. In 1913 he became Field Marshal.

At the outbreak of the First World War he was appointed commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Despite the opposition of Kitchener - who felt it was opportune to deploy troops in Amiens for a decisive counterattack - French managed to convince the government of the advantages of deploying the BEF directly in Belgium. As predicted by Kitchener, the superior German troops, after overcoming the Belgian fortifications, had the better of the small and poorly armed professional British army at Mons and Le Cateau. In both cases French ordered his subordinates to abandon their positions and equipment. Disaster was avoided only thanks to the initiative of the commander of the II Corps, Horace Smith-Dorrien, who set up a successful defensive action that allowed his troops to regroup, save their equipment and retreat in good order. Fearful of being surrounded, French became increasingly indecisive and concerned with guaranteeing the safety of his troops, attempting a retreat that put the integrity of the line between the French and Belgian armies at risk. Kitchener had to intervene in the field to reorganize the General Staff and direct the counteroffensive on the Marne. Despite his obvious inadequacies, French remained in command, leading the British forces in the battles of Neuve Chapelle and Ypres, which left the BEF devastated. In 1915 French’s reluctance to cooperate with the French led to failures at Artois and Loos, forcing him to suspend all offensives until the troops had been reorganized. Much was hoped of the attack at Loos (25 September - 19 October 1915), which included the use of gas shells and where, for the first time, Kitchener's Army was deployed - a large armed force ready to confront the German army in both numbers and weapons, effectively replacing the small professional army of the pre-war period. The attack, led by Douglas Haig, was initially quite successful, but French’s indecision delayed the arrival of reinforcements. Deployed far away from the front, the reinforcement troops arrived exhausted and too late to affect the battle, giving the Germans time to regroup. After about twenty days, the battle ended with almost 60,000 British losses compared to around 26,000 German deaths. Having lost the support of the government, and blamed by Haig for the failure at Loos, French had to give up the command. Reassigned to the British Home Forces, he commanded troops in the repression of the Easter Rising in Ireland. He died on 22nd May 1925.

French’s deputy, Douglas Haig, was called to replace him. Born in Edinburgh on 19th June 1861, Haig’s career was similar to that of his predecessor - he served first in Sudan and later in South Africa. In 1909 he was in India in command of the colonial troops. At the start of the First World War he left for Belgium with the BEF. After a series of successes in the Battle of the Frontiers and on the Marne, Haig was promoted to Lieutenant General and second-in command of the BEF. An energetic man, ambitious and less fearful than French of employing all available forces in taking an  offensive to the bitter end, Haig took command of the British troops blaming most of their failures on his predecessor.

After a long lull in military operations due to a chronic shortage of artillery shells and in order to have all his troops at full strength, Haig commanded all the main battles of attrition involving the British army, counting on an impressive amount of artillery - British industries were in fact able to produce an adequate amount of material only as of the second half of 1915 - and plenty of men. In July 1916 he planned and led the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest battles of the First World War and which ended with no clear strategic results despite the use of 4,000 cannons and over 400,000 losses. The Battle of Passchendaele took place a year later, in July 1917. Again, whilst relying on a clear advantage in terms of men and artillery the battle ended in strategic failure after some tactical successes. The levity and obstinacy with which he sent his men to die, against military positions which were heavily defended and still intact despite bombardment, earned him the epithet of Butcher of the Somme.

During and after the war Haig’s tactics at Somme and Passchendaele were mired in controversy with many critics, including the Prime Minister Lloyd George, condemning him for such large and unnecessary losses in return for mediocre tactical gains despite the fact that, compared to when French was in command, the British forces were now numerous and well armed. Despite such controversy, Haig it is still given credit for having understood the usefulness of tanks, despite the unsatisfactory results of their first use on the Somme. Their full effectiveness was revealed at Cambrai and they were to become one of the symbols of the Allied victory. Moreover, during the 1918 Spring Offensive, he managed to contain the German troops on the Somme and during the fourth battle of Ypres. During the Hundred Days offensive, between July 1918 and the end of the war, Haig’s troops captured over 188,700 prisoners, 2,840 cannons and many other materials. In the same period the French, US and Belgian troops, numerically far superior to the British, captured 196,700 prisoners and 3,775 guns. After the war, Haig was showered with honours and devoted himself to defending and protecting war veterans. Contrary to organizations which separated veterans according to grade and sector, Haig founded the Royal British Legion in 1921 to support   all British fighters and those of the Dominions, without distinction. When he died on 29th January 1928, he was taken to Westminster Abbey on the gun carriage which had fired the first cannon shot of the Great War and which had previously contained the remains of the Unknown Soldier.