Douglas Haig

1861-1928
Portrait of Sir Douglas Haig.
Source: L'Illustration - l'album de la guerre 1914-1919

Douglas Haig was born in Edinburgh (Scotland) in 1861 to a family of whisky-makers. His father, John, made him study the classics. With a degree from Clifton College and Brasenose College, Oxford, he enrolled at the Royal Military College in Sandhurst in 1864 and was commissioned into the 7th Regiment of Hussars. Douglas Haig did his training in India in 1886, where he received his first promotion. He was then sent on active service to the Sudan (1898) before taking part in the Boer War (1899-1902) under the command of Major-General Sir John French. Promoted to the rank of colonel, Haig returned to India in 1903, where he carried out various administrative roles (as colonel and inspector general of the cavalry) beside Lord Kitchener. Showing particular aptitude for a career in the military, Douglas Haig became the youngest ever Major General in the British army when, in 1906, he was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office. He thus worked closely with the Secretary of State for War, R. B. Haldane, establishing a territorial army, as well as a British expeditionary force.

As Army General in 1914, he took command of the 1st Army corps of the BEF in France and Belgium, where he distinguished himself during fighting at Mons and Ypres. Hitherto second in command of the British forces in France under the orders of General French, he took control of the expanded BEF in December 1915, with French taking supreme command of the British forces. After February 1916, he was subjected to pressure from the French high command to speed up preparation for the offensive planned on the Somme for the summer of 1916, and thus create a diversion for the Verdun front. Between July and November 1916 he was sent with his troops to fight in the battle of the Somme, where he actively participated in the allied breakthrough over 12 km of the front, operations that caused the loss of 420,000 men from the ranks of the British army and earned him the nickname "the butcher of the Somme", and later in the bloody assaults around Passchendaele in 1917 (the third battle of Ypres), which enabled him to obtain his Marshall's baton and to be described by Pershing as "the man who won the war".

In 1918, Douglas Haig was the instigator of the British victory on the western front (the fronts of the Somme and the Aisne). As a member of the Armistice military council convened in Senlis by Foch, he gave his approval to the military conditions for the armistice with the central empires. However his costly military successes won him some post-war critics for his policies, such as David Lloyd George, the British prime Minister and some British media organisations who called the 1st July 1916 "the bloodiest day for the British army". On his return from the front and until his retirement in 1921, Douglas Haig was commander in chief of the British Home forces. After ceasing active service and having been awarded the title of count, he devoted a great deal of his time to veterans through the Royal British Legion. He died at his London home in 1928 and was given a state funeral.