In December 1915 it was still a stalemate situation on the Western front. This was because both sides were dug deep into a line of trenches stretching over 70 miles from the Belgian ports to Switzerland; neither army could gain any ground, or make any progress towards victory. The British questioned how well their army was being led. On 10th December 1915 General Haig was appointed as the new commander of the British troops, succeeding Field Marshall Sir John French.
Haig faced a difficult task, as he was to try to relieve the pressure imposed on the French by the Germans at Verdun, by attacking another part of the front lines. His tactics strategies and general opinions towards war caused some to label him as “the Butcher of the Somme”. Does he deserve this title or was he doing his best for the war effort? Haig had a successful military record. Fifteen years previously he had won the war against the Boers in Africa. Haig was looked on as a hero and at that time was regarded as the best man for the job.
However, the previous war against the Boers was very different to the battles, which the British now faced on the Western front. While the Boers were poorly equipped the Germans equalled the British in terms of equipment, ammunition and general skill in warfare. The Battles against the Boers were also fought on the dry plains of Africa where as the western front was a wet and muddy terrain. This meant that the Boer war was a very different form of warfare to that of the First World War. Field Marshal Haig was not used to the war of the trenches, where each side was dug down deep into a stalemate.
Although Haig had no experience of trench warfare no one else knew how to win a war like this or how to cope with trench warfare. When General Haig was appointed he was fifty-four years old, some people now think that at this age General Haig may have been out of date with technological ideas and military tactics. Some people also claim that Field Marshal Haig’s reputation of being a good leader was a misconception. Throughout the battle of the Somme Field Marshal Haig fell back on the ideas and tactics that he had used successfully in previous wars.
Haig felt that “The machine gun is a much overrated weapon”. During the early part of the battle of the Somme Haig’s strategies overlooked the power of the enemy machine guns. On the 1st July 1916 the British troops were ordered to go “over the top”. However they were to walk, not run, they also had to carry packs weighing about sixty pounds. The fact that the British were only able to move very slowly left them like sitting targets. They were almost instantly mown down by the German’s machine guns. During the battle of the Somme General Haig did not use many different tactics or formulate any new strategies.
Haig did not make full use of new technological advances such as the tanks. He could have used tanks to a much greater extent during the battle. There were many other ways in which Haig could have changed his tactics at the battle of the Somme. Once he realised that the full-frontal attacks were not breaking through he could have stopped them as the German’s advance had already been halted. Haig could also have attacked without bombardments as these warned the Germans that an attack was coming and took away the element of surprise.
Historians claim that General Haig could have used the British Navy to attack the Germans from the west while the Army could have attacked the Germans’ west flank close to the coast of Belgium. Another option would have been to use flexible teams of machine gunners to attack weak points in the German trench system, these tactics could have been carried out without mass loss of life. Other ploys could have been to use tunnels and explosives; shells containing gas and aeroplanes for overhead bombing. However, Haig continued to relentlessly order men to “go over the top”.
Although this tactic wore the enemy down quite considerably it resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of men. During the first day of battle alone there were 60,000 casualties. Yet Haig continued using this approach. General Haig was unaware of the hardship and appalling conditions faced by the men in the trenches, as he never once personally visited the front line. Haig believed that “In the course of the struggle losses are bound to be heavy”. He casually gave orders from comfortable quarters well behind the lines and out of any serious danger.
Had Haig paid more attention to what was happening in the front lines he might have stopped almost carelessly sending men to their deaths. Messages took a long time to be delivered from Haig to the trenches and the Field Marshall did not have knowledge of the terrible losses of the 1st July until three days later. In contrast to Haig’s butcher like tactics at the end of the war he was welcomed home as a victorious hero. As the battle of the Somme had served it’s purpose by removing the pressure of the Germans from the French at Verdun.
However was this too high a price to pay for victory? The battle of the Somme resulted in the largest number of British deaths than any battle before it. It took five months for the pressure on Verdun to be lifted. At the Somme only a few square miles of blood and mud had been gained in exchange for 700,000 deaths. I personally feel that Field Marshall Haig does deserve the title of “Butcher of the Somme” as he casually sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths. He did not think of alternative tactics and readily accepted the large number of deaths and casualties.