- The Good Soldier : The Biography of Douglas Haig
Eighty years after his death, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig – the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the latter half of the Great War – remains a hugely controversial and fascinating figure. The past three years, indeed, have seen the publication of new biographical studies by Andrew Wiest and Walter Reid, plus Gary Sheffield and John Bourne's magisterial edition of Haig's war diaries and letters. Two more biographies, by Paul Harris and Gary Sheffield, are already in preparation. What, then, does Gary Mead's work add to this current scholarship? The immediate answer is that Mead has produced an articulate, perceptive and balanced book which, although less pro-Haig than the studies by Wiest and Reid, is decidedly more sympathetic than Gerard De Groot's rather sour 1988 biography. Mead succeeds better than most in capturing the very essence of Haig's personal character and values and fully conveys his subject's unswerving devotion to duty, gritty determination, dislike of melodramatics, open-minded approach to new technology and utter dedication to his profession. Equally, Mead rightly underlines that the obverse of these virtues was a tendency to stubbornness and dangerous optimism which, in turn, led Haig to persist with the [End Page 596] costly Somme and Passchendaele offensives longer than was wise or necessary. Based, apart from the Haig papers, predominantly upon published sources, the book contains no startling revelations but presents admirable analyses of such topics as Haig's difficult relations with Prime Minister David Lloyd George and of the whole post-1918 debate about Haig's performance as the BEF's Commander-in-Chief. On the debit side – and even allowing for Mead's admission that some readers will 'lose patience' with the book's 'lack of intricate battlefield details' (p. 9) – this biography has a number of weaknesses. For example, there are at least a dozen misleading statements or factual errors in the chapter on 1918 alone. While Haig's relationships with two key subordinates, Hubert Gough and Henry Rawlinson, are examined, other Army commanders – especially Edmund Allenby, Julian Byng, Henry Horne and Herbert Plumer – receive minimal attention. Yet more disappointing is the fact that Mead devotes barely two pages to the decisive offensive of August- November 1918, Haig's crowning achievement and the greatest succession of victories in the British Army's history. Recent scholarship strongly contradicts Mead's limp assertion that 'in truth he [Haig] bore little responsibility for the changes of this period, which enabled the steady progress towards victory' (p. 342). Mead fails to explain precisely how Britain's unskilled citizen army of 1916 was transformed, under Haig's stewardship, into the highly effective and modern all-arms force of August 1918, and he also seems largely unaware of the central, pro-active role which Haig and GHQ played in the crucial reorganisation of the infantry platoon and of the field artillery, and in the systematisation of training and dissemination of battlefield lessons, from late 1916 onwards. Mead's book is recommended to all interested in the First World War, for it has many excellent qualities, but we still await the definitive military biography of Haig.
University of Birmingham
Birmingham, United Kingdom