Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarship 2016
Research Essay

To what extent does Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig deserve the sobriquet “The Butcher of the Somme”?

A Research Project with a particular emphasis on the role of the AIF in the Great War

This is the key to Haig’s failure as a general, every virtue becomes a flaw when pushed to excess [1]

The echoes of the Somme cataclysm continue to reverberate a century on throughout the pages of modern history. Claiming the mortal and practical lives of over one million Australian, French, British and German troops, the Australian War Memorial has propounded the name ‘Somme’ synonymous with ‘slaughter’ [2]. A figure of utmost puissance and widespread controversy during and following the First World War, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig has been cleped by many historians as “The Butcher of the Somme”. In consideration of all opinions, while Haig was clearly inept as a commander, the term ‘Butcher’ seems too harsh a criticism for the obvious product of traditional British military ‘etiquette’. War historian B.H. Liddell Hart suggests, 'In his qualities and defects, he was the very embodiment of the national character and the army tradition' [3]. Furthermore, historian Joseph Coleman asserts that the 'First Day of the Somme could have partially been attributed to the pre-war British grand strategy, at the heart of which was the desire for competitive advantage through trade and empire' [4]. This approach to battle, with an inherent reluctance to stray from conventional techniques, in the face of German forces in an 'enviable position of defence' (Vern Cleary), and in a war of revolutionary warfare, was clearly the radix of Haig’s calamity.  Albeit, the opinions of Haig’s contemporaries, particularly prime minister David Lloyd George, who was 'openly critical of Haig’s cavalier attitude with his men’s lives', have lead to the continuum of the Butcher appellation. In spite of the undoubted bias encompassing the assertions of Lloyd George, who appears to hold few in high regard, this perspective has served to justify the opinions of a myriad of post -modernists, including war historian P.W. Turner who suggests, 'Because the plan failed, Haig must be held responsible' (1969). All stances considered, Haig’s tragic flaw of adversity to technological advancement was clearly begotten of his progression and prominence in the ultraconservative British military.

The Somme Offensive

Haig’s planned attack:

Commander Haig approached the Somme offensive with a preconceived confidence in the effectiveness of past methods employed by the British military. Planning to adhere to the modus operandi involving the bombardment of enemy territory, spying on enemy artillery and shelling obstacles. Haig anticipated that after the destruction of German troops and artillery, the British would slowly advance across no-man’s land, to the extent where they were advised to keep pipe in hand (Brad Manera, pers. comm.), capture enemy trenches and kill the remainders. As one of many historians illustrates, 'he felt it an easy victory for Britain' [5] against the outnumbered, and at this stage, out-resourced German offensive. The reality of this attack, however, could not have fared any worse. The Germans, left 'substantially untouched by the bombardment' [6], had built their trenches 'deep and reinforced with concrete, with underground galleries, giving almost complete immunity from shellfire' [7].  Author of ‘Vimy Ridge - A Watershed Moment in Canadian History’ John Ward illustrates the sheerly disastrous outcome:

In battle after battle, thousands died for gains measured in yards. On the Somme, on July 1st 1916, the British army suffered the single worst day in its long and pugnacious history, losing 60,000 men… Most were gone in the first hours of a massive frontal attack that saw men climb out of the trenches and march shoulder to shoulder into the sights of chattering machine guns which cut them down like standing hay [8]

The Australian impacts of this situation were felt at the Battles of Fromelles and Pozieres, where over 5,500 and 23,000 casualties were experienced respectively. The official Australian War Historian Charles W. Bean illustrates the Australian experience within his diary:

29th July 1916
Pozières has been a terrible sight all day … The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them … each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man – instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds – I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg – fling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside, or in that sickening dusty crater.[9]

(Below: Fromelles)

a01560_1.jpgCredit: Australian War Memorial

The Affirmative

Those in condemnation of Haig are intensely critical of his launching of the disastrous Somme Offensive. Firstly, this criticism stems from Haig’s supposed ‘pigheadedness’ (J.F.C. Fuller) in wearing down 'alike the manhood and guns of the British Army almost to destruction' [10], 'convinced that victory would come by military might alone' (Colley). This seems a fair reflection, considering Haig was most famously quoted 'The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy, which owes its inception to the desire to evade the price of victory'. Additionally, critics also censure his catastrophic decision to position his soldiers in the muddy hell of the Somme Valley, considering that he had the liberty of launching the offensive anywhere between the south of France and the North Sea. The detriments of this decision are clearly evident within the reaction of Haig’s chief of staff, who when viewing the muddy wasteland of the Front, broke into tears saying, 'Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?'  Furthermore, the majority of critics rebuke Haig’s insistence on the use of cavalry and initial rejection of the use of heavy artillery, particularly tanks, which in a war characterised by advanced weaponry, was viewed as dominant and decisive instruments on the battlefield.

(Below: Pozieres)


The Negative

While the opinions of the affirmative serve as testimony to Haig’s butchery, one must first delve deeper into the motivations and background influencing Haig, to gain a more informed understanding of his character and regime. In reality, Haig’s decision to commence the Somme Offensive, particularly the means by which, and where he attacked, was clearly influenced by his coming-of-age in the British Military. Renowned for tactical conservatism, and above all, for valuing discipline and social prominence over innovation, the British Army, its commanders and its involvement in conflict throughout the course of history, have gained a reputation one might postulate no-less-than imperious. Considering this milieu, it is clear where Haig’s character and motivations stem from. As an experienced soldier who, in the words of Winston Churchill, “had obtained every qualification, gained every experience and served in every appointment requisite for the General Command”, Haig was not only accustomed to, but begotten of this military ‘etiquette’ and traditionalist view of conflict. The nature of his experiences in conflicts prior to the Great War, particularly in the Mahdist and Boer Wars, reveals interesting similarities with tactics adopted during the Great War; tactics which in the past had been largely successful. In a war where “technical revolution reached the battlefields', Haig adhered to the tactics he knew best, and as the authors of History Net suggest, “This is the key to Haig’s failure as a general, every virtue becomes a flaw when pushed to excess”.

Not discounting the obvious detriments of the launching of the offensive within the problematic Somme Valley, however, further research evinces what Haig was influenced by, and suggests his motives.


Firstly, in response to those who reprimand Haig’s ‘idiotic’ decision to initiate the attack rather than solely defend and hold allied ground, one need only probe his despatches from the Front to gain an understanding of the method behind his madness. On the 23rd of September 1916, on reflection of the preceding months of the Battle of the Somme, Haig asserts what he anticipated to occur:

23rd September 1916 - Despatch:
The objective of that offensive was threefold: to relieve pressure on Verdun; to assist our allies in the other theatres of war by stopping any further transfer of German troops from the western front; To wear down the strength of the forces opposed to us

Haig’s motives are clear; one might even posit pragmatic, considering the sheer enormity of the loss (360,000 Frenchmen) at Verdun and the extended duration of the Battle (300 days) in response to Falkenhayn’s wish to 'bleed France white'. Sir William Robertson, Chief of Imperial Staff illustrates the obligation to come to France’s aid, bearing in mind the possibility of the French withdrawing from the North (Manera, pers. comm.) in response to the 'slaughterhouse' (Trueman) of Verdun:' The necessity of relieving pressure on the French Army at Verdun remains, and is more urgent than ever.'

Secondly, some historians suggest that in launching the Somme Offensive Haig was influenced by his superiors and experiences as a junior officer (Manera, pers. comm). Firstly, this is evident within Commander French’s despatches, where he writes, 'As much pressure as possible must be brought to bear upon the enemy.' Considering his experience and service under French at the commencement of war during the Battles on the Frontiers in 1914 in Ypres, one may postulate that Haig was inspired by attrition of his troops at the hands of the enemy, and sought to mirror the damage inflicted. Moreover, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener, who Haig fought under, was also a supporter of the theory of attrition, asserting 'that eventually you would grind down your enemy and they would have to yield' (Trueman). Secondly, considering the similarity of the tactics used during Haig’s involvement in even earlier conflicts, it is clear where Haig rehearsed his modus operandi. This is quite notably evident within the Mahdist War in the Sudan (1881-1899); a conflict led by Kitchener whose 'strategy involved a slow southern advance towards the enemy' (T.J. Stapleton).  One can imagine the implications of slowly advancing across a flat field, in the face of the Germans, equipped with machine guns on the high ground.

Furthermore, Haig’s insistence of this form of attack also bears resemblance to tactics adopted in even earlier conflicts, particularly in North America, where one historian points out that the British 'had demonstrated the flaw in this method of attack during the War of 1812, and… had truly driven the point home on a dozen different occasions' (Authors of HistoryNet). The fact that the British Army had continued to adopt this defective approach to combat, in spite of numerous losses and obvious ineffectiveness, ultimately reveals the atmosphere and background in which Haig’s character was forged. This, quite clearly, reveals a profound influence; an influence so incomparably inherent to the British national character that it practically accommodated the colossal devastation at the Somme.

Moreover, the fact that Haig rejected the advice of his 'subordinates', particularly General Foch and Sir Henry Rawlinson whose 'arguments for a limited infantry offensive contrasted markedly (and ultimately disastrously) with his breakthrough plans' (Michael Duffy), ultimately reveals the issues caused by ‘military hierarchy’ of the British Army. In a segregated structure where progression is determined by wealth and status rather than merit, it is clear to see how this would contribute to Haig’s 'pigheadedness' (J.F.C. Fuller). With this in mind, similarities between Haig and other British military leaders throughout history must not be discounted. Particularly General Braddock in the French and Indian Wars who rejected the advice of subordinate George Washington, who suggested the British adopt the Guerrilla warfare of the natives in the Battle of Monongahela, to which he replied, 'It is impossible that the savages make any impression… upon the King’s disciplined regulars'. Therefore, one must not hold Haig responsible for a tragic trait so inherent to his upbringing and progression within the obviously problematic hierarchy of the British Army.

Location - Why the Somme Valley?

Credit: Australian War Memorial

Many of those in condemnation of Haig criticise his decision to launch an attack within the muddy hell of the Somme Valley. War historian Rupert Colley illustrates this predicament:

The bombardment combined with heavy rain had ensured that the ground was akin to a sea of mud and many an advancing soldier, lumbered with almost 70 lbs of equipment, drowned.  

(Below: Australian Charles Bean, knee deep in mud near Gueudecourt, France)

Credit: Australian War Memorial

This tribulation serves as testimony to the assertion of Paul Fussell in ‘The Great War in the Modern Memory’: “In a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention…Haig had none.” Although this is the case, I continue to affirm that Haig’s progression in the British Army was the ultimate contributor to this disastrous decision, and serves as a prime example of the political pageantry so inherent to early 20th century politics. While Haig justifies his decision to launch the attack where he did by averring in his despatches:  

On the 20,000 yards front between the Somme and the Ancre the enemy had a strong second system of defence… We had good direct observation on his [Germans] front system trenches.

Some historians have suggested this to be the tip of the iceberg. This is particularly the case with expert war historian Brad Manera, who claims that Haig “chose the confluence of the Somme and Ancre River because the French could see them” (pers. comm.). He asserts that the threat of the French withdrawing their forces, considering the sheer enormity of loss in Verdun and in the South, put Britain’s forces at risk, and therefore influenced his decision to locate the offensive in the valley where the French slaughter fields were situated either side. This opinion may serve as testimony to the faults within the British Army and their approach to combat, as they were clearly more strongly motivated politically rather than altruistically (especially with the reluctantly allied French). Once again, considering Haig’s advancement within this atmosphere, it is fair to suggest it to be the cause of his downfall, with an inherent reluctance to disregard past grudges.

A 'cavalry man at heart'

Above all, Haig is mostly criticised for his insistence and favouring of the use of cavalry over heavy artillery, particular tanks, which he viewed as merely 'accessories to the men and the horse' (Haig). One can imagine the difficulties associated with mounted cavalry under the circumstances of the terrain, facing the Germans in 'an enviable position of defence' on the high ground, armed with machine guns, of which Haig believed to be 'a much overrated weapon'. In Haig’s defence however, 'weapons of defence during the First World War were much superior to the weapons of offense. Haig was not alone – generals on all sides puzzled over this uncomfortable truth' (Colley).  This was the ultimate cause of Haig’s downfall, as the technological and industrial advancements of the First World War deemed the conservative values of the British army completely void. Historian Garson O’Toole illustrates elucidates this plight:

On many occasions, horse-mounted cavalry units were decisive on the battlefield. But the development of machine guns, barbed wire and armoured tanks dramatically changed military tactics.

One anonymous author asserts 'the man [Haig] was so confident in his out-dated ideas that he never allowed actual battlefield experience to challenge them' (HistoryNet). I beg to differ in this case, considering that after experiencing the colossal losses on the Somme, Haig ordered the implementation of prototype tanks within the offensive. The ‘land ships’ were initially introduced in September of 1916 in Flers-Courcelette, where they advanced a mile into enemy territory but were prone to mechanical difficulties and lacked pace.

(Above: Tanks at Flers-Courcelette, credit: World of Tanks)

In spite of their relative ineffectiveness, Haig recognised the potential of tanks as a decisive mechanism on the battlefield and 'ordered the war department to produce hundreds more' ( Staff). This implementation of tanks within the allied method was later effectuated in Bullecourt in early 1917 after the Somme, predominantly with the 4th Australian Division (3,300 of which were casualties). With the objective of punching a hole in the German line and under Haig’s authority, 16 tanks advanced across the battlefields at Bullecourt, 8 of which broke down almost immediately. After making little strategic gain, all tanks had broken down 'before they reached the front line' (Manera, pers. comm). This ultimately reveals the unreliability of the heavy artillery at the time, and, in Haig’s defence, reveals that tanks were just as, if not more ineffective than cavalry on the battlefield. Perhaps if the British army valued innovation enough to invest resources into testing the tank prototypes, the nature of warfare on the Somme may have fared differently.

(Below: Failed tanks at the first battle of Bullecourt, 1917, credit: Australian War Memorial)


It is clear that the dilemma of conscription within Britain at the time posed major issues to Haig’s offensive:

Haig: Despatch
A very large proportion of the officers and men under my command were still far from being fully trained, and the longer the attack could be deferred the more efficient they would become.

The issue of conscription is particularly relevant to Haig’s implementation of heavy artillery, considering that the 'newly recruited volunteers… not military personnel' (Trueman) had no experience with tanks' (Manera, pers. comm), and had the primitive belief that they were 'some sort of mobile blockhouse that would punch a hole in the German line'. One can conclude that the inadequate training of troops at the hands of the British army caused major issues for those in command of the battles.

Historical Significance and Impact on Society

Historian Chris Trueman concisely illustrates the profound significance of the Battle of the Somme:

The Battle of the Somme was the battle that symbolised the horrors of warfare in World War One; this one battle had a marked effect on overall casualty figures and seemed to epitomise the futility of trench warfare.

Furthermore, Les Carlyon in his ANZAC day oration illustrates the profound Australian effects:

As one historian has put it, the western front is the major episode in Australia’s military history. There, he said, we engaged the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. Never was this more obvious than in the victories of 1918. At Fromelles, in French Flanders, on one night in July 1916, an Australian division suffered 5500 casualties. Some of our best spirits died out on that soggy plain, mown down, as one man present put it, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb. Fromelles was arguably the worst night in Australian history...
Pozieres down on the Somme began a few days later. Three Australian divisions went through here twice. They fought under artillery bombardments that reduced the village to piles of ash and caused strong men to go mad. After six weeks the last Australians were pulled out, our casualty list stood at 23,000 - twenty three thousand Australians dead and wounded to reclaim about 600 acres France.

(Above: The sounding of the last post in Sydney's Domain during the first Anzac Day parade)

The tragedies on the Somme impacted a wide population of diverse nationalities. Military historian John Keegan illustrates this aftermath, 'the battle was the greatest tragedy…of their national military history which marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.' While this assertion specifies the impact on the British public specifically, one can assume with confidence that this predicament is paramount across all nations affected by the Great War. Today, the Western Front is dotted with 956 Commonwealth War Cemeteries dedicated to the sacrifices of over one million Australian, British, French, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Indian and German troops who served and died within the war.


While Haig was clearly unsuccessful as a commander, the sobriquet ‘Butcher’ seems too harsh a description for the obvious product of the problematically conservative British army.


[1] History Net, Military History 2007, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig - World War I’s Worst General

[2] Australian War Memorial, The Somme Offensive

[3] B.H. Liddell Hart, 1928, Reputations.

[4] Coleman, J. 2013, Historiographical Essay on the Battle of the Somme.

[5] 'The Battle of the Somme', Pollock, L. on CLARE, JOHN D. (2002/2014),

[6] Fitzsimmons, P. 2015, Fromelles and Pozieres - In the Trenches of Hell

[7] Williams, J, 2009, Modernity, Media and the Military: The Creation of National Mythologies

[8] Devine, P.

[9] Australian War Memorial, Fromelles and Pozieres

[10] History Net, Military History


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