Young Douglas Haig

Young Douglas Haig

Douglas Haig in 1885
Douglas Haig in 1885

Most people will have heard of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who is often remembered as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’ due to the horrendously high casualty rates suffered by the British Army during the offensive in 1916. Indeed, Haig has been a controversial figure amongst historians ever since the end of the First World War, some seeing him as being out of his depth as a senior military commander, while others argue he was the man who won the war. The debate goes on to this day, with little sign of it ever coming to an end. All this, of course, is familiar to any First World War enthusiast, but few know of a young Douglas Haig’s early military career.

Haig was born on 19 January 1861 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of John and Rachel Haig, who ran a successful family whisky distillery business called Haig & Haig. He would be educated at Oxford University, where he was a member of Brasenose College and the Bullingdon Club, later playing polo for the university team. Following his education, he would join the British Army in January 1884, attending the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. On 7 February the following year, he was commissioned into the 7th Hussars as a lieutenant.

His first overseas posting came in late 1886, when he went to India with his regiment as adjutant. In this role he gained much respect from his senior officers, demonstrating his considerable organisational skills, while also gaining a reputation for strict discipline. In January 1891, Haig was promoted to captain.

In 1892, Haig left India and returned to England with the intention of sitting his examinations for entry into the Staff College at Camberley. Unfortunately, the young captain failed the mathematics test and was refused a place. The fact that he was colour blind also contributed to this failure, since Sir Redvers Buller refused to back him due to his eyesight.

Haig returned to India, but he would soon be back in England acting as aide-de-camp for Sir Keith Fraser, who, at the time, was inspector-general for the cavalry. Fraser, who liked Haig, managed to secure for him a place at the Staff College, and, in 1894, he finally achieved his allusive goal. It was shortly after this time that he became staff officer to Colonel John French, the future commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in 1914.

It would be in Sudan, during Major-General Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s re-conquest of 1896-98, that Haig would experience active service for the first time. He would be appointed as an officer in the Egyptian Army – which was made up of Egyptian, and later Sudanese, troops but commanded largely by British officers – where he would act as staff officer to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert George Broadwood, who commanded a brigade of Egyptian cavalry.

During his time in Sudan, Haig would take part in several skirmishes with the Mahdists and be present at both the battles of Atbara and Omdurman. He would later be critical of Kitchener’s tactics employed at both battles, even going as far as to state that his superior had ‘no plan, or tactical idea, for beating the enemy’. With the Mahdists crushed and the cities of Khartoum and Omdurman back under Anglo-Egyptian control, Haig was promoted to brevet major on 15 November 1898.

In May the following year, Haig returned to England, where he was appointed brigade-major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. A month later, his rank as major was made substantive, and in September he was made Deputy Assistant Adjutant General. His stay in England, however, would again be short, since he was ordered to go to South Africa as Assistant Adjutant General to French, who was now in command of a brigade being sent to fight the Boers.

Haig would see much service during the Anglo-Boer War, being present at the Battle of Elandslaagte in October 1899, after which he and French just managed to escape being stuck in Ladysmith before the siege began. When Frederick Roberts arrived to take over as commander-in-chief of British forces in South Africa, he appointed Charles Hay (the Earl of Erroll) as Assistant Adjutant General of the cavalry division. French had hoped to appoint Haig to this position, but his subsequent protests fell on deaf ears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Haig later heavily criticised Roberts – in a similar fashion to the way in which he derided Kitchener several years earlier – describing the commander-in-chief as a ‘silly old man’ and wasteful of horses.

When Kitchener was later appointed as commander of British forces in South Africa, both French and Haig found themselves commanding a force occupying the area in and around Johannesburg in late 1900. Later, in January 1901, Haig led a column of troops in the hope of catching the Boer commander Pieter Hendrik Kritzinger. It would also be around this time that he took part in the so-called ‘scorched earth’ policy of destroying Boer farms and homesteads, as well as escorting Boer civilians into the concentration camps, which remains a controversial aspect of the war to this day.

Finally, in May 1901, Haig was given command of his own regiment of cavalry, the 17th Lancers. He would also be mentioned in dispatches on four separate occasions for his services in South Africa, and promoted to lieutenant-colonel in July. The award of the Companion of the Order of the Bath had already been conferred on him in November the previous year.

In 1903, Haig relinquished his command of the 17th Lancers in order to travel to India to take up the position of inspector-general of cavalry. The following year, he was promoted to major-general, becoming the youngest officer in the British Army to hold the rank at that time, and in 1906 he was appointed director of military training on the General Staff at the War Office. Our story now takes us towards the First World War, and what is the far more familiar Haig remembered by most of us today.