Book Review: In Flanders Field
“Great Man” myths have a habit, disturbing for the staid in mind, of toppling to the ground. Generals, politicians and other famous public figures are found, usually some time after their period of usefulness is over, to have feet of clay. The more incisive historical enquiries uncover lies, intrigue and treachery: and the myths collapse, though usually too late to have any practical effect. It is, however, never too late to learn; and perhaps the unmasking of the Great Men of yesterday might make us a little suspicious of to-day’s Pillars of the Establishment. The latest victims of the fashionable literary pastime of debunking are the generals and politicians of 1917, and particularly Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
In Flanders Fields, by Leon Wolff, Longmans, 25s. is a very fine conscientious piece of muck-raking. It is not a book about war generally, it is a detailed, well-documented account of the prominent men and important events of 1917. The main theme of the book is the policy of “attrition” and its consequences for the soldiers taking part.. The great exponent of this policy of wearing down the enemy by repeated offensives was Haig, and its principal opponent Lloyd George (at that time Prime Minister). There is a larger theme, usually implied but occasionally explicit as in the quotation from Carlyle at the end of the book; that wars are fought in the interests of ruling groups, and that the majority, of the participants are but pawns in a very dirty game.
The end of 1916 found the armies in France and Belgium more firmly dug-in than ever. A system of trenches, dug-outs, pill-boxes and barbed-wire stretched for hundreds of miles, and many miles deep. In spite of the horrible battles of 1915 and 1916 the Allied Generals were as determined as ever to break the German lines. The French started their offensive first; and as at the Somme, the result was ghastly failure. There were more serious consequences for the French Government than defeat in battle, for the French soldiers decided that they had had enough. They mutinied in tens of thousands, and the ringleaders were shot in hundreds. One group, numbering 750, were sent to a quiet part of the front line and there massacred by their own artillery. These incidents were to provide Haig with some good excuses later. He was to need them; particularly perhaps to quiet his own conscience.
The main British effort was directed at breaking the German line in Flanders and capturing the Channel ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. Haig hoped that after the initial break-through squadrons of cavalry would be able to chase the Germans and turn retreat into rout, thereby breaking the stale-mate that had existed on the Western front since December, 1914. The offensive started on July 31st, and continued for fifteen weeks. The ground, in peace-time carefully drained by an extensive system of ditches and canals, quickly returned to marshland under the heavy bombardment. At the end of one of the bitterest battles ever waged an enormous number of soldiers were placed in a salient, only a few miles deep, more dangerous than the Ypres salient from which they started. Passchendaele, a heap of rubble, about five miles from the starting line, was captured after ninety-eight days. The offensive resulted, according to one official estimate, in 448,000 casualties on the British side; the author estimates that the small French forces under Haig’s command lost 50,000, and the Germans 250,000. It was usual that about a third of the casualties were killed or died of wounds, so that for a piece of muddy ground 250,000 men were killed, and a further 500,000 wounded or captured. It is fair to point out that other estimates, more favourable to Haig (showing more dead Germans, and less British) have been made by other historians; after reading this book it is difficult to place any reliance on them. Many of the wounded (no one knows how many) were drowned in the shell-holes, unable to drag themselves to safety. They died slow, miserable deaths, making feeble efforts to resist the clinging, sticky mud.
The author thinks that the war was being fought for objects that were “demonstrably trivial” a view that is based on a mistaken conception of how and why Capitalism goes to war. Where there are avowed “war aims” they may be only a cloak for objects which are not openly stated because it would be more difficult to get people to fight for them. There were important issues at stake; Europe had not been torn apart because of an assassination: and there were more important reasons for Britain’s entry into the war than the preservation of Belgian neutrality.
Several questions are raised by the book, and if not answered in full at least plenty of material is provided to help supply the answers. Why did the British Government allow Haig to continue his hopeless offensive? Why could not Lloyd George remove Haig from his post? And what was the attitude of the Welsh Wizard towards the war?
Lloyd George, the War-Monger
On one thing Haig and Lloyd George were in full agreement—they were both determined to smash Germany. Lloyd George’s weepings over the fallen can be treated sceptically; if more concrete results could have been obtained he would no doubt have been quite prepared to send more millions to their deaths. He had already rejected peace negotiations with Germany, and indeed was placed in power because he was in favour of vigorous prosecution of the war. Characteristically, he would no doubt have made his (written) reservations about such a victory that would conveniently have found a place later in his memoirs. Though Lloyd George had once acquired a reputation as a “peace lover” by opposing the war against the Boer republic in South Africa he was quite prepared, along with the rest of his party, to forget about tolerance and humanity for the duration.
And what of Haig, the man who gave the orders in June, 1917 that led to the deaths of 250,000 men? He deserves a mention, for he was in his day a Great Man, a leading actor in the sordid tragedy of 1914-18; unfortunately a tragedy that is no mere stage-piece. Capitalism lives by savage rules, and millions died so that Britain and France could dominate Europe. Haig did not take a personally tragic part in the events of 1917, being merely relegated after the war to an Earldom, inaction and (by ruling-class warrior standards) an early death: He never occupied any official post after 1920, but in his heyday he was the darling of the ruling-class How Lord Northcliffe’s papers fawned on Haig in 1917! How The Times (and the Top People) loved him! For a few months during that autumn The Times acclaimed a tremendous victory for every move Haig’s armies made, every pile of rubble captured, every few yards of mud gained.
Haig was a cavalry officer, and this explains much about his mentality and methods. He had joined a fashionable regiment, married a Queen’s lady-in-waiting, and was the favourite of Kings—and of Kitchener. He owed his position more to influence than military ability. He grew up in the secure world of late-Victorian England, where military exploits were romantic adventures undertaken in far-off countries against enormous hordes of ill-trained, ill-armed tribesmen. (The hordes would be lucky if they possessed the fire-power of one machine-gun.) A very special kind of military tradition was built up in England; the Army was a shell fired by the navy! Secure in their sea communications, small forces would be sent all over the world; and from this grew Britain’s tremendous superiority in overseas bases. What was an advantage in Empire-building became however a positive disadvantage when engaging in a war with another great industrial power.
Haig was a part of this tradition, ideas were modified slowly (from the Boer war the generals gained an exaggerated respect for massed cavalry) new technical innovations were almost beneath the dignity of high-ranking generals. India, South Africa, Omdurman provided a very poor apprenticeship for Ypres and the Somme. Haig with his rigid, Army-trained mind, was incapable of appreciating that cavalry were useless against machine-guns, earthworks and barbed-wire. He held to the end his faith in his horsemen, not seeing that war was changing, that machines were playing an increasingly important part. It is probable that in his 400 tanks Haig held a master-card that could have beaten the Germans, but he never played this card until his Armies had become bogged down in the mud. Where the tanks were given a chance to show what they could do, there were no reserves left to follow up the initial success gained. From reading his private papers it is obvious that he had no very clear idea of the conditions under which men fought. He was a sincere man, religiously convinced that he could win the war. He placed enormous faith in his staff, believing their phony reports of the victories gained. Along with his Staff, he lived in a narrow optimistic world, almost closed to common-sense or mercy.
In the second (concluding) article, the influence of the generals and the policy of attrition will be considered.
F. R. Ivimey