A War Biography

Mr. Duff Cooper’sHaig (Doubleday, Doran, $4.00) was written at the invitation of the executors, who placed at his disposal the thirty-six folio volumes which contain the diary and the private papers. It can be classified as the official biography, and presumably it will stand as authoritative until, at possibly some remote date, all the material is made available to the public.
Interest centres on the war. Extracts from Haig’s diary and correspondence are skillfully knit together with a lively and elucidating commentary which treats military matters on the broadest lines. Stress is laid on that most important phase of Haig’s duties — his contacts with British and French civil and military authorities.
Haig entered the war as a Corps commander. He was sure then how the war should be fought. He did not change his opinion when he became Commander in Chief. As he saw the situation, the power of Germany was concentrated in the West. It was there that defeat must he inflicted. Any dispersion of effort would only weaken the one important front to the advantage of an enemy capable of safe and swift internal movement.
Any discussion of Haig’s strategy must take certain factors into consideration. When the British, in the years before the war, committed themselves to fight in France, the lines on which the war was to be fought assumed definite shape. Not even there was he ever an independent commander. He had been told that he must consider himself subordinate to the French in strategy.
At first this subordination was in the nature of an understanding. After the removal of Joffre it was crystallized into direct control when Nivelle, the new C. in C., French Armies, was given direction of the Expeditionary Force. This arrangement, basically unsound, produced inevitable friction when Nivelle issued instructions inappropriate both in form and in substance.
That Haig was opposed to unity of command was not true. It was he who was indirectly responsible for the appointment of Foch as generalissimo — an improvisation vitally different from vesting the supreme command in the active commander of the French armies.
No major action was fought by Haig entirely of his own volition. The Somme was designed to relieve the French Verdun, and the French chose the time and place. Arras was the complement of Nivelle’s warwinning Champagne attack. The Third Battle of Ypres was initiated primarily in response to Pétain’s appeal — he had relieved Nivelle after the Champagne failure — to take pressure off the French Army, which was in a very depressed state amounting in some instances to open mutiny.
Fight Haig must, but there were other factors which influenced him to choose Ypres as his new battle ground. He had long held the opinion that the German right could be turned; moreover, he was faced with Jellicoe’s dictum on the submarine war, ‘If the Army cannot get the Belgian ports, the Navy can’t hold the Channel and the war is lost.’
If Haig was not wholly free to choose his own ground or time for the campaign,—for it resembled that more than a battle, — it was not entirely what Lloyd George has called his ‘optimistic slosh’ which led him to hope for a success. An advance of ten miles would have cleared the Germans from the coast, so close would it have brought the fighting to the Netherlands frontier.
Success only just eluded him. The last week of fine weather was spent waiting for the French to come into line. Then set in the wettest August to October recorded in Flanders. Tangible gains were insignificant. The cost was appallingly high.
Mr. Cooper definitely disclaims any wish to make Haig appear to be a genius, but, had his reputation to he judged only on his conduct of the last six months of the war, he might well be considered so. It was an inspired Haig who entered the campaign of 1918. His original qualities had matured. He had rediscovered the advantages of surprise and mobility. He had learned when to stop.
After the first few months of his command, Haig’s relations with Lloyd George were not happy. In character they were radically opposed. Each had a deep-seated distrust for the profession of the other. Words on the tongue of the politician were beautiful flexible tools; to the soldier they represented weapons dangerous in proportion to their quantity. When, in 1917, Lloyd George ‘no longer believed that the German Army could be beaten’ and Foch was prepared to accept that view as an hypothesis, Haig’s tenacity remained unshaken.
Lloyd George, striking at Haig with every means in his power, — in the press, in speeches, even through Wilson, his own appointee as C. I. G. S., — could make no visible impression on Haig’s patient loyalty. Lloyd George would have removed him had he dared. That he did not dare was due as much to the fact that Haig gave him no enabling opportunity as to the confidence which he inspired, particularly in the troops under his command.