Sir Douglas Haig Commander of The British Forces in France

Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Forces in France and Belgium. Pictorial History of the World Greatest War, 1919.

Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Forces in France and Belgium. Pictorial History of the World Greatest War, 1919. GGA Image ID # 18bdba0c2b

A QUIET, modest man, with a low, deep voice and a clear, blue eye — such is Sir Douglas Haig — leader of the vast army which England gathered from the four corners of the globe to crush, if possible, the might of Prussian autocracy.

“He doesn’t talk much; he is a Fifer,” his brother officers say of him, and, when they say Fifer they do not mean a fife player, but one who hails from the little kingdom of Fife, where courage is as hard as the granite hills, and whence came the Clan MacDuff, the greatest fighters of a fighting race.

The fierce world conflict which has brought all of the nations into the melee, has carried Sir Douglas Haig into prominence and thrust him into the limelight. Prior to this eventful contest he was known to be a thoroughly reliable officer in the British army, a graduate of Oxford and a lover of horseflesh.

In 1885 he joined the 7th Hussars, served in the Soudan in 1898, including the battles of Atbara and Khartoum; was in the South African War in 1899, and General of the Division of Cavalry in 1900.

When this patriotic English soldier was in Egypt, he was but a Captain of cavalry, and was serving under the famous Lord Kitchener, called Kitchener of Khartoum. General Gordon had been killed by the Dervishes at Khartoum, and, with slow but steady progress, the English were moving against this city in order to defeat the native forces which held it, and to wipe out the disgrace of the murder of brave General Gordon, and the massacre of his entire command.

The Sirdar, as Kitchener was called, was building a railway, as he advanced upon Khartoum with his troops. The steel rails crept steadily across the desert, transporting both men and supplies, and, as he saw its approach, the Khalifa, or head chief of the Dervishes, grew fearful of what was about to take place, lie ordered his most faithful General — one Mahmud — to strike the advancing English and Egyptians, with some ten thousand of his wild tribesmen. But Mahmud was fearful of the English and dared not fight them.

Among the English cavalrymen was a straight, well- knit young fellow named Haig — Douglas Haig — and one day he was sent forward to reconnoiter near the Atbara River.

In vain he looked for Mahmud; the wily old fox had intrenched himself somewhere in the scrub of mimosa and date-palms, half grass and half creeper, and it was impossible to find him. The British force behind sweltered in the moist heat of that tropic land and shivered at night. Oh, if they could but get at the old renegade!

At Shendi, a little depot up the Nile, it was learned that Mahmud had many troops, many women, and much loot. The Sirdar, therefore, sent three gunboats up the river to bombard the stronghold, and, on land, a force of the 15th Egyptians and about one hundred and fifty native tribesmen of the Jaalin band. There were also two field guns.

When these boats were within range and shelled the garrison everyone left post-haste for Omdurman, leaving the women behind, and these were immediately appropriated by the native troops, together with all the stores they found.

This raid was successful, and it did not bring Mahmud into the open, so again the British and Egyptian force advanced towards Khartoum. Captain Douglas Haig was sent forward once more to ascertain where the wily old fox was, — with him went cavalry, a horse battery, and several Maxim guns.

After going eastward and south for about four miles, the outposts of the Arabs were met with and the cavalry chased the Dervishes for full twelve miles across the sandy waste.

Then, as Haig and several other cavalrymen debouched from behind a high hillock, they suddenly found that they were within sight of a palisade, surrounded by a trench, behind which were at least fifteen hundred Dervishes, armed to the teeth.

Without more ado, the officers rode back towards the supporting column, but not until they had ordered the Maxims to throw a few shells into the fortification, just to show the Arabs that they would shortly be back in order to avenge the death of General Gordon.

Then, trotting easily to the camp of Lord Kitchener, they reported that they had found Old Mahmud — intrenched — and it looked as if he were going to stay there and fight.

Mahmud’s camp was on the northeast bank of the Atbara, and around the entire camp ran a trench, or zareba, of thorn bushes. Lord Kitchener determined to attack at once and to keep the cavalry, in which was Captain Haig, to the rear and left, so that, when the troops had forced an entrance into the palisade, and the enemy had begun to floe, the cavalrymen could dash into the mass and cut all down who refused to surrender.

Captain Douglas Haig smiled grimly beneath his light mustache and looked carefully to his gun and equipment. As the sun went down in a blaze, of splendor, lighting up the parapet of Mahmud with his wild riders of the Egyptian desert, from behind the palisades of which half a dozen little flags fluttered in the gentle breeze, he said to Lieutenant-Colonel Broadwood in charge of all the cavalry:

“Tomorrow, Colonel, we will see the revenge of Gordon, and the beginning of the end.”

Here and there a white-clad figure dodged behind the parapets, the saffron, pale-blue, yellow and chocolate flags fluttered, fluttered, and a great blue heron flew across the sandy waste of the river saying:

               “Qu —aak! ”

“That,” said Captain Haig, “sounds like ‘Mahmud w-a-l-k.’”

Morning dawned, and as the smoke of the campfires ascended in the still air a Maxim gun sounded the first note of conflict. The orders were to rush right up to the parapet, to pull down the thorn and wood palisade, to jump the trenches, and then to go in and fight hand- to-hand.

A battery of Krupps now opened fire. The sun had risen, showing the British and Egyptian army lying along the low hills, or plateau, in a long are — Gatacre’s British brigade of Lincolns, Seaforth, Camerons, and Warwicks on the left; Hector Macdonald’s Egyptians in the center; and Maxwell’s brigade curving around to the right, or west.

The whole crest was covered with Kitchener’s army: Egyptians in black jerseys, Soudanese in fez and broad trousers, British in khaki — thousands strong. As Mahmud looked over the parapet wall at the serried column of avengers of General Gordon, his heart must have sunk, for truly the hand of steel was at his throat.

Captain Haig, with the cavalry, was well to the rear and left flank; on the right flank was the native, or Egyptian cavalry. As the gallant Englishman gazed at Mahmud's palisades, four batteries jingled and clattered into position about a hundred yards in front of the line of battalions. They wheeled, sighted, and then a sheet of flame belched from their mouths. BOOM! The battle of Atbara had begun.

For ten minutes the bombardment continued, and clouds of dust began to be kicked up in Mahmud’s enclosure, while several of the thatched huts there caught on fire. Suddenly someone cried: “Look there!”

Hundreds of horsemen were seen scrambling into their saddles within the enclosure — they dashed through an opening on the right of the zareba and headed for the Egyptian cavalry on the English right. With a cheer, the native troops leaped to their own saddles and advanced to meet in mortal combat, while the Maxims shot great gaps in the oncoming line of Dervishes. But — see! — they wheel — they retire — they scramble again into the palisade! They have been unwilling to meet in a hand-to-hand engagement.

For an hour and twenty minutes the Krupp thundered and roared. The straw huts began to blaze — yet the Arabs made no reply — they awaited the onslaught with calmness. At last the work of the guns was over, and Kitchener raised a baton — giving the order for a general advance. With a wild cheer the whole line went forward.

Bugles blared, and dismounting, the British officers placed themselves at the head of their commands; the Cameron Highlanders armed with thick, raw-hide gloves and bill-books, in order to tear away the thorn hedges.

Thirteen thousand men advanced steadily together, bayonets flashing in the sun's rays, ensigns fluttering, pipes squealing, Soudanese drums rolling, and shrill English bugles blowing.

At first, they went on at a slow march — the front as level as if a ruler had been held before it — the guns firing over their heads into the palisade. Then, when they had arrived within three hundred yards of the trench, the Dervishes let loose at them with rifle fire.

Men staggered and fell, but the lines closed up — kept on — Hurrah! — they are at the trench — Hurrah! — they are over it now — they are up the palisade — they have torn it asunder — they are inside and at the Arabs: Seaforth, Lincolns, Warwick, Soudanese, Egyptians, all are in deadly hand-to-hand combat with the followers of Khalifa.

The charging line of white and black soldiers swept through the camp and the Dervishes made a stiff fight of it. Many would not run and were shot and bayonetted where they stood; others charged forward with sword or spear in hand only to be knocked down by some well- directed bullet or blow from the butt of a rifle.

The bulk of the Mahmud army retired slowly, turning now and again to shoot. But piecemeal and by small detachments, they were destroyed. In less than three- quarters of an hour the British had swept clear through the palisade and were driving the Dervishes over the dry bed of the river, where hundreds were picked off as they vainly tried to get away from the rifle-fire of the skillful marksmen in their rear.

The Egyptian and Soudanese troops, with lifelong injuries to set a-right, gave no quarter. The Highlanders cried out— “Gordon must be avenged!”

It was now half past eight and a bugle shrilled above the uproar — “CEASE FIRING!”

The army of Mahmud had ceased to exist, and where was Mahmud, himself — the trusted General of the Mahdi — he who was going to drive the British into the sea?

In an inner zareba, seated on the carpeted floor, with his weapons beside him, the defeated General had been discovered, waiting for death. It is strange that he had not found it, for the Soudanese were all around him and had rushed his place of hiding. Mahmud was dragged into the open and was about to be cut down when a British officer intervened and carried him before Kitchener.

There he faced his Conqueror — a tall purebred Arab, dressed in the uniform of the Khalifa, and awaiting death with no faltering glance.

“Are you the man Mahmud?” asked the Sirdar.

“Yes, I am Mahmud, and I command, just as you do,” was the tart reply.

“Why have you advanced against us to burn and to kill?” '

“I have to obey my orders, just as you, yourself, have to do,” replied Mahmud, unbendingly.

The Sirdar may have liked him better for his defiant tone, although nothing in his face betrayed it. "Take him away," said he, "and let him be well watched."

As he walked slowly off, a young British officer went with him. This fellow had ridden in with the cavalry and had fought his way right through the howling mob of Dervishes. It was Douglas Haig: Captain in Her Majesty’s British force, and a rattling good swordsman, so said the humiliated followers of the Khalifa.

Kitchener's men followed up what was left of Mahmud's army to Omdurman, where the Khalifa had a force of fully 60,000 followers. Here he had determined to fight the Arab Armageddon, and here, with 12,000 black riflemen and 13,000 black and Arabian spearmen in the center, as a main army, the man who wished to rule all of Egypt was ready to cross swords with Kitchener, victor of Atbara, and man of iron.

On the second day of September the British and Egyptian forces were ready for battle, and on that day, they met the Khalifa’s host, with all its majesty and might, to fight for the mastery of the upper portion of Egypt.

Captain Douglas Haig was with the cavalry, and while his patrols watched the long five-mile front of the Khalifa’s vast horde he held his men in the leash, ready to spring at the shrill call of the bugle.

The Khalifa’s Arabs were again no match for Kitchener’s well-trained and seasoned campaigners. After a battle, lasting all day, the native ruler lost both his army and his dominion. The British guns blew the Arab force to the four winds of the desert.

There were over nine thousand of them killed, ten thousand wounded, and five thousand taken prisoners. As the humiliated Arab chieftain rushed towards Omdurman — his Holy City — with his disorganized and defeated troops, the cavalry, with Douglas Haig, was so hot in pursuit that the Dervishes could not stay and fight in the city but streamed out upon the desert upon the other side of their sacred citadel.

The Khalifa himself, mounted upon a donkey and accompanied by his favorite wife, made off to the southward into the desert. Here, eight miles from Omdurman swift camels awaited him, and, jumping upon one of these, he rejoined what was left of this once great fighting host, but no longer was he to prance upon a swift Arabian charger as a ruler of upper Egypt, he was now a guerilla and a hunted fugitive from the wrath of the Sirdar.

Haig and his cavalry chased after him on the sandy waste, but, having no water for their horses, they had to return to Omdurman, without being able to bag their game.

When British met Boer in South Africa, and battled on the veldt, Douglas Haig, now a Colonel, did valiant service. He was with the column of General French which rode to the relief of Kimberly, and when Cronje -- the Boer leader who had enveloped the British garrison in the town — was driven from his position and finally rounded-np at Klip Krall Drift, who was there hut gallant Haig, sun-burned, weather-beaten, hale and fighting gamely.

Cronje capitulated at Paardeberg, and had it not been for General French and hard-riding Haig of the cavalry corps, it would be doubtful if such a successful climax would have come to the British effort.

When the war was practically over and the Boer Commandos split into guerilla bands, it was Douglas Haig who followed many a detachment with his able cavalrymen. One of these Boers — Kritzinger by name eluded and outwitted the gallant Douglas for some time, but finally he was driven into the Bavian’s Kloof Mountains, and here was so harassed that he was no longer a factor in the war.

The close of this mighty campaign found the hard-hitting cavalry leader quite fit for any duty, and certainly quite delighted when General French cited him for bravery in action, and said: “Of all my many cavalrymen, not one is so steadfast in duty, so willing, and so modest, as Douglas Haig. May he serve the King for many and many a year.”

In 1901-1902 Sir Douglas was Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 17th Lancers, and has subsequently served as follows: Inspector General of Cavalry in India, 1903-1906; Major General, 1904; Lieutenant General, 1910; General, 1914; Field Marshal, 1917; Director Military Transport, 1906-1907; Director Staff Duties, Army Headquarters, 1907-1909; Chief of Staff in India, 1909-1912 ; General Officer commanding at Aldershot, 1912-1914; commanding 1st British Army, 1914-1915 ; served to the close of the European war, 1914-1918.

As a matter of fact, very little is known of Sir Douglas Haig. Ask any man in London about the leader of the British Armies, and he will say: “Why, he is a great soldier.” Press him still further and inquire upon what he bases these remarks, and he will add: “The fact is, my friend, I really do not know anything else about this general. He is a fine man, — that is certain.”

Now, there’s a reason for all of this, and a good one, too, for the great soldier shuns the spotlight and will not talk to the newspaper brigade. He is the personification of personal modesty — he has a deep-seated aversion to being advertised in public prints. He is the typical Britisher: calm, imperturbable, modest, retiring.

Distinguished Allied Leaders.

Distinguished Allied Leaders. Left to Right: Field Marshal Haig, President Poincaré, Marshal Foch, and King George. British Official Photograph © Underwood & Underwood. Current History Magazine, November 1918. GGA Image ID # 18dead8316

“He has no side,” as they say at Oxford, yet no man has been through more, or has seen more than this grim man of the camp and battlefield. He was the leader of the British troops which rode to the relief of Kimberly; he commanded the sullen, shot-torn legions at the heroic retreat from Mons, and he looked imperturbably on as the shattered Canadian and British lines stemmed the German advance at Ypres.

The Commander-in-Chief’s cavalry training sticks out all over him. He stands with an easy and graceful carriage, and walks with a rangy, swinging stride, so common to men who are a great deal in the saddle. In younger days he was fond of riding to hounds, and, even now, he takes a gallop every day. lie does not motor save to reach some distant place in short time, and he tries to keep physically fit.

A correspondent says of him that of all the Allied Chieftains in the war, the Commander-in-Chief of the British army is the best groomed and the most soldierly- looking of the lot. He is smarter and more alert than Nivelle and has not the paternal appearance of Marshal, or “Papa,” Joffre.

Amid all the fearful burden of the fighting, he seems always to be cheerful, optimistic, unruffled and calm. Take Foch, he has learned to smile when things look blackest, and, like the French leader, he is an optimist and not a pessimist.

Sir Douglas Haig is known as “Lucky Haig,” for, in the South African war, he had so many narrow escapes from death that he well deserves this title. But he might also be called “Haig the Prophet,” for, more than twenty years ago, he visited Germany, saw the vast preparation which the Kaiser was making for war, and wrote many letters home to brother officers urging preparedness. “We will eventually have to fight the Germans,” he said, “and then we, too, should be ready.”

Like the appeals of Lord Roberts, these remarks were passed by unheeded by the vast majority of the British people; for they felt secure against invasion, protected by their forty miles of warships, and — not fearing the submarine menace to their merchant marine — went on upon their ways of trade and commerce, with little thought of the cataclysm which was at hand.

The Englishman had the correct view. Had England but listened to his ideas, when the Germans burst through Belgium and swept over France, the Empire would have had more than a standing army of 90,000 to impede their progress. There would have been no delay in training and conscripting a vast force, and the cohorts of the Kaiser would have been thrown back, some time before they were forced, by armed might, to retire. What the Kaiser called the contemptible little English army” was formed of seven divisions, of which Haig commanded the first — including much of the cavalry.

Before leaving England, every soldier had received from the King the following message:

“You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honor of my Empire. Belgium, whose country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked, and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe.

“I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers. Duty is your watchword, and I know that your duty will be nobly done.

“I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction your daily progress; indeed, your welfare will never be absent from my thoughts.

“I pray God to bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious.”

Still further, each man-of-arms was given this advice by Lord Kitchener: “Be invariably courteous, considerate, kind. Never do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted. Keep consistently upon your guard against any excesses. Do your duty bravely. Fear God. Honor the King.”

Noble words these and advice well taken by the British cohorts. Throughout the war the soldiers fought a clean fight; fought without looting, without disturbing the peaceful peasants, without murder and brutality to quiet non-combatants.

England had entered the fray in order to protect the neutrality of Belgium, a little country which, in 1831- 1832 and 1839, had become by treaty between France, Prussia and Great Britain “an independent and perfectly neutral state." Great Britain had promised that, in case the soil of Belgium was invaded by either a French or a Prussian army, she would cooperate with the power which had not violated the territory of this little state, for its defense.

Now, the Prussian army had invaded this state, had scoffed at the treaty as being “but a scrap of paper,” and, to the exhortation of the King of Belgium to the effect:       

“I make a supreme appeal to the diplomatic intervention of your Majesty’s Government to safeguard the integrity of Belgium,” the British people had sent over their standing army, “that contemptible, little British army,” with Sir Douglas Haig in command of the first division.

The German Chancellor, speaking in the Reichstag on August 4th, had said “Gentlemen, we are in a state of necessity, and necessity knows no law. Our troops have occupied Luxembourg, and perhaps are already on Belgian soil. Gentlemen, this is contrary to the dictates of International Law. Anybody who is threatened, as we are threatened, and is fighting for his highest possession, can only have one thought — how he is to hack his way through."

Advancing to meet the Germans, the English came in contact with the exultant troops at Mons. But the Germans had too many men for them, and, continually enveloping and threatening the left flank, forced the hard fighting, “but contemptible,” little British army to withdraw. Haig’s division had a fearful baptism of fire but came off in good order, with the loss of hundreds of men.

The Germans passed onward, and, in an attempt to get to the sea, struggled again at Ypres for mastery of the English line. It was of no avail, under the mighty Teutonic assault, the lines shook, but held, and Sir Douglas Haig, with the First Division, manned a bloody breach with such indomitable pluck that they came to be called “The Iron Brigade.”

At this time came an event which marked Sir Douglas Haig as a warrior and a hard rider, equal in ability to turn a defeat into victory to “Phil” Sheridan of Winchester fame.

For a whole day a terrible battle had waged, and the Germans had been raining shells upon the British position. From out the fierce barrage the Prussian guard arose and stormed the English lines.

So furious was their onslaught that they broke through the British front and small parties of troops in khaki were in retreat. It looked like a fearful rout for the English troops; and word was brought to the rear of this state of affairs.

At the moment — when all seemed to be lost — down the road came Sir Douglas Haig, galloping hard and surrounded by his own Seventeenth Lancers. He was as neat as a pin; as well turned out as upon a peace parade, while shells screamed by overhead and dead and dying lay on every side.

Reining in, he scanned the wavering line with cool and fearless gaze, and pointed to the enemy, “Do not let them pass!” he said. The Germans found a new spirit before them. The men in the blood-stained khaki fought with a courage which was invincible, and so enthused had they been by their commander’s words that the retreat became an advance. Haig and his message had saved the day.

I have said that he is called “Lucky Haig” and you can see that this epithet is well applied, for, a few days after this ride of death, a shell exploded in the midst of his quarters. Nearly every staff officer was either killed or maimed, and as for Haig he was out upon a tour of inspection at the time, so he, of course, escaped.

After the battle of Ypres, the Germans dug in and so did the English. There came a fierce three years’ struggle for supremacy, which at length has ended with the British troops pressing the Germans back all along their line from Holland to Valenciennes, and in possession of Mons, where they first met the Germans. Sir Douglas Haig was appointed commander of the British forces after the retirement of Sir John French. It was the logical climax of a military life, well spent and well ordered.

The conduct of the war by the new leader of the British armies has given apparent satisfaction to the English nation. He believed in continued hammering, or, in wearing down the Germans by constantly pounding their line, and you see the result! The giant English army nibbled at and harassed the Germans so persistently that eventually they were forced into a great retreat, which would have ended in a rout had not an armistice been signed.

The war has been hard work and the Commander- in-Chief has been the soul of systematic labor. Every morning at nine o’clock he has been at his desk, and from then on until the luncheon hour has been in conference with his various lieutenants and assistants. Many miles behind the front, he has been bound to every part of his line by telephone and telegraph. He has known what has been going on in every sector, and he has planned, schemed, and devised the means for victory.

In olden days the leader of an army was right among his men; he fought in their midst. Not so to-day. Where King John and Bayard were shoulder to shoulder and horse to horse with their followers, a present-day general is about twenty to twenty-five miles in the rear of the line. When a modern gun can shoot and kill at twenty-five miles it is rather important that the general should be to the rear, that is unless he is not thought much of and is expected to allow himself to be shot.

So the only time that you would see Sir Douglas Haig with, or near, any of his troops, would be in the afternoon. Promptly at four o’clock his horse would be brought to his headquarters and he would be off for a gallop down the hard French roads. As the trim-looking Britisher would ride by there would be many a cheer for the hero of Ypres. Fresh-cheeked, blue-eyed, trim and well-groomed, a view of this galloping chieftain was a sight for the gods.

At night you would find him bending over a map at headquarters; carefully studying the situation and marking with needles where there had been an attack or a retreat, the explosion of a mine, or a wave of poison gas. Then to bed would go the British leader, who commanded more men than had ever before been gathered together under the British flag.

We trust that his dreams have been peaceful, yet we know that he must often have tossed and turned beneath the weight of the great responsibility which he carried.

Cheery, kindly, neat and sportsmanlike, the leader of the British armies is every inch a gentleman; and when you look at his picture, I know that you will be delighted to see that the vast armies of defense of the violated territory of Belgium have been led by such a clean and intelligent warrior as Sir Douglas Haig.

Here’s long life and happiness to you, brave and loyal soldier! And may you have a far more auspicious fate than that which befell your august predecessor, Kitchener of Khartoum!

Charles H. L. Johnston, Famous Generals of the Great War Who Let the United States and Her Allies to a Glorious Victory, Boston: The Page Company, 1919.

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