Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Who's Who in Scottish Military History #2 - 1st Earl Haig

He's a pretty controversial figure but in my opinion the First Earl Haig is worth mentioning as part of my Who's Who series. You may think you know him - he's often portrayed as the callous butcher of a generation of young Britons; but whatever you think about him he is one of Scotland's greatest generals.

He very much considered himself a Scot; he was born in Edinburgh, came from a family of whisky distillers, was a Church of Scotland Elder and made his family home at Bemersyde in the Borders.

He had many faults and many critics but the facts are quite simple; when the British Empire's biggest expeditionary force in its history was at its peak he was its leader. He commanded four million men in the field. No other Briton, never mind Scot, before or since, has commanded as big an army.

There's no denying he made mistakes but there was nothing his experience which had prepared him, or any other British general, for the monumental task the army faced. They had to take millions of civilians and turn them into an army which could take on and beat the biggest and best army in Europe. Haig had actually started that process in 1907 when he worked at the War Office in London. Another Edinburgh born man, Richard Haldane, was the then Secretary of State for War and he worked closely with Haig on the Army reforms of 1908 which created the Territorial Force and the seven division strong British Expeditionary Force which a few years later formed the backbone of the BEF.

In France Haig slowly built up a British and Commonwealth force which by 1918 could absorb the German Army's punishing Spring Offensive and then just four months later deliver the most crushing defeat on the Germans. The military historian Gary Sheffield called the last hundred days of the First World War "'by far the greatest military victory in British history"; the American Commander in France, General John Pershing later said that Haig was "the man who won the war".

So there you go - it wasn't the Americans who finally won war in 1918, it was the British Army, led by a Scotsman.

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