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Interactive Timeline of the First World War

Field Marshal Douglas Haig - The First World War

In December 1915, following over a year of the war of attrition on the Western Front, Sir John French, the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary force, was replaced. His position as the Commander in Chief of the British forces on the Western Front was given to Douglas Haig, who had previously served with distinction in the first battle of Ypres and at Mons.

Haig was a career soldier, having already served as the Director of Military strategy and as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army. As such it was felt that he would be well equipped to adapt to the new form of warfare that was being experienced on the Western front; Sir John French had become increasingly bemused and depressed by the nature of war in France.

Almost immediately Haig was pressurised to launch a large offensive, to relieve the pressure on the French who were suffering a prolonged defence of Verdun. Haig's response was to plan a large scale offensive in the Somme Valley.

Under Haig the British forces suffered massive losses in the battle of the Somme, attributed by many to his misunderstanding of the new forms of weaponry used in the conflict: he is known to have said that the machine gun was an overrated weapon and was later quite dismissive of the role that tanks could play on the battlefield.

Douglas Haig was commander in chief of the British Army on the Western Front for most of the First World War.

Historians are divided about Haig's role in the war. Many argue that his tactics led to the deaths of far more men than was absolutely necessary whilst others point to the pressure he was placed under by the French and British politicians. On the one hand losses in the major campaigns on the Somme and at Passchendale were higher than ever experienced in warfare - 60000 casualties on the opening day of the battle of the Somme - on the other hand the Somme did achieve it's objective of relieving pressure on Verdun and did result in some territorial gains whilst at Passchendale the Germans were ground down and the salient was kept intact. For the supporters of the latter interpretation there is also the fact that Haig later oversaw the successful battles of 1918 that halted the German counter offensive: with Haig issuing the infamous 'backs to the wall' order followed by rapid advances once American troops reached the frontlines.

After the war Haig remained as the commander of the British Forces until 1921, after which he was instrumental in establishing the royal British legion, which still helps the victims of war and their families.

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