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Douglas Haig and the First World War


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  • Date Published: October 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521158770

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About the Authors
  • From December 1915 until the armistice of November 1918, Sir Douglas Haig was commander-in-chief of the largest army his country had ever put into the field. He has been portrayed as both an incompetent 'butcher and bungler' and a clear-sighted, imperturbable 'architect of victory'. However, in this magisterial account, J. P. Harris dispels such stereotypes. A dedicated military professional, Haig nevertheless found it difficult to adjust to the unprecedented conditions of the Western Front. His capacity to 'read' battles and broader strategic situations often proved poor and he bears much responsibility for British losses 1915–17 that were excessive in relation to the results achieved. By late 1917 his own faith in ultimate victory had become so badly shaken that he advocated a compromise peace. However, after surviving the German spring offensives of 1918, he played a vital role in the campaign that finally broke the German army.

    • Definitive new life of the British Army's controversial Commander-in-Chief during the First World War
    • A major contribution to the wider military history of the First World War
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    • 2008 Templer Medal Book Prize Winner

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Harris' judgement of Haig is, ultimately, critical but fair. He arrives at it through careful analysis and detailed interpretation. This really is the definitive book on Haig, his actions and his legacy.' Tribune

    'If you wish to understand how the First World War was fought and won, and seek a balanced assessment of British generalship in that victory, then there is no better a book written on it than this.' British Army Review

    'This work of meticulous scholarship is certain to re-energize the debate over Haig's command. It also in many important ways expands our understanding of military operations in France and Flanders and the BEF's evolution into a formidable offensive machine. It is highly recommended to both academics and general readers.' The American Historical Review

    'According to Dr J. P. Harris, senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Haig was not quite the uncaring monster of popular myth but nor was he, as some recent studies have suggested, a clear-sighted and imperturbable leader who should take the credit for Britain's ultimate victory … Dr Harris argues that Haig's failings led him to misread the strength of the German armies.' The Times

    'This is a landmark book … if you take your history seriously, it must be read.' The Society of Friends of the National Army Museum

    'Paul Harris has not only written the definitive biography of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, but the most important book on the First World War to appear in over a decade. His judicious use of sources and impeccable research has placed Haig in the context of the terrible challenges that that terrible conflict raised. The resulting portrait presents his considerable strengths along with the fatal flaws that were to prove so disastrous in terms of the lives of British soldiers in the battles of 1916 and 1917. Above all Harris' biography underlines that it is individuals who make history, not obscure social trends.' Williamson Murray, Institute for Defense Analysis

    'This is a superb book. Deftly sidestepping caricatures of Haig as either a callous, incompetent butcher or as a clear-sighted, imperturbable Great Captain, Harris offers a nuanced picture of a complex personality in hopeless times. Haig was not purblind, but open to technical and tactical innovation. Yet he was responsible for the massive casualties so disproportionate to the results achieved and for the near collapse of British civil-military relations by the end of 1917. He went from the nervous, battle-shy corps commander of Mons 1914 to the confident 'tyde-what-may' army commander of 1915–17, and to the shaken and confused soldier-statesman of 1918. Bold and masterful, this book will become the standard biography of Haig.' Holger H. Herwig, University of Calgary

    'Paul Harris is one of our very finest military historians of the Great War. He combines great depth of scholarship, research - and especially of psychological perception - with a highly readable style. In this, his highest masterpiece to date, he has cut straight through a horribly tangled thornbush of pro-Haig hagiography intertwined with anti-Haig propaganda of the 'Butchers and Bunglers' variety. His ultimate conclusion is that the anti-Haig camp has very much the right of it, although much of the hysteria attaching to this issue has been lamentably over-done. This, surely, has got to be the long verdict of History.' Paddy Griffith, author of Battle Tactics on the Western Front 1916–18 (1994)

    'Ninety years after the end of the Great War and eighty years after his death, Haig still has the capacity to arouse extraordinary extremes of vilification from his detractors and praise from his defenders. There have been many biographies of Haig over the years, but few have matched Paul Harris's mastery of both the original archive sources and also the most recent scholarship, which has so transformed our understanding of the nature of command and the conduct of operations on the Western Front. Here, then, is an informed and thoroughly modern re-assessment, balancing Haig's undoubted qualities against his manifold weaknesses.' Ian F. W. Beckett, University of Northampton

    'This is a most impressive book … Douglas Haig and the First World War is unreservedly recommended for all students, from the first year to doctoral candidates, and it should be in all university libraries.' Antoine Capet, H-Diplo

    'Paul Harris (an academic and lecturer at Sandhurst) has written an in-depth and long-awaited account of Haig's part in the First World War. It cleverly covers each of the major events of the war doing so using Haig as the key focus of analysis. This is an incredibly well-researched and academic title … a must have for World War historians …' Major Neil Powell AGC, Soldier (magazine of the British Army)

    '… a formidable achievement … Not the least of Harris's strengths is his impressive grasp of the literature, and his synthesis of recent research (of which there is a great deal, such is the dynamic nature of the subject) is extremely valuable. Not surprisingly it has been acclaimed by a battery of historians, and has been awarded, at the time of writing, two major prizes.' Gary Sheffield, English Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: October 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521158770
    • length: 666 pages
    • dimensions: 221 x 155 x 30 mm
    • weight: 1.03kg
    • contains: 19 b/w illus. 24 maps
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Boyhood and early career
    2. South Africa to the Curragh crisis
    3. Anxiously to war
    4. From the Marne to the Salient
    5. Army commander
    6. Aubers Ridge to Givenchy
    7. The Battle of Loos
    8. Commander-in-Chief
    9. The Battle of the Somme (1)
    10. The Battle of the Somme (2)
    11. Lloyd George and Nivelle
    12. The Battle of Arras and the Nivelle Offensive
    13. Flanders Fields
    14. The third Battle of Ypres
    15. The Battle of Cambrai
    16. The last war winter
    17. The German March offensives
    18. The turn of the tide
    19. The final campaign
    20. The post-war years

  • Author

    J. P. Harris, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst
    J. P. Harris is a Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. His publications include Men, Ideas and Tanks (1995) and Amiens to the Armistice (1998).


    • 2008 Templer Medal Book Prize Winner
    • Winner of the Society for Military History's 2010 Distinguished Book Award for Biography

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