Pen & Sword, £19.99
It was Erich Ludendorff, who, in writing his memoirs in 1923, christened Haig ‘Master of the Field’; a telling and honest tribute paid to the Field Marshall by his most redoubtable opponent. Davidson’s account, first published just before his death in 1954, represents a valuable corrective to the popular ‘butchers and bunglers’ or ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of Haig’s leadership that has clouded the debate over his career since his death in 1928.
While much valuable corrective work has been done in recent years by revisionist historians, such as John Terraine, John Bourne, and Brian Bond, the account contained in this reprint comes straight from an eyewitness to the command of Sir Douglas.
Sir John Humphrey Davidson, known as ‘Tavish’, was Haig’s Director of Operations from 1916 onwards. He describes in detail the climactic events from April 1917, the crisis generated by the German counteroffensives of 1918, and the final victories of the Hundred Days battles. The section entitled Review contains a measured assessment and a detailed analysis of the British Army’s performance from 1916 to 1918, so often missing from longer and more weighty tomes.
In the immediate post-war period, Haig lost out in the ‘battle of the memoirs’ to the partisan accounts of Lloyd-George and Churchill, coming in for a great deal of unwarranted criticism, and accusations of callousness and disregard for the lives of the men under his command. In this work, Davidson is careful to recount the full strategic picture that Haig had to consider, and the delicate relations with the French in particular, especially when their armies on the Western Front came under devastating attack at Verdun in 1916, and later when they were close to mutiny after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive in 1917. Interestingly, Davidson contends that the Third Battle of Ypres was a decisive defeat for the German Army, costing them many more losses than the British and Empire forces suffered.
While Davidson is by no means impartial, his account is thoughtful, worthwhile, and represents a significant contribution to the enduring debate over the strategy of the First World War on the Western Front. As such, it is long overdue for reprinting, and this welcome new edition is enhanced by the original introduction by Lord Trenchard, and a preface by Haig’s grandson, the recently deceased Douglas Montagu-Douglas- Scott, who had immersed himself in the history of the Western Front and his forebear’s part in it.
This new edition is bound to receive wide acclaim from both students of the Western Front and seasoned military historians, as well as lay readers. Its style is refreshingly modern-sounding and concise.
Additionally, there are useful sketch-maps on the back pages, which help the reader to visualise the broader sweep of strategy that the author discusses. Overall, Haig: Master of the Field represents a considered, thoughtful, and vital assessment of the command of one of Britain’s foremost soldiers, Sir Douglas Haig, and his role in the victory over Imperial Germany in 1917 and 1918, by one of his closest subordinates.