Book Cover for the new edition of Douglas Haig As I knew Him
 Douglas Haig 'As I Knew Him' Pen & Sword

 

‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ (1966) by G S Duncan

 

In 1966 G S Duncan, Haig’s wartime Presbyterian Chaplain published a short memoir on his experiences and his opinion of Haig during the First World War. One senses that he may have had enough of the distortions that had been and were being published about Haig.

 

‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ never sets out, in that modern sense, to deliver sensational revelations or to be a direct rebuttal of the falsehoods being written about Haig, but rather this modest book is a succinct view of the man and the war from a unique perspective. Duncan, one could imagine, for short periods on a Sunday and before and after the dinners he attended, was someone to whom Haig might defer.

 

For 50 Francs, an old French Army hut had been purchased and became a church and a Soldier’s Clubroom. Much to Duncan’s surprise one Sunday morning Haig came to his service and then continued to attend for the remainder of the war, preferring Duncan over all others. Duncan was the Presbyterian chaplain to GHQ troops.

 

Revalations about Haig's character and faith during the First World War

Was it that Haig, a man of habit, wanted to feel humble in front of God and his ministers? Did he wish to attend a service that more closely resembled those he would have experienced growing up as a boy, a service that more diligently turned to the Bible for guidance and solace?

 

Asked about why Haig preferred a Scottish service over the C of E he told Duncan in a conversation after a dinner attended by amongst others Pershing and the Archbishop of York, that:

 

“Chaplains ought to deal seriously with the great issues confronting us, and to do so in a way that people understand”. (1)

 

George Duncan, Douglas Haig's chaplain during the First World War, sets the scene around the BEF Commanding Officer.

He has the gentle authority of someone who was there yet in that peculiar position of not being one of the players: this makes him well placed to be an observer. It is quite a different perspective to feel you are seeing and hearing Haig chatting before or after a service, or before or after a meal.

 

‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ is interesting if obscure read. It is a book I found in a reference and chanced to Google and found could be bought second hand online: it went out of print long ago. I was looking for a different perspective: a voice I hadn’t heard before, instead of relying on conclusions drawn from academic research many decades after the events or from men of the time such as Lloyd George, who had an axe to grind. Duncan gives a more nuanced perspective on the context of a European war. Too often the view of the 21st author and TV producers is that the events of August 1914 appeared like an unexpected bolt to shock an era of enduring peace: this was far from the case. A European war had been in the offing for decades before the war finally broke out and Duncan sensed that. It was, according to Duncan, to provide for such a potential conflict that Haldane had brought Haig from India in the 1880s to be his military adviser and thus prepare an Expeditionary Force, create a Territorial Army, to arrange for the Dominions to organise and equip troops and to inaugurate an Imperial General staff.

 

Duncan was by chance exposed to many private moments, as well as regular Sunday service, a frequent guest at lunch and occasionally, taken into Haig's confidence as a sounding board. For example, there are moments like this where Duncan describes a dinner on June 29th at the Chateau de Valvion, on the outskirts of Beauquesne Village.

 

'In an adjoining room came the sounds of a piano - a little girl was playing her five-finger exercises' the owner and her daughter had remained in a few rooms.

 

We learn from Duncan that officers worked from 9 am to 10/11pm.

 

‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ gives us a sense of Doulgas Haig, his character and behaviour

 

“His half hour of service was not merely something which he valued; it was apparently something that must not be missed”. (2)

 

A century on as France turns its attention to Verdun it is interesting to understand that it was the same 100 years ago.

 

“The Somme did for the British people what Verdun, and the fierce fighting of the previous years, had done for France; it stabbed our country wide awake to the grim realities of modern war.” (3)

 

Duncan may lack the authority on such matters but on Lloyd George's hopes to find a way around the problem of stalemate on the Western Front he could quote Haig:

 

“A German army massed so near our shore it had to be met where it stood; there was no escaping that issue.” (4)

 

Duncan felt that Haig provided judgment, a steady nerve, and invincible faith, over rash and ill-considered policies.

 

Haig is scrutinised further by Brian Bond in a new anthology of his lectures and papers, in fact, “Soldiers and Statesmen: British Civil-Military Relations in 1917” was first published in 1968 only a couple of years after Duncan’s book. This and other papers by Brian Bond feature in ‘From Liddell Hart to Joan Littlewood: Studies in British Military History’ a brand new publication from Helion & Co.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

(1) ‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ (1966) p.60

(2) ‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ (1966) p.43

(3) ‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ (1966) pp 44-45

(4) ‘Douglas Haig As I Knew Him’ (1966) p. 47

 

 

Written by Jonathan Vernon

 Are their books, long out of print, that you'd recommend? Each month we'll try to offer a fresh review on another.

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