Learning Curve, The Great War
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Useful notes: Source4
Telegram from General Sir Douglas Haig to General Sir Henry Rawlinson, 2 July 1916
(Catalogue ref: WO 158/234)
  • This telegram shows what General Sir Douglas Haig thought was happening in the Battle of the Somme after the first day.
  • Haig was the Commander-in-Chief of all British forces by 1916. He had been promoted several times during 1914 and 1915 for his leadership and competence. His reputation suffered very badly as a result of the Battle of the Somme. He was blamed for the heavy losses and accused of not caring about them.
  • Another criticism was that he failed to change his tactics when things were going wrong. This source seems to support that view. Haig was convinced that the German reserves of troops were almost used up, but he did not seem to have any evidence for believing this. In reality, the battle went on until November, so clearly German reserves were not used up.
  • One of Haig's aims was attrition – to kill large numbers of German soldiers. There were around 500,000 German casualties at the Somme. However, British and French losses added up to around 620,000.
  • Defenders of Haig point out that few people made these criticisms at the time of the war. They also point out that British losses at the Somme were not excessively high compared to the losses suffered by German, Austrian, Russian or French forces. The Somme was the first time in history when a British army took the leading role in the main area of a European war against the main enemy. The German army was probably the best in the world and Haig realised that attacking it would lead to heavy losses.
  • Another defence of Haig was that he could not call off his attack on the Somme because one of its aims was to relieve the pressure of the German forces attacking the French fortress of Verdun. Haig didn't actually want to attack at the Somme and he didn't want to attack in July 1916, but the German assault on Verdun forced his hand.
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