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Haig Takes Command

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 214th installment in the series. 

December 15, 1915: Haig Takes Command 

As a year of unprecedented bloodshed drew to a close, the strategic deadlock on the battlefield claimed the biggest political casualties of the war so far in Britain, with the forced resignation of Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, and the unofficial sidelining of Secretary of State for War Lord Herbert Kitchener. 

This was actually the second major political upheaval in Britain during the war: back in May 1915 the shell crisis forced Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a coalition government including the radical Liberal David Lloyd George in the newly created role of Minister of Munitions and Conservative leader Bonar Law as colonial secretary. As part of the shakeup Churchill resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty while Jackie Fisher resigned as First Sea Lord, reflecting public anger over the failed operation at Gallipoli, although Churchill was allowed to remain in the Cabinet in the ceremonial position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Wikimedia Commons [1, 3, 4] // Independent [2]

However the new coalition government did little to address many of the underlying problems, including the general indecision and lack of direction that produced an extemporizing strategy (or non-strategy) known as “muddling through.” Critics in Parliament and the press focused on failures including the continuing debacle at Gallipoli, the crushing defeat of Serbia (see below), the apparently pointless occupation of Salonika, and the controversy over conscription (which also contributed to growing tension in Ireland). 

But the main factor was undoubtedly the disaster at Loos, which resulted in around 60,000 British casualties, including 11,000 dead – a shocking total, considering 8,000 British soldiers had died in combat or from wounds sustained in combat during the entire Second Boer War from 1899-1902, while 5,000 died from these causes in the Crimean War (many more died from disease in these previous wars). The British public was horrified at the toll, especially as private accounts by officers and soldiers hinted that many of the casualties were unnecessary

Under growing pressure to reform and revitalize the war effort, the Cabinet decided to form a new War Committee to direct British strategy, replacing the previous Dardanelles Committee, which as its name indicated had focused on the Gallipoli operation. The negotiations over the composition of the War Committee soon became an occasion for a broader housecleaning, as strong-willed Cabinet members including Lloyd George and Law fixed their sights on Kitchener and French. 

Resenting Kitchener’s secrecy, indecision, and refusal to delegate authority, as early as October 21 a large majority agreed that the grand old man had to go – but there was an obvious political obstacle. The hero of Sudan (lionized as “Kitchener of Khartoum”) and a key architect of victory in the Second Boer War, the Secretary of War was a beloved authority figure whose visage, immortalized in famous recruiting posters saying “Your Country Needs YOU,” was a comforting source of continuity. How could they cashier the War Secretary without causing a loss of confidence in the rest of the Cabinet? 

Asquith tried to square the circle by persuading Kitchener to accept a position as commander of all British forces in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia, but Kitchener refused the offer. Seeking another stopgap solution, Asquith fudged: Kitchener kept his position to reassure public opinion, but agreed to give up most of his powers to the new War Committee formed on November 11 along with the new chief of the Imperial general staff, Sir William Robertson (replacing Sir Archibald Murray, who in turn became commander of British troops in Egypt). Though still Secretary of State for War in title, Kitchener only retained responsibility for recruiting and equipping the army. 

French was next to go. Though not an unqualified failure, his main achievements had come early in the war, when he saved the British Expeditionary Force during the Great Retreat and eventually (French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre would have said belatedly) advanced into the gap between the German First and Second Armies in the first week of September 1914, resulting in the key Allied victory remembered as the “Miracle on the Marne.” His determination also helped the BEF prevail in its desperate defense during the First Battle of Ypres. 

Since then, however, the BEF commander was increasingly known for his shortcomings, including unpredictable mood swings, gyrating between irrational optimism and near-defeatist pessimism; a tendency to blame both his superiors and underlings when things went badly; a bad relationship with Britain’s French allies dating back to the first days of the war; and a proclivity for meddling in politics, as when he took his case directly to the newspapers during the shell crisis. 

The final straw came in the aftermath of Loos, when French tried to cover up his responsibility for the defeat in the official dispatch by claiming he had agreed to commit reserves during the crucial first day of the battle, when in fact he had refused. On October 27, 1915, French’s own chief of staff, Robertson, told King George V that French was no longer fit to command and should be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the First Army which carried out the attack at Loos. At the same time French appeared to be losing his nerve, according to Haig, who wrote in his diary: “He seemed tired of the war, and said that in his opinion we ought to take the first opportunity of concluding peace otherwise England would be ruined!” A cavalry commander struggling to comprehend trench warfare, French was simply out of his depth. 

Following French’s prevarication in the Loos dispatch, the king then took the unusual step of intervening personally. After receiving the bad news on December 4, on December 15, 1915, French resigned his post and was created Viscount of Ypres, an honorary title recognizing the scene of his greatest victory. He then assumed command of the Home Forces guarding the British Isles – a fig leaf to cover up the fact that he had basically been fired. 

His replacement, Haig (top), would command the BEF for the rest of the war and is closely associated with some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Dynamic, intelligent and aggressive, Haig replicated many of French’s faults, including over-optimism and meddling in politics. More importantly he was perceived as cold and analytical, and often criticized for appearing distant and uncaring; after the war many critics alleged that he was indifferent to casualties during the cataclysmic Battle of the Somme and later Passchendaele, bestowing the unflattering sobriquet “Butcher Haig” on him. 

However, more recently a number of historians have presented a more sympathetic portrait of Haig, noting that he had little choice about the Somme, as it was already agreed with Britain’s French allies before he took command. According to the same view Haig also had no real alternative to waging a war of attrition, although he enthusiastically embraced new weapons like tanks and airplanes which promised a way to break through enemy lines and end the slaughter. Indeed it’s not clear what other strategy Haig could have pursued, especially as the offensives he ordered were considered urgently necessary to relieve pressure on the French as their army neared the breaking point. 

Serbs Reach the Sea 

In the Balkans the Serbian “Great Retreat” continued with horrifying losses. In mid-December the decimated columns of soldiers and civilian refugees began arriving at their first destination, the Albanian coast, where they would wait for French and Italian ships to evacuate the survivors to the Greek island of Corfu, beyond the reach of the pursuing Central Powers. But there weren’t enough Allied ships to carry out the hastily arranged evacuation at first, and despite Allied deliveries of food and clothing thousands of Serbian soldiers and civilians starved or died of exposure during this period. 

Click to enlarge

One Serbian officer, Milorad Marković, recalled the final days of the retreat, as they descended from the Albanian mountains: 

I remember things scattered all around; horses and men stumbling and falling into the abyss; Albanian attacks; hosts of women and children. A doctor would not dress an officer’s wound; soldiers would not bother pull out a wounded comrade or officer. Belongings abandoned; starvation; wading across rivers clutching onto horses’ tails; old men, women and children climbing up the rocks; dying people on the road; a smashed human skull by the road; a corpse all skin and bones; robbed, stripped naked, mangled; soldiers, police officers, civilians, women, captives. Vlasta’s cousin, naked under his overcoat with a collar and cuffs, shattered, gone mad. Soldiers like ghosts, skinny, pale, worn out, sunken eyes, their hair and beards long, their clothes in rags, almost naked, barefoot. Ghosts of people begging for bread, walking with sticks, their feet covered in wounds, staggering. 

On December 15 the Serbs reached the sea, only to find themselves forced to continue south along the coast in search of their rescuers. After finding no food and no French ships at the first stop, Marković’s starving party pushes on: 

But we have to run further, to Ljesh. There’s the harbour! There we’ll have bread and rest. No bread there either, and the Germans are pursuing us. We must flee again. Further, too far for us, worn out, exhausted and half-dead – to Drach. We are not alive; we walk and move, sometimes eat or speak, but half-conscious. We left Ljesh six days ago… We wade across rivers. There, too, some perish, drown or freeze to death. Then we go over rocks, ravines; many fall there, too.

As terrible as conditions were for the Serbs, they were even worse for the Habsburg prisoners of war who had to follow their captors and received even less food or clothing. Unsurprisingly in their desperation many resorted to robbery, according to one POW, a Czech soldier named Josef Sramek, who wrote in his diary on December 9, 1915: 

Once every three days we get a few biscuits or a half of a loaf of bread… The captives pass through the country like robbers, attacking houses at night, stealing cattle, chicken, and corn. They risk their lives. Many are killed by Arnauts [Albanians]; many starve to death in valleys and swamps. These are not people anymore but animals who would murder their own friends for a piece of bread. 

Incredibly things were about to get even worse. On December 18 Sramek wrote that the column was held up at a river, waiting for Italian soldiers to ferry them to the other side:

Our situation is hopeless. The river is flooding, and ferrying is impossible. Today 60 died from exhaustion. Rags hanging from everyone, barefoot with frostbitten legs, unshaven, unwashed, all the suffering of the way mirroring in our faces. You have no certitude – at night someone steals your brotsack [bread sack] from under your head, your blanket, your coat – anything you may have. Those who cannot rise up have their coats and boots stolen from them for resale.

The body count rose quickly. On December 20, Sramek noted: “More than 200 dead were collected today.” A day later, he noted: “In the morning 300 dead lay on the riverbank.” Finally on December 22 the ferry service resumed: “There is a ferry today, but only for the sick! Indescribable scenes take place at the raft. People rush like mad, push each other, fight. Serbians beat them with sticks and gun butts. Many people are beaten and kicked to death, then thrown into the river. Everyone is trying to save himself from death by hunger.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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Scarface is Returning to Theaters for Its 35th Anniversary
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures
Tribeca Film Festival/Screenvision Media/Universal Pictures

Pop culture history was forever altered on December 9, 1983, when Scarface arrived in movie theaters across America. A loose remake of Howard Hawks's classic 1932 gangster film, Brian De Palma's F-bomb-laden story of a Cuban immigrant who becomes the king of Miami's drug scene by murdering anyone in his path is still being endlessly dissected, and quoted, today. To celebrate the film's place in cinema history, the Tribeca Film Festival is teaming up with Screenvision Media and Universal Pictures to bring the film back into theaters next month.

Just last month, Scarface screened at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival as part of a 35th anniversary celebration. The film's main cast and crew—including De Palma and stars Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer—were on hand to discuss the making of the film and why it has endured as a contemporary classic. (Yes, that's the same conversation that left the panel momentarily speechless when moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer how much she weighed during filming.) That post-screening Q&A will be part of the upcoming screenings.

"Scarface is a timeless film that has influenced pop culture in so many ways over the last 35 years. We're thrilled to partner with Universal Pictures and Tribeca Film Festival to bring it back to the big screen in celebration of its anniversary," Darryl Schaffer, executive vice president of operations and exhibitor relations at Screenvision Media, said in a press statement. "The Tribeca Film Festival talk was an important commemoration of the film. We're excited to extend it to the big screen and provide fans a behind-the-scenes insight into what production was like in the 1980s."

Scarface will screen at select theaters nationwide on June 10, June 11, and June 13, 2018. Visit Scarface35.com to find out if Tony Montana and his little friend will be coming back to a cinema near you.

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