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.
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.
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.”