Childhood & Early Life
Haig was born on June 19, 1861, in Charlotte square, Edinburgh, Scotland, into an affluent family, which owned the ‘Haig & Haig’ whiskey distillery His father was John Richard Haig, while mother’s name was Rachel (née Veitch).
Haig initially studied at ‘Mr. Bateson’s Boarding School’ in St. Andrews, then ‘Edinburgh Collegiate School,’ and in 1871, he attended a preparatory school ‘Orwell House’ in Warwickshire. Subsequently, he joined Clifton College, Bristol.
During 1880-1883, Haig studied at Brasenose College, Oxford University. He made a name as an able equestrian and was a part of the university polo team. In January 1884, he joined the ‘Royal Military College,’ Sandhurst, and graduated with top merit. On February 7, 1885, he joined the 7th Hussars (Queen’s own), as a lieutenant.
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Starting 1886, Haig served as a cavalry officer for 9 years, mostly in India. He achieved quick promotions and became a captain in 1891. He mainly looked after administration in British India. In 1888, he was made the regiment’s Adjutant, an officer who helps with administration.
After leaving India in 1892, he joined the ‘Staff College,’ Camberley, in 1896, (after an unsuccessful attempt in 1893). He passed out in 1897. Many believed that his later war strategies were influenced by his Staff College training.
Haig served under Lord Kitchener in Sudan and was part of the ‘Mahdist War’ in 1898. He was promoted to brevet Major in November 1898. After his return to England, he became ‘Brigade Major’ for the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot in May 1899.
Next, Haig served with Brigade Commander John French in the ‘Second Boer War.’ He held different posts during this period. In June 1899, he was ‘’ promoted to major and then became ‘Assistant Adjutant General’ of the cavalry brigade. He was a part of the ‘Battle of Elandslaagte, Ladysmith.’
In 1901 January, Haig was given command of 2,500 strong troops with the rank of ‘Brigadier General.’ In May 1901, he was made commander of the 17th Lancers. He managed both the commissions simultaneously in South Africa. For his services in the ‘Second Boer War,’ he was honored with ‘Companion of the Order of the Bath’ (CB)’ in November 1900, and was made a ‘Lieutenant Colonel’ in July 1901.
After the end of the ‘Boer War,’ Haig returned from Cape Town, South Africa, to England in October 1902. The same month he was made ‘Aide-de-camp’ (ADC) to King Edward VII and served in this post till 1904. He also served as the commanding officer of the 17th Lancers till 1903. In 1904, he became the youngest ‘major general’ in the British Army at that time. Haig was sent to India as ‘Inspector General of Cavalry’ while Lord Kitchener was serving as Commander-in-Chief, India.
When Haig returned to England, he was appointed ‘Director of Military Training’ at the ‘War Office’ in 1906, and in 1907, he became ‘Director of Staff Duties.’ He worked in the direction of restructuring the army, making it more proficient and trained to face European war (compared to the earlier colonial wars). With his organizational and administrative background, he helped set up the ‘British Expeditionary Force’ (BEF) (120,000 men) in 1907. Haig received ‘Knighthood’ for his work at the ‘War Office.’
In 1909, Haig was sent to India as ‘Chief of the General Staff’ and in 1910, he was promoted to ‘Lieutenant General.’ In 1911, he left India for England, and in 1912, he was made ‘General Officer’ in-charge of Aldershot Command. He served in this post till 1914 when he was appointed ‘Aide-de-Camp’ to King George V.
During the last military exercise before the outbreak of WWI, Haig’s troops were overpowered by those of Sir James Grierson. This put a question on Haig’s abilities as a field commander.
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When WWI broke out, Field Marshal John French was in overall command of the BEF and Haig was Commander of I Army Corps (which was half-part of the BEF). Haig reportedly worked against John French, to the extent of talking against him to King George V. In December 1915, Haig was made Commander-in-Chief BEF.
On July 1, 1916, Haig led an offensive with a large number of troops to the River Somme, which resulted in huge casualties (60,000 on the first day, with 20,000 dead). This created a lot of controversy about his attrition strategy.
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George did express his disapproval on Haig’s war strategy. However, Haig was promoted to ‘Field Marshal’ in January 1917. The British Prime Minister placed the BEF under the command of French General Robert Nivelle on the Western front. Haig wasn’t comfortable with this. Subsequently, French General Ferdinand Foch was made the next allied commander, who Haig supported with full cooperation.
In July 1917, while the French forces decided to wait for the US troops, Haig took the decision to confront the Germans in the regions of French and Belgian Flanders, with only British troops. Referred to as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’ (or Passchendaele Campaign), this offensive caused the British far less casualties than the ‘Battle of the Somme’ and they were able to occupy ridges around the Ypres, inflicting some losses on the Germans.
The Germans launched a major offensive in March 1918, the ‘Ludendorff Offensive/Spring Offensive.’ It was a series of German attacks along the Western front, wherein the Germans gained some of their lost territories, but at the cost of heavy casualties. However, this enemy offensive led the allied forces to form a single command under Foch, with Haig as second-in-command.
Together they led the allied forces from August 1918 till the end of the war, which came to be known as the ‘100 Days Offensive,’ and won a series of victories. Haig’s British troops captured 188,700 prisoners, and 2,840 guns. The end of WWI was considered as the greatest victory in the history of British army.
From 1918, till his retirement in 1920, Haig served as ‘Chief of British Home Forces.’ In 1921, he helped in formation of the ‘Royal British Legion,’ for ex-servicemen, and also helped raise funds for it. He also established the ‘Haig Fund’ to provide financial help to ex-servicemen.