Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding Field Marshall Haig

Across the street from Cannongate Kirk, at the lower end of the Royal Mile – the street that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace – is the Museum of Edinburgh, a small, unimposing museum with free admission.  Being of sound Scottish ancestry, I hate to pass a bargain, especially when it has something to do with history.

The museum is housed in a restored Sixteenth Century house and includes an eclectic mix of artifacts, dating from Roman times to modern day. Wandering through the collection, I discovered something different at almost every turn.  There were household items of pottery, china, glass and silver; signs and manufacturing tools from businesses that are now long-gone; military, police and fire brigade equipment; and numerous other bits and pieces of Edinburgh from the past two thousand years or so.

Undoubtedly, the most heartwarming display belonged to Greyfriars’ Bobby, the Skye Terrier who watched over his master’s grave for fourteen years during the mid-1800s and was adopted by the residents of Edinburgh.  In the display, one can read Bobby’s story and see his collar, watering bowl, and pictures of the people who cared for him during those years.

As I meandered among the many small rooms of the museum, I discovered a large collection of pictures and personal items belonging to Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces during most of World War I.  Being a student of the Great War, as it was once called, this memorial to one of Edinburgh’s native sons drew my serious attention.

Haig remains a controversial figure even today, with historians divided over his legacy.  Some see him as a great military leader who ultimately guided the British forces to victory on the Western Front.  Others, however, see him as an incompetent general, a blunderer and a butcher, who wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers. 

From my perspective as a Marine Corps corporal, I tend to fall in with the latter group.  However, I would add the caveat that Haig was the product of the upper crust of British society.  Like so many military and political leaders of his time, he was born and raised to do exactly what he did.  There was an arrogance about them all, an elitism  that continues to plague world leaders even today.  They made stupid decisions, with little or no concern for those outside their own social circles.  They abused their power and paid the price with other people’s lives.

World War I was one of the first modern wars.  Millions of innocent people died.  Historians explain the carnage as the result of advancements in military technology,  the tools associated with defending a position – specifically the machine gun.  In an era when generals were taught to win battles with infantry and cavalry charges, the machine gun changed everything.  It was not until World War II that military leaders learned to combine the strength of infantry, tanks and airpower to overwhelm defensive positions.

Haig was an old school military leader.  He seemed to believe, as Winston Churchill later noted, that he could stop machine gun fire with  “the breasts of brave men.”  When one studies the history of war in general, it is too often evident that the military leaders who rise to the top of the ranks during times of peace often fail to provide the kind of leadership needed during war.

Haig’s exhibit is on the third floor of the museum, toward the back of the building, and I suspect that it is missed my many who visit.  At first, I thought the display was appropriately hidden, but perhaps I’m wrong.  Maybe it should be out front, where it will be seen by more people, reminding us of the incredible stupidity of valuing unconditional victory over human life.

Regardless, there is little doubt in my mind that of the two famous sons of  Edinburgh, I would much rather have had a faithful Skye Terrier named Bobby as my friend, than a pompous old Field Marshall like Haig.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen


  1. I can't read "stop machine gun fire with the breasts of brave men" without wincing. But Haig was not the only one who thought that way. All the leaders seemed to think that the winner would be who could make their men into the higher pile of corpses. Haig's tactics seemed designed to create as many casualties as possible. I remember watching a show where a comparison was made on tactics that could have been used at the Somme. If Haig had simply ordered his men to run across No Man's Land instead of ordering them to pace, he would have had half the casualties.

  2. The military leadership across Europe during WWI was simply not up to challenge, and the common man paid the price for their stupidity.