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A judicious assessment of a controversial career

The Good Soldier: A Biography of Douglas Haig - Gary Mead

There are few soldiers in British military history with a reputation as controversial as that of Douglas Haig. Lionized in his lifetime, his role as commander of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War came under attack soon after his death, becoming the head donkey whose decisions led to the unjustifiable sacrifice of a generation of British men. Though more recent scholarship has much modified this view, his career remains a battleground of historical debates, one in which every work is assigned to one side or the other.

 

Based on the introduction, Gary Mead's biography of Haig would seem fit into the "redemptive" side of the Haig debate. Yet in many ways it transcends such labeling, offering the most judicious account of Haig's life yet published, one interspersed with critical assessments that offer a well-rounded view of Haig's personality and career. Mead endeavors to correct many of the myths that have formed around his subject, noting, for example, his embrace of new technologies such as the tank and the airplane as they began to appear on the battlefield. Yet at the same time he proves perfectly willing to criticize Haig for his stubborn belief in the viability of cavalry and his preference for officers who shared his views rather than those who might have introduced a healthy tone of dissent into discussions over operations.

 

All of this makes Mead's biography well worth reading, though it is not without its flaws. Perhaps the most glaring is the lack of explanation for how Haig came to assume such a prominent position in the army. Mead's account of his subject's early years notes the relative late start to his career and is excellent on the social aspects of the late Victorian British army, yet there is little sense of what marked out Haig's rise beyond his excellent connections with key officers and the British royal family. Even his ascension to the command of the BEF is addressed in a paragraph, with no analysis of the selection process involved. More on the subsequent development of his reputation beyond what is included in the introduction and afterword would also have been helpful, particularly given the degree to which it defines Mead's own task. What examination he includes is interesting (particularly in his endnotes), but ultimately leaves the reader wanting more.

 

These criticisms are relatively minor, though, when compared to the author's broader achievement. With its mixture of reasoned argument and comprehensible writing, Mead has succeeded in writing a balanced and accessible study of Haig. Anyone seeking to understand Haig's much-debated career would do well to start with this book before moving on to the contentious discussions that continue about it to this day.