Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Man who Led "The Contemptibles"

"There goes young Haig. He says he intends to be a soldier."

The speaker was a young student at Oxford University, as he jerked his thumb in the direction of a slight but well-set-up fellow, a classmate, who went cantering past.

The chance remark, made more than once during the college days, of Field Marshal Haig, struck the keynote of his career. From early boyhood Douglas Haig was going to be a soldier; and he stuck to his guns in a quiet, systematic way until he won out.

The story of Haig's life until the time of the Great War, was the opposite of spectacular, and even in it, his personal prowess was kept studiously in the background. With him it has always been: "My men did thus and so." Yet in his quiet way he has always made his presence felt with telling effect. He has been the man behind the man behind the gun.

By birth Haig was a "Fifer," which sounds military without being so. He was a native of Cameronbridge, County of Fife, and came of the strictest Presbyterian Scotch. If he had lived a few centuries back he would have been a Covenanter—the kind that carried a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. He was born, June 19, 1861, the youngest son of John Haig, a local Justice of the Peace. His mother was a Veitch of Midlothian.

The family, while not wealthy, was comfortably situated. The Haig children grew up as countrywise rather than townbred, having many a romp over the rolling country leading to the Highlands. But more than once on such a jaunt would come the inquiry: "Where's Douglas?" (We doubt whether they ever shortened it to "Doug," as they would have done in America.) And back would come the answer: "Oh, he stayed by the house, the morn. He got a new book frae the library, ye ken."

Douglas was, indeed, bookish and was inclined to favor the inglenook rather than the heather. As he grew older he discovered a strong liking for books on theology. It was the old Presbyterian streak cropping out.

The last thing one would expect from such a boy, was to become a soldier. A divinity student, yes,—perhaps a college professor—but a soldier, never! Yet it was to soldiering that this quiet boy turned.

The one thing which linked him up with the field was horsemanship. He was always a devotee of riding, and soon learned to ride well, with a natural ease and grace.

He received a general education at Clifton, then entered Brasenose College, Oxford, at the age of twenty. He was never a "hail-fellow well-met" sort of person. Reserve was his hallmark. But the longer he stayed in college, the more of an outdoorsman he became. Every afternoon would find him mounted on his big gray horse for a gallop across the moors, or perhaps an exciting canter behind the hounds on the scent of a fox. It was then that his habitual reserve would melt away, and he would wave his hat and cheer like a high-school boy.

The record of his classes is in no sense remarkable. He turned in neat and precise papers, without making shining marks in any particular study. Literature and science were his best subjects.

"Well, son, how goes it now?" his father would ask. "Ready to make a lawyer out of yourself?"

Douglas would shake his head. He could never share his father's enthusiasm for the law. "I guess not, father," he would reply quietly. "Somehow, I am not built that way. I want a try at soldier life." So his father let him follow his bent, and procured for him a position in the Seventh Regiment of Hussars. His career as a soldier was threatened at the outset by the refusal of the medical board to admit him to the Staff College on the ground that he was color-blind; but this decision was over-ruled by the Duke of Cambridge, then commander-in-chief, who nominated him personally. This was in 1885. England was then as nearly at peace as she ever became, and it seemed that young Haig was destined to become a feather-bed soldier.

But it was not for long. They presently began to stir up trouble down in Egypt, and England found, as on many previous occasions, that she didn't have half enough regulars for the job in hand. The revolt of the Mahdi had occurred, Khartoum had fallen, and the brave Gordon had lost his life.

A relief expedition into the Soudan was organized under the command of a tall, stern soldier named Kitchener, who began his first preparations to march into the interior about the time that Haig was putting on his first Hussar uniform.

The campaign in Egypt dragged, despite the zeal of the leader. In disgust, Kitchener returned to England to demand more men. The request was at last granted, and by December, 1888, he was in command of a force of over 4,000 troops, of which number 750 were British regulars! Those were indeed the days of the "Little Contemptibles," but right manfully they measured up to their tasks. And in the British force was the Seventh Hussars, including Haig. He was about to achieve his life's ambition, at last—to see real service as a British soldier.

Haig was then a well-knit young man of twenty-seven. His outdoor exercise had browned and hardened him, until he looked thoroughly fit for the exacting job ahead. He was slightly under medium size, but tough and wiry to the last degree. His shoulders were broad, his head well set, and the bulging calves of his legs showed the born cavalryman. He had fair, almost sandy hair, a close-cropped mustache, and steel-blue eyes which met honestly and unflinchingly the gaze of any with whom, he talked. He looked then, as in later years, "every inch a soldier," and speedily won the confidence of his superiors.

The silent Kitchener, who was a keen judge of men, soon took a fancy to this quiet young lieutenant. A friendship sprang up between them, that was destined to bear far-reaching fruit. The two men were both reserved in demeanor, but in a different sort of way. Kitchener was taciturn and often inclined to growl. Haig was a man of few words and no intimates, but greeted all with a pleasant smile. To this young Scotsman Kitchener unbent more than was his wont, and was actually, seen shaking hands with him, at parting, on a later occasion; which all goes to show that even commanding officers can be human.

On the march into the Soudan, Kitchener was in command of the Egyptian Cavalry also. The Khedive was exceedingly anxious that the rebellion be crushed speedily, and had made Kitchener the "sirdar." One of the first actions in this campaign was the Battle of Gemaizeh. Three brigades were sent to storm the forts held by the dervishes, and a heavy and sustained fire from three sides soon drove the enemy out in disorder. Some 500 dervishes were slain, and the remainder numbering several thousand fled across the desert toward Handub—closely pursued by the British Hussars and the Egyptian cavalry.

This was only the first of many such actions. Further and further south the rebels were driven. Kitchener pushed a light railroad across the desert as he advanced, so that he would not suffer from the same mistake which had ended Gordon—getting cut off from his base of supplies.

And in the thick of it was Haig—learning the actual trade of war in these frequent brushes on the desert—riding hard by day, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion at night. On more than one occasion the Chief sent him on a special quest with important messages, and always Haig got through. He seemed to bear a charmed life. "Lucky Haig," the men began to call him, and the title stuck.

Entering the desert as a Lieutenant, he was promoted to Captain, then brevetted a Major. He was mentioned in the despatches for bravery, and won a medal from the Khedive.

All this was not done in a few short months. The Egyptian campaign stretched into years, and at times must have seemed fearfully monotonous to these soldiers so far removed from home comforts. Here is the way one writer describes the Soudan:

"The scenery, it must be owned, was monotonous, and yet not without haunting beauty. Mile on mile, hour on hour, we glided through sheer desert. Yellow sand to right and left—now stretching away endlessly, now a valley between small broken hills. Sometimes the hills sloped away from us, then they closed in again. Now they were diaphanous blue on the horizon, now soft purple as we ran under their flanks. But always they were steeped through and through with sun—hazy, immobile, silent."

One of the culminating battles of the campaign was that of Atbara, where the backbone of the dervish rebellion was broken. It is estimated that here 8,000 dervishes were killed, 2,000 wounded, and 2,000 made prisoners. The battle began with a bombardment by the field guns. Then came the British cavalry at a gallop—the Camerons in front, and columns of Warwicks, Seaforths, and Lincolns behind. Bugles, bagpipes, and the instruments of the native regiments made strange music as the army pressed forward intent on reaching the river bank.

The native stockades were reinforced with thorn bushes, but these were torn away by the men, with their bare hands, in their eagerness to advance. Haig's regiment was one of the first to penetrate, but once past the stockade they encountered many of the defenders who put up a fierce fight. Several British officers lost their lives, and it was due to Haig's agility and presence of mind that he was not at the least severely wounded. Two dervishes attacked him at once from opposite sides. One aimed a slashing blow at his head with a scimitar. Haig quickly ducked and the scimitar went crashing against the weapon of the other dervish. Haig's luck again!

Others were not so fortunate. "Never mind me, lads, go on," said Major Urquhart with his dying breath: "Go on, my company, and give it to them," gasped Captain Findlay as he fell.

At the head of the attacking party strode Piper Stewart, playing "The March of the Cameron Men," until five bullets laid him low. Truly the spirit of the fiery old Covenanters was there!

The final battle of the Soudanese campaign, Khartoum, put the finishing touches to the rebellion, and gave to Kitchener the title "K. of K."—Kitchener of Khartoum. This battle was noteworthy in employing the cavalry in an open charge across the plains against the dervish infantry. It was just such a charge as a skilled horseman such as Haig would keenly enjoy, despite the danger. Winston Churchill, the British Minister, thus describes it:

"The heads of the squadrons wheeled slowly to the left, and the Lancers, breaking into a trot, began to cross the dervish front in column of troops. Thereupon and with one accord the blue-clad men dropped on their knees, and there burst out a loud, crackling fire of musketry. It was hardly possible to miss such a target at such a range. Horses and men fell at once. The only course was plain and welcome to all. The "Colonel, nearer than his regiment, already saw what lay behind the skirmishers. He ordered 'Right wheel into line' to be sounded. The trumpet jerked out a shrill note, heard faintly above the trampling of the horses and the noise of the rifles. On the instant the troops swung round and locked up into a long, galloping line.

"Two hundred and fifty yards away, the dark blue men were firing madly in a thin film of light-blue smoke. Their bullets struck the hard gravel into the air, and the troopers, to shield their faces from the stinging dust, bowed their helmets forward, like the Cuirassiers at Waterloo. The pace was fast and the distance short. Yet before it was half covered the whole aspect of the affair changed. A deep crease in the ground—a dry watercourse, a khor—appeared where all had seemed smooth, level plain; and from it there sprang, with the suddenness of a pantomime effect and a high-pitched yell, a dense white mass of men nearly as long as our front and about twelve deep. A score of horsemen and a dozen bright flags rose as if by magic from the earth. The Lancers acknowledged the apparition only by an increase of pace."

In such a melee as then followed, that trooper was lucky indeed who escaped without a scratch.

As a result of his bravery at Atbara and Khartoum, Haig's name was mentioned in the official despatches. He returned to England wearing the Khedive's medal and the honorary title of Major.

It is probable, however, that little more would have been heard of him, had not the South African War broken out, soon after. It is the lot of military men to vegetate in days of peace. They live upon action. Haig was no exception to this rule. He welcomed new fields. He went to South Africa as aide and right-hand man to Sir John French—the general whom he was to succeed in later years on the battlefields of France.

In this war, Haig is not credited with many personal exploits. His was essentially a thinking part. Yet he served as chief of staff in a series of minor but important operations about Colesburg, which prepared the way for Roberts's advance. As usual Haig pinned his faith upon the cavalry. All his life he had made a close study of this arm of the service, and was of opinion that it was not utilized in modern warfare nearly so much as it should be. He was a warm admirer of the American officer, J. E. B. Stuart, the Confederate General whose dashing tactics turned the scale in so many encounters.

Now he tried the same strategy in the operations around Colesburg—and paved the way for later victory.

Haig somewhat resembled another Southern leader, Stonewall Jackson, in his piety. It was not ostentatious, but simply part and parcel of the man, due to his Presbyterian training. Haig did not swear or gamble or dance all night. He was more apt to be found in his tent, when off duty, either reading or writing.

They tell of him that, one day at the officers' mess, after a particularly lively brush with the Boers, the quartermaster asked him if he had lost anything.

"Yes," replied Haig solemnly, "my Bible!"

Not once did his countenance relax its gravity, as he met the grinning faces across the table.

But despite their chaffing, there was not a man there who did not respect the courage of his convictions, no less than the bravery of the man himself. Almost daily he risked his life in these cavalry operations—until the "Haig luck" became a watchword.

The end of the South African War found Haig promoted to acting Adjutant General of the Cavalry, and soon after his return home he was made Lieutenant Colonel, in command of the Seventeenth Lancers. This was in 1901.

About this time he paid a visit to Germany, then at peace and professing a warm affection for England. One result of this visit was a letter which showed him possessed with wonderful powers of analysis and foresight. He practically predicted the war that was to come. He summed up his observations in a long letter to a friend which, in the light of events of the War, is little short of uncanny. It gave the German plan with a mastery of detail, shrewd prophecy, and earnest warning. The future commander-in-chief of the British armies in France was convinced of the certainty of the conflict and besought the authorities to make better preparation—but his warnings fell upon deaf ears.

It required thirteen years to demonstrate the truth of Haig's predictions, and then the blow fell. The Kaiser viewed his strong hosts and boasted that he would soon wipe out England's "contemptible little army." He very nearly did so, and would certainly have succeeded, had it not been for the fighting spirit of such men as Haig.

During the intervening years since the South African campaign he had risen by fairly rapid stages to Inspector-General of the Cavalry in India—a situation which he handled with great skill for three years—then Major General, and Lieutenant General.

At the outbreak of the World War, he was hurriedly sent to France, under the command of Sir John French, his old leader in Africa. French was generosity itself in his praise of Haig in these early days of disaster.

In the retreat from Mons it was "the skilful manner in which Sir Douglas Haig extricated his corps from an exceptionally difficult position in the darkness of the night," that won his laudation. At the Aisne, on September 14, 1914, "the action of the First Corps on this day, under the direction and command of Sir Douglas Haig, was of so skilful, bold, and decisive a character, that he gained positions which alone have enabled me to maintain my position for more than three weeks of very severe fighting on the north bank of the river."

In the first battle of Ypres, the chief honors of victory were again awarded to him: "Throughout this trying period, Sir Douglas Haig, aided by his divisional commanders and his brigade commanders, held the line with marvelous tenacity and undaunted courage."

Again and again, the generous French pays tribute to his friend, which while deserved reflects no less honor upon the speaker. He was big enough to share honor.

It is not strange, therefore, when French was superseded, for strategic reasons, that Haig should have been given the chief command. The appointment, however, left most of the world frankly amazed. Haig had come forward so quietly that few save those in official circles knew anything about him. It was nevertheless but a matter of weeks, possibly days, before a quiet confidence born of the man himself was manifest everywhere.

One war correspondent who visited head-quarters in the midst of the War's turmoil, thus describes his visit:

"The environment of the Commander-in-chief is strongly suggestive of his conduct of the war. Before war became a thing of precise science, the headquarters of an army head seethed with all the picturesque details so common to pictures of martial life. Couriers mounted on foam-flecked horses dashed to and fro. The air was vibrant with action; the fate of battle showed on the face of the humblest orderly. But today 'G. H. Q.'—as headquarters are familiarly known—are totally different. Although army units have risen from thousands to millions of men, and fields of operations stretch from sea to sea, and more ammunition is expended in a single engagement than was employed in entire wars of other days, absolute serenity prevails. It is only when your imagination conjures up the picture of flame and fury that lies beyond the horizon line that you get a thrill.

"An occasional motorcar driven by a soldier-chauffeur chugs up the gravel road to the chateau and from it emerge earnest-faced officers whose visits are usually brief. Neither time nor words are wasted when myriad lives hang in the balance and an empire is at stake. Inside and out there is an atmosphere of quiet confidence, born of unobtrusive efficiency."

The same writer on meeting Haig says. "I found myself in a presence that, even without the slightest clue to its profession, would have unconsciously impressed itself as military. Dignity, distinction, and a gracious reserve mingle in his bearing. I have rarely seen a masculine face so handsome and yet so strong. His hair and mustache are fair, and his clear, almost steely-blue eyes search you, but not unkindly. His chest is broad and deep, yet scarcely broad enough for the rows of service and order ribbons that plant a mass of color against the background of khaki.

"Into every detail of daily life at General Headquarters the Commander's character is impressed. After lunch, for example, he spends an hour alone, and in this period of meditation the whole fateful panorama of the war passes before him. When, it is over the wires splutter and the fierce life of the coming night—the Army does not begin to fight until most people go to sleep—is ordained.

"This finished, the brief period of respite begins. Rain or shine, his favorite horse is brought up to the door, and he goes for a ride, usually accompanied by one or two young staff-officers. I have seen Sir Douglas Haig galloping along those smooth French roads, head up, eyes ahead —a memorable figure of grace and motion. He rides like those latter-day centaurs—the Australian ranger and the American cowboy. He seems part of his horse."

Such was the man who did his full share in turning the German tide. Throughout the four long years of war, he faced the enemy with a calm courage which if it ever wavered gave no outward sign. And that is one reason why the Little Contemptibles grew and grew until they became a mighty barrier stretching across the pathway of the invader from sea to sea, and saying with their Allies:

"You shall not pass!"

Important Dates in Haig's Life

1861. June 19. Douglas Haig born.
1880. Entered Brasenose College, Oxford.
1885. Joined 7th Hussars, British army.
1898. Served in Soudan, mentioned in despatches, and brevetted major.
1899. Served in South Africa. D. A. A. G. for cavalry;. then staff officer to General French.
1901. Lieutenant-colonel commanding 17th Lancers.
1903. Inspector-general, cavalry, India.
1904. Major-general.
1910. Lieutenant-general.
1914. General, commanding First Army in France.
1915. Commander-in-chief of British forces.
1917. Field marshal.
1919. Created an earl.
1928. January 30. Died in England.