Primary Documents - Sir Douglas Haig's Preface to His Republished Despatches, 2 September 1919

Sir Douglas Haig: photograph taken in Newfoundland, 1924 With the end of the First World War came the flood of memoirs and a wide demand for war-related literature.  Consequently the close of 1919 saw the publication in book form of all eight of Sir Douglas Haig's despatches written as Commander-in-Chief of British forces serving in France and Flanders.

To accompany the republication of his despatches Sir Douglas Haig wrote a brief introductory article, reproduced below.  Attached to this was a separate article written by the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

Click here to read Foch's article.  Click here to read Haig's first despatch, dated 19 May 1916, which encompasses local operations at St Eloi.  Click here to read an overview of the despatches.

Horse Guards
2nd September, 1919

These Despatches are republished as a tribute to the valour of the British soldier and the character of the British nation.

They were written in the first instance with the object of telling, in plain and straightforward language, all that it was possible to make public at that time; with the knowledge then available and without either lowering or exalting unduly the splendid spirit of the nation, or giving assistance to our enemies.

By their means, I sought to convey to my countrymen in all parts of the Empire the information it was their right to possess concerning the progress and prospects of the war; to make those at home understand the full nature of the difficulties with which our Armies in the field had to contend, and the magnificent spirit and determination by which all difficulties were overcome.

That the account given in these Despatches is so frank and full speaks very highly for the steadfast patriotism, good sense, and equanimity of all classes of the people of our Empire, to whom at all times the truth could be told.  The long series of glorious actions related all too briefly in their pages bear equal testimony to the courage and devotion of all ranks of the British Armies, and therefore cannot be too widely known.

The general accuracy of the narratives, and the not inconsiderable amount of detail which it was possible to incorporate in them, reflects credit upon the staff arrangements for the collection of reliable reports and for their rapid transmission from the lower to the higher formations.

In normal times operation reports from Armies reached General Headquarters by wire twice daily, in the early morning and late evening.  These "Army wires" were based upon a complete chain of reports extending through Corps, divisions, brigades and battalions to the companies in the line.

Each link in the chain acted as a report centre, where the information reaching it was collated and summarised and the material portions forwarded in the form of a brief and precise statement to the formation above it.  To ensure accuracy, to make certain that the reports sent on contained only what it was material that the higher formation should know, that nothing of consequence was omitted, and that a minimum of time was lost in the actual process of transmission, entailed a high degree of organisation and training in all formations.

During the periods of battle fighting, these diurnal statements were supplemented by many others, as well as by telephone, wireless or aeroplane messages sent whenever there was anything of moment to report.  These additional messages might be the result of the immediate observation of liaison officers, whether of Armies, Corps or divisions; they might be amplified, confirmed or at times even forestalled by aeroplane reports received direct from the Headquarters, Royal Air Force, or by the reports of Intelligence Officers.

A further and most important source of information was supplied by the liaison officers sent out direct from General Headquarters.  These were all specially selected officers, young, but of proved ability, experience and tact.  Their duties took them frequently to all parts of the zone of the British Armies and into the actual fighting line.  Their reports were often of high value.

The senior officers of my Staff also made numerous visits to lower formations.  The information they were able to obtain formed an important addition to the results of my own personal observation.

There was present, therefore, at General Headquarters a very ample source of current information from which the framework of the Despatches could be built up.  This was again supplemented and checked by weekly Operation Reports from Armies, by Army Diaries, Intelligence Summaries and at times by special reports obtained from Armies, Corps and divisions relative to particular actions or battle periods.

The other Branches of my General Staff also kept records of their activities and these were available as material for such portions of my Despatches as it was possible to devote to their work.

Compiled, however, during the actual process of the events they describe, the Despatches do not pretend to be a complete and final account of the three momentous years of crowded incident and stupendous happenings with which they deal.

Yet because they were put together under the immediate strain of battle, while the results of the decisions and actions they recount were still undetermined, and were issued for the information of a nation whose fate still hung in the uncertain balance of war, they possess an atmosphere of their own which gives them a definite historical importance.

Moreover, they are at the moment the only available official account of a most splendid and most critical period in our national existence.  For these reasons, I thought it desirable to bring together under the same cover all the different Despatches sent by me from France and to arrange for their publication as a single book, accompanied by a complete series of maps with the aid of which the reader may follow every turn of the great struggle.

The text of the book is throughout substantially the same as that which appeared in the Gazettes.  It has been possible, however, to insert the names of divisions which in the earlier Despatches were omitted for reasons of secrecy; to correct one or two minor errors, and to add a few explanatory notes and sketches.

The large maps are copies of, or based directly upon, those which actually accompanied my original Despatches to the Secretary of State.

Being intended primarily for the eyes of British subjects and dealing with the operations of the British Armies, the Despatches necessarily refer but briefly to the actions of our Allies.  It must be left to future historians to write the book in which the exploits of the different Allied Armies shall appear in their true proportion and perspective.

For me, it is enough to acknowledge here, as I have done more than once in the Despatches themselves, the inestimable debt we owe to our Allies, and especially to the French.

I would emphasize also once more the cordial relations which throughout the whole period of the war prevailed both between the officers and men of the different Allied Armies in the field and between British soldiers of all ranks and the civil population of France and Belgium.

To the general interchange of courtesy between the French and ourselves, Marshal Foch has lately added an example personal to myself by writing his admirable introduction to the French edition of this book.

I am indebted to His Majesty's Government for permission to republish my Despatches in book form.

Douglas Haig, F.M.

Bulgaria mobilised a quarter of its male population during WW1, 650,000 troops in total.

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Primary Docs