Tuesday Trivia | Whose Line is it Anyway? Historical Misquotes

With the Centenary of the British entry into the First World War nearly at hand, I am moved to post about a spurious and oft-repeated quote that is routinely (and critically) attributed to one of the war's most controversial figures: Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Haig was Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France from the end of 1915 onward, having replaced Sir John French, and his post-war legacy has been a complicated one to say the least. An initial wave of laudatory biographies of the Field Marshal gave way to more critical (and eventually scathing) assessments, but in recent years he has experienced something of a rehabilitation -- at least among academic historians. His popular reputation remains as shabby as ever.

One frequently cited failing of Haig's was his unimaginative neglect of the machine gun as an important weapon. This quote, widely attributed to him, is regularly offered in evidence of this:

"The machine gun is a much-overrated weapon and two per battalion would be more than sufficient." (Usually cited as coming from Haig in 1915, but taken as definitive of his perspective as a whole)

The claim that Haig was blindly opposed to machine guns flies in the face of numerous other well-attested declarations by him from both before and after the statement above was purported to have been made.

The genesis of this claim does not lie in any of Haig's own documents, first and foremost; the sole attestation of it comes from the memoirs of one Christopher Baker-Carr (From Chauffeur to Brigadier, 1930), a major who was put in charge of the BEF's new machine gun school in November of 1914. Baker-Carr's narrative of his early days with this academy is one of consistent frustration with the army's general staff, who apparently resisted his suggested innovations every step of the way. John Terraine, in an amazing chapter in The Smoke and the Fire (1980), has pretty definitively shown that this narrative is rather unlikely in its own right, as all existing records apart from Baker-Carr's memoirs indicate that the general staff basically did everything he suggested very quickly in spite of any reservations they might have had. I mention this not to put a slight on Baker-Carr himself, who was a remarkably interesting and accomplished person, but rather to establish that his memoirs may not be the most reliable account of all that transpired and that a great deal of personal pique seems to have made its way into them.

To give an example of this fantasticality which is essential to the quote being discussed, at some point in late December of 1914 Baker-Carr forwarded an urgent suggestion to the staff that the number of machine guns deployed among front-line battalions should be doubled. He describes in anger having received a number of seemingly unaccommodating notes in return, including one from "an army commander" saying that "the machine-gun was a much over-rated weapon and two per battalion were more than sufficient." We'll return to this in a few seconds, as it is the main focus of this post, but I will note first that the staff generals, contrary to Baker-Carr's unhappy declarations in his memoirs, took his advice and doubled the guns by February of 1915. A mere two-month turnaround on doubling the number of guns among all front-line battalions -- at the urging of an untested officer representing a new training school -- would not seem to suggest foot-dragging or indifference on the staff's part, and this is even more apparent when manufacturing limitations are considered.

By 1914 the Maxim was already on the way out. Both the British and the Germans were using the heavy, outdated 1908 model, and the onset of the war inspired a flurry of redesign. For the British this took the form of the new Vickers and Lewis guns; the former was far more reliable when it came to the problem of over-heating, and the latter was much, much more portable than any previous widely-adopted design. The Germans stuck with the Maxims when it came to arming static gun emplacements, but also developed a portable counterpart to the Lewis, the Bergmann.

At the war's outset, the available machine guns would have been hard to widely distribute for anyone involved even if they did understand the weapon's merits. The allocation of machine guns per infantry battalion was indeed two -- two, that is, for roughly a thousand men. This was a matter of unhappy necessity rather than contented policy, however, as even though the War Office had placed a production order with Vickers for 196 new machine guns after the first week of the war, Vickers could only produce ten to twelve such guns per week. It took time for the infrastructure necessary for widescale production to be developed, and it is in this context that any early-war statements on gun distribution should be considered.

In any event, let us turn to the quote itself.

First, Baker-Carr does not even explicitly say that it was Haig who said it -- only "an army commander." Insisting that this refers to Haig requires a number of stretches. The first is that he meant "army commander" in a literal rather than general sense; just prior to the war, the numerous men to whom his brief was addressed would have been referred to as corps commanders -- "army commander" was a necessary creation to accommodate the vast expansion of the army in wartime, but was still often used in lieu of "corps commander" on a casual basis in spite of it having become a formal rank. Which would mean that, in addition to just the two formal Army Commanders (note the capitals), who were Horace Smith-Dorrien and Douglas Haig, the comment could be referring to any of the following:

  • Charles Monro of I Corps
  • Charles Fergusson of II Corps
  • William Pulteney of III Corps
  • Henry Rawlinson of IV Corps
  • Herbert Plumer of V Corps
  • And John French, the Commander-in-Chief

There was also Edmund Allenby of the Cavalry Corps, but it seems very unlikely that his word on the subject would have mattered enough to Baker-Carr to put him out as much as he suggests. The comment -- assuming it is being properly ascribed -- could have come from any of them.

The reader may, at this point, reasonably ask why it couldn't have been Horace Smith-Dorrien who provided the quote above. The main thing militating against this is that he -- like Haig, as we shall shortly see -- had been and would continue to be an enthusiastic supporter of the machine gun throughout the war; nevertheless, unlike Haig, his career was abruptly terminated in 1915 after a personal falling-out with Sir John French. He is remembered primarily for his fortuitous decision to have II Corps turn and stand at Le Cateau during the retreat from Mons, and his subsequent nine months as a general preceded any of the parts of the war that are generally conceived of as being so catastrophically dumb. He never had to preside over subsequent, less-flashily-satisfying campaigns (like Loos, or the Somme, or Arras, or Passchendaele), and nobody consequently found it necessary to develop lurid conspiracies about his callousness, his incompetence, his lack of imagination, his barbarity, etc. etc., into which some later claim about an ignorance of the value of a certain weapon could be so easily integrated.

Haig's own documents, by contrast, whether they be letters, dispatches or personal journals, are unequivocal in their support of machine guns as a necessary and much-desired innovation. He took time out of his leave in January of 1898 to visit the Enfield gun works and see in both production and action the Maxim machine guns that they were then producing; his opinion of this weapon's usefulness can be seen in extracts from his written works. Nothing he has written on the subject suggests any other attitude towards machine guns than that of serious respect.

/r/AskHistorians Thread