Thursday 21 March 2019 8:59 am

How field marshal May can get out of the Brexit trenches


Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

The name of field marshal Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915-18, is not one that usually trips off the tongue in connection with Brexit.

But with the whole Brexit process having become mired in Flanders-type mud, and increasingly settling into First World War style trench warfare, he would seem a most apposite figure of study for the current situation.

Haig’s reputation has undergone several metamorphoses. To his contemporaries, he was a war hero whose bloody and ultimately futile offensives at the Somme and Passchendaele in particular – resulting in mass casualties of the type never seen before or since in British military history – were forgotten in the aftermath of the victory he helped fashion in 1918.

A war-weary public seized upon the German collapse with delirium, and Haig was raised to an Earldom, and awarded the grant of £100,000 by parliament to live out the rest of his life in the manner that peers of the time were accustomed.

On his death in 1928, The Times noted that: “Great crowds lined the streets … come to do honour to the chief who had sent thousands to the last sacrifice when duty called for it, but whom his war-worn soldiers loved as their truest advocate and friend.”

But this was not to last. By the 1960s, Haig had become seen as the worst sort of British commander: narrow-minded and with a complete disregard for the human cost of his tactics, which he refused to adapt, preferring to insist that just one more heave on the battlefield would take the Allies over the line.

This view was immortalised by Alan Clark’s The Donkeys and the film Oh! What a Lovely War, though perhaps the most damning indictment came in 1989’s Blackadder Goes Forth, where a British army offensive was dismissed with the words “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin”.

A more nuanced view has emerged recently which has attempted to marry the two narratives. While not excusing Haig’s tactics in the earlier years, this position stresses the extraordinary nature of the form and scale of warfare taking place at the time.

It also reflects the reality that Haig completely reorganised the British Expeditionary Force under his control, and evolved his tactics to allow for the rapid breakthrough of the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918 that pierced the Hindenburg Line and brought the war to its conclusion.

It is not difficult to see where this analogy is heading. Up until this week, it appeared to many that Theresa May’s tactics for bringing today’s conflict to a close owed much to the early Haig period’s “big push” mentality.


When the first meaningful vote on her Brexit deal failed, we were promised more of the same. This duly arrived with some minimal tweaks in the form of meaningful vote two, which unsurprisingly suffered the same fate, mown down by parliamentary machine guns from a well-defended position, even if some ground was made up in the form of a smaller size of defeat.

Incredibly, despite parliament’s support for an extension of the Brexit process, the Prime Minister had been suggesting that a third meaningful vote was on the cards.

With no changes to the facts on the ground, her plan appeared to be a simple campaign of attrition to make sure that she was the last person standing, having ground down the opposition over time.

As Haig learned to his initial cost, and she would surely have done this week had the vote come to pass, doing the same thing repeatedly is not the way to win a war.

The extension to Brexit Day that the Prime Minister has been forced to asked for by parliament, and the speaker’s intervention this week to prevent a third vote – at least in the short term – may not be what any of us wants, least of all her. We were, after all, promised repeatedly that the war would be over by next week.

But if the delay enables new tactics to be developed to reach a political consensus over Brexit that finally concludes the process in a more agreeable way, it may yet be hailed as a national turning point.

As she enters the next phase of the Brexit battle, May might like to consider how field marshal Haig overcame his stalemate, and helped deliver the knockout blow to the Imperial German Army.

For Haig, it was the availability of new and improved weaponry like the tank, and an awareness that battle plans needed to adapt to take advantage of such developments, that changed his fortunes.

May does not have armaments at her disposal.

But she does now have the opportunity to co-opt her colleagues through her words and actions, and to end the public “frustration” with the parliamentary process (which she noted yesterday) by changing course to adopt a measure like a referendum with the all-encompassing choices of her deal, no deal, and remaining in the EU on the ballot.

Whether or not she seizes this moment may yet determine how history views both her, and Brexit as a whole.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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