Click to follow
That excellent series Timewatch (BBC2) loves nothing better than to go out hunting received opinions, so much so that, now and then, you wonder whether the thrill of the chase has it racing after a wild goose. The thought occurred during its fascinating programme about General Douglas Haig - a hero to the Empire, but a villain for post-Imperial Britain.

The received opinion about Haig, succinctly stated at the opening of the programme, was that he was "as stubborn as a donkey, as inarticulate as a donkey, as unthinking as a donkey," a man who sat in safety 40 miles behind the lines, sending the lions to their deaths. Timewatch set out to question the stark simplicity of this verdict, but it did it with only limited effect, despite the best efforts of several revisionary historians. Perhaps, you thought, the received opinion was correct after all. Perhaps the pendulum of common knowledge had come to rest at the right point, only to be nudged out of true by the fresh efforts of historians. It's such a fixed habit of mind with us to defer to the new that it seems almost heretical to suggest that it could be anything but an improvement on last year's model.

But generational amnesia must afflict historians, too, and they are prey to their own temptations. Without impugning the scholarship of any of those who put the case for the defence, you couldn't forget that the academic imperative to publish (just as much as the imperative to produce striking TV programmes) might have some kind of effect here. Who, after all, would make a name or a reputation by arguing that General Haig was a blinkered fool, detached from the suffering of his men and incompetent in his tactics?

That entrenched position was defended here by Dr John Laffin, author of the splendidly unequivocal British Butchers and Bunglers of the First World War, while the attack was advanced by, among others, Dr Gary Sheffield, a scholar from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. His version, crudely simplified, was that where things went wrong, as in the Battle of the Somme, Haig had no realistic alternative, and that where things went right, as in the successful breaching of the Hindenburg Line, it was evidence that the General had wisely grasped the changing nature of the war. More tellingly, he rattled the cherished certainty that the First World War was an occasion of unrivalled carnage by pointing out that the casualty rate on the European front between 1944 and 1945 "equalled or exceeded those on the Western Front".

There were other mitigations: Haig was given bad intelligence, was driven by a Christian faith typical of his time. But what was more intriguing than the detailed arguments was the sense of two types of history locked in combat. The military analysts were, on the whole, forgiving. "This was the battle," one said approvingly about the Somme, "that turned the British army from being a group of amateurs into a fairly hard-bitten and efficient army." It was almost as if Haig had calculated the slaughter to teach his volunteer battalions a lesson, but it was a hard bite indeed that drew so much blood - far too painful to be forgiven by those who allowed themselves an emotional connection to the victims.

Another historian defended the fact that Haig never visited the front - "he couldn't see a thing there," he explained matter-of-factly. He was talking strategically, but he made it sound as if the men doing the fighting and dying were barely worth looking at, invisible even before they disappeared into that shattered ground. Another protested at the "folk-memory that has darkened Haig's reputation", and you caught a faint whiff of an ancient smell, that patrician self-pity about the incomprehension of the other ranks. What do mere folk know of these matters?

Forty miles behind the line, or even 80 years from the slaughter, Haig's stubborn persistence in attack might look heroic. From the less lofty perspective of the trenches it still looks like criminal incompetence.