Earl Haig: Son of Field-Marshal Haig who became a soldier and painter and was a prisoner of war in Colditz

Surely no child can ever have inherited a more difficult silver spoon. George (after his godfather King George V) Alexander (in deference to one godmother, Queen Alexandra) Eugene (in deference to another godfather, the Empress Eugenie, widow of Napoleon III) Douglas Haig was born in a mock Tudor house called Eastcott on the night of 15 March 1918. His mother wrote: "Few babies can have been so welcome. The newspapers acclaimed him and everyone seemed to take a personal pleasure in his arrival. Douglas returned to France the day after, but before he left he received from the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace their majestys' very warm congratulations." The Germans were about to make their last great attack of the First World War, towards Amiens.

Successively Oxford playboy, soldier, prisoner of war, 30th Laird of Bemersyde, and painter and sketcher of talent, he was the antithesis of a father he loved but lost at the age of nine. Whatever reassessment may have been made of the commanders of the First World War and their being described as "donkeys", the fact is that on 3 February 1928, Field-Marshal Haig's draped coffin was escorted by two Marshals of France, Foch and Pétain, the Belgian hero Baron de Ceuninck and 11 British War leaders through deeply moved crowds of Londoners. For the British Legion and millions he was the iconic "Dawyck". No one called him anything else – his memoir My Father's Son written in the 1960s (published by Leo Cooper, 2000), is a wonderfully honest account of the poignant life of the son of a historical world figure.

His father was descended from the De Hagas, a Norman family who settled at Bemersyde in 1162. After eight generations they became Haigs. From the 13th century until Flodden (1513) Haigs fought and died in the many battles of Scottish independence. Bemersyde was bought from Douglas Haig's cousin, Colonel Arthur Balfour Haig, in token of appreciation of his services in the First World War. Albeit earlier generations had been connected with the highly profitable Haig's whisky, the house was in a bad state, full of various kinds of rot, and finance was to be a problem for half a century.

Dawyck's mother's family came from Glynn in Cornwall. Her father had served as British minister in Brussels and Rome and her great-grandfather, the first Lord Vivian, had commanded a cavalry brigade at Waterloo and had become a master general of Ordnance. The loneliness of his childhood at Bemersyde prompted Haig's parents to send him at the age of eight to a pre-preparatory school, Westbourne House, in Folkestone. Haig remembers how the lady in charge helped him to explore the world's flora and fauna. "At half-term my father and mother came down and took me to Canterbury Cathedral, and then for a walk in a bluebell wood followed by a meal of strawberries and cream."

In 1927, Haig went to Bramcote School in Scarborough, where a Mr Pidcock prepared boys for Winchester. Shortly after arrival Haig had a mastoid operation which was to create lifelong weak health and resulted in his missing so much education that it was decided that he should go to Stowe rather than Winchester. From Bramcote he went to Cargilfield in Edinburgh, where he had a rough time until the arrival as new headmaster of J.H. Bruce Lockhart, a rugby international who was also a keen artist. "Before I left Cargilfield the headmaster, whose insight had encouraged me to enjoy the excitement of the three-quarter line, advised me to concentrate as far as possible on the arts rather than on games. He had the right to advise, since he himself was good at both. He was a gifted painter and rugby international as well."

In the summer term of 1931, Haig went to Stowe "dressed in a smart grey flannel suit and homburg hat, accompanied by my mother. I arrived at Bletchley station, where we were met by a chauffeur in a maroon livery with silvery buttons, driving a maroon Humber belonging to the headmaster, J.F. Roxborough, and driven up the long drive to the Adam House which had been the home of the Dukes of Buckingham." In the house of Richard Howarth, nicknamed "Chin" – a retired regular major who had been severely wounded at Gallipoli – and with the deep personal interest of the great headmaster, Haig blossomed.

"Whilst we were encouraged to behave and act without the inhibitions of a traditional establishment, we were left with greater responsibility for our own behaviour and discipline came much more from within than without. J.F.'s understanding of boys was shrewd and kind. He realised that at school our minds and our characters would have their chance to grow. He was interested in the personal make-up and interests of each small boy that arrived on the north front steps. Like the gardener with green fingers who realises this plant needs this and that plant needs that he watched us all, gave each one his friendship, so that I think we all each one of us felt J.F. belonged to us personally and we trusted him as he trusted us – and in the main neither was let down."

Haig received regular visits at Stowe from his guardian, the Admiral of the Fleet Bertie Fisher. He was taught to draw horses in the back of a bus by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Great War memorial at Thiepval.

At Christchurch, Haig attained a poor degree, having spent most of his time either with the hounds or with the upper-class Bullingdon club. However, he had spent a formative six months in Germany when he stayed with Baron Stengel, a civil servant with no strong political views.

The one part of Oxford which he did take seriously was the Officer Training Corps, which led to a commission in August 1939 in the Royal Scots Greys. For the first two years he served in Palestine, taking advantage of sketching in the Bible lands. He was appointed ADC to General Sir Richard (Dick) O'Connor, who was taken prisoner of war in 1941.

The following year Haig himself was put "in the bag". He wrote: "We had been more or less the only vehicle above ground with a number of 88s all in close proximity able to take us on as a sitting duck. There was nothing that we could do because I was in a Crusader armed with a little 2lb gun which was absolutely useless. It was like a pea shooter at that range. We had a few shots but that didn't do much good – nor would legging it from Lord knows where back to our lines, when probably we would have been picked off anyway.

"But that wouldn't exactly have gone down too well if the presence in the form of the Crusader tank had just disappeared at that critical stage. Our presence would have been more useful had we not lost touch with armoured brigade headquarters since the beginning of the attack, due to the jamming of our wireless by the enemy. Had we been more in touch we might have helped our tanks to move up closer behind us in the dark. I did hear and I have read since that Brigadier Fisher, commanding 22 Armoured Brigade, got his map references wrong and did not appear in the right place, so as a result no armour came to save us."

Haig gave an account of the life of a prisoner of war, first in Italy, then at Colditz, and finally at Konigstein, where he was one of the prominente, those held on Hitler's personal orders. In My Father's Son is a unique and fascinating account of life as a prominente prisoner of war. "Prisoners of war roughly divided themselves into five main categories; escapers, creators, administrators, the students and the sleepers," he wrote. "Many individuals combined two or more of these approaches in their system of dealing with captivity. I adopted the second and fourth lines of activity. The escapers plotted in dark corners and dug tunnels and as a regular soldier I should have joined them."

The brutal fact was that his appalling dysentery and other health problems excluded him from attempting to escape in the certain knowledge that he was almost bound to be caught even if he did get out. So he contented himself by studying Roger Fry's lectures, which he found in the library, explaining the possibility of enjoying paint for its own sake. In Colditz he painted a large number of portraits. Lucky to escape with his life through the good offices of Oberst Hesselmann, who shielded him from the clutches of Hitler and Himmler, Haig was rescued in the nick of time by the Americans. Truth to tell for some years he found it difficult to acclimatise to the post-war world. However after going to the Camberwell School of Art he returned to Bemersyde and became a much respected and much loved member of Scottish society.

Tam Dalyell



George Alexander Eugene Douglas Haig ("Dawyck" Haig), soldier and artist: born Kingston Hill 15 March 1918; Second Lieutenant, Royal Scots Greys, 1938; prisoner of war, 1942-45; retired as Major, 1951; married 1956 Adrienne Thérèse Morley (one son, two daughters), 1981 Donna Geroloma Lopez y Royo di Taurisano; died 10 July 2009.

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