Did anti-Catholicism increase First World War casualties?

A statue of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in Edinburgh: ‘He saw God in his own image’ (Getty)

Despite the many books written about him, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (later Earl Haig of Bemersyde), the man who from December 1915 to the Armistice in November 1918 led the British and Dominion armies on the Western Front, remains a mystery. Opinions on his generalship range from admirable but unlucky to callous and blockheaded, and everything in between.

David Lloyd George, war minister and then prime minister during most of Haig’s command, wrote in his War Memoirs that Haig was “intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the command of an Army of millions”, and a “second-rate commander in unparalleled and unforeseen circumstances”.

Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, who as a young officer saw action on the Western Front from the first to the last shots, rated Haig a poor general, and believed that the war might have been over sooner – and certainly with fewer casualties – if the Australian general Sir John Monash had been in command.

Recently, however, a number of historians have tried to rehabilitate Haig’s reputation, if only by pointing to the enormous strain under which he exercised command. During the same period, for example, the French had four commanders-in-chief, two of whom were dismissed.

Haig’s war diaries and letters are a mine of evidence for this rainbow of opinion. They display a range of emotion, some of it admirable, a great deal of it less so, including petulance, meanness of spirit and deviousness, as well as extraordinarily little introspection. In Great Contemporaries (1935), Winston Churchill, who saw the war both from ministerial office (1914-1915 and 1917-1918) and from the trenches, wrote of Haig after his death:

He presents to me in those red years the same mental picture as a great surgeon before the days of anaesthetics, versed in every detail of such science as was known to him: sure of himself, steady of poise, knife in hand, intent upon the operation; entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient … He would operate without excitement; and if the patient died, he would not reproach himself.

Even Haig’s pre-war diaries and letters reveal nothing of what made him tick – almost no mention of a book he’d read, a play he’d seen or a lecture on anything other than a military matter. Yet numerous rounds of golf or polo tournaments are recorded. Occasionally there is a passing reference to a sermon – Haig was a staunch Scots Presbyterian – but nothing revealing of his own thoughts. One Australian historian, John Laffin, was profanely blunt about it: “Haig saw God in his own image.”

Did that imply disdain for Catholicism, and did it play a part in his flawed decision-making at the Third Battle of Ypres (“Passchendaele”) in particular? For on October 15, 1917, as the British Expeditionary Force floundered in the mud of this truly lamentable affair of inept tactics, Haig wondered in his diary “why the War Office Intelligence Department gives such a wrong [ie gloomy] picture of the situation except that General Macdonogh is a Roman Catholic and is (unconsciously) influenced by information which doubtless reaches him from tainted (ie Catholic) sources”.

What did he mean by “tainted”? Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa had been elected to the papacy as Benedict XV within a month of the outbreak of war at the comparatively young age of 59, probably because the College of Cardinals wanted a vigorous pope to deal with what Benedict himself would call “the suicide of civilised Europe”. In his first encyclical letter, in November 1914, he wrote, with a degree of circumlocution but clearly referring to the invasion of neutral Belgium: “Surely there are other ways and means whereby violated rights can be rectified. Let them be tried honestly and with good will, and let arms meanwhile be laid aside.”

Since he made no practical proposals, Benedict’s appeal brought no material response. He then turned his efforts to limiting the war’s spread, conducting behind-the-scenes diplomacy to prevent war between Italy and Austria. Since British diplomatic efforts were being made at the same time to persuade Italy to declare war on the side of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia), Benedict’s initiative made him no friends in London.

In late 1915, after the Italians had entered the war, the pope tried to broker a peace directly between Belgium, France and Germany. This foundered on the pact made in September 1914 by the Entente powers “not to conclude peace separately during the present war”. Having failed in this, he then issued another general appeal for a negotiated peace, which was no better received than the first.

Benedict continued his efforts throughout 1916 and into the following spring, when he also tried to keep the Americans out of the war; and then, in August 1917, when it seemed as if all sides must be growing exhausted, he issued his most significant “peace note”. In a preamble, he said that he wished …

no longer to dwell upon the general, as the circumstances suggested to us in the past: we want now to descend to more concrete and practical proposals, and to invite the governments of the belligerent peoples to agree upon the following [seven] points, which appear to be the bases of a just and lasting peace, leaving to the same governments to apply them at a specific level and to complete them.

These “following points” ranged widely, and probably influenced President Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” speech of January 1918, proposing a basis for lasting peace (which he called “peace without victory”), which would in part be the basis on which the Germans appealed for an armistice in October 1918.

Benedict’s August peace note fell on no more fertile ground than his earlier initiatives. He had no moral influence in Russia, an Orthodox country, which was anyway imploding in revolution. Germany, though it had a sizeable Catholic population, was essentially Protestant, the land of Luther. In France, anti-clerical forces were at least as strong as Catholic ones. Besides, Catholicism did not equate with ultramontanism: “Holy Father, we do not want your peace,” was the message of one preacher in the church of La Madeleine in Paris.

Austria-Hungary, the great Catholic empire, had long since lost its soul to Berlin. Britain in many ways was still too close to the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot to regard Rome with anything but suspicion.


In November 1917, Haig’s own chief of intelligence, Brigadier-General John Charteris, wrote to his wife: “My chief opponents are the Roman Catholic people, who are really very half-hearted about the whole war.” As for the Italians, the government mistrusted Benedict’s motives (not entirely without reason), believing that in a negotiated settlement he would try to recover some of the former papal states. Italian newspapers suggested his name should not be Benedetto (“blessed”) but Maledetto (“accursed”).

For Haig, then, “the Catholic people” were those whose hearts were not in the fight. He certainly did not believe that all Catholics in the Army lacked what might be called the Protestant war ethic. How could he, with daily evidence of the bravery of Catholic troops, a large number of whom were Irish?

Indeed, the first (and posthumous) Victoria Cross of the war was won by an officer from Leinster educated at Stonyhurst. There were few senior Catholic officers, but one who was, another Stonyhurst man (and Irish to boot), was Edward Bulfin, who commanded a brigade during the retreat from Mons and the First Battle of Ypres. (Five of Stonyhurst’s seven VCs were won by old boys from Irish families.)

Haig called Bulfin “a tower of strength” and saw to it that he was quickly promoted to command of a division, ending the war as Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Bulfin commanding a highly successful corps in Palestine. His life is told in Haig’s Tower of Strength by John Powell, recently published. The family’s links with Irish nationalism (a cousin hoisted the tricolour above the General Post Office during the Easter Rising of 1916) certainly did nothing to shake Bulfin’s own resolve.

But closer still to Haig was his personal physician throughout the war, Colonel “Mickey” Ryan, yet another Irish Catholic. Haig even sent Ryan back to England in 1918 to deliver his long-awaited son and heir Dawyck, and in turn became godfather to Ryan’s son Douglas.

So if Haig was hostile to Catholicism as a religion, it evidently did not extend to individual Catholics. What, then, was at the root of his antipathy to Major-General George Macdonogh, the War Office director of military intelligence?

There is no direct evidence that, as many did, Haig resented Macdonogh’s intellect. However, Macdonogh and a fellow Royal Engineers officer, James Edmonds (who would become the official historian of the war), had gained such high marks in the staff college entrance exam in 1896 that the results, it was said, were adjusted to conceal the margin between them and their classmates. Haig, on the other hand, had failed the examination three years earlier, and only gained entry through “nomination”.

The more certain answer lies in Haig’s reported unwillingness to hear bad news. Desmond Morton (one of Churchill’s closest advisers during his “Wilderness Years”), who served as one of Haig’s aides de camp, recalled later: “He [Haig] hated being told any new information, however irrefutable, which militated against his preconceived ideas or beliefs. Hence his support for the desperate John Charteris, who was incredibly bad as head of GHQ intelligence, who always concealed bad news, or put it in an agreeable light.”

Though comprehensively in error, Charteris survived the debacle of Passchendaele, only to be removed a few months later after failing to recognise the build-up of German forces at Cambrai, which resulted in a surprise counter-attack that wiped out all the gains made in the first battle in which tanks were used en masse.

Whether Macdonogh’s Catholicism was a genuine cause for Haig’s doubting his intelligence assessments, or merely a pretext to persist with his own plans despite the evidence that they were not succeeding, is ultimately unknowable. Either way, however, men died needlessly.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier. His Fight to the Finish: The First World War, Month by Month is published by Penguin Random House

This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here