There used to be a time when individuals began an argument in the public debate. Now, in the terms of the modern cliche, they start “a conversation” or sometimes “the conversation”.
Meet ACT Labor Party politician Bec Cody. She was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly in October 2016 and is a member of the Labor Left faction.
Late last month The Canberra Times reported that Cody had called for a review of all ACT suburbs and street names that caused “pain” by the “commemoration of villains as heroes”.
Interviewed by Fran Kelly on the ABC’s RNBreakfast on October 30, Cody initiated a conversation on Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in general and Canberra’s Haig Park in particular. Haig was the commander-in-chief of British forces in France during the greater part of World War I. Haig Park is in the Canberra suburbs of Braddon and Turner.
Kelly suggested that Cody had been studying Haig and asked her about Haig Park. Cody replied: “People keep writing and ringing and telling me all about it. Haig Park was named after a general that sent his troops into battle just to be killed — he didn’t necessarily think about how they might be affected by this.”
So there you have it. According to Cody, all Haig did in 1914-18 was to send his troops into battle to get them killed. Earlier, on October 29, the ABC reported that Haig Park was “named after Douglas Haig, who has been referred to as The Butcher for his tactics during World War I”. Presenting ABC TV’s The Drum on October 30, Craig Reucassel joined in the chorus by describing Haig as “the so-called butcher of the Western Front”.
Cody used the ABC to publicise her campaign that several ACT names, including Haig Park, should be changed by the ACT Place Names Committee. She has drawn up a motion to this effect that will come before the Legislative Assembly on November 28. All this suggests Cody belongs to that group of leftists who are alienated from their own society.
Tomorrow Australia commemorates Remembrance Day along with the centenary of the end of World War I. Haig was the leader of the British forces — Australians, British (including some Irish), Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders and more — who played a major role in the defeat of Imperial Germany on the field of battle at the Western Front. The British forces were supported by France and, towards the end of the conflict, the US.
In Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig (Birlinn, 2006), military historian Walter Reid wrote that Haig “presided over the greatest victory that has ever been won essentially by a British feat of arms”. Reid conceded that “this does not make him (Haig) the greatest general that Britain has produced”. But he was a successful soldier.
Reid acknowledges Haig’s faults, especially “a capacity to be carried away by excess of optimism which blinded him from time to time to reality”. But he praises Haig as a “great administrator” who was “to invigorate and inspire the greatest application of science and technology to warfare that military history had known”.
From an Australian perspective, it’s important to remember that Haig was an admirer of General John Monash, the leader of the Australian Army Corps, who played a key role in the Allies’ military victories in 1918.
Australia has never had a more important role in world affairs than it did in 1918 and the years immediately before and after the armistice. Yet Cody has chosen 2018 as the year when Haig Park should be renamed as a statement against a man she alleges — without a shred of evidence — “sent his troops into battle just to be killed”.
In the 1960s and into the 70s it was fashionable in intellectual circles to depict World War I as an unnecessary conflict in which military forces suffered, and died, in vain. The denigration of Haig began as early as the 20s. He was criticised by one-time British prime minister Lloyd George and by historians such as Liddell Hart. In a sense, they resented Haig for achieving what they maintained could not be achieved: namely, the defeat of the German army on the Western Front.
Certainly there was some dreadful loss of life, especially during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 (during which my uncle Alan Dargavel died). However, both battles did considerable damage to the Germans, even though the Allies did not gain much ground. In his 1961 book, The Donkeys, British historian Alan Clark depicted Haig as a heartless idiot. This was taken up a few years later by Joan Littlewood’s theatre production Oh, What a Lovely War! and by Richard Attenborough’s film adaptation of the same name.
The defence of Haig was led by historian John Terraine in his 1963 book, Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier, and in subsequent publications. A half-century later, Terraine’s thesis is no longer controversial. As Australian historian Peter Stanley said in 2014: “Haig’s reputation has been both attacked and defended; the thrust of current historical thinking is that he did as good a job as could have been done.”
Germany was the aggressor in 1914 and it had possessions in the Pacific. A German victory in 1918 or earlier would have adversely affected Australia. Australians have a vested interest in honouring all who helped defeat the kaiser — from the field marshal down to a private. Cody’s proposal to change the name of Haig Park is a leftist gesture born out of historical ignorance.