Irish doctor defends Haig

Lloyd-George’s memoirs did more than anyone else to foment the belief that the British Tommies were ‘lions led by donkeys’ and the biggest donkey of all was General Douglas Haig, but another picture emerges from an Irishman who knew him better than most, Col Eugene ‘Mickey’ Ryan


Few historical figures were so revered in life yet vilified after their death than Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Army during the first World War.

When Haig died in 1928, a day of national mourning was declared in Britain. “Not within living memory had the nation accorded to any of its sons such a demonstration of loyalty, fidelity and affection,” wrote one commentator at the time.

Haig ended the first World War as a hero. Despite the appalling slaughter of 1.1 million British and Commonwealth military dead, the British public believed the first World War was a just war and Britain had triumphed.

However, the reverence accorded to him in death did not survive the demolition of his reputation by the former British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George in the 1930s.

The relationship between Lloyd-George and Haig was one of the great psychodramas of the first World War. The brilliant, self-made and loquacious Welshman and the stolid Scot, who was born into a life of privilege, detested each other. Haig had a disdain for politicians and resented their interference. The disdain was reciprocated with interest.

Lloyd-George wrote in his bestselling War Memoirs that Haig was “intellectually and temperamentally unequal to the command of an Army of millions fighting battles on fields”, and a “second-rate commander in unparalleled and unforeseen circumstances”.

He had continued to press the attacks at the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele when all hope of a breakthrough had gone. Worse still, he had never seen the battlefields that he had done so much to create.

He also accused Haig posthumously of surrounding himself with yes men who would not clash with his “dictatorial temper by suggesting any difference of opinion”.

Lloyd-George’s memoirs did more than anyone else to foment the belief that the British Tommies were “lions led by donkeys” and the biggest donkey of all was Haig. It also led to another epithet commonly associated with a man who continues to provoke fierce debate – “the butcher Haig”.

However, another picture emerges of Haig from an Irishman who knew him better than most. Col Eugene “Mickey” Ryan from Templehill, Co Cork, was Haig’s personal physician throughout the war. For nearly 100 years his personal papers had been in his family care until his namesake and grandson, Prof Eugene Ryan of Bath University, offered them to Haig’s biographer, Gary Sheffield.

They have now been published in the book Haig’s Medical Officer and they give a fascinating account of an Irish doctor in the war and an intimate portrayal of Haig who left little by way of personal insight in his own memoirs.

Ryan was the sixth of eight children born into a well-off farming family and one of three brothers to enter the medical profession. He was commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1901 and straightaway saw service in the Boer War.

In 1912 he was posted to the Louise Margaret Hospital, Aldershot, where he met Haig. From there until the end of Haig’s life, the two men were firm friends. Ryan delivered Haig’s son and heir, Dawyck Haig, in 1918, and Haig was in turn godson to Ryan’s son who was named Douglas.

Not even Haig’s sternest critics, and they are legion, would disagree that he bore the terrible strain of command with fortitude and resolve. It was a terrible burden knowing that whatever decision he made would cost the lives of tens of thousands of his men. His predecessor, Sir John French, was not up to it and was replaced by Haig in late 1915.

Just after his appointment, Haig’s wife Dorothy wrote to Col Ryan. “I think one owes a deep debt of gratitude to you for looking after Douglas so well during the Retreat (from Mons) and after. This has enabled him to stand the strain.”

At the moment of greatest peril in the whole war for the British when the German Offensive of 1918 threatened to break through the British lines and Haig issued his famous “backs to the wall” edict to his troops, Dorothy Haig wrote to Ryan: “Let me know when you have seen Douglas what you candidly think of all the strain.”

It was during the Retreat from Mons that Haig’s health became germane to the British war effort. The British army was in full-scale retreat after confronting a force twice its number at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd, 1914.

Haig was then in charge of the 1st Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), or half the army that Britain sent to the continent following the outbreak of war.

At the least opportune moment, Haig got a severe attack of dysentery. Historians have often contended that he panicked on August 25th when faced with a German attack on his flanks, though it may be more correct to say that he was incapacitated at the time.

Ryan’s own account records that on August 24th, Haig was “taken violently ill as if head been poisoned and vomiting was intense. Stomach was washed out with sodium bicarbonate solution which gave him instant relief.”

However, according to Ryan, there was no panic on the part of Haig. “He was very observant, saw things that others missed and always gave his orders in such a quiet and intelligent manner as if he had a thorough grasp of the situation even in the most trying circumstances.”

What emerges from Ryan’s accounts of the early stages of the war is his relentless upbeat assessment of the British prospects and the attendant downgrading of the German efforts. His disdain for the Germans is apparent in every one of his letters home to his wife Sadie.

“They are the most savage and low down race in the world,” he wrote to her. When his wife expressed fears that the Germans would invade England where the family were living, Ryan responded: “You need not be afraid of Calais as we have already driven them back and burst up their plans of invading ye, though I honestly think it would be the best thing for England to see what the war at home is.

“There would not be much opposition to conscription then, if they saw the poor unfortunate people fleeing from them in a terrified state.”

By the end of 1914, however, Ryan is already war-weary having witnessed the terrible slaughter of the Battle of the Aisne and the First Battle of Ypres. His diary entry for December 31st, 1914, simply reads: “Here ends a terrible year.”

Ryan remained part of Haig’s staff from the first day of the war to the last. Haig came to depend on him for advice and was anxious at all stages that his physical health would help him bear the mental strain of command.

Observing the relationship between the two men, Rev George Duncan, Haig’s chaplain, wrote of Ryan: “He was an invaluable member of GHQ fraternity, welcome in every company and always ready to undertake some special commission.

“His greatest service of course lay in the influence he exercised over the Chief. Haig was no valetudinarian (a person who is unduly anxious about their health) – the fact that he carried on during the whole period of the war with scarcely a day’s illness is sufficient evidence on that score.

“But it meant much to him to have close at hand a man like Ryan who could keep a watchful eye on him and who he had come to trust implicitly.”

In the rigid hierarchy of army command, Haig was prepared to be “bullied” by Ryan who would tell him to eat or sleep more.

In a letter home to his wife in 1917, Haig spoke of his reassurance at having Ryan close at hand. “He always says I’m the fittest of them all.”

Ryan’s voluminous writings in 1914 and 1915 do not extend into 1916 and 1917 which were the critical phases of the war from the British point of view. Presumably, this omission is as a result of him being so busy. Neither could they be regarded as an objective account of Haig’s prosecution of the war. He was much too close to him for that.

However, they do shed new light on Haig’s attitudes to Irish Catholics. It was often assumed that Haig had a traditional Scottish Presbyterian suspicion of Catholics. The evidence for this is adduced from Haig’s diaries in which he stated that the accounts from the Director of Military Intelligence, General George Macdonagh, who was from an Irish Catholic background, came from “tainted Catholic sources”. It was also said of Haig that he was less than appreciative of the efforts of the overwhelmingly Catholic Irish (16th) Division.

Ryan’s papers would suggest that, if he was hostile to Catholicism as a religion, it did not extend to individual Catholics. Why else would he ask Ryan to deliver his long awaited son and heir Dawyck Haig in late 1918?

Two days after the war ended, a grateful Dorothy Haig wrote to Ryan: “You have just helped enormously to carry through Douglas (sic) the anxious days you have all been through by your kind care of him. From the wife please accept oh such grateful thanks”.

Haig’s Medical Officer is published by Pen & Sword priced £19.99.