Set on a scrolled, sloping bronze base, placed on a high stone pedestal in the centre of Whitehall, with hind legs drawn back like pistons, off fore slammed down at the halt and near fore pounding forward at the trot, the mighty stylised, ‘classical’ horse carries a more naturalistic Field Marshal Earl Haig (1861-1928), hatless, holding a rolled up document and staring resolutely ahead, like Dürer’s Christian knight. Alfred Hardiman’s equestrian monument was dogged by controversy from its first proposal by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, on 8 February 1928. Such was the public outcry over Hardiman’s first model, which went on exhibition at Westminster in July 1929, with photographs appearing in the national press, that he was obliged to produce a compromise version in 1930, which pleased no one, and a third definitive state which, after considerable delays and grave financial difficulties for the artist, was finally unveiled on 10 November 1937. According to Captain Crawford of the British Legion, ‘Excepting Epstein’s work, no statue erected within living memory has aroused such great public controversy as has that of Field Marshal Earl Haig’ . Why did it prove so controversial? Despite subsequent revisionist histories of the First World War challenging Haig’s status as a military leader, the necessity to commemorate him with a national memorial was never, apart from a few influential voices, a serious issue.
Haig’s achievement, reputation and qualities were – and still are – central to any discussion of the monument and to the way in which Hardiman chose to represent him. In the decade following the First World War Haig was perceived as the hero who had saved the nation and the Empire from defeat and had achieved the greatest victory in British military history. From six, lightly equipped divisions, the initial British Expeditionary force had been transformed by 1918 into a modern army of some sixty divisions, nearly 1.8 million men, on the Western Front alone, and a largely amateur force of citizens learned, in the words of Brian Bond, ‘to conduct modern industrial warfare in quite unexpected siege conditions against what was surely the world’s toughest and most tactically adept enemy, the imperial German army.’ An army that went to war relying on rifles and believing in cavalry ended up integrating artillery with tanks, infantry and aircraft.
From the outset Haig appreciated that the army was engaged in a lengthy war of attrition and that he was the man destined to lead it to victory. Even his critics concluded that he was irreplaceable. Lloyd George, who profoundly disagreed with Haig’s strategy, conceded, ‘He was a man of more indomitable will and courage’. He was, according to Churchill, ‘the best qualified and most experienced military leader of his day… The military profession reposed in him a confidence which the varied fortunes, disappointments and miscalculations attendant upon three years of war on the greatest scale left absolutely unshaken… the fact remains that no other subject of the King could have endured the ordeal which was his lot with the phlegm, the temper, and the fortitude of Sir Douglas Haig.’ His missionary persistence of purpose, his obduracy in the face of adversity and his sense of self-sacrifice for the common good were the very qualities that his critics felt had led to the remorseless slaughter of so many of his battles. But he was by no means oblivious of the sufferings of his troops and on retiring from the army he dedicated the remainder of his life to the care of ex-servicemen. He was instrumental in forming the British Legion in June 1921 and the British Empire Service League . His death on 29 January 1928 initiated a period of genuine national mourning. His coffin lay in state at St Columba’s before being taken by gun carriage, followed by his charger, to Westminster Abbey for the national service on 3 February. It was then transported by rail to Edinburgh and lay in state for three days in St Giles Cathedral. The final stage of the journey respected Haig’s wish for simplicity, not pomp. Cavalry escorts were left behind at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and the coffin was taken by train to St Boswells Station from where it was carried on a farm cart, escorted by pall bearers from his Bermersyde estate and by members of the Border Area of the British Legion in Scotland, to the family burial ground at Dryburgh Abbey. The question naturally arose as to how he should be commemorated and where.