London History Bulletin – February 3

The state funeral of General Douglas Haig – the Commander in Chief of the British Army in World War I – took place on February 3, 1928. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s February 3rd, 1928. We’ve got a funeral today. A state funeral. At Westminster Abbey. The funeral of General Douglas Haig, the first Earl Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British army in the Great War. World War I as it’s known today. 

Like everybody else, I’ve got mixed feelings about Douglas Haig. Let’s tour the battlefield.

He was a Scot. Descended from the younger branch of a Scottish border family of long standing. He was the baby of the family. Had ten siblings, nine of whom survived infancy.

He went to prep school in Edinburgh. Passed through Oxford – Brasenose College – and then Sandhurst, the Royal Military College. And finally Staff College. Showed great promise. Already then he was singled out as a future commander-in-chief.

Nearly two decades of late Imperial soldiering followed. And then came 1914. The Great War.

And here it gets seriously murky. Though the word – even adverb’d up like that – doesn’t begin to do justice to the matter. I’m not sure there is a word that does justice to the inconceivable. 

Let me put it this way, there’s an equestrian statue of General Haig on Whitehall, in front of Horse Guards. At the top end of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square. At the far end, Parliament Square. I look at that statue I don’t just see the Commander in Chief on his horse. I also see an unending ghostly column of marching British soldiers. One of them my wife’s grandfather. A ghostly column that seemingly stretches out to the crack of doom. But as it happens, we can take the measure of that column. The War Graves Commission in 1931 reported that were the British dead and their imperial allies to form up in Trafalgar Square and march four abreast, behind General Haig – march down to Parliament Square – it would take that ghostly column three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph, three and a half days to get down to Parliament Square.

And those are just – JUST – the slain British men and boys and their imperial allies. You want a figure for France in that same catastrophe – one in four Frenchmen between the ages of 18 and 27 lost their lives in World War I.

Now, moving on – trying to make a reckoning, get the full measure of General Douglas Haig… when the war was over Haig spent much of the rest of his life working devotedly in the cause of the soldiers who had served under him. Here’s one for you you probably didn’t know. The sale of poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday annually commemorates the war dead of the United Kingdom. That sale supported what for many years was known as the Haig Fund. And printed on the centre of each poppy, the letter H.F. For Haig Fund.  

But then the pendulum reaches that end of its swing and heads back in the other direction. We cannot help but remember, for example, that those millions of soldiers who lost their lives – in many cases because they were badly led – called Haig and his fellow generals Chateau Generals. Those men and boys who were doing the bleeding and dying knew their leaders were safely in rear. Living in great comfort and style in French chateaux. Dining on fine food. Drinking fine wines. 

A different order of existence altogether from the poor Tommies were in their rat-infested, corpse-infested, muddy, filthy trenches. Muddy, filthy trenches that were little better than latrines. And that was the least of it because those lions – as ordinary British soldiers were called – lions led by donkeys aka Chateau Generals – those lions were daily being gassed and machine-gunned and bombed. In the case of Mary’s 19-year-old grandfather – a cockney kid ––vaporised by high explosives at Arras. One of 36,500 British soldiers to whom that happened at Arras. There was nothing life of 19-year-old private Charles Chilton. Nothing to identify. Today he’s just a name – one of 36,500 names – on the huge monument at Arras. Whereas Charles Chilton’s commander-in-chief, that Chateau General, mounted on his horse, he, general Haig, is, in a sense, in the face of that cockney soldier’s granddaughter every time she walks down Whitehall. As is the thought that the government gave Haig a one hundred thousand pound golden handshake in 1921. That’d be worth about six million pounds today. 

Except it’s arguable that Mary’s dad gave his father – that terrified 19-year-old Cockney kid and his fellow names on a wall – a better memorial than the Chateau General got – that equestrian statue – Mary’s dad gave his dad, Mary’s grandfather and his fellow soldiers a work of art – the great anti-war musical – which became a film – Oh What a Lovely War. 

That Chateau General and those men and boys who did the dying – well, blowing in the wind with that juxtaposition, Always that dark thought, all men are created equal but some are more equal than others.

Anyway, let’s get General Haig’s obsequies over and done with – at least for another year. 

Funeral over, let’s go back to General Haig’s house. Do some London Walking, some London guiding. General Haig died at 21 Princes Gate in South Kensington. Now how’s this for an amazing coincidence and connection, the kind of thing that only London can pull off with any degree of regularity. Born at 42 Princes Gate half a century earlier was one Albert Gerald Stern, the future banker who was the key figure behind the creation of the first British tank, the world’s first tracked, armed and armoured vehicle to enter combat. And that happened of course in General Haig’s war, The Great War.

And then dying at 7 Prince’s Gate, half a century after General Haig shuffled off this mortal coil, Clementine Churchill, the wife of the great World War II leader. World War II, the second instalment of General Haig’s war. Tell me London isn’t amazing. And that guiding Prince’s Gate isn’t going to be High C after High C.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast for February 3rd. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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