At first glance you might think that the United Kingdom’s Field Marshal Lord Douglas Haig and the 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush, have very little in common. One is British and no longer living, and the other is American and very much alive. One was a life-long professional soldier who never became a politician, while the other served six years in the National Guard on native soil and most of the rest of his life in politics.
Until recently I have not held much respect for either man. Before I started writing about the First World War, I only thought of Lord Haig’s reputation as ‘Butcher Haig,’ chief amongst the ‘donkeys’ who had led the ‘Lions’ to slaughter. In 2003, when President Bush ordered troops to invade Iraq, I told anyone that cared to listen that I thought he was making a huge mistake.
For more than a decade, it has been my opinion that President Bush needlessly threw away soldiers’ lives in a poorly conceived attempt to chase down Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction. I still will never really agree with President Bush’s decisions – the lives of thousands of US soldiers, including those of brother-soldiers in my own regiment, were lost in this folly. And deep down, despite the improving view by some historians, I will never really understand how on so many occasions Lord Haig seemed to arbitrarily sacrifice many thousands of lives in the name of victory at any cost. But recently, my views on both men have softened for one reason.
By November 1920, the plight of ex-servicemen who had returned from the trenches of France and Flanders was there for all to see. While the government and most politicians tried to help the country heal by memoralising the dead with the construction of a national shrine -- the Cenotaph -- and the return of an Unknown Warrior to be buried in Westminster Abbey, one man stood up for ex-servicemen. On Armistice Day, Lord Haig gave a lengthy interview to The Times. He said, “Today we honour the dead, let us not forget the living.” He spoke of the hardships faced by unemployed soldiers, some of whom were physically and mentally scarred by their service.
He went on to say, “So long as any single ex-servicemen, able to work and willing to work, remains unemployed, the nation’s debt of honour to its defenders will not be justly paid.” Until his death in 1928, Lord Haig would prove that he meant what he said. He dedicated the remainder of his life fighting for the rights of the men he had led in battle.
In 1921, after months of negotiations, Lord Haig helped bring four separate organisations together to form what became known as the British Legion. Established on May 14, 1921, His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, was its patron, and Lord Haig became its first president. Also in 1921, he set up a separate charity, the Haig Fund, which would be used to collect funds directly for ex-servicemen. In July 1921, Lord Haig persuaded the British Legion to adopt the red ‘Flanders Poppy’ as their symbol of remembrance. Eight million poppies were sold in the first year, raising £106,000 for the Haig Fund. The tradition is now woven into the fabric of British culture with the money raised from each year’s Poppy Appeal benfitting ex-servicemen to this day. Furthermore, in 1928, in memoriam after his death, the organisation Haig Homes was set up to help house ex-servicemen and their families.
Like most ex-presidents upon leaving office, President Bush remained very quiet. But, having presided over such a devisive term in office and receiving record-low approval ratings, his silence was deafening. Yet over the past few years it has become obvious that the 43rd president of the United States has been very busy. In September 2016, speaking of the men and women he sent to war, President Bush said, “I intend to support and salute them for the rest of my life.” He has since launched a book of paintings that will help raise money for post-9/11 service families. He has set up a Military Service Initiaive through the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and he is a strong supporter of the Invictus Games that involves wounded servicemen and women from the United States and Great Britain.
Both Lord Haig and President Bush courted controveresy whilst they led their countries’ soldiers into war. Whether you agree with their actions and fault them for the horrific loss of life is an individual’s viewpoint. But, it should be recognized that both men dedicated their later lives to the service of those same soldiers.
 “The Quick and the Dead,” The Times, 12 Nov 1920.
 “George W Bush to publish book of military paintings,” Independent, 15 Sep 2016.