No, this is incorrect. It's a venerable calumny which modern scholarship totally refutes. Haig had an absolute appreciation of the use of aerial reconnaisance by the time of the 1912 manoeuvres. As Sir James Marshall-Cornwall wrote of Haig during the latter's command at Aldershot prior to the Great War:
"Haig became deeply interested in the early development of military aviation, which was then in its infancy, but within a few years would introduce a new dimension to the conduct of war." (1)
And as Gary Sheffield has noted that:
"As early as 1911 Haig commented very favourably on the experimental use of aircraft in exercises in India. While at Aldershot, Haig showed interest in the pioneering airman Samuel Cody." (2)
Haig applied this early enthusiasm for military aviation in the 1912 manoeuvres. During these manoeuvres each side, Red Force (Haig) and Blue Force (Grierson), was assigned an RFC unit consisting of 7 aeroplanes and 1 airship. Gary Meade has noted, however, that Haig was "badly let down by the technological limitations of this still experimental air service. In the build-up to the manoeuvres, four aircraft had crashed, causing several fatalities among their pilots and observers, and this left Red Force without wireless contact with the aircraft that were hurriedly substituted." (3)
The authoritative account of Haig's use of aviation in the 1912 manouvres, however, is Andrew Whitmarsh's 2007 monograph, British Army Manoeuvres and the Development of Military Aviation, 1910 - 1913. Whitmarsh begins by noting the misconception prevalent in most writings about Haig that he 'lost' the 1912 manoeuvres to Grierson because he failed to utilise or appreciate aerial reconnaisance whereas his opponent did not. Whitmarsh sets out why this was not the case:
"As will be considered below, all biographies of Haig recount that he was defeated in the 1912 army manoeuvres because he ignored aerial reconnaissance, whereas his opponent, Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson, made full use of it. [....] Michael Crawshaw has argued that, during the First World War, Haig demonstrated that he was receptive to new technology (including aircraft) and had the ability to apply it to existing modes of warfare. Haig’s willingness to use aircraft was to be clearly demonstrated during the 1912 army manoeuvres. Only a few hours after the manoeuvres began, two Red aeroplanes were able to provide Haig with the positions of several enemy units and entrenchments. They also identified areas that were thought to be clear of Blue forces. The pilot and observer who flew on the first Red aerial reconnaissance were Lieutenant Arthur Longmore and Major Hugh Trenchard (later to reach the ranks of air chief marshal and marshal of the RAF respectively). In his autobiography Longmore describes how they spotted the opposing troops from the air, returned to report to Haig, and then flew forward to take the information to Haig’s cavalry commander, Major General Edmund Allenby. Haig told Allenby that the army’s direction of advance would not be chosen until cavalry or aerial reconnaissance had established where Blue’s forces were concentrating. The aerial reconnaissance reports played a major part in Haig’s operational plan, specifically his decision to attempt to turn the right flank of the Blue Army. [....] The defeat of Haig’s army on the third day of the manoeuvres, 18 September, has generally been attributed to Haig’s failure to use his aircraft for reconnaissance. Haig aimed to pin the Blue army with the 1st Division, while the 2nd Division and the Cavalry Division attacked the enemy’s flank. Haig’s aerial and cavalry forces had failed to locate Blue’s 4th Division conclusively, however, and Haig had an incomplete picture of the enemy’s dispositions. [....] A typical summary of the way that this incident has been described by historians is that ‘[Haig’s] performance on the 1912 manoeuvres was disastrous, having been completely out-manoeuvred by an opponent who made intelligent use of the new air arm’. In reality, Haig suffered for over-reliance on aerial reconnaissance, rather than for his disregard of it. His plan of attack on the final day of the manoeuvres was based on the reports from his aircraft and cavalry that the enemy’s right flank was undefended, when in fact the Blue 4th Division was hidden there. A Blue Army order captured on 17 September, and information sent to Haig by Brigadier General Ivor Maxse on the following day, both indicated that this area might be occupied by Blue troops, but these indications were contradicted by aircraft and cavalry reports that the area was undefended. In an attempt to confirm these reports, Haig ordered the airship Beta and two aeroplanes to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights in the early morning of 18 September, but the Blue troops were hidden by mist and neither the aircraft nor Haig’s cavalry could provide conclusive reports. Haig later ruefully admitted that ‘the information brought in [by aerial reconnaissance] was, as a rule, so reliable that there seems a danger in taking it for granted that if no enemy are seen by the observers none are there’. French agreed that the plans of Haig’s force were ‘very materially influenced by the reports of aeroplanes’. " (4)
There is scholarly consensus across the board with Whitmarsh's conclusions. Gary Sheffield, for example, has written:
"At the notorious 1912 manoeuvres Haig's defeat was caused not by ignoring aerial reconnaisance but by placing too much emphasis on it. He used aircraft and cavalry for scouting, but both failed to locate the presence of an 'enemy' force on Grierson's flank. Expecting too much of prototype technology was a mistake that Haig was to repeat during the First World War, but the idea that Haig disdained the military use of aircraft before the First World war is simply untrue." (5)
Even J P Harris, never one to shy away from criticising Haig, noted of the 1912 manoeuvres that:
"The interpretation, popular at one time, that Haig lost because he ignored the potential benefits of airpower, has recently been exposed as a complete calumny."
Harris then goes on to quote Whitmarsh that, "In reality, Haig suffered for over-reliance on aerial reconnaisance rather than.....disregard of it." (6)
Sheffield's rather mealy-mouthed rider to his concession about Haig's appreciation of military aviation, to the effect that "Expecting too much of prototype technology was a mistake that Haig was to repeat during the First World War...." is an issue addressed in greater depth and more maturely by Whitmarsh:
"Parallels could be drawn between Haig’s experimentation with aircraft in 1912 and his willingness during the First World War to use two other forms of new technology, poison gas and tanks. In relation to the first use in battle of both the latter weapons, it has been argued that ‘if anything, Haig placed too much faith in an untested weapon which proved to be far from [a] war winner, and the attack was not the success for which Haig had hoped’. As has always been the case with the armed forces and new technology, this is a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. Had Haig placed less reliance on aircraft in the 1912 army manoeuvres, historians would perhaps be right to criticize him for lack of interest in new technology. Instead his over-reliance on aerial reconnaissance leaves him open to criticism from another angle. The significant point, however, is that Haig’s defeat did not revolve around his willingness – or lack of it – to make use of aircraft. It was the result of the judgement that he had to make, based on the reconnaissance reports from both his aircraft and his cavalry, about the locations and intentions of the opposing forces. His judgement proved to be mistaken. Yet it should be remembered that one of the purposes of manoeuvres was to give generals experience in having to make judgements of that magnitude in a semi-realistic situation. Given Haig’s experience with aircraft on this and other occasions, it should not be a surprise to find that he understood their potential effectiveness, and that his wartime diary records that as early as 9 September 1914 he was relying heavily on aircraft to carry out reconnaissance" (7)
Counterfactual history is not my game, but suffice to say that the outcome of the 1912 manoeuvres would have had no bearing on the appointment of a C-in-C to replace French in December 1915, after 16 months of real war on the Western Front, even had Grierson not died in August 1914. Even Harris concedes that "The mere fact that Haig had the worst of the military contest was not, perhaps, too serious in itself." (8) In any case, neither the War Office’s ‘Report on Army Manoeuvres’ (1912), nor 'The Times' reports of the post-manoeuvre briefings, give any indication that the exercise was seen as a clear cut victory or defeat by one side or the other - mistakes were made by both sides, and lessons were learnt by all. This was the purpose of such peacetime exercises. James Grierson was unquestionably one of the ablest generals in the British army at the outbreak of the Great War. I do not believe, however, that Grierson had the innate character, or unique background of Douglas Haig, which allowed the latter to successfully hold the supreme command of the British armies on the Western Front for so long, and with such ultimate success. Haig is undoubtedly one of the genuinely towering figures of British military history, second to none before or since in both the scale of his command and the magnitude of the series of victories which he oversaw to bring the Great War to its conclusion in November 1918. I'm not at all sure that Grierson, had he lived, and had he been given preference to Haig - which I believe is a highly questionable proposition - in December 1915, could have equalled Haig's achievement. In the event, the personal tragedy of Grierson's death meant that Great Britain had the great good fortune of not having had the opportunity to risk putting that question to the test.
As to John Charteris' silly tale about Haig's performance at the post-manoeuvre commanders' presentations being 'inarticulate' to the point of sending his audience to sleep, I have debunked that myth here: A Haig Myth Debunked
(1) Marshall-Cornwall, Haig As Military Commander (1973), p. 83.
(2) Sheffield, The Chief, Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011), p. 62.
(3) Meade, The Good Soldier, The Biography of Douglas Haig (2007), p. 167.
(4) Whitmarsh, British Army Manoeuvres and the Development of Military Aviation, 1910 - 1913, in 'War In History', 14 (3), 2007, pp. 325 - 346.
(5) Sheffield, op. cit., p. 62.
(6) Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (2008), p. 51.
(7) Whitmarsh, op. cit., p. 338.
(8) Harris, op. cit., p. 52.