War History: Sir John French - a talented soldier whose private life was marked by scandalous affairs

Sir John French: a colourful character and respected soldier

Sir John French: a colourful character and respected soldier - Credit: Archant

We’ve heard about the Suffolk men who fought at the battle of Neuve Chapelle.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig despised French but served under him

Field Marshal Douglas Haig despised French but served under him - Credit: Archant

Now Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at the commander in charge ? a man who lurched from one scandal to another and narrowly avoided bankruptcy This week I thought we should step out of the frontline trenches and look up the chain of command to see who was directing operations during the battle of Neuve Chapelle. I thought we might also look back in time and examine the events that shaped one of the most influential British commanders of the early war years, Sir John French.

If I ask most people on a typical Western Front battlefield tour who was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, they will normally name Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Not an incorrect response, as Haig commanded the BEF for most of the First World War but was not in overall command at the outbreak, or in March 1915 during the battle of Neuve Chapelle.

At first glance, Sir John French, the man who was actually in charge, would appear to confirm all the well-worn stereotypes perpetuated by historians during the sixties and seventies. He was such a colourful character that for some readers he may even fit the mould of the bumbling First World War general popularised by the superbly-satirical Blackadder Goes Forth series.

In fact, once introduced, Sir John French divides opinion even more than his eventual successor, Haig. The two were almost exact opposites in character and style of leadership. Haig of course knew French well, and although he despised him he served under him as a corps commander in the BEF.

French was without doubt an experienced and talented soldier. He was regarded by many within the British Army as the most capable cavalry commander of his generation. This was quite an accolade, given the number of pre-war campaigns and colonial wars the army had fought and the number of battle-proven commanders available to choose from.

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French also had friends in high places. One of his most ardent champions was Sir Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill believed the veteran cavalryman possessed incomparable qualities of leadership.

To understand Sir John French and some of the decisions he made in 1914-15, we need to look at his roots and the events that shaped his character. Although his family was an Anglo-Irish mix, French considered himself to be of Irish stock and was intimately involved in Irish history for much of his military career.

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His father was a Royal Navy officer and in order to leave home at the earliest opportunity the young John had joined the navy in 1866. He served with little distinction and in 1870 transferred to the army.

His first choice of unit was the Suffolk Artillery Militia; he expected to serve just two months of the year in uniform. After a very shaky start and problems with mathematics, within months French had transferred to the cavalry, where he finally found his niche. He became a soldier of empire, serving in Egypt, Sudan and India. However, scandal forced him out of India, and French was sent home to England on half-pay, a situation that was henceforth referred to as “French Leave”.

This was a turbulent cycle that repeated itself. His public life was regarded by Edwardian society as controversial; beneath the surface his private life was positively scandalous. Over the years he lurched from one scandal to another, almost being dismissed for an affair with another officer’s wife, an affair with an Indian railway mogul’s wife and then carrying on a series of affairs with beautiful mistresses among the higher echelons of British society.

None of this prevented his eventual progress through the ranks of Britain’s modernising army. The army needed innovative commanders and French proved himself on peacetime manoeuvres. He re-launched his career and reclaimed his place as a leading light during the run-up to the Boer War. All this in spite of being almost bankrupt – saved only by a loan of £2,500 from the redoubtable Haig.

In 1899 the two men embarked for the war in South Africa. They shared a cabin and during the voyage the Irishman was promoted to major general. We will carry on with the story of the life and never boring times of Sir John French in next week’s column.

• If you would like to know more about the experiences of 1/4th Suffolks during the battle of Neuve Chapelle, take a look at the Neuve Chapelle Centenary lecture and Study Day being held at UCS Ipswich today. The Friends of The Suffolk Regiment also have a superb website: www.friendsofthesuffolkregiment.org/operation-legacy

If you are keen to get out on the battlefields yourself, a new series of day excursions is now available and there are a few seats still available on a four-day guided tour of the Western Front travelling on May 1. Details at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information. You can also follow the Galloway battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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