War History: The French didn’t like him, but Sir John French was a brave leader in battle

Lord Kitchener, convinced the war would be a long one, overruled French in the spring of 1914. He wo

Lord Kitchener, convinced the war would be a long one, overruled French in the spring of 1914. He would be proved correct - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, concludes his look at the career of Sir John French, one of the most influential British commanders of the early war years

Sir John French and his staff 'somehow kept the BEF intact and on occasion saved it from destruction

Sir John French and his staff 'somehow kept the BEF intact and on occasion saved it from destruction' - Credit: Archant

The previous two weeks have, hopefully, given an insight into the character and pre-war life of Sir John French. French was certainly no shrinking violet; his personal bravery and leadership enabled him to forge a formidable reputation on battlefields across the British Empire at a time when Britain was an almost unchallenged global superpower.

As we have seen, French regularly sailed close to the wind, frequently challenging the sensibilities of pre-First World War Edwardian society. In spite of his seemingly regular falls from grace, his reputation as a cavalryman and as a field commander trumped scandal. His performance during the Boer War rehabilitated his reputation and rejuvenated his failing career.

Last week I wrote about French’s controversial resignation over the Curragh affair and the difficult dilemma faced by the army and its Irish soldiers in particular. Despite this, French knew he would not be left out in the political cold for long. He had powerful friends in government; as early as April, 1914, French had been promised command of the British Expeditionary Force in the event of war.

That much-feared European war came sooner than most expected. In fact, French was summoned to 10 Downing Street as commander of the BEF on August 5, 1914. He briefed the prime minister and the cabinet on the progress of mobilisation.

Typically, French pleaded for greater urgency, stating that France was much more advanced in its mobilisation. At later meetings he would argue the war would be short and Britain should deploy five infantry divisions, not the planned four.

Lord Kitchener, who had firm convictions this was just the beginning of a long war, overruled him; he would of course be proved correct. There were other indications that perhaps French was not the best man to work alongside the much larger armies of France. Sir John consistently looked to distance himself and the BEF from French command, a trait that did not endear him to the politicians at home or his Gallic counterparts.

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That said, French had a difficult balancing act to perform. He had been given orders by Kitchener that contradicted the direction given by the War Cabinet and would surely fall short of the expectations of the French general staff.

Kitchener had told Sir John that until he had spoken to the cabinet and informed Sir John of the outcome, he was to co-operate with the French but not to take orders from them; and, given the tiny BEF was Britain’s only army, to avoid undue losses and exposure to “forward movements where large numbers of French troops are not engaged”.

With these instructions in mind, French crossed the English Channel on August 14 to take on his new role.

Initial meetings with his new allies did not go at all well. The first took place on August 15 with the French head of state, President Poincaré. The politician was unimpressed by the British general, commenting on his “quiet manner… not very military in appearance”, and thought one might mistake him for a plodding engineer rather than a dashing cavalry general.

News the BEF could not take to the field until four days later than requested by the French high command did little to endear the BEF commander to his new allies.

More bad news arrived the next day. French’s friend General Grierson, GOC II Corps, had died suddenly on the train near Amiens, and French returned to his headquarters on August 17 to find Kitchener had appointed Lt General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien to replace him, in the full knowledge that French disliked him and would have preferred General Sir Herbert Plumer.

There was little time for French to dwell on any of these issues. The conflict was already gaining a fierce momentum and he must do the best he could to fight a war while complying with Kitchener’s direction. This he did with mixed results.

Over the past year I have written about the fighting at Mons, the battle of The Marne, The Suffolks at Le Cateau and the battle of the Aisne. Throughout all these dynamic 1914 campaigns French and his staff somehow kept the BEF intact and on occasion saved it from destruction. In the winter of 1914 it was French who led the BEF into the First Battle of Ypres, emerging battered but again intact despite the odds.

In recent weeks we have covered the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. French presided over that battle, during which the BEF had shown it could adapt itself to the new form of warfare on the Western Front. Yet there were even bigger challenges on the horizon. A hundred years ago in April 1915, Sir John French would lead his battered force of British, Indian and Canadian troops into the Second Battle of Ypres; a battle that would really test the mettle of French and his men and exposing the BEF to a whole new and terrible dimension of warfare.

If you are keen to get out on the battlefields yourself, the next day excursion to Arras travels on Tuesday, June 9 and is available to book online. There are a few seats still on a four-day guided tour of the Western Front, travelling on May 1.

Details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre. You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles and find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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