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Field-Marshal Sir John French - Leader of British Army in WWI (Great War, World War 1, European War)

Updated on February 5, 2015

"French! - A predestined name. The glorious soldier, the most eminent and most popular of English leaders of armies, was placed, as everybody in England foresaw, and everybody in the Army wished, at the head of the admirable troops which were to co-operate in the cause of right." -'Le Figaro'

Thus wrote a contributor to the Paris "Figaro" on the eve of the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force in France in the fateful August of 1914.

It is not too much to say that after those words were penned Sir John French more than justified the highest hopes of those who knew him.

Sir John French

Field-Marshall Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, K.C.M.G, G.C.B., K.C.B., G.C.V.O., A.D.C., Commander-in-Chief the British Army in the Field.
Field-Marshall Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, K.C.M.G, G.C.B., K.C.B., G.C.V.O., A.D.C., Commander-in-Chief the British Army in the Field. | Source

The Sailor Who Would Be A Soldier

Born at Ripple Vale, Ripple, a parish of about two and a half miles from Deal, in Kent, England, on September 28th, 1852, John Denton Pinkstone French was the only son of Captain John Tracey French, R.N., a member of an old and well-known Irish family, and Margaret, daughter of William Eccles.

Left an orphan at an early age, he went first to a small school at Harrow, whence he was drafted to an academy at portsmouth, where he was prepared for the entrance examination on board the Britannia in 1866.

He served as a naval cadet and midshipman for four years, being on H.M.S. 'Warrior', the first British ironclad, and one of the squadron to which the Captain was attached when she went down in a gale in the Bay of Biscay, off Finisterre, with 481 men, on September 7th, 1870, the year of the Franco-Prussian War.

It had been his boyhood wish to become a soldier; and eventually he joined the Militia; obtaining, on February 28th, 1874, a lieutenancy in the 8th Hussars, and being transferred to the 19th Hussars on the 11th of the month following.

Promoted captain and adjutant in 1880, in which year he married Eleanora, daughter of Mr. R.W. Selby-Lowndes, of Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, the young officer was offered a post as adjutant of the Northumberland Yeomanry.

In this capacity he spent four years at Newcastle, and then he rejoined the 19th Hussars as major in September 1884, when that regiment was in Egypt under the command of Colonel Percy Barrow, C.B.

Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.)

Field-Marshall Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, WWI.
Field-Marshall Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, WWI. | Source

His Work Against The Dervishes

Major French was attached to the picked force sent across the Bayuda Desert under Sir Herbert Stewart in the futile attempt to relieve General Gordon.

At Abu Klea he took part in the most savage action ever fought in the Soudan (now Sudan) by British troops. The small British force met with an overwhelming number of the enemy. It was hurriedly formed into a square near the wells. One side of the square was broken by the Dervishes, and but for the fact that the inside of the formation was packed solid with horses, camels, baggage-mules, and stores, the whole would have been exterminated.

As it was, over a hundred British officers and men were killed outright, while about the same number were wounded. Major French escaped without a scratch, and similar good fortune attended him during the fierce fighting at Metammeh (where Sir Herbert Stewart was mortally wounded), and at Gubat.

In the masterly retreat from Gubat, between February and March, 1885, Major French had a foretaste of his later experiences at Mons.

After the death of Sir Herbert Stewart, this officer was succeeded in the command of the Desert Column, first by Sir Charles Wilson and then by Sir Redvers Buller. The last-named, in one of his despatches, wrote:

"I wish expressly to remark on the excellent work that has been done by a small detachment of the 19th Hussars, both during our occupation of Abu Klea and during our retirement. And it is not too much to say that the force owes much to Major French and his thirteen troopers."

A few days after the publication of this despatch Major French was gazetted lieutenant-colonel of his regiment. In 1889, following the death of Colonel Barrow, he succeeded to the command and the rank of full colonel.

As Chief of Staff to that brilliant cavalry leader, General Sir George Luck, in India, Colonel French added materially to his professional reputation.

The year 1893 found him Assistant Adjutant General (A.A.G.) of Cavalry of the Staff, and from 1894 to 1895 he was A.A.G. at Headquarters, when he was given the command of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade.

Transferred as temporary Major-General to the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot in 1899, he was in the same year appointed Major-General in command of the Cavalry Division in Natal, at the insistent request of Sir Rodvers Buller.

Sir John French in General's Uniform.
Sir John French in General's Uniform. | Source

French, Sir John - son and grandson of soldiers, born September 28th, 1852 . Naval officer, he became a lander, fought in ​​the Soudan campaign and returned a colonel. In 1899, he moved to Natal, and commanded a division in South Africa until 1907. He succeeded the Duke of Connaught as Inspector General of the British Army.

French's Brilliant Leadership in South Africa

The story of General French's work in the Boer War would fill many an article. Their titles might be:

The despatches of the time are punctuated with his name. In fact, he was one of the few men who may be said to have gained, not lost, a reputation in South Africa.

By flank attacks and masterly ruses he proved more than a match for Cronje, Delarey, and De Wet. The circumstances attending his daring advance to the relief of Kimberley established his position as one of the greatest cavalry leaders living, and won the admiration of the foe. Christian De Wet described him as:

"... the one Boer General in the British Army."

He was beloved by the men in the ranks. Here is one of the stories they told of him:

After an exhausting day in Cape Colony, he reached a deserted farmhouse, where, he had been informed a bed had been reserved for him. Two sleepy-eyed troopers were outside.
"What's up?", he enquired.
"Oh, nothing much," one of them replied, not recognising the General in the darkness; " only they've been and turned us out of our beds to make room for Mr. Bloomin' French".
"Oh, have they?" was the rejoinder. "Well, they had no business to. Go and turn in again. 'Mr. Bloomin' French' doesn't care where he sleeps."
And, kicking off his boots and rolling a horse-rug round him, he stretched himself on the ground by the porch, where he remained until the morning.

In South Africa he was known as "the shirt-sleeve General."

Field-Marshal French disembarking at Boulogne to take command of the British troops.
Field-Marshal French disembarking at Boulogne to take command of the British troops. | Source

The Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in khaki uniform and a broad flat cap visor, accompanied by a delegation of the British Volunteer Corps and part of the Military Staff, receives a warm French welcome.

The Rewards of Great Military Merit

Made a:

he was promoted General in 1907, and Field-Marshal in 1913.

From 1907 to 1911 he was Inspector-General of the Forces, with what result is to be seen in the records of British heroism and British military efficiency in the hard-fought fields of Flanders and Northern France, where the serviceable alphabet of his training was turned into epic deeds, the memory of which lives long while British history is read.

In 1911 he became Chief of the Imperial General Staff and First Military Member of the Army Council. Much might be written of this great soldier without reference to his services in the field. For these only cover part of the story. I've noted how Buller appreciated him. Lord Roberts retained his confidence in and warm regard for him till his death.

Field-Marshall French went out to France as the superior in rank to General Joffre, but General Joffre was Field-Marshal French's superior in command. The fact that the two men from the onset worked together in such splendid harmony is a remarkable tribute to both, but if the British general had been a man of lesser character the result might well have been disastrous.

French after Visiting Joffre

From left to right, Colonel Rampon, Colonel Fitzgerald and Field-Marshal French.
From left to right, Colonel Rampon, Colonel Fitzgerald and Field-Marshal French. | Source

British Army Tactical Reform; Boer War to 1914

The Strong Confidence of a Nation

Without public school or Staff College training the honoured Chief of the British Expeditionary Force had not even the influence of wealth to aid his progress. It is a fact that he was retired on half-pay as long ago as 1893.

And in his brilliant conduct of the British Army in the field, in a war on a scale never seen before, he retained the whole-hearted confidence of two allied nations, and the loyal devotion of every man under him, from the humblest unit of the British Army to the Chief of Staff.

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