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General French's Despatch, November 20, 1914, on First 3 Months of WWI (Great War) - A Summary

Updated on February 5, 2015

Commander-in-Chief General Sir John French

Commander-in-Chief General Sir John French
Commander-in-Chief General Sir John French | Source

Lifting the Curtain on the Great War

Sir John French's despatch of November 20th. 1914, is a historic document in the fullest sense. It lifted the curtain for the first time since the Great War opened, and, as one reads it, one is permitted to know what regiments had maintained the glorious traditions of British arms at the high points of heroism that quite equalled Agincourt, Quebec, Plessey, and Waterloo.

The sentences of the despatch glow with the eloquence of brave deeds of unmatched gallantry, and its publication on November 30th, 1914, did more to carry conviction to the minds of the British public as to the ultimate certain triumph of the arms of the Allies than any event since the fateful August 4th.

The importance of the despatch justifies this summation of its contents.

Lord Kitchener

Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, G.C.I.E., G.C.S.I., G.C.B., British Secretary of State for War.
Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, G.C.I.E., G.C.S.I., G.C.B., British Secretary of State for War. | Source

General Joffre

General Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff
General Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff | Source

General French's Historic Despatch of November 20th, 1914

On November 29th, 1914, Lord Kitchener authorised the publication of the latest despatch received from Field-Marshal Sir John French, commanding the British forces in the field.

The despatch, dated November 20th, covers the operations of the British forces in the region of Ypres and Armentieres during October and part of November.

It really constitutes a thrilling story of the magnificent defence against the most determined German effort, under the inspiration of the Kaiser himself, to obtain possession of the coast of Belgium and North-West France, so that the enemy might spend, as he vainly boasted he would, the approaching winter on the shores of the English Channel with Calais as headquarters.

Sir John began by saying:

"Early in October a study of the general situation strongly impressed me with the necessity of bringing the greatest possible force to bear in support of the northern flank of the Allies, in order effectively to outflank the enemy and compel him to evacuate his position. At the same time the position on the Aisne was such as to warrant the withdrawal of the British force there for transference to the Allies' northern flank."

General Joffre fully agreed with these views, and this delicate operation was successfully accomplished between October 3rd and 19th,

"... with the cordial and most effective co-operation of the French General Staff."

General Foch

General Foch. He defeated the Germans on the Marne in 1914.
General Foch. He defeated the Germans on the Marne in 1914. | Source

General Smith-Dorrien

General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., D.S.O.
General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., D.S.O. | Source

New Positions of British Forces

After detailing the exact disposition of the different corps and divisions of the British force in Northern France and Flanders and of the French troops north of Noyon, which had been jointly arranged between the Field-Marshal and General Foch, then in chief command of that section of the French left flank, the despatch points out that the new line taken up by the British force extended from Bethune through La Bassée, Armentieres, and Hazebrouck, across the Belgian frontier to a point north of Ypres.

It was an attempt to get astride the La Bassée-Lille road in the neighbourhood of Furnes, so as to threaten the right flank and rear of the enemy and capture by assault his strongly entrenched position on the high ground south of La Bassée, that General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, with the 2nd British Corps, came into contact with the enemy.

That position, however, admits Sir John French:

"... throughout the battle defied all attempts to capture either by the French or the British."

A special feature of the despatch is the Field-Marshal's description of a few of the more valient deeds of particular regiments during these eventful operations, perhaps designed to promote recruiting in the areas of the Territorial regiments.

The "fine fighting of the Dorsets" is referred to. On one day that regiment suffered no fewer than four hundred casualties, one hundred and thirty of them, including their commanding officer, Major Roper, being killed: yet they hold their own.

The Lincolns and Royal Fusiliers carried the village of Herlies at the point of a bayonet long after dark, when the Germans had the superiority of two to one in numbers.

General Sir Douglas Haig

Lt.-Gen. Sir Douglas Haig K.C.B., K.C.I.E., K.C.V.O.
Lt.-Gen. Sir Douglas Haig K.C.B., K.C.I.E., K.C.V.O. | Source

"I cannot speak too highly of the valuable services rendered by Sir Douglas Haig and the army corps under his command. Day after day and night after night the enemy's infantry has been hurled against him in violent counter-attack, which has never on any one occasion succeeded." - Sir John French

Lieutenant-General Pulteney

Lt.-Gen. W.F. Pulteney, C.B., D.S.O. "Took over the command of the 3rd Corps just before the ... Battle of the Marne, and showed himself to be a most capable commander in the field."
Lt.-Gen. W.F. Pulteney, C.B., D.S.O. "Took over the command of the 3rd Corps just before the ... Battle of the Marne, and showed himself to be a most capable commander in the field." | Source

Sir John French

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

Der 1. Weltkrieg - August bis September 1914 - Teil 1

Der 1. Weltkrieg - August bis September 1914 - Teil 2

Geluveld - 1914 - The Attack that saver The British Empire

Hommage "A nos Glorieux Disparus" 1914 -1918

1914-1918, La Grande Guerre

Le Debut de la Grande Guerre

Regiments that Won Glory and Deserve Honour

The Royal Highland Regiment stormed and carried the village of Le Pilly, which they held and entrenched.

A violent attack against the 7th Brigade was repulsed with tremendous losses to the enemy by the Wiltshires and the Royal West Kents.

A determined attack on the 18th Infantry Brigade drove the Gordon Highlanders out of their trenches, which were, however, retaken brilliantly by the Middlesex Regiment.

While the 2nd Corps was being thus heavily pressed, and the 3rd Corps, under General Pulteney, on Sir H. Smith-Dorrien's right was barely holding its own, the 1st Army Corps, under Sir Douglas Haig, came up from the Aisne.

Sir Henry Rawlinson's army consisting of the 3rd Cavalry Division and the 7th Infantry Division, which had been operating in the neighbourhood of Ghent, covering the retirement of the Belgian army from Antwerp, was sent, by the Secretary of War to form the left column in the eastward advance.

Then ensued the great fight for the road to Calais. Sir Douglas Haig held the line before Ypres against terrific odds until General Joffre was able to bring up masses of French troops in aid, and there can be no manner of doubt that he thereby saved Calais and the Channel ports.

"All the enemy's desperate attempts to break through our line were frustrated, and that was entirely due to the marvellous fighting power and the indomitable courage and tenacity of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men. No more arduous task has ever been assigned to British soldiers; and in all their splendid history there is no instance of their having answered so magnificently to the desperate calls which of necessity were made upon them." - Sir John French

The Field-Marshal proceeds to narrate, sometimes in picturesque, always in glowing sentences, details of the operations in the different portions of the long line of this great battle, making particular mention of the services of the :

Perhaps the most important and decisive attacks at the period were on October 30th and 31st, when the trenches at Gheluvelt were taken, but only held briefly and

"... retaken with the bayonet, the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment being to the fore in this, supported by the 42nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery.
I regard it as the most critical moment in the whole of the great battle. The rally of the 1st Division and the recapture of Gheluvelt at such a time was fraught with tremendous consequences. If any one unit can be singled out for especial praise it is the Worcesters. The staunchness of the King's Own Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers was most commendable.
... A portion of the trenches of the Middlesex Regiment was gained by the enemy and held by him for some hours till recaptured with assistance from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The enemy in the trenches were all bayoneted or captured."

In the later operations

"... the excellent behaviour of the East Lancashire Regiment, the Hampshires, and the Somerset Light Infantry."

is noted.

Sir John goes on to refer to the Indian divisions, stating that

"... since their arrival in France, and their occupation of the line allotted to them, I have been much impressed by the initiative and resource displayed by the Indian troops. Some of the ruses they have employed to deceive the enemy have been attended with the best results, and have, doubtless, kept superior forces in front of them at bay."

Among the Indian troops specially mentioned are the:

Inspection of British Hospital Ship

General Sir John French walking the gangway on to a British hospital ship to inspect the wounded.
General Sir John French walking the gangway on to a British hospital ship to inspect the wounded. | Source

Prussian Guard "by the Emperor's Special Commands"

On November 10th, 1914,

"... a division of the Prussian Guard was moved up with great speed and secrecy to the town of Ypres, ..."
having received
"... the Emperor's special commands to break through and succeed where their comrades of the line had failed. They took a leading part in the vigorous attacks made against the centre on the 11th and 12th, but, like their comrades, were repulsed with enormous loss. Throughout this trying period Sir Douglas Haig, ably assisted by his divisional and brigade commanders, held the line with marvellous tenacity and undaunted courage."

The Field-Marshal continues,

"Words fail me to express the admiration I feel for their conduct, or my sense of the incalculable services they rendered. I venture to predict that their deeds during these days of stress and trial will furnish some of the most brilliant chapters in the military history of our time."

Inspection of Hospital Train

Commander-in-Chief Sir John French finds time to take a personal interest in the wounded, is seen on board a hospital train.
Commander-in-Chief Sir John French finds time to take a personal interest in the wounded, is seen on board a hospital train. | Source

General French

General French photographed with one of his staff officers at the Front.
General French photographed with one of his staff officers at the Front. | Source

Entre Les Lignes

Highest Hopes as to Value of Territorials

Sir John states that during the period covered by his despatch, Territorial troops had been used for the first time. The units actually engaged were the Yeomanry Cavalry of the:

and the Territorial Infantry of the:

"The conduct and bearing of these units under fire, and the efficient manner in which they carried out the various duties assigned to them, have imbued me with the highest hope as to the value and help of Territorial troops generally."

Special mention is made in the closing passages of the despatch of the work of the:

and of the superiority of the Royal Artillery over that of the enemy.

The concluding paragraph runs:

"Our enemies elected at the commencement of the war to throw the weight of their forces against the armies in the west, and to detach only a comparatively weak force, composed of very few first-line troops, and several corps of the second and third lines, to stem the Russian advance till the western forces could be completely defeated and overwhelmed. Their strength enabled them from the outset to throw greatly superior forces against us in the west. This precluded the possibility of our taking a vigorous offensive, except when the miscalculations and mistakes made by their commanders opened up special opportunities for a successful attack and pursuit."

The value of the role fulfilled by the allied forces in the west lies in the fact that when the eastern provinces were in imminent danger of being overrun by the armies of Russia, nearly the whole of the active army of Germany was tied down to trenches extending from Verdun to Nieuport (a distance of 260 miles), where they were held, much reduced in numbers and morale, by successful actions of the Allied troops.


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    • humahistory profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      To become what French became is all the more remarkable because of his early years - orphaned, and not part of any 'ranking' family. He was one of the few that made it without a title. Thank heavens, when so many of the 'titled' were completely incompetent.

      After I write an article on Joffre (and a couple of other articles on subjects I find interesting), the next General to be dissected will be Haig (but only up to WWI) - I'll have to think about his despatches and where they fit into my sequence of articles pulling the Great War apart, for better understanding.

      Thanks, by the way, for your comments. They are appreciated.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Nice article, humahistory. "Despatches" by the generals are full of information even when one remembers there is always a "political" slant-- this is true even to this day. Many generals were and are political animals. Interesting that General Haig, praised by French, would use his political connections and subterfuge to later replace French as head of the BEF.

      I remember as a kid just learning about WW1 being confused by all the maps showing battles where the "French" seemed everywhere. It took a while before I realized the maps showed lines held by the British under General French.

      Maybe you could do another article using Haig's despatches?


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