Sir John French - An Authentic Biography
by Cecil Chisholm
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Very soon the Horse Artillery had the gun silenced, and the whole division swerved to the right just as the Boers drew off down stream to wait for the English crossing. Immediately the whole division was making for De Kiel's Drift further up stream. The banks proved to be steep and difficult, but a ford was discovered. As the cavalry neared the bank a party of Boers saw the ruse, and a neck-to-neck race for the Drift began. By a piece of daring horsemanship our cavalry got home first, and the Boers arrived too late to dispute their passage. By mid-day the division was able to cross and bivouac on the right bank, pending the arrival of the baggage train, left far behind.


The Riet River is by no means a refreshing torrent; it winds its slow way in muddy melancholy to the cleanly water of the Vaal. But at least it contained water in which both men and horses could forget the heat of the veldt. All day the weary cavalrymen waited for the supplies, which did not come until they were attempting to snatch a few hours of sleep. The transport horses stumbled and strained their way up the banks in the early hours of the morning.

There was pleasant excitement in camp, however, when both Roberts and Kitchener rode over to congratulate French on his progress, and wished him "good luck" for the rest of the journey. But the delay in transport was annoying to French. Neither the men nor their horses received any supplies until the morning was well advanced. And the sun was already scorching the veldt before the division was ready to advance. That delay was to be paid for in sweat and suffering. On that day alone over one hundred horses died or fell out from exhaustion. Their tired riders were forced to trudge across the veldt at what pace they could, or to find ignominious relief in the ammunition carts. Shortly after mid-day, however, a welcome well of water was reached. Here, thought the parched and foot-sore men, was relief at last. But once again they were doomed to disappointment. It is one of French's characteristics that he practises an exquisitely perfect loyalty both to the army and to his superiors. That well of sparkling water was destined for the infantry tramping on behind. Reluctantly the troopers turned aside on their tedious way. Not a drop of the water was touched.

By this time the men's sufferings from thirst and dust were intense. At two o'clock they neared Klip Drift, where they were fiercely attacked by a large body of Boers. The guns of the first brigade, however, quickly put the enemy to flight, but the General thought it well to make certain alterations in the order of his advance. These changes were only accomplished with the greatest difficulty. So tired were the horses that even the General's gallopers, who were continually traversing the column's half-mile front, were often unable to spur their horses to anything better than a walk. Very quickly the enemy returned to the attack, pestering French on the right. Realising his peril, he changed his course suddenly and headed away from the Klip Kraal Drift. Naturally, the enemy rushed off to block his way. For an hour and a half the Drift appeared to be the division's urgent objective. Then, without warning, he as suddenly turned about and swung back to Klip Drift.

[Page Heading: THE BOERS FLEE]

These manoeuvres had reduced the horses almost to the last stage of exhaustion. Many of them fell dead by the way. But at last the river was reached. Still the actual crossing was not yet. Once again French showed his extraordinary mastery of finesse. He ordered preparation to be made for the actual crossing at Klip Drift and Rondeval Drift. Having thrown Gordon to the left to effect one crossing and Broadwood to the right to effect another, French advanced so rapidly that Cronje was utterly nonplussed. Gordon opened a heavy shell fire which completely disconcerted him, although only a very few of the guns could come into action. Soon afterwards Gordon was crossing the river in pursuit. The Boers fled, in spite of the natural strength of their positions and the utterly exhausted state of our men. But neither Gordon on the left, nor Broadwood on the right, was satisfied with merely effecting a crossing. Both went in pursuit of the enemy towards Kimberley. The result was a complete rout. The Boers' camp, their ammunition, their wagons, fell entirely into our hands.

The rout was not without spasmodic touches of humour, even for these jaded men. "One of the Staff plunged into the river and caught some geese, but someone else ate them; a pig ran the gauntlet through the camp—amidst roars of laughter, even from the serious General—of lances, bayonets, knives, sticks, boots, water-bottles, anything to hand, and at length was caught by a lucky trooper, who shared his feast that night with his friends. A wagon of fresh fruit was taken, sufficient to make thirsty men's mouths water, but some thought the grapes were sour."[12]

The next day was perforce spent in camp, resting the tired troops and awaiting the arrival of supplies. The baggage was not on the scene until late in the afternoon, much to the discomfort of French's men. It was midnight before Lord Kitchener and his Staff were near the camp. One of French's aides-de-camp, Captain J. Laycock, rode out in solitary peril, and although continually sniped at by the Boers, was able to lead Lord Kitchener and his Staff safely into camp. All day the Boers had been making the men's lives a burden through unexpected sniping and feints. French is said to have admitted that had any of their attacks been driven home, his plans might have been seriously disconcerted. "Could the Boers learn to attack they would be a most formidable foe," was his verdict on the situation.

[Page Heading: THE ROAD BLOCKED]

At 9.30 on February 15 the column set out on the last stage of their journey. French, with the idea of putting the enemy off the track, led his men towards Bloemfontein. His idea was eventually to dash straight for Kimberley with his whole division, hemming the enemy's rear and flank in at Magersfontein, where Methuen's force could hold him in front. Scarcely had the advance begun, however, when a murderous fire broke out from the river on the south-west, followed almost instantaneously by a cross fire from a line of kopjes on the north-west. The road to Bloemfontein was blocked; and the road to Kimberley was exposed to a cross fire from the enemy's two positions. This was checkmate with a vengeance. It was thought that some two thousand Boers held the kopjes ahead of French. At once he ordered the guns into position and boldly replied to the enemy's fire. The column was now nearing a plain several miles in width, guarded on one side by a ridge running from north to south, and on the other by a hill. The Boers held both hill and ridge in force. So that whatever the guns might do, the position was difficult—if not impossible. By all military rules French was "hemmed in." To a lesser man retreat would have seemed inevitable, though disastrous. Once again it was French v. The Impossible. A member of his staff relates how, sweeping the horizon with his glass, while riderless horses from the guns galloped past, he muttered, squaring the pugnacious jaw, "They are over here to stop us from Bloemfontein and they are there to stop us from Kimberley—we have got to break through." In an instant his decision was taken. He would attempt the impossible—a direct cavalry charge in the teeth of the enemy's fire.


He immediately ordered Gordon to charge the right front. The members of his Staff expected that the General would now take up a position of security in the rear of the column, before the grim work began. But he kept his place in the van with his Staff. His officers were practically certain that not only the first, but several of the leading squadrons would be utterly wiped out. There appeared to be nothing in heaven or earth which could prevent huge losses. Gordon led his men—the Ninth and Sixteenth Lancers—in superb style. Despite the pitiable condition of the horses, it was a charge worthy of the British Army. A strong fire poured in from the Boer trenches and from the kopjes above. But as the huge masses of armed men gained the inevitable momentum and pounded down upon the enemy in a cloud of sword-lit dust, the Boers fled before these clattering hoofs. Throwing up their guns they begged for mercy. But nothing could stop the terrific impetus of the charge. Nearly one hundred and fifty Boers fell as the Lancers ploughed through their trenches. Behind the Lancers the whole division now swept on in perfect order, led by the Greys. "So the whole division swung up the plain at the gallop. It was a thrilling time never to be forgotten," wrote Boyle. So wild was the Boer fire that our casualties only amounted to four men wounded and two horses wounded.

The plain once cleared, a halt was made for the guns to come up, to hold the enemy on the left. When the Artillery had joined the main force, the advance was again begun. The plain once crossed, the smoke stacks of Kimberley came into view. At sight of these dingy symbols of the commerce they had risked all to save, the men raised a tired cheer. Kimberley was relieved—although the nervous operators to whom French attempted to heliograph the fact, persisted in pessimistically believing that he was the enemy.

By far the worst of the work was now over. Before French reached Kimberley, however, the Boers made a last effort to stay his victorious advance. But they were driven back with heavy loss. Only the frightful condition of his horses prevented French from turning rout into annihilation. But his worn-out animals were quite beyond pursuing even a beaten enemy.

At length, Kimberley, seeing the huge sand cloud on the horizon, came to the conclusion that it enveloped the horsemen, not of Cronje but of French. About six o'clock in the evening an officer rode out of the besieged city to meet the soldier who had saved it. At 7—just one hour after the moment of French's historic promise, the General entered Kimberley with his Staff. He dined that night at De Beer's Sanatorium.

But there was no rest for the conquerors. At 3.30 on the following morning the cavalry was harrying the Boers to the north-east. At 5 o'clock they came upon a body of Boers on a well-fortified ridge, who were covering the army's retreat. Unable to operate vigorously against them owing to the condition of his forces, French forced them to draw in their outposts. But it was impossible to do more. His horses were half dead. And in the terrific heat "the tongues of men and horses become black from thirst." Realising the hopelessness of the situation, French returned to the town.


Rest was not yet, however. Scarcely had he retired than news came that Cronje had decided to evacuate Magersfontein. No confirmation followed, however. The General, therefore, advised his Staff that at last a night's rest was possible. A couple of hours later a telegram arrived from Lord Kitchener, announcing that Cronje, with ten thousand men, was in full retreat from Magersfontein, with "all his wagons and equipment and four guns, along the north bank of the Modder River towards Bloemfontein, that he had already fought a rearguard action with him, and if French with all available horses and guns could head him and prevent his crossing the river, the infantry from Klip Drift would press on and annihilate or take the whole force prisoners."

General French responded magnificently to the call of this opportunity. Another man might have pleaded that his troops and horses were utterly unfit for work, but with French the greater the obstacles, the stronger is his determination to win through! Of all his five thousand men, only two thousand could be found whose horses were fit to carry them in that wild dash to head off the Boer Commando.

At 3 a.m. on February 17, French left Kimberley, and by a marvellous piece of far-sighted calculation made straight for Koodoos Rand Drift, the very crossing which Cronje himself had chosen. His horses died on the way, but French reached the river first and seized the Drift, almost under the enemy's eyes.

Cronje was completely surprised. The previous evening, French had been in pursuit of the Boers north of Kimberley; now he had suddenly appeared 35 miles to the south, and was facing the enemy, determined to cut off his retreat. Swiftly Cronje moved down the river and took possession of a long stretch between Gaardeberg Drift and Wolveskraal Drift.

It must have been an anxious night for General French, for had Cronje realised how small was the force that thus held him at bay, and made a desperate effort to break through, there would have been little chance of thwarting him. But Cronje lay still in the river bed, while the British forces closed swiftly in and the net was drawn closer round him.


For ten long days the Boer General held out, while the British artillery poured shells into his laager. Meanwhile the Boers flocked in from every side to endeavour to rescue Cronje from his hopeless position. French undertook to check them and hold them back, leaving the main army to deal with the surrounded enemy.

General French and his men were in continual action for the next few days. But the soldiers gloried in their work, for they were cheered by the message from Queen Victoria in appreciation of their excellent work, particularly in the relief of Kimberley, which had earned for them "the gratitude of the whole nation."

At length, on February 27, Cronje surrendered, and four thousand men laid down their arms. Thus closed the most brilliant exploit of the British Arms in South Africa—an exploit whose success can be largely traced to the extraordinary mixture of dauntless courage, practical acumen and remorseless persistence which mark the genius of Sir John French.


[12] The Cavalry Rush to Kimberley. By Captain Cecil Boyle, Nineteenth Century, June, 1900.



French in the Modder—At Bloemfontein—French and the Artist—An Ambush—Doing the Impossible Again—Short Shrift with Barberton Snipers—Some French Stories.

To have relieved Kimberley and partially effected the capture of the redoubtable Cronje in the course of a fortnight, was no mean accomplishment. The average commander would have been content to rest his forces after such exertions. But French is never tired. The very day that Cronje surrendered news came through that a rescue party was coming to Cronje's assistance, and already held a hill on the south-east of the Modder. Although the river was in flood, as the result of torrential rains, French forthwith led out two brigades with their batteries to make a reconnaissance. In forcing the stream both French and his A.A.G. very nearly lost their lives. Losing its foothold the General's horse took fright and fell, flinging him into the raging torrent. As the animal strove to recover, it upset Colonel (now Sir Douglas) Haig, who was coming to the rescue, dashing rider and horse into an over-hanging willow tree. Both French and Haig luckily managed to get themselves free from their plunging animals and struck out for the shore. Dripping but determined, they jumped on to fresh mounts, and advanced in two steamy haloes across the dusty veldt. Of course, not a solitary Boer was in sight for ten miles at least!

[Page Heading: AT POPLAR GROVE]

It very quickly transpired, however, that the Boers were strongly entrenched at Poplar Grove. At their head were French's most redoubtable opponents in the Colesberg campaign—De Wet and Delarey. For once his old antagonists were able to get back at least a little of their own. Their position extended across the river and was protected by a chain of hills, with kopjes between, not to mention the wired fences, ditches and other wiles in which they excelled.

Lord Roberts determined that an attack must be delivered before the enemy had time to recover from the shock of Cronje's surrender. French was, therefore, ordered to circle round the Boer left flank, thus cutting off his retreat, while the infantry delivered a frontal attack.

The result was a compliment to the terrible French and his cavalry. No sooner did the Boers realise that the horsemen were upon them, than they beat a hasty retreat. Before the cavalry were in position, the Boers and their wagons could be seen scurrying off for the river. Arm-chair critics at home have strongly criticised French for what followed. They claim that what should have been a rout, ended in an orderly escape. But they forget several factors in the situation.

While French's men were urging their spent horses forward to overtake the enemy, it became obvious that De Wet had very cleverly covered his retreat. First from a farmhouse in the rear, and, when it was taken, from a low kopje, a small body of men poured forth a hail of bullets. In manoeuvring to take the kopje, the tired cavalry allowed the astute De Wet and Delarey to escape with their guns intact. Kruger and Steyn also, who had come up to hearten their followers, got away.

Maddening as it was to French to see his old enemy escape through his fingers like this, the condition of his men and of his horses had to be taken into account; they were dead beat. For once the manoeuvring of De Wet proved as successful as when it was practised by French at Colesberg. Finally the event of the day is attributable to two of French's best qualities—his caution and his extreme parsimony in the matter of human life. A more ruthless leader might possibly have captured the Boer guns. But it is extremely doubtful whether he would have taken De Wet, Delarey or any other of the well-mounted Boer leaders.

From Poplar Grove the enemy fell back on Driefontein. On March 10, French again drove them, although not without real difficulty, from their stronghold. This accomplished, the army pushed on towards Bloemfontein, which surrendered on March 13. For six weeks the main body halted there to rest, but chiefly to obtain remounts for the cavalry. During that time, however, French's men were not idle. They continually patrolled the surrounding country, keeping in constant touch with the enemy and driving him back for many miles from the town.


One unhappy afternoon the General spent in sitting for a painter in Bloemfontein. It was probably the severest ordeal of the campaign for that retiring soldier. "General French," wrote the painter's youngest daughter, "is quite the shyest man in the British army, and looks less like a cavalry officer than you could possibly imagine. He is a heavy man, always looks half-asleep—although who is there more wide awake?—has a very red complexion, grey moustache, thick-set figure, and the last personality in the world to help an artist as a sitter. He promised to sit for the painter, although most characteristically he could not for the life of him think what he had done to be of sufficient interest for anyone to want to sketch him. At last, after a great deal of trouble, the painter got him to sit one morning just outside the club at Bloemfontein. That sitting was the shortest and most disjointed the painter has ever had. The General sat bolt upright in a chair, reading his paper upside down through sheer nervousness, and, if he left that chair once, on one excuse or another, he left it a hundred times, coming back looking more thoroughly upset and nervous each time, until at last he never came back at all. And the painter's only chance of sketching him was at the club during dinner!"[13]

At last the main army was ready for work again, and on May 1 the troops moved out of the fever-stricken town. French and his cavalry were the last to leave, but they overtook Lord Roberts and the main body, and led the way to Kroonstad, once again the seat of the Free State Government. Here by one of his famous turning movements, French cleverly forced the enemy to surrender and give up the keys of the town. Keeping ahead of Lord Roberts and his forces, he crossed the Vaal River and was first at the gates of Johannesburg, which the British entered on May 31.

[Page Heading: THE GUNS]

After two days in the mining city, Lord Roberts' triumphant forces moved on their way to Pretoria. French's next task was to cut the railway communications to the north of Pretoria. In carrying this out he made a wide detour to the west, where his cavalry found themselves in a treacherous country of kopjes, scrub and menacing gorges, a type of country most dangerous to mounted men. Anxiously he pushed forward to reach open country before nightfall (of June 2). But the Boers were before him. A sudden hail of Mauser bullets and shells announced an ambush. But French was undismayed. "Quietly, in complete mastery of the situation, General French gave his orders. 'Make room for the guns,' passed down the line; and like a fire engine to the rescue, up dashed a section of horse artillery and a pom-pom."[14] Very quickly the enemy was beaten off, in spite of the fatigue of a thirty-two mile march. No further resistance was met with as the men passed through the rich, orange-growing country round Pretoria. On June 4, French had completed his enveloping movement, and taken up his position to the north of the town. In the afternoon the cavalrymen learnt, with no little chagrin, that Lord Roberts had already entered Pretoria.

When the efforts to negotiate peace with Botha had failed, French was instructed by Lord Roberts to push the Boers east by a turning movement on their flank, which he would follow by the usual frontal attack on foot. So energetic were the Boers in harassing Lord Roberts' force, that drastic action had become necessary. It proved to be one of the most difficult enterprises that the cavalry had undertaken.

As usually happened the Boers were securely ensconced on ridges, the chief of which was known as Diamond Hill, while our men were condemned to work round from a level plain open to the enemy's fire. In order not to become a series of conspicuous targets, the cavalrymen were forced to dismount and fight their way up to the ridges on foot. For two days they fought gallantly against a steady fire, until the infantry's attack on the enemy's other flank gave French his chance to drive them out. For a third time the plight of his horses finally forbade his taking full advantage of his success. The Boers were driven back, but without being severely punished. The ubiquitous De Wet, need one add, showed a clean pair of heels.

[Page Heading: A DARING VENTURE]

In July, French was in command of the forces operating in Eastern Transvaal. There followed a long and arduous march towards the east which, after the capture of Middleburg, ended in the surrender of Barberton. It was in the beginning of September that French turned his attention to the enemy's forces collected round the latter town. He commenced his operations by circulating reports of an intended action in the opposite direction. While the Boers prepared to meet this he was able to reach Carolina with comparative ease. Here he remained for three days in order to prepare for a flanking movement against Barberton. As he must cut himself off entirely from sources of supply, such preparation was very necessary. French was about to attempt one of the most daring achievements of his career. He was going to take mounted men over a miniature Alps. The Boers were prepared for his attacking Barberton from every direction save one. They never supposed for a moment that the British troops would attempt to force the Nelshoogte Pass. For what did it mean? The scaling of precipitous heights, and the passage along narrow ledges of men, horses and guns. It would have been a difficult task for mountaineers, far less for heavily burdened cavalrymen.

French, however, was determined to do the impossible "once more." He would repeat the miracle of Coles Kop on a titanic scale. Accordingly, after a day's hard fighting, he rested his men for a night near the entrance to the pass. On the following morning, the enemy having disappeared, the advance was sounded. Up a narrow path, whose gradient was frequently one in four, the men crawled, often on hands and knees, while their horses stumbled on behind. Frequently they were scaling towering crags several hundred feet in height, from which there was sometimes a sheer fall of over a thousand feet. In teams of sixteen the oxen panted, struggled and frequently perished in the attempt to drag the heavy guns up the fearful incline. Only a man of indomitable courage would have attempted such a feat. But French lost not a single man in the process. Perhaps the division's perfect belief in his luck did something towards nerving the men for the ordeal.

The top of the pass once reached, French determined to make a sudden descent on Barberton. Taking a leaf out of the Boers' book, he left the whole of his baggage behind to lighten the horses, and rushed his men towards the town. On descending the other side of the pass the soldiers had still to lead their horses, who were as often on their haunches as their feet. Barberton and the Boers saw the oncoming of the British force with blank amazement. It was the last thing in the world they expected. The Boer Commando in possession, six hundred strong, had just time to escape from one end of the town as French entered it at the other.

[Page Heading: A WAY WITH SNIPERS]

Enraged at the surprise that had been sprung on them, the Boers commenced sniping the town from various vantage points in the vicinity. But French knew how to treat the sniper. The following notice was immediately dashed off by the local printing press and posted all over the town.


This is to give notice that if any Shooting into the Town or Sniping in its vicinity takes place, the Lieutenant-General Commanding will withdraw the Troops, and shell the Town without further notice.

By order,

D. HAIG, Lt.-Col. Chief Staff Officer to Lt.-General French.

September 15, 1900.

The sniping stopped forthwith.

One of the first things that French did was to go and personally rescue his old enemy, Schoeman, from the local jail. That worthy, having surrendered, had come into bad odour with his fellow countrymen. In consequence he had been incarcerated at Barberton. For once the unfortunate Schoeman was glad to see the face of his old enemy again!

French rested his forces in Barberton for three weeks, leaving the town on October 3. The march back to Pretoria was, if anything, more trying than the adventurous dash to Barberton had been. Apart from the trying climb over the heights of the Kaapsche Hoop, and the eternal sniping of the Boers, the weather now brought new sufferings. The men were exhausted by days of heat, and soaked by nights of torrential rain. It was a thoroughly tired and jaded force which finally reached Pretoria on November 3.

One incident of that trying march shows how ably French dealt with Boer bluff. The enemy had made prisoner a captain of the R.A.M.C, and sent a message that they would shoot him unless General French pledged his word that he would burn no Boer farms. French replied that unless the captured medical officer were brought into the British camp next morning, he would burn the town of Bethel to the ground; and, if he were shot, ten Boer prisoners would be similarly put to death. The doctor was brought into camp next morning.


In inspecting the cavalry on their return, Lord Roberts expressed his high appreciation of French's work and informed him that, while retaining his cavalry command, he had been appointed to the command of Johannesburg and district.

At the end of the month Lord Roberts returned to England to take command of the Home Forces; and several months elapsed before French was able actively to take up that long rounding-up of the Boers which Kitchener was now planning in such elaborate detail. During the early part of 1901 he was able to clear the Boers out of the central district of Cape Colony. On June 8 he took supreme command of the operations in that Colony, and by November he had confined the enemy to its north-eastern and south-western extremities.

Not until Midsummer, 1902, was French able to return home. Before that he had spent some time recruiting his health in Cape Town. Very eager were the loyal citizens to fete the most successful of all the British Generals. But French would have no banqueting on his account. The war, he characteristically explained, was not yet ended, and so long as it was in progress he was not inclined to accept any public hospitality.

Anything like show or ostentation is foreign to French's whole nature. If there are few stories of his exploits in South Africa, there lies the reason. He is far too modest a man to prepare bons mots or pretty jeux d'esprit for public consumption. Also he is by nature a silent man. His silence is not the detached, Olympian and rather ominous silence of Kitchener. It proceeds simply from a natural modesty and reticence, which reinforce his habitual tendency to "think things over." He is the type of man whom hostesses have to "draw out"; he never talks either on himself, the army or any other subject. To "do his job" better than anybody else in the world could do it is enough for French; chatter about it he leaves to less busy people.

His habitual taciturnity, curiously enough, is one of the traits which endears him to the army. For French's silence has no trait of churlishness. It is the silence of a man utterly absorbed in the task before him, the man whom Tommy Atkins admires. "If the British soldier likes one thing in a General more than another," wrote a soldier who served with French in South Africa, "it is the golden gift of silence, especially when joined to straight action, just to distinguish him from the old women of both sexes. Whenever French penned a dispatch, or an order, or a proclamation, he wasted no ink and strained no pen nibs; but he never penned anything if there was a way of doing the thing himself."[15]


In South Africa he earned the title of "the shirt-sleeved General,"—a soubriquet that conveys a subtle compliment from Tommy's point of view. Actually French was often to be seen walking about in camp during his heavy marches in shirt-sleeves. One afternoon a correspondent rode up to the lines, and seeing a soldier sitting on a bundle of hay, smoking a dilapidated looking old briar pipe, asked where the General was. "The old man is somewhere about," coolly replied the soldier. "Well, just hold my horse while I go and search for him." "Certainly, sir," and the smoker rose obediently and took the bridle. "Can you tell me where the General is?" inquired the correspondent of a staff officer further down the line. "General French? oh, he's somewhere about. Why, there he is, holding that horse's head!" And the officer pointed directly to the smoker, still tranquilly pulling at his pipe, and holding the horse! Needless to say "Uncle French" and his men hugely enjoyed the correspondent's awakening.

Such a man is bound to be the idol of the ranks. "What a good leader General French is," wrote Driver Payne, of the Royal Horse Artillery, to a friend. "He seems so cool at excitable moments; he does not lose his head and rush his men into danger. In fact, he always looks before he leaps, and when he does leap, he makes us move—and the Boers too." Perhaps French was best summed-up one day by a trooper whom, in a curt word, he had just sentenced to barracks for some offence. "The General don't bark much," he remarked, "but, crikey, don't he know how to bite!"


[13] M.A.P., August 25, 1900.

[14] With General French and his Cavalry in South Africa. By C.S. Goldman. By permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co., Ltd.

[15] The Regiment, September 5, 1914.



At Aldershot—Driving Training at High Pressure—General French is "fairly" well pleased—Strenuous Manoeuvres—Chief of the Imperial General Staff—Ulster and Resignation.

With Lord Kitchener, General French had a wonderful welcome on his return from South Africa. The former had certainly added a few leaves to his laurel wreath, but French brought back a complete new crown of his own. His return home in July was a triumphal progress. At Southampton, in replying to congratulations, he paid a fine tribute to his men.

French's hatred of ostentation in any form prevented him from allowing Society to fete him to its heart's content. He was the most retiring of lions; and, like Kitchener, he allowed London to idolise him only at a distance. A knighthood was one reward of his services; and after a brief rest he was back at Aldershot as Lieutenant-General in command.

For the first time French found himself in command of all arms of the service in time of peace. After his arrival, instruction was driven at high pressure. No sooner had he arrived than he turned out the whole of his command—"just to see how they looked!" Such a thing had scarcely ever happened before; and the order sent desolation to the hearts of some of the officers. For it meant that the whole force, every man, horse and gun had to turn out forthwith, in full marching order, and ready for action. After the first feverish digging out of accoutrements and tents, however, the men became hardened to these sudden alarums and excursions. They became a part of the programme.

The cavalry especially was trained to an extraordinary degree of perfection. The most rigorous methods in use abroad were used and bettered. The result was the production of a body of men who, like Wellington's heroes of Torres Vedras, "were ready to go anywhere and do anything."


In December, 1907, French was appointed Inspector-General of the Forces. In this extremely exacting office, his qualities of thoroughness and grip had splendid scope. A glance at his comments discloses the high standard of excellence which he exacted from every branch of the service. Only the other day timid folk were bewailing his methods at manoeuvres. Four horses had succumbed to a gruelling day of fierce exertion. But French expressed himself as "well pleased." One does not remember his ever going farther up the giddy incline of the superlatives. Probably his exacting eye never yet met the corps of his dream. He had a terrible word with which he was wont to emphasise the fact of disenchantment. How often did one read "General French expressed himself as 'fairly' well pleased with what he saw"? A withering qualitative. French was determined to infuse the whole army with his own professional love of efficiency. To that end he phrased his judgments with extraordinary care. His remarks were as nicely aimed and as carefully timed as his cavalry charges. Nor did they lack shattering force on occasion.

After five years of "tuning up" the army, French took command of its administration. In 1912 he was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, a body formed on the lines of the efficient German General Staff. Of the nature and value of the reforms instituted under his direction it is too early yet to speak. Suffice it to say that in the European War they have met the almost intolerable strain with signal success. For once we presented to the Continent the unparalleled spectacle of a War Office "ready for action."

In particular Sir John French encouraged originality of thought among his officers by frankly seeking critical contributions for a new service journal, and by putting various opportunities for individual enterprise in their way.

In the midst of these invaluable if slightly uncongenial administrative activities, Sir John French was brought to a tragic standstill. A political intrigue cut across his soldier's life, and ended its usefulness for the time being. At this early date it is extremely difficult to disentangle the rights and wrongs of the Gough incident. But there is no need to enter into the political aspect of the case here. Suffice it to deplore the sticky mess of party politics which threatened to gulf a great career.


In the month of March the Government believed that they had serious reason to expect disturbance in Ireland. Accordingly, General Sir Arthur Paget was summoned to the War Office to consult his military chiefs. Apparently, General Paget was instructed—so far as can be gathered in the absence of documentary evidence—to lay before his officers a certain choice of action. He accordingly called a meeting of his officers, whom he informed that "Active operations were to be begun against Ulster; that he expected the country to be in a blaze by Saturday (March 21); and that he was instructed by the War Office to allow officers domiciled in Ulster to disappear, but as regards others that any who resigned would be dismissed." The officers were given two hours to make their decision. Out of a total of 72 officers in the Brigade, 59 "would, respectfully, and under protest," prefer to be dismissed, while five claimed exemption on the ground of being domiciled in Ulster.

A few days later it was explained on behalf of the Government that no operations were intended against Ulster, and that through "an honest misunderstanding" General Paget had misinterpreted his instructions. Brigadier-General Gough was therefore asked to return to his command, finally obtaining a written undertaking, signed by the Secretary of State for War, that the troops would not be used in Ulster. In addition to Colonel Seely's signature, that of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Sir John French) and of the Adjutant-General (Sir J.S. Ewart) appeared on the memorandum.

Now it transpired that two important paragraphs of the memorandum were written by Colonel Seely, but presumably they were not sanctioned by the Cabinet. The paragraphs in question ran: "His Majesty's Government must retain their right to use all the forces of the Crown in Ireland, or elsewhere, to maintain law and order, and to support the Civil Power in the ordinary execution of its duty.

"But they had no intention whatever of taking advantage of this right to crush political opposition to the policy or principles of the Home Rule Bill."

As they stand these two paragraphs are a trifle ambiguous. The fact apparently occurred to General Gough. For he asked Sir John French explicitly whether they could be taken to mean that he could not be called upon to order his brigade to take part in the coercion of Ulster to the Home Rule Bill. Sir John French wrote across the note that this was his belief. On the strength of this General Gough returned to his command.


When the facts of the case were known, the Government were severely criticised by the Labour and the Nationalist parties. In replying to these criticisms, on Wednesday, this pledge was declared to be "not operative." As the result, Colonel Seely, who had signed the assurance, threatened resignation. On Friday, March 26, it was known that both Sir John French and Sir J.S. Ewart had resigned their positions. Every effort was made to induce these distinguished officers to reconsider their decision, but without avail. To remain in office would mean repudiating their pledged word. To this course no possible pressure could induce Sir John French to agree. He persisted in his resignation: and the Prime Minister solved a very dangerous situation by himself taking up the office of Minister of War, which Colonel Seely had now resigned.

So Sir John French went for a second time into retirement. Nothing less could be expected of one whose views on discipline are so extremely strict and whose ideals of loyalty are notoriously so high. To have remained in office would have been to impair the authority of the Imperial General Staff, quite apart from failing in loyalty to a pledged word. For all these reasons Sir John French chose eclipse rather than dishonour.

Unquestionably he viewed the impasse purely from the military point of view. His dislike of anything like politics in the army is well known. Mr. Asquith's famous dictum on taking up the office of Secretary for War is an echo of General French's invariable advice to his officers—"You will hear no politics from me, and I expect to hear none from you."

What his attitude towards the officers at the Curragh was in the first instance, is a matter of mere surmise. It has been said that he would personally have dealt very sharply with those concerned. But such statements obviously lack authority. Sir John French is much too discreet an officer to babble his views abroad on such a point. All we know is that at the time he strongly deprecated politics in the army in several speeches of considerable force. A psychological problem in army feeling was closely bound up with the issue. It is enough to emphasise the fact that Sir John French is himself no politician and did what he did because his honour demanded nothing less.

[Page Heading: A HOLIDAY]

For four months the most energetic man in the Army was able to rusticate. Actually nothing ever fell out more happily than this enforced holiday. His duties during the past few years had necessarily been extremely exhausting. He had rarely had time for the rest and relaxation that make for physical and mental freshness. Now he gave himself to the walking, the riding and the yachting he so keenly enjoys, and so rarely indulges in. For the General has, at least, taken the love of the water from his otherwise tedious days in the Navy. He is an expert yachtsman and has explored a large part of the British coast at one time or another. Riding and hunting are, however, the only sports he now takes very seriously. He rides a great deal during his busiest days at home, running down from London to the Manor at Waltham Cross for the purpose when occasion permits.

Until the beginning of August, Sir John French was able to revel in his new found freedom. When the call came, it found him feeling better and fitter than he had done for years. Perhaps even political intrigue serves a purpose in the game of the War Gods.



The Lessons of the Boer War—Cavalry v. Mounted Infantry—A Plea for the Lance—The Cavalry Spirit—Shock Tactics still Useful.

It does not necessarily follow that because a man is a great cavalry leader, he therefore has ideas on the subject of cavalry. To the popular mind cavalry suggests clouds of dust and a clatter of hoofs, the flashing of swords, followed by the crash and sound of an engagement. The man who would conduct this imagined spectacle satisfactorily would therefore be dependent rather on the timely uprush of the spirit than on the mechanical certainty of the mind. He would need to act by inspiration and impulse, rather than by cold thought. Quite obviously some other and less resplendent being would have to time the rise of his curtain in the theatre of war. He would be the last man whom one would figure, like Kipling's successful General, "worrying himself bald" over a map and compasses.


But the popular version does less than justice to the modern cavalry leader in general and to French in particular. We have seen him as a subaltern poring over his books before his colleagues were out of bed. We have seen him varying the monotony of War Office administration by solving problems in tactics. Indubitably he is a student: incidentally he is an innovator. This fact of mental duality raises him in a moment out of the ruck of mere cavalry experts—of both sorts. On the one hand he is not a competent machine working out other people's ideas in the field of battle: on the other he is no blundering theorist whose ideas crumple into ineffectual dust under the stress of actual warfare. He can carry out with the ardour of the soldier the schemes which he has formulated with the cold cunning of the strategist. It is difficult indeed to say in which field of cavalry work he more greatly excels—that of theory or practice. We shall see later that he possesses qualities altogether apart from those of the theoriser or the man of action. Suffice it now to glance at the astonishingly complete theory of cavalry on which his marvellous execution is founded.

One reaches the bedrock of French's curiously sane conception of war when one asks him to define war. In dealing with those gentlemen who tell us that the Boer War was fought under such abnormal conditions that it is useless as a ground-work for conclusions as to future wars, he uttered a memorable retort. "All wars are abnormal," he observed, "because there is no such thing as normal war."[16] There we have one of the axioms both of his theory and of his practice. There can be no fixed conditions, and so there can be no final theories as to the conduct of warfare. Theory is simply a means to an end. And the successful general is he who most ably adapts the general body of theory suitable for all cases to the particular campaign on which he is engaged.

[Page Heading: A VEXED QUESTION]

Broadly, however, French has very clearly defined what he considers to be the use and the abuse of cavalry. After the Boer War, as is well known, opinion on the subject of the future of the mounted arm was bitterly divided. There were those who saw in French's success a justification for the cavalrymen of the old school, armed cap a pie. There were others who, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, saw the end of their day approaching. The author of The Great Boer War says of the charge before Kimberley: "It appears to have been one of the very few occasions during the campaign when that obsolete and absurd weapon the sword was anything but a dead weight to its bearer." And again: "The war has been a cruel one for the cavalry.... It is difficult to say that cavalry, as cavalry, have justified their existence. In the opinion of many the tendency of the future will be to convert the whole forces into mounted infantry.... A little training in taking cover, leggings instead of boots, and a rifle instead of a carbine, would give us a formidable force of 20,000 men who could do all that our cavalry does, and a great deal more besides.... The lesson both of the South African and of the American Civil War is that the light horseman who is trained to fight on foot is the type of the future."[17] This is the opinion of a very competent civilian who deeply studied the South African campaign. But it is the opinion of a civilian.

On the other hand many experts, most of them military men, insist that the day of shock tactics is far from done. They instance the charge before Kimberley as a case in point. Obviously all the elements of disaster were there. Only a brilliant use of the traditional cavalry attack saved the situation—and Kimberley. Situations of that sort are bound to arise again. How is the mounted infantryman, lacking the elan and spirit of the cavalryman, to meet the situation?

[Page Heading: TOO MUCH CAUTION]

French takes an attitude somewhat midway between these two extremes. He, of all men, has developed cavalry most successfully on what might be called mounted infantry lines. That is to say, he has taught his men to fight on foot, to take cover at every opportunity, and to master the whole art of reconnaissance. But at the same time, he objects to extremist[18] views as to the abolition of the cavalry spirit. "One or two distinguished foreign soldiers who have publicly commented upon that campaign have said that what is termed the 'Cavalry Spirit' is opposed to the idea of dismounted action. They hold that the cavalry disdain to dismount, and they see in riding the end instead of the means. They consider that events in the Far East teach us that we must render our cavalry less devoted to 'manoeuvres' and to 'tournaments,' in order to enable them to fit themselves to take part in modern fighting; that the times have come when the methods of warfare should be changed; and that the cavalry must determine to defeat the enemy by dismounted action entirely.

"I cannot speak with any certainty as to what has happened in European Armies, but as regards the British Cavalry, I am absolutely convinced that the Cavalry Spirit is, and may be encouraged to the utmost, without in the least degree prejudicing either training in dismounted duties or the acquirement of such tactical knowledge on the part of leaders as will enable them to discern when and where to resort to dismounted methods.

"How, I ask, can the Cavalry perform its role in war until the enemy's Cavalry is defeated and paralysed? I challenge any Cavalry officer, British or foreign, to deny the principle that Cavalry, acting as such against its own Arm, can never attain complete success unless it is proficient in shock tactics.

"Cavalry soldiers must, of course, learn to be expert rifle shots, but the attainment of this desirable object will be brought no nearer by ignoring the horse, the sword or the lance. On the contrary, the elan and dash which perfection in Cavalry manoeuvres imparts to large bodies of horsemen will be of inestimable value in their employment as mounted rifle-men when the field is laid open to their enterprise in this role by the defeat of the hostile Cavalry. That the Cavalry on both sides in the recent war did not distinguish themselves or their Arm, is an undoubted fact, but the reason is quite apparent. On the Japanese side they were indifferently mounted, the riding was not good, and they were very inferior in numbers, and hence were only enabled to fulfil generally the role of Divisional Cavalry, which they appear to have done very well. The cause of failure on the Russian side is to be found in the fact that for years they have been trained on exactly the same principles which these writers now advocate. They were devoid of real Cavalry training, they thought of nothing but getting off their horses and shooting; hence they lamentably failed in enterprises which demanded, before all, a display of the highest form of Cavalry spirit."

On the other hand Sir John French protests against the tendency to ultra-caution in handling cavalry at manoeuvres. The cavalry charge is always a risk. The risk taken by the Field-Marshal, for instance, when he ordered the famous charge which won him the way to Kimberley, would certainly have been regarded as fatal at official manoeuvres. It is absurd, he insists, that the umpires should call on cavalry to surrender the moment that they come face to face with an infantry fire. Such a moment may be the cavalry's great opportunity.

[Page Heading: VIEWS ON CAVALRY]

Many of the modern armies, he holds, are suffering from cavalry without confidence. And there is abundant evidence to justify the charge. Bernhardi has pointed out that the phenomenal successes of the German cavalry in the war of 1870-1 were due not to its own extraordinary valour, but to the absence of opposition on the part of the French. Von Moltke made a similar criticism (which Sir John French approves) on the Prussian cavalry after the war of 1866. "Our cavalry failed," he wrote, "perhaps not so much in actual capacity as in self-confidence. All its initiative had been destroyed at manoeuvres, where criticism and blame had been almost synonymous, and it therefore shirked independent bold action, and kept far in the rear, and as much as possible out of sight."

French, in fact, is convinced that the "cavalry battle" is by no means a thing of the past. Until the enemy's cavalry is overthrown, the work of the mounted infantryman cannot begin. So long as opposing countries train efficient cavalry, the clash of the rival horsemen is the inevitable preliminary of any campaign.

At the same time his views on the specialisation of training are far from extreme. The cavalry spirit must be encouraged: but it must not be permitted to overshadow that wider camaraderie which is the Army spirit. "It is not only possible but necessary," he says, "to preach the Army spirit, or, in other words, the close comradeship of all arms in battle, and at the same time to develop the highest qualities and the special attributes of each branch. The particular spirit which we seek to encourage is different for each arm. Were we to seek to endow cavalry with the tenacity and stiffness of infantry, or to take from the mounted arm the mobility and the cult of the offensive which are the breath of its life, we should ruin not only the cavalry, but the Army besides. Those who scoff at the spirit, whether of cavalry, of artillery, or of infantry, are people who have had no practical experience of the actual training of troops in peace, or of the personal leadership in war. Such men are blind guides indeed."[19]

For cavalry, then, Sir John French sees a brilliant future. "The opinion which I hold and have often expressed is that the true role of cavalry on the battlefield is to reconnoitre, to deceive and to support. If the enemy's cavalry has been overthrown, the role of reconnaissance will have been rendered easier. In the roles of deception and support, such an immense and fruitful field of usefulness and enterprise is laid open to a cavalry division which has thought out and practised these roles in its peace training, and is accustomed to act in large bodies dismounted, that I cannot bring myself to believe that any equivalent for such manifest advantages can be found even in the most successful raid against the enemy's communications by mounted troops."[20]


How brilliantly Sir John French trained his men to accomplish these multiple activities, recent history has shown. We may note in passing, however, that mechanics have now divested the cavalry of one of their chief functions. The aeroplane is now the eye of the army and the strategical role of the cavalry is no more. The mounted arm will almost certainly now be confined to screening operations and to shock tactics, after the opposing armies have come into touch with one another. History, therefore, has obviously justified Sir John French in his championship of the cavalry spirit. Without it his horsemen would have been no match for the German cavalry. Thanks to their training, they "went through the Uhlans like brown paper" in General Sir Philip Chetwode's historic phrase.


[16] Sir John French's Preface to Cavalry by General von Bernhardi. By permission of Messrs. Hugh Rees, Ltd., and Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton.

[17] The Great Boer War, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By permission of Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co.

[18] Sir John French's Preface to Cavalry in Future Wars, by General von Bernhardi. By permission of Mr. John Murray.

[19] From Sir John French's Introduction to Cavalry, by General F. von Bernhardi, by permission of Mr. Hugh Rees and Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton.

[20] From Sir John French's Introduction to Cavalry, by General F. von Bernhardi, by permission of Mr. Hugh Rees and Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton.



Europe's Need—The Plight of France—A Delicate Situation—The Man of "Grip"—A Magnificent Retreat.

On August 4, Great Britain woke up to find herself engaged in one of the most terrific contests in history. Out of an assassination at Serajevo had sprung a European war. In demanding apologies for the death of its Archduke, Austria-Hungary, with the connivance of Germany, refused to be conciliated with the most adequate apologies offered by Servia. The result was a protest from Russia, which would doubtless have allayed the situation, but for the aggressive attitude dictated to Vienna from Berlin. In the sequel Great Britain found herself arrayed with Russia and France against the Austro-Germanic forces.

The question arose as to who should lead the English expeditionary force so sorely needed to stem the tide of the German legions as it rolled over an outraged Belgium and an unprepared France. There was never any doubt as to whom the great task should be entrusted. Sir John French was obviously the man for the task.

[Page Heading: A CAPABLE STAFF]

Fate pointed to him not only as the greatest active military leader in this country, but as the one man possessing the peculiar qualities called for in this campaign. There may be more brilliant intellects in the army, but there is no other such leader of men. This campaign was bound to be a long, a hazardous and a delicate enterprise. It called for a man of extraordinary grip and pertinacity of purpose. These qualities French possesses to a marked degree. He has also the power of sensing ability in other men. In South Africa he was able to surround himself with one of the ablest General Staffs in Europe. French's extraordinary rapidity of thought, his lightning decisions, and his masterly grip of the most complex situation, allied with lieutenants competent to undertake the most difficult operations which he may suggest, provides a combination probably unequalled in history.

In another respect French is peculiarly suited to the onerous task imposed upon him. His innate sense of loyalty makes him a colleague of rare qualities. On the face of it the British commander's position called for very great tact. It was delicate almost to a distressing degree. Allied commanders have always to struggle with the teasing element of friction. Sir John French eliminated that at the outset. Even more difficult was the problem of seniority. General Joffre, who is French's superior, is his inferior in rank, not being a Field-Marshal. Here was a situation teeming with difficulties. The slightest clumsiness on the British Commander's part would have caused a crisis. There were no crises, because French is a diplomatist as well as a soldier.

No sooner had the British army fairly landed on French soil than it was faced with the worst trial of war—a prolonged and perilous retreat before overwhelming odds. But Sir John French knew all that was to be known of the scientific retreat. Had he not seen it thirty years ago on an Egyptian desert, and practised its every form time and again on the African veldt? In four days the British force covered 60 miles in orderly and aggressive retreat, without once giving way to confusion or disorder. The men who had been with French in South Africa, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and General Sir Douglas Haig, had the situation in hand from the first. The retreat was a triumph for the British army, and particularly for the cavalry which French had trained. Nor was its route that desired by the German Headquarters Staff. Through the vigour of his cavalry charges, French was able to dictate his own line of retreat. He had held his position long enough to save the French left wing; and he had retreated in order before a force five times that of his own.


French's old South African commander, Lord Roberts, was particularly struck by the retreat from Mons. He expressed his admiration in the following remarkable letter to Lady French:

12 Sept., 1914.


I write these few lines to tell you how much I admire your husband's Dispatch, and how proud I am of the splendid work done by the troops under his command. When the whole story of the war comes to be known, the masterly way in which the Retreat from Mons—under vastly superior numbers—was carried out, will be remembered as one of the finest military exploits ever achieved....[21]

I trust you will continue to get good news of Sir John, and that you are keeping well yourself. With kindest regards, in which Lady Roberts and my daughters join,

Believe me, Yours sincerely, (Signed) ROBERTS, (F.-M.).

That was only the first chapter in the story of his new achievements. The authentic history of his latest successes remains to be written. The French, however, were not wrong in dubbing the British Field-Marshal "the modern Marlborough." For French belongs to the same dogged, cautious school as Marlborough and Wellington. His genius is one of those which include an infinite capacity for taking pains. Indeed his thoroughness is more than Teutonic. In this war, French has, so far, found no Napoleon to fight. It is, indeed, questionable whether the Germans have a commander of his excellence on the field. But the preparations of the German Headquarters Staff may be admitted to be Napoleonic in their elaborate and far-seeing perfection. Yet time and again, as in the Napoleonic wars, they have gone down before a British General who unites the dash of von Roon with the caution and the prescience of Moltke.


[21] Published by courtesy of Lady French and Earl Roberts.



A Typical Englishman—Fighting at School—Napoleon Worship—"A Great Reporter"—Halting Speeches and Polished Prose. A South African Coincidence—Mrs. Despard and the Newsboy—The Happy Warrior.

So far, this book has necessarily been chiefly a record of events. That was inevitable, for the man of action writes his story in deeds. Nor was there ever a great soldier who made less clamour in the world of newspapers than General French. He has never adopted the studied reticence of Kitchener nor yet the chill aloofness of certain of his colleagues. War correspondents are not anathema to him; neither does he shudder at the sight of the reporter's pencil. Yet, somehow, few anecdotes cluster round his name.

Perhaps that is because his modesty is not a pose, although it has become almost a tradition. It is simply a natural trait in a modest and rather retiring disposition. French simply will not be talked about—and there is an end of the matter.

If one were asked to describe the man, one might best answer that he is the Englishman to the nth. degree. It is usual to find that the man of extraordinary merit is in some degree a contrast with and a criticism of the mere average mortal of his set. The dour urbanity of Kitchener, for instance, is Oriental rather than English, and contrasts strangely with the choleric tradition of the army officer. So the infinite alertness and constant good humour of Roberts has a quality of Latin esprit very foreign to the English temperament. But there are no such peculiarities about French. He is the very essence of healthy normality.

Yet, although of Celtic descent, he is essentially English. He has not hacked his way to fame in the manner of the Scot, nor has he leapt upon her pedestal with the boisterous humour of the Irishman. He has got there in the dogged but sporting English way, taking Fortune's gifts when they came, but never pushing or scrambling for them when they were out of reach.

One catches the spirit of the man in the schoolboy. When he first went to school at Harrow, the boys, knowing that sisters had been responsible for his education, were prepared to take it out of him. But as French was ready to fight at the slightest provocation, and equally ready to swear eternal friendship when the fight was done, he quickly won his way through respect to popularity.


Despite this quality, the steadfast object of his admiration has been one of the most abnormal and theatrical figures in history—Napoleon. It is, however, Napoleon the soldier and not the personality that has attracted French, who, by the way, possesses a wonderful collection of Napoleonic relics. He sees Napoleon as the greatest strategist the world has known. As such the Corsican claims his unstinted admiration: but there his admiration stops. For French is altogether humane. There is nothing of the iron heel about either his methods or his manners. His extreme parsimony of life we have seen as the cause of the only criticism which has ever been levelled against him.

By a strange coincidence, however, his worship of Napoleon has proved itself invaluable in an unexpected way. In following Napoleon's campaigns out in detail, French had traversed every inch of Waterloo, and much of the Belgian battle-ground in the European war. There can be little doubt that the success of some of his work has been due to his detailed knowledge of the scene of operations.

Inevitably, perhaps, French suggests Napoleon in certain subtle traits of character rather than in personality. His rapidity of thought, for instance, has probably rarely been equalled, since Napoleon set Europe by the ears. An officer under his command in South Africa, has recorded how, day after day, for weeks on end, French would answer the most intricate questions on policy and tactics over the telephone with scarcely a moment's delay. Such inhuman speed and accuracy of decision link French with the greatest commanders of history.

There is just a suggestion of Napoleon too, in his habitual attitudes. He usually stands with legs wide apart and arms folded either across his chest or clasped behind his back. But the perfect cheerfulness of his smile banishes any fear of Corsican churlishness of manner. It is very certain that French is not feared by his staff: he is worshipped by them. The reason for that is not far to seek. Although his temper is irascible, it is not enduring. Often it will flash out in wrathful words, but the storm is quickly over. Men of this choleric temper are always beloved, for good humour inevitably underlies the ebullitions of so light a rage. They never nurse hatreds nor brood over trifles. Also they are healthily impervious to the wiles of flattery or the snare of favouritism. There is nothing of the jealous and erratic genius about French. To read his dispatches is to find praise lavishly given to subordinates but no mention of self. For he looks after his assistants and leaves his own record to fate. He has, indeed, mastered the art of being great enough to allow others to be great. Hence the excellence which always marks his General Staff.

[Page Heading: THE SOLDIERS' IDOL]

Such qualities must inevitably endear a General to his officers, to the men who have to bear the brunt of their Chief's personality. But do they appeal to the private? Both Napoleon and Wellington indubitably took immense pains to surround themselves with a shroud of mystery. Under their dark mantles, the ranks must feel, lay buried the talisman of success. We know that his officers found "the sight of Wellington's long nose on a frosty morning worth another ten thousand men" to them. Sir John French has cultivated neither a nose, nor a frown, nor even a chin. How does he manage to be the idol of his men? it may be asked. Simply and solely by being himself. Without any of the meretricious arts of the personality-monger, he has impressed his personality on the troops in a most memorable way. This is largely due to the impression of quiet confidence which he always gives. You feel you are safe with French. Nothing, you know, will ever upset the cool sanity of his reasoning, the balanced decision of his judgments. This impression of certainly is strengthened by the distinctly masterful carriage of the man. His short, stocky figure, like General Grant's, suggests that fatigue is unknown to him. This is indeed the case. The story has often been told of how the General and his staff once decided, after an exhausting day, to spend the night in a lonely farm in South Africa. The house only boasted one bed, which was of course, reserved for the General. But French insisted on a tired member of his staff occupying the solitary mattress, and wrapping himself up in a rug, went contentedly to sleep on the floor.

His mind is as tireless as his body. The operations round Colesberg could only have been undertaken in their complicated entirety by a General who did not know what mental fatigue meant. This physical and mental fitness French has most carefully studied to preserve. At one time, several years ago, he feared a tendency to avoirdupois, and instantly undertook a stern but successful bulk-reducing regimen. Apropos the regimen there is a story. Just before the present war, a bulky package was one day delivered to him at his club. French opened it negligently, expecting to discover the inevitable knick-knack of doubtful utility. But this was not the usual gift. It was a package of weight-reducing preparations.


French's mind, however, is original as well as tireless. Just there lies the unique quality of his gifts. The art of war is necessarily one of the most highly systematised and therefore the most hide-bound in the world. No man is more perilously in danger of having his mind swathed in red tape and numbed by discipline than the soldier. In modern times the tendency to employ masses has not lessened the tendency to stereotype habits of thought. The danger of the mechanical soldier is stressed by no one more forcibly than by General von Bernhardi. He holds that a self-reliant personality is as essential as a profound knowledge of generalship to the modern commander. French possesses both. Although profoundly versed in all the doctrines of the schoolmen, he is never afraid to jump over the traces where they would lead to a precipice. He has never been hampered, as so many soldiers are, by his studies. Knowledge he has always used as a means to an end, which is its proper vocation. To this independence of mind, as to nothing else, may be attributed his phenomenal success amid the abnormal conditions of Boer warfare. Where the books end, French's active mind begins to construct its own "way out" of the corner.

The Boers were indeed the first to admit his superiority to the other English officers, if not to themselves. De Wet was once asked in the early stages of the war how long he expected to avoid capture. He replied, with a smile, that it all depended on which General was dispatched to run him down. When a certain name was mentioned, the reply was "Till eternity." General B—— was next mentioned. "About two years," was the verdict. "And General French?" "Two weeks," admitted De Wet.

French has, of course, never accepted social life in this country on its face value. The young officer who was studying when his friends were at polo or tennis, was under no illusions as to the havoc which an over-accentuation of the sporting and social side of life was playing with the officers' work. Nowadays, like Kitchener, he is bent on producing the professional and weeding out the "drawing-room" soldier. No wonder that his favourite authors are those acutest critics of English social life and English foibles, Dickens and Thackeray. The former's "Bleak House" and the latter's "Book of Snobs" are the two books he places first in his affections.

[Page Heading: A GREAT REPORTER]

He is himself a writer of parts. We are, ourselves, so close to the event he describes, that we are perhaps unable to appreciate the literary excellence of the despatches which French has sent us on the operations in France. A Chicago paper hails him, however, as "a great reporter." "No one can read his reports," the writer remarks, "without being struck with his weighty lucidity, his calm mastery of the important facts, the total absence of any attempt at 'effect,' and the remarkably suggestive bits of pertinent description."

Undoubtedly, the Americans are right—provided that these dispatches were actually penned by the General himself.

His speeches may be obvious and even trite; his letters may lack any flavour of personality; but these dispatches are literature. Like his hero Napoleon, like Caesar and Wellington, Sir John French has forged a literary style for himself. There is nothing amateurish or journalistic about his communications from the front. The dispatch from Mons, for instance, is a masterpiece of lucid and incisive English. It might well be printed in our school-histories, not merely as a vivid historic document, but as a model of English prose.

Not that Sir John French's style is an accident. Like most of the other successes of his career, it is the result of design. The man who laboriously "crammed" tactics laboured equally hard over the art of writing. The many prefaces which he has written to famous books on strategy and war bear traces of the most careful preparation.

Apart from his dispatches, however, French has written some virile, telling English in his prefaces to several books on cavalry and on military history. The most interesting is that which he wrote for Captain Frederick von Herbert's The Defence of Plevna. He prefaces it with a dramatic little coincidence of war capitally told. "During the last year of the South African War, while directing the operations in Cape Colony, I found myself, late one afternoon in February, 1902, at the north end of the railway bridge over the Orange River at Bethulie, strangely attracted by the appearance of a well-constructed and cleverly hidden covered field work, which formed an important part of the 'Bridge head.' Being somewhat pressed for time I rode on and directed my aide-de-camp to go down into the fort, look round it, and then catch me up. He shortly overtook me with an urgent request to return and inspect it myself. I did so, and was very much struck, not only with the construction of the work and its excellent siting, but also with all the defence arrangements at that point of the river. Whilst I was in the fort the officer in charge arrived and reported himself. Expressing my strong approval of all I had seen, I remarked that it brought back to my mind a book I had read and re-read, and indeed studied with great care and assiduity—a book called The Defence of Plevna, by a certain Lieutenant von Herbert, whom, to my regret, I had never met. 'I am von Herbert, and I wrote the book you speak of,' was the reply of the officer to whom I spoke."[22]

[Page Heading: OSMAN PASHA]

Osman Pasha was a soldier after French's own heart. Indeed, his tenacity was probably equal to that of his critic. Hence this fine tribute: "The great soldier who defended Plevna refused to acknowledge such a word as defeat. When things were at their worst his outward demeanour was calmest and most confident. There was no hysterical shrieking for supports or reinforcements. These might have reached him, but through treacherous jealousy he was betrayed and left to his own resources. In spite of this no thought of capitulation or retreat ever entered the mind of Osman Pasha...."[23] What a wonderful little cameo of courage!

One wonders whether the school-boy who sent French the following letter on his return from South Africa knew the quality of his writing.

"MY DEAR FRENCH,—You are a great British General. I want your autograph, but, whatever you do, don't let your secretary write it."

I have said that Sir John French is the average Englishman in an accentuated degree. How then does he regard war? If the plain truth be told, we are not at heart a martial nation. We have made war when we have been compelled to it by the threat of an Armada or the menace of a Napoleon. But we have not cultivated war, at least since our wode days, as a pastime and a profession. Nor is French that abnormal being, an Englishman governed by the blood lust. Mrs. Despard has said that in reality he regards war as a hideous outrage. He has no delusions as to the glory of war. By no chance could he be ranked among the romanticist of the battlefield. That, perhaps, is why he never is, never has been, ruthless or remorseless with the men whom he commands.


If ever French had cause for anger, it was over the unlucky incident of the Suffolks, the one failure unwarrantably attributed to his ever victorious arms. Yet he was the one officer who softened the bitterness of that reverse to the men. He met the regiment in the Transvaal just eight months after the disaster. His speech to the troops, as reported in at least one paper, is well worthy of preservation. After referring to his pleasure in meeting them all again, he said: "What you did at Colesberg is still fresh in my recollection ... but what I wish especially to recall is the sad event of the night of January 5th and 6th, and to express my sympathy with you on the loss of your gallant leader, Colonel Watson, who on that night showed splendid qualities as a noble and able officer. Now, it has come to my knowledge that there has been spread about an idea that that event cast discredit of some sort upon this gallant regiment. I want you all to banish any such thought from your minds as utterly untrue. You took part ... in a night operation of extreme difficulty on a pitch dark night, and did all in your power to make it a success. So do not let any false idea get into your minds. Think rather that what took place brings honour to your regiment, and add this event to the long list of honours it has won in the past. I want you all to bear in mind about such night operations, that they can never be a certain success, and because they sometimes fail it does not, therefore, bring discredit on those who attempted to carry them out. You must remember that, if we always waited for an opportunity of certain success, we should do nothing at all, and that in war, fighting a brave enemy, it is absolutely impossible to be always sure of success: all we can do is to try our very best to secure success—and that you did on the occasion I am speaking of. I thank you for that and all the good work you have done since, and remember above all that no slur whatever attaches to your regiment for the result of that occasion."

With these finely sympathetic words might be placed French's speech to his troops before the battle of Elandslaagte. "Men," he said, "you are going to oppose two thousand or three thousand Dutch. We want to keep up our honour as we did in the olden time—as soldiers and men, we want to take that position before sunset."

[Page Heading: FRENCH AND HIS MEN]

In that single phrase, "as soldiers and men," one has the key to French's popularity with the ranks. He treats the men as human beings and not as machines. In other words, he understands the British soldier through and through. Mrs. Despard has told a touching little story of the affection which he inspires in his men. She was returning home one evening when she was surprised by a question as she stopped to buy the customary evening paper. "Are you Mrs. Despard, General French's sister?" asked the ragged wretch. She admitted that claim to distinction. The man then told her, with much enthusiasm, how when working with a battery in a very hot corner during the South African war, he had seen the General ride over to cheer them up. "Now, hi don't care 'oo that man is, and I don't care 'oo I am, I love that man," he said rather huskily. Mrs. Despard has told how she forgot her paper that night in shaking the ex-soldier's hand.

For this tact in dealing with his men, Sir John French has largely to thank the vein of acute sensibility which runs through his character. This sensibility can be traced in his mouth, which is remarkably finely chiselled. We have seen it in his childhood, when he shrank from some of the usual noisiness of boyhood. And Mrs. Despard has crystallised it in a phrase. Feeling depressed on one occasion before addressing a meeting on some reforms which she considered urgent, she confessed to her brother that she was spiritually afraid. "Why," he replied, "don't worry, I've never yet done anything worth doing without having to screw myself up to it." French, very obviously, is a man for whom spiritual doubt may have its terrors. One cannot figure him as harbouring the narrow if sincere religion of a Kitchener or a Gordon.

One might sum him up as the beau-ideal, not only of the cavalry spirit, but of the scientific soldier. He can lead a cavalry charge with the dash of a Hotspur: and he can plan out a campaign with the masterly logic of a Marlborough. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he has attained extraordinary mastery over the science of war without himself becoming a scientific machine. In many ways he bears, in character and temperament, a striking resemblance to his colleague in arms—General Joffre. Although Joffre is three inches taller than French—he is five foot nine—he is otherwise very similar in appearance. There is the same short, powerful physique, the narrow neck surmounted by a massive head and heavy jaw, and the same broad forehead, with masterful eyes peeping from beneath bushy eyebrows. Neither of these men on whom hangs Europe's destiny is in the least degree strident or self-assertive. Indeed, both tend to be listeners rather than talkers. Both have the same trick of making instantaneous decisions. Both scorn to be merely "smart" in outward appearance; both are devoted to efficiency in detail; and, most suggestive of all, each finds himself eternally compared to General Grant! Probably the latter's dogged personality forms the best possible common denominator for these two remarkable men.

[Page Heading: AN OPPORTUNITY]

It is said that when news of the war in South Africa reached French, momentarily obeying a natural impulse, he waved his hand and cried, "Hurrah for South Africa." If anyone had any right to thank Heaven for that particular campaign, it was certainly French. But he would have "hurrahed" any campaign that gave opportunity for his powers. After all, the soldier's stage is the battlefield. Without wars he is without an active role, and must spend his years drudging in the rehearsal theatre of the Colonies. If he be so original and so thorough a soldier as French, his abilities will be at an even graver discount. For the rehearsal is not the play; and the best Generals, like the ablest actors, are notoriously weak at rehearsal, which does not pluck fully at their energies. Probably French would have hurrahed for South Africa, however, had he had no special abilities at all. For nowhere is he happier than on the battlefield. If the grisly game of war must be played, French plays it with all his heart. It is the game which destiny put him on the stage to play; the game which he has devoted his life to mastering; and the only game in which he has ever seriously interested himself.

Luck invariably follows the man who is utterly absorbed in his profession, for the simply reason that, being always engrossed in his work, he is always alive to his opportunities. French's luck consists solely in the fact that he happens to be a soldier. Men of Kitchener's organising genius may be many things; in nothing, not even in the arts, are they likely to seriously fail. But French is a soldier in the sense quite other than Kitchener. He is a man made for the endurance of hardship and for the facing of hard practical difficulties in the field. It is as natural for him to conduct a campaign as it was for Pope to "lisp in numbers, for the numbers came." He is the Happy Warrior in being.



[22] From Sir John French's Preface to The Defence of Plevna, by Capt. Frederick von Herbert, by permission of Messrs. Smith, Elder.

[23] From Sir John French's Preface to The Defence of Plevna, by Capt. Frederick von Herbert, by permission of Messrs. Smith, Elder.



To the Secretary of State for War

September 7, 1914.


I have the honour to report the proceedings of the Field Force under my command up to the time of rendering this despatch.

1. The transport of the troops from England both by sea and by rail was effected in the best order and without a check. Each unit arrived at its destination in this country well within the scheduled time.

The concentration was practically complete on the evening of Friday, the 21st ultimo, and I was able to make dispositions to move the Force during Saturday, the 22nd, to positions I considered most favourable from which to commence operations which the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, requested me to undertake in pursuance of his plans in prosecution of the campaign.

The line taken up extended along the line of the canal from Conde on the west, through Mons and Binche on the east. This line was taken up as follows:—

From Conde to Mons inclusive was assigned to the 2nd Corps, and to the right of the 2nd Corps from Mons the 1st Corps was posted. The 5th Cavalry Brigade was placed at Binche.

In the absence of my 3rd Army Corps I desired to keep the Cavalry Division as much as possible as a reserve to act on my outer flank, or move in support of any threatened part of the line. The forward reconnaissance was entrusted to Brigadier-General Sir Philip Chetwode with the 5th Cavalry Brigade, but I directed General Allenby to send forward a few squadrons to assist in this work.

During August 22 and 23 these advanced squadrons did some excellent work, some of them penetrating as far as Soignies, and several encounters took place in which our troops showed to great advantage.

2. At 6 a.m. on August 23 I assembled the Commanders of the 1st and 2nd Corps and Cavalry Division at a point close to the position, and explained the general situation of the Allies, and what I understood to be General Joffre's plan. I discussed with them at some length the immediate situation in front of us.

From information I received from French Headquarters I understood that little more than one, or at most two, of the enemy's Army Corps, with perhaps one Cavalry Division, were in front of my position; and I was aware of no attempted outflanking movement by the enemy. I was confirmed in this opinion by the fact that my patrols encountered no undue opposition in their reconnoitring operations. The observation of my aeroplanes seemed also to bear out this estimate.

About 3 p.m. on Sunday, the 23rd, reports began coming in to the effect that the enemy was commencing an attack on the Mons line, apparently in some strength, but that the right of the position from Mons and Bray was being particularly threatened.

The Commander of the 1st Corps had pushed his flank back to some high ground south of Bray, and the 5th Cavalry Brigade evacuated Binche, moving slightly south; the enemy thereupon occupied Binche.

The right of the 3rd Division, under General Hamilton, was at Mons, which formed a somewhat dangerous salient; and I directed the Commander of the 2nd Corps to be careful not to keep the troops on this salient too long, but, if threatened seriously, to draw back the centre behind Mons. This was done before dark. In the meantime, about 5 p.m., I received a most unexpected message from General Joffre by telegraph, telling me that at least three German Corps, viz., a reserve corps, the 4th Corps and the 9th Corps, were moving on my position in front, and that the 2nd Corps was engaged in a turning movement from the direction of Tournay. He also informed me that the two reserve French divisions and the 5th French Army on my right were retiring, the Germans having on the previous day gained possession of the passages of the Sambre between Charleroi and Namur.

3. In view of the possibility of my being driven from the Mons position, I had previously ordered a position in rear to be reconnoitred. This position rested on the fortress of Maubeuge on the right and extended west to Jenlain, south-east of Valenciennes, on the left. The position was reported difficult to hold, because standing crops and buildings made the siting of trenches very difficult and limited the field of fire in many important localities. It nevertheless afforded a few good artillery positions.

When the news of the retirement of the French and the heavy German threatening on my front reached me, I endeavoured to confirm it by aeroplane reconnaissance; and as a result of this I determined to effect a retirement to the Maubeuge position at daybreak on the 24th.

A certain amount of fighting continued along the whole line throughout the night, and at daybreak on the 24th the 2nd Division from the neighbourhood of Harmignies made a powerful demonstration as if to retake Binche. This was supported by the artillery of both the 1st and 2nd Divisions, whilst the 1st Division took up a supporting position in the neighbourhood of Peissant. Under cover of this demonstration the 2nd Corps retired on the line Dour-Quarouble-Frameries. The 3rd Division on the right of the Corps suffered considerable loss in this operation from the enemy, who had retaken Mons.

The 2nd Corps halted on this line, where they partially entrenched themselves, enabling Sir Douglas Haig with the 1st Corps gradually to withdraw to the new position; and he effected this without much further loss, reaching the line Bavai-Maubeuge about 7 p.m. Towards midday the enemy appeared to be directing his principal effort against our left.

I had previously ordered General Allenby with the Cavalry to act vigorously in advance of my left front and endeavour to take the pressure off.

About 7.30 a.m. General Allenby received a message from Sir Charles Fergusson, commanding 5th Division, saying that he was very hard pressed and in urgent need of support. On receipt of this message General Allenby drew in the Cavalry and endeavoured to bring direct support to the 5th Division.

During the course of this operation General De Lisle, of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, thought he saw a good opportunity to paralyse the further advance of the enemy's infantry by making a mounted attack on his flank. He formed up and advanced for this purpose, but was held up by wire about 500 yards from his objective, and the 9th Lancers and 18th Hussars suffered severely in the retirement of the Brigade.

The 19th Infantry Brigade, which had been guarding the Line of Communications, was brought up by rail to Valenciennes on the 22nd and 23rd. On the morning of the 24th they were moved out to a position south of Quarouble to support the left flank of the 2nd Corps.

With the assistance of the Cavalry Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was enabled to effect his retreat to a new position; although, having two corps of the enemy on his front and one threatening his flank, he suffered great losses in doing so.

At nightfall the position was occupied by the 2nd Corps to the west of Bavai, the 1st Corps to the right. The right was protected by the Fortress of Maubeuge, the left by the 19th Brigade in position between Jenlain and Bry, and the Cavalry on the outer flank.

4. The French were still retiring, and I had no support except such as was afforded by the Fortress of Maubeuge; and the determined attempts of the enemy to get round my left flank assured me that it was his intention to hem me against that place and surround me. I felt that not a moment must be lost in retiring to another position.

I had every reason to believe that the enemy's forces were somewhat exhausted, and I knew that they had suffered heavy losses. I hoped, therefore, that his pursuit would not be too vigorous to prevent me effecting my object.

The operation, however, was full of danger and difficulty, not only owing to the very superior force in my front, but also to the exhaustion of the troops.

The retirement was recommenced in the early morning of the 25th to a position in the neighbourhood of Le Cateau, and rearguards were ordered to be clear of the Maubeuge-Bavai-Eth Road by 5.30 a.m.

Two Cavalry Brigades, with the Divisional Cavalry of the 2nd Corps, covered the movement of the 2nd Corps. The remainder of the Cavalry Division, with the 19th Brigade, the whole under the command of General Allenby, covered the west flank.

The 4th Division commenced its detrainment at Le Cateau on Sunday, the 23rd, and by the morning of the 25th eleven battalions and a Brigade of Artillery with Divisional Staff were available for service.

I ordered General Snow to move out to take up a position with his right south of Solesmes, his left resting on the Cambrai-Le Cateau Road south of La Chaprie. In this position the Division rendered great help to the effective retirement of the 2nd and 1st Corps to the new position.

Although the troops had been ordered to occupy the Cambrai-Le Cateau-Landrecies position, and the ground had, during the 25th, been partially prepared and entrenched, I had grave doubts—owing to the information I received as to the accumulating strength of the enemy against me—as to the wisdom of standing there to fight.

Having regard to the continued retirement of the French on my right, my exposed left flank, the tendency of the enemy's western corps (II) to envelop me, and, more than all, the exhausted condition of the troops, I determined to make a great effort to continue the retreat till I could put some substantial obstacle, such as the Somme or the Oise, between my troops and the enemy, and afford the former some opportunity of rest and reorganisation. Orders were, therefore, sent to the Corps Commanders to continue their retreat as soon as they possibly could towards the general line Vermand-St. Quentin-Ribemont.

The Cavalry, under General Allenby, were ordered to cover the retirement.

Throughout the 25th and far into the evening, the 1st Corps continued its march on Landrecies, following the road along the eastern border of the Foret De Mormal, and arrived at Landrecies about 10 o'clock. I had intended that the Corps should come further west so as to fill up the gap between Le Cateau and Landrecies, but the men were exhausted and could not get further in without rest.

The enemy, however, would not allow them this rest, and about 9.30 p.m. a report was received that the 4th Guards Brigade in Landrecies was heavily attacked by troops of the 9th German Army Corps who were coming through the forest on the north of the town. This brigade fought most gallantly and caused the enemy to suffer tremendous loss in issuing from the forest into the narrow streets of the town. This loss has been estimated from reliable sources at from 700 to 1,000. At the same time information reached me from Sir Douglas Haig that his 1st Division was also heavily engaged south and east of Maroilles. I sent urgent messages to the Commander of the two French Reserve Divisions on my right to come up to the assistance of the 1st Corps, which they eventually did. Partly owing to this assistance, but mainly to the skilful manner in which Sir Douglas Haig extricated his Corps from an exceptionally difficult position in the darkness of the night, they were able at dawn to resume their march south towards Wassigny on Guise.

By about 6 p.m. the 2nd Corps had got into position with their right on Le Cateau, their left in the neighbourhood of Caudry, and the line of defence was continued thence by the 4th Division towards Seranvillers, the left being thrown back.

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