World War I: Field Marshal John French

John French during World War I
Photograph Source: Public Domain

Born September 28, 1852, at Ripple Vale, Kent, John French was the son of Commander John Tracy William French and his wife Margaret. The son of a naval officer, French intended to follow in his father's footsteps and sought training at Portsmouth after attending Harrow School. Appointed a midshipman in 1866, French soon found himself assigned to HMS Warrior. While aboard, he developed a debilitating fear of heights which forced him to abandon his naval career in 1869. After serving in the Suffolk Artillery Militia, French transferred to the British Army in February 1874. Initially serving with the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, he moved through a variety of cavalry regiments and achieved the rank of major in 1883.

In Africa

In 1884, French took part in the Sudan Expedition which moved up the Nile River with the goal of relieving Major General Charles Gordon's forces which were besieged at Khartoum. En route, he saw action at Abu Klea on January 17, 1885. Though the campaign proved a failure, French was promoted to lieutenant colonel the following month. Returning to Britain, he received command of the 19th Hussars in 1888 before moving into various high-level staff posts. During the late 1890s, French led the 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Canterbury before assuming command of the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot.

Second Boer War

Returning to Africa in late 1899, French took command of the Cavalry Division in South Africa. He was thus in place when the Second Boer War commenced that October. After defeating General Johannes Kock at Elandslaagte on October 21, French took part in the larger relief of Kimberley. In February 1900, his horsemen played a key role in the triumph at Paardeberg. Promoted to the permanent rank of major general on October 2, French was also knighted. A trust subordinate of Lord Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, he later served as Commander of Johannesburg and Cape Colony. With the end of the conflict in 1902, French was elevated to lieutenant general and appointed to the Order of St. Michael and St. George in recognition of his contributions.

Trusted General

Returning to Aldershot, French assumed command of the 1st Army Corps in September 1902. Three years later he became the overall commander at Aldershot. Promoted to general in February 1907, he became Inspector-General of the Army that December. One of the British Army's stars, French received the honorary appointment of Aide-de-Camp General to the King on June 19, 1911. This was followed by an appointment as Chief of the Imperial General Staff the following March. Made field marshal in June 1913, he resigned his position on the Imperial General Staff in April 1914 after a disagreement with Prime Minister H. H. Asquith's government regarding the Curragh Mutiny. Though he resumed his post as Inspector-General of the Army on August 1, French's tenure proved brief due to the outbreak of World War I.

To the Continent

With the British entry into the conflict, French was appointed to command the newly-formed British Expeditionary Force. Consisting of two corps and a cavalry division, the BEF began preparations to deploy to the Continent. As planning moved forward, French clashed with Kitchener, then serving as Secretary of State for War, over where the BEF should be placed. While Kitchener advocated a position near Amiens from which it could mount a counterattack against the Germans, French preferred Belgium where it would be supported by the Belgium Army and their fortresses. Backed by the Cabinet, French won the debate and began moving his men across the Channel. Reaching the front, the British commander's temper and prickly disposition soon led to difficulties in dealing with his French allies, namely General Charles Lanrezac who commanded the French Fifth Army on his right.

Establishing a position at Mons, the BEF entered the action on August 23 when it was attacked by the German First Army. Though mounting a tenacious defense, the BEF was forced to retreat as Kitchener had anticipated when advocating the Amiens position. As French fell back, he issued a confusing series of orders which were ignored by Lieutenant General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps which fought a bloody defensive battle at Le Cateau on August 26. As the retreat continued, French began to lose confidence and became indecisive. Shaken by the high losses sustained, he became increasingly concerned about his men's welfare rather than aiding the French.

The Marne to Digging In

As French began contemplating withdrawing to the coast, Kitchener arrived on September 2 for an emergency meeting. Though angered by Kitchener's interference, the discussion convinced him to keep the BEF at the front and to take part in French Commander-in-Chief General Joseph Joffre's counteroffensive along the Marne. Attacking during the First Battle of the Marne, Allied forces were able to halt the German advance. In the weeks after the battle, both sides began the Race to the Sea in an effort to outflank the other. Reaching Ypres, French and the BEF fought the bloody First Battle of Ypres in October and November. Holding the town, it became a point of contention for the rest of the war.

As the front stabilized, both sides began constructing elaborate trench systems. In an effort to break the deadlock, French opened the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Though some ground was gained, casualties were high and no breakthrough was attained. Following the setback, French blamed the failure on a lack of artillery shells which initiated the Shell Crisis of 1915. The following month, the Germans began the Second Battle of Ypres which saw them take and inflict substantial losses but fail to capture the town. In May, French returned to the offensive but was bloodily repulsed at Aubers Ridge. Reinforced, the BEF attacked again in September when it began the Battle of Loos. Little was gained in three weeks of fighting and French received criticism for his handling of British reserves during the battle.

Later Career

Having clashed repeatedly with Kitchener and having lost the confidence of the Cabinet, French was relieved in December 1915 and replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig. Appointed to command the Home Forces, he was elevated to Viscount French of Ypres in January 1916. In this new position, he oversaw the suppression of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Two years later, on May 1918, the Cabinet made French British Viceroy, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Supreme Commander of the British Army in Ireland. Fighting with various nationalist groups, he sought to destroy Sinn Féin. As a result of these actions, he was the target of a failed assassination attempt in December 1919. Resigning his post on April 30, 1921, French moved into retirement.

Made Earl of Ypres in June 1922, French also received a retirement grant of £50,000 in recognition of his services. Contracting cancer of the bladder, he died on May 22, 1925, while at Deal Castle. Following a funeral, French was buried at St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard in Ripple, Kent.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Field Marshal John French." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Field Marshal John French. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Field Marshal John French." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).