- Category : Military
- Type : GE
- Profile : 2/5 - Hermit / Heretic
- Definition : Triple Split
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Service 3
Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres, KP, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCMG, ADC, PC (28 September 1852 – 22 May 1925), known as The Viscount French between 1916 and 1922, was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army. He distinguished himself commanding the Cavalry Division during the Second Boer War, became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1912 but resigned over the Curragh Mutiny, and then served as the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force for the first two years of World War I before serving as Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, then becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1918, a position which he held throughout much of the Irish War of Independence.
French’s family was related to the French/De Freyne family which had substantial estates in Ireland. He was born the son of Commander John Tracy William French RN, of Ripple Vale in Kent (born 1808, died 1854) and Margaret French, née Eccles from Glasgow (who went insane when he was ten and died in 1867, leaving him to be brought up by his sisters). He was educated at a Harrow preparatory school and Eastman's Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth before joining the Royal Navy in 1866.
In 1869 he served as a midshipman on HMS Warrior, where he witnessed the accidental sinking of HMS Captain. He left the Navy after it was discovered that he was acrophobic and suffered from seasickness.
After joining the Suffolk Artillery Militia in November 1870, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars on 28 February 1874. He transferred to the 19th Hussars on 11 March 1874, becoming adjutant of his Regiment on 1 June 1880, and, having been promoted to captain on 16 October 1880, became adjutant of the Northumberland Hussars on 1 April 1881. He was promoted to major on 3 April 1883. He returned to 19th Hussars in October 1884. These promotions (captain at the age of 28, major at 30) were relatively rapid.
French took part in the Sudan expedition to relieve Major General Charles Gordon in 1884 and took part in the Battle of Abu Klea in January 1885, where he impressed Redvers Buller. Promoted to lieutenant colonel on 7 February 1885, he became Commanding Officer of the 19th Hussars on 27 September 1888. He was promoted brevet colonel 7 February 1889, and was posted to India in September 1891. There, at cavalry camp during an exercise in November 1891, he first met Captain Douglas Haig, with whose career his own was to be entwined for the next twenty-five years. French became Assistant Adjutant-General of Cavalry in 1893.
When commanding the 19th Hussars in India French was cited for adultery with the wife of a brother officer during his leave (inevitably christened “French leave” by his colleagues) in the Indian hills – he was lucky this did not terminate his career. He was on half-pay in 1893-5, possibly as a result of the Indian divorce scandal, and reduced to bicycling with his sons as he could not afford to keep horses.
Buller got him a job as Assistant Adjutant-General at Army Headquarters on 24 August 1895, writing a new cavalry training manual (in practice extensively assisted by Captain Douglas Haig). Beckett writes that French's career was saved by Sir George Luck, formerly Inspector-General of Cavalry in India and now Inspector-General of Cavalry in the UK. French was also a protege of the influential General Evelyn Wood.
French went on to be Commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Canterbury on 1 May 1897 and Commander of the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot Command on 12 January 1899.
Haig, recently returned from the Sudan War, was French’s brigade-major at Aldershot. Early in 1899, at his own request, French borrowed £2,500, in a formal contract with interest, from Haig. He was within 24 hours of bankruptcy – which would have required him to resign his commission – after unwise investments in South African mining shares. Richard Holmes believed the loan was never repaid, but Haig’s biographer Walter Reid believes the loan was probably repaid in 1909.
He served in the Second Boer War as a local major-general commanding cavalry forces in Natal from 23 September 1899, winning the Battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October 1899. After Elandslaagte and Lombard's Kop (30 October 1900) caricatures of French appeared in the “Illustrated London News” and he became a press hero.
French was ordered out of Ladysmith to take command of the newly forming Cavalry Division; French and Haig escaped under fire on the last train out of Ladysmith as the Boer siege began. He was one of the few senior officers to be retained by Frederick Roberts, the new Commander-in-Chief. After the Battle of Colesberg (1 January 1900) the following verse was published about him:
“E’s so tough and terse
‘E don’t want no bloomin’ nurse
and ‘E ain’t had one reverse
Ave yer, French?”
He also led the Division at the relief of Kimberley. French promised Roberts (10 February) that if he were still alive he would be in Kimberley, where the civilian population was urging Colonel Kekewich to surrender, in five days. He did indeed capture it on 15 February after his 8,000 cavalry and 6,000 mounted infantry overwhelmed a force of 900 Boers on a ridge at Klip Drift. French also prevented the main Boer field army from escaping across the Modder River at the Battle of Paardeberg later that month. Cavalry, although less successful at Poplar Grove (7 March 1900), played a leading role in this stage of the war, including the capture of Bloemfontein (13 March 1900) and then Pretoria (5 June 1900). French did not have a high opinion of Roberts, was ambivalent about Kitchener and disliked Nicholson, under whose control Roberts had centralised all transport – French managed to retain autonomy for cavalry division transport.
Promoted to the substantive rank of major-general on 9 October 1900 and appointed KCB, he was made Commander of Johannesburg district in November 1900 and Commander of Cape Colony in June 1901. He was appointed KCMG in recognition of his services in South Africa and promoted to lieutenant general for distinguished service in the field on 31 October 1902. Lord Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, referring to French, later said "his willingness to accept responsibility, and his bold and sanguine disposition have relieved me from many anxieties".
After the Boer War, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of 1st Army Corps at Aldershot Command, in succession to Buller, from 15 September 1902.
French attracted the attention of Lord Esher when he testified before the Elgin Commission. French was considered as a possible Chief of the General Staff in 1903-4, pushed by Lord Esher and Admiral Fisher. He was on the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1905. The historian, Richard Holmes, argues that this was in part because of his willingness to consider amphibious operations – including at various times, in the Baltic and on the Belgian Coast. Philpott argues that French was a significant influence on pre-war strategic planning.
French was given General Officer Commanding-in-Chief status at Aldershot on 1 June 1905 He wrote a preface for the English translation of Friedrich von Bernhardi’s “Cavalry in Future Wars” in 1906. He was promoted to full general on 12 February 1907. French became, on the recommendation of Esher, Inspector-General of the Army on 21 December 1907. He was also appointed GCVO in 1907. Advanced to GCB in the King's Birthday Honours 1909, he was made an Aide-de-Camp General to the King on 19 June 1911.
At Aldershot, he may have privately shared the doubts which others had about his intellectual capacity. However, Esher wrote of him that his grasp of strategy and tactics broadened, and, although naturally gregarious, he became more aloof and solitary as he prepared himself for high command.
Chief of the Imperial General Staff
He became Chief of the Imperial General Staff ('CIGS') on 15 March 1912 and was promoted to field marshal on 3 June 1913, although he neither had staff experience nor had studied at Staff College. As CIGS French forced through controversial changes to infantry battalions such that they no longer comprised eight small companies commanded by captains but instead comprised four large companies commanded by majors. He also ensured that cavalry were still trained to fight with sword and lance (the “Arme Blanche”) rather than only being trained to fight dismounted with firearms, as Roberts had preferred. At a 17 November 1913 meeting of BEF senior officers (French, Haig, Wilson, Paget, Grierson) – Wilson privately recorded his concerns at French’s lack of intellect and hoped there would not be a war just yet.
With Irish Home Rule due to become law in 1914, the Cabinet were contemplating some form of military action against the Ulster Volunteers (UVF) who wanted no part of it, and who were seen by many officers as loyal British subjects. In response to the King’s request for his views (the King had also written to the Prime Minister), French wrote (25 Sep 1913) that the army would obey “the absolute commands of the King”, but he warned that some might think “that they were best serving their King and country either by refusing to march against the Ulstermen or by openly joining their ranks” although he stressed that he wanted to act firmly against dissidents within the army. In December 1913, in his memorandum “Position of the Army with Regard to the Situation in Ulster”, French recommended that Captain Spender, who was openly assisting the UVF, be cashiered “pour decourager le autres”.
With political negotiations deadlocked and intelligence reports that the Ulster Volunteers (now 100,000 strong) might be about to seize the ammunition at Carrickfergus Castle, French only agreed to summon Paget (Commander-in-Chief, Ireland) to London to discuss planned troop movements when Seely (Secretary of State for War) repeatedly assured him of the accuracy of intelligence that UVF might march on Dublin. French did not oppose the deployment of troops in principle but told Wilson that the government were “scattering troops all over Ulster as if it were a Pontypool coal strike”.
At another meeting on 19 March French told Paget not to be “a bloody fool” when he said that he would “lead his Army to the Boyne”, although after the meeting he resisted lobbying from Robertson and Wilson to advise the Government that the Army could not be used against Ulster. That evening French was summoned to an emergency meeting at 10 Downing Street (he was requested to come in via the garden, not the front door) with Asquith, Seely, Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty), Birrell (Chief Secretary for Ireland) and Paget, where he was told that Carson, who had stormed out of a Commons debate, was expected to declare a provisional government in Ulster. French was persuaded by Asquith to send infantry to defend the artillery at Dundalk, and by Seely that a unionist coup was imminent in Ulster. No trace of Seely’s intelligence survives. Seely reassured French, who was worried about a possible European war, that “large mobile forces of the Regular Army” would only be sent to Ireland if needed, although he was sure that Ulster would support Britain in that event. The result was the Curragh Incident in which Hubert Gough and other of Paget’s officers threatened to resign rather than coerce Ulster. French, advised by Haldane (Lord Chancellor) told the King (22 March) that Paget should not have asked officers about “hypothetical contingencies”, and declared that he would resign if Gough, who had confirmed that he would have obeyed a direct order to move against Ulster, were not reinstated.
French suggested to Seely that a written document from the Army Council might help to convince Gough’s officers. The Cabinet text stated that the Army Council were satisfied that the incident had been a misunderstanding, and that it was “the duty of all soldiers to obey lawful commands”, to which Seely added two paragraphs, stating that the Government had the right to use "the forces of the Crown" in Ireland or elsewhere, but had no intention of using force “to crush opposition to the Home Rule Bill”. Gough insisted on adding a further paragraph clarifying that the Army would not be used to enforce Home Rule on Ulster, to which French added in writing “This is how I read it. JF CIGS”. He may have been acting in the belief that the matter needed to be resolved quickly after learning from Haig that afternoon that all the officers of Aldershot Command would resign if Gough were punished.
Asquith publicly repudiated the “peccant paragraphs” (25 March). Wilson, who hoped to bring down the government, advised French to resign, as an officer could not be seen to break his word, even at the behest of politicians. Asquith at first wanted French to stay on as he had been “so loyal and well-behaved”, but changed his mind despite French drawing up two statements with Haldane, claiming that he had been acting in accordance with Haldane's statement in the House of Lords on 23 March. Seely also had to resign. French resigned on 6 April 1914.
French had been made to look naiive and overly friendly to the Liberal Government. Most officers were Conservative and Ulster Unionist sympathisers, but with a few exceptions (Kitchener and Wilson’s party sympathies were well known) took pride in their loyalty to the King and professed contempt for party politics. French was thought by Margot Asquith to be a “hot Liberal”. By 1914 he was a personal friend of the Liberal ministers Churchill and Jack Seely and was friendly to Seely when his first wife died in childbirth in August 1913, whilst Sir Edward Grey wrote “French is a trump, and I love him”. After 1918 French became a Home Ruler, but at this stage he simply thought his duty to be ensuring that the Army obeyed the government’s orders. As far back as 20 April 1913 Wilson recorded his concerns that French’s friendship with Seely and unexpected promotion to Field Marshal were bringing him too close to the Liberals. Throughout the affair he resisted pressure from Wilson to warn the government that the Army would not move against Ulster, and had an acrimonious telephone conversation (21 March) with Field Marshal Roberts in which Roberts told him that he would share the blame if he collaborated with the Cabinet’s “dastardly” attempt to coerce Ulster; French for his part blamed Roberts for stirring up the Incident. Esher, who had written of French (22 March 1914) that he was “too much in the hands of the politicians”, approved of his resignation, as did H.A.Gwynne, who throughout the crisis had pressed French to tell the Cabinet that the Army would not coerce Ulster, and Godfrey Locker-Lampson MP.
Margot Asquith wrote that he would soon be “coming back”, suggesting that Asquith may have promised to appoint French Inspector-General. Churchill described him as “a broken-hearted man” when he joined the trial mobilisation of the fleet in mid-July. French was still seen as a potential Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, although French himself was uncertain that he would be appointed.
Mobilisation and Deployment
The “Precautionary Period” for British mobilisation began on 29 July, the day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. French was summoned by Sir Charles Douglas (CIGS) and told (30 July) he would command the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). There was no other serious candidate for the position. He was first briefly re-appointed Inspector-General of the Army (1 August). Sir John spent much of 2 August in discussions with French Ambassador Paul Cambon. British mobilisation began on 4 pm on 4 August. Until Germany invaded Belgium it was unclear whether Britain would join in the war, but she did so at midnight on 4 August.
French attended the War Council at 10, Downing Street (5 August), and there presented the War Office plans (drawn up by Wilson) to send the BEF to Maubeuge, although he also suggested that as British mobilisation was lagging behind France’s it might be safer to send the BEF to Amiens (also the view of Lord Kitchener and Lt.-General Sir Douglas Haig). French also suggested that the BEF might operate from Antwerp against the German right flank, similar to schemes which had been floated in 1905-6 and reflecting French’s reluctant acceptance of the continental commitment. This suggestion was dropped when Churchill said the Royal Navy could not guarantee safe passage.
Kitchener, believing the war would be long, decided at Cabinet (6 August) that the BEF would consist of only 4 infantry divisions (and 1 cavalry); French believing the war would be short, demanded 5 infantry divisions but was overruled at another War Council that afternoon. Embarkation began on 9 August.
On 12 French, Murray, Wilson and the French liaison officer Victor Huguet met at French’s house at Lancaster Gate (12 August) and agreed to concentrate at Maubeuge, and after another meeting with Kitchener (who had had an argument with Wilson on 9 August – given Wilson's influence over French this served to worsen relations between French and Kitchener), who still preferred to concentrate further back at Amiens, they left to obtain the Prime Minister’s agreement.
French crossed to France on 14 August, and spent the next few days visiting President Poincare, Messimy (French War Minister) and Joffre (16 August). Sir John’s orders from Kitchener were to cooperate with the French but not to take orders from them, and given that the tiny BEF (about 100,000 men, half of them regulars and half reservists) was Britain’s only army, to avoid undue losses and being exposed to “forward movements where large numbers of French troops are not engaged” until Kitchener had had a chance to discuss the matter with the Cabinet.
Clash with Lanrezac
The last of the Belgian fortresses at Liege fell on 16 August and most of the remaining Belgian troops were soon besieged in Antwerp, opening up Belgium to the German advance. Previously ardent and bombastic, French became hesitant and cautious, giving different answers about the date when the BEF could be expected to begin operations in the field.
At his meeting with Joffre (16 August) French had been advised to hurry up and join in Lanrezac’s offensive, as he would not wait for him to catch up. French met General Charles Lanrezac, commanding the French Fifth Army on his right, at Rethel (17 August) – they were met by Lanrezac’s Chief of Staff Hely d’Oissel, with the words: “At last you’re here: it’s not a moment too soon. If we are beaten we will owe it to you”. They conferred in private despite the fact that Lanrezac spoke no English and Sir John could speak little French, Wilson being eventually called over to translate. French asked whether the German advance forces spotted at Huy would cross the Meuse River (a reasonable question, as a westward crossing of the Meuse exposed the BEF to encirclement from the west) – his inability to pronounce the name "Huy" caused Lanrezac to exclaim in exasperation that the Germans had probably "come . . . to fish"; French understood the tone but not the meaning, and Wilson tactfully translated that the Germans would indeed cross the river. French informed Lanrezac that his forces would not be ready until 24 August, three days later than promised. The French cavalry under Sordet, which Sir John had previously asked Joffre in vain to be placed under his command, were further north trying to maintain contact with the Belgians. Sir John, concerned that he had only four infantry divisions rather than the planned six, wanted to keep Allenby's cavalry division in reserve, and refused Lanrezac's request that he lend it for reconnaissance in front of the French forces (Lanrezac misunderstood that French intended to use the British cavalry as mounted infantry). French and Lanrezac came away from the meeting with a poor relationship. At the time French wrote in his diary that Lanrezac was “a very capable soldier”, although he claimed otherwise in his memoirs “1914”. Besides their mutual dislike he believed Lanrezac was about to take the offensive, whereas Lanrezac had in fact been forbidden by Joffre to fall back and wanted the BEF moved back further to clear roads for a possible French retreat.
French's personal friend General Grierson, GOC II Corps, had died suddenly on the train near Amiens, and French returned to GHQ on 17 August to find that Kitchener had appointed Lt-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, in the full knowledge that French disliked him, to command rather than Plumer (French’s choice) or Hamilton (who asked for it).
Spears arrived at GHQ (21 August) and reported to Wilson (French was out visiting Allenby) that Lanrezac did not want to leave his strong position (behind the angle of the Rivers Sambre and Meuse) and “had declaimed at length on the folly of attack”. Holmes believes French was receiving very bad advice from Wilson at this time, in spite of good air and cavalry intelligence of strong German forces. French set out for Lanrezac’s HQ (22 August) but by chance met Spears on the way, who told him that Lanrezac was in no position to attack after losses the previous day, which Sir John did not quite believe, and that Lanrezac was out at a forward command post. Brushing aside Spears' arguments that another meeting with Lanrezac would help, French cancelled his journey and returned to GHQ; relations with Lanrezac had broken down, writes Holmes, because Sir John saw no point in driving for hours, only to be insulted once again in a language he did not quite understand.
French was then visited again over dinner by Spears, who warned him that the BEF was now nine miles ahead of the main French line, with a gap of five miles between the British right and Lanzerac’s left, exposing the BEF to potential encirclement. Spears was accompanied by Macdonogh, who had deduced from air reconnaissance that the BEF was facing three German corps, one of which was moving around the BEF left flank, (only 3 French territorial divisions were to the left of the BEF; Sordet's French cavalry corps was on its way to the British left, but its horses were exhausted). Sir John cancelled the planned advance. Also that evening a request arrived from Lanrezac that the BEF attack the flank of the German forces which were attacking Fifth Army, although he also – contradicting himself – reported that the BEF was still in echelon behind his own left flank, which if true would have made it impossible for the BEF to do as he asked. French thought Lanrezac's request unrealistic, but agreed to hold his current position for another 24 hours.
Despite the events of the previous evening, French had – perhaps under the influence of Henry Wilson – reverted to the belief that an advance might again be possible soon. French’s and Smith-Dorrien’s accounts differ about the conference at 5.30 am on 23 August. French’s account in his memoirs “1914” stated that he had become doubtful of the advance and warned his officers to be ready to attack or retreat, which agrees largely with his own diary at the time, in which he wrote that he had warned Smith-Dorrien that the Mons position might not be tenable. When “1914” was published, Smith-Dorrien claimed that French had been “in excellent form” and had still been planning to advance. However, in his own memoirs Smith-Dorrien admitted that French had talked of either attacking or retreating, although he claimed that it had been he who had warned that the Mons position was untenable. Edmonds in the “Official History” agreed that French had probably been prepared either to attack or to retreat.
French at first believed that the German attacks at Mons were merely trying to “feel” the British position and drove off to Valenciennes to inspect a French brigade. On his return he sent a letter to Lanrezac in which he talked of resuming the attack the following day. Wilson had “calculated” that the BEF was faced only by one German corps and a cavalry division, and was allowed to draw up orders for an attack the next day. Although Macdonogh warned that the BEF was faced by at least two German corps, French did not cancel the planned advance until a message from Joffre (7pm) warned that he was faced by at least three German corps, although he still ordered Smith-Dorrien to try to hold his ground. At midnight Spears arrived with the news, which disgusted Sir John, that Lanrezac was falling back, and the French Third and Fourth Armies were also falling back after being defeated at Virton and Neufchateau. Murray summoned the Corps Chiefs of Staff at around 1 am on 24 August and ordered them to retreat. Even after Mons, French still thought that a deeper Allied thrust into Belgium would have disrupted the German advance.
Von Kluck sent von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps (3 cavalry divisions) around the British west flank to prevent a British retreat on the Channel ports. Sir John French sent a message (24 August), with an unmistakable tone of pique, to Lanrezac, which Spears insisted on writing down, warning that the BEF might have to retreat southwest towards Amiens on its lines of communication, although it is unclear that this would actually have been practicable if the Germans had actually been moving in force around the British left flank. However, Sir John agreed to Joffre's request that the BEF, now numbering 5 divisions as it had been joined by the 4th Infantry Division, would instead fall back on Cambrai if it had to, so that the BEF could still protect the French left flank. Joffre also sent a further two French reserve divisions to the British left flank, the beginning of the redeployment of French forces which would see Manoury’s Sixth Army form around Paris. French considered, but rejected, the option of sheltering the BEF in the fortified town of Maubeuge, partly out of instinct that the Germans were hoping to tempt him into allowing himself to be besieged there and partly because he remembered that Edward Hamley had likened Bazaine allowing himself to be besieged in Metz in 1870 to a shipwrecked man taking hold of the anchor. French himself issued no direct written orders between 11.15pm on 21 August and 8.25pm on 24 August; Terraine argued that this, along with his absence during the battle of Mons (although on the German side von Kluck also played little direct role in the battle), marks the point when he and GHQ began to disengage from active command of the BEF, leaving Smith-Dorrien and Haig in effective control of their corps.
1914: Retreat to the Marne
GHQ moved back from Le Cateau to St Quentin on 25 August. French had a long discussion with Murray and Wilson (25 August) as to whether, the BEF should stand and fight at Le Cateau, a position which had been chosen for both I and II Corps to hold after they had retreated on either side of the Forest of Mormal. II Corps had been harried by German forces as it retreated west of the forest and Wilson and Murray were concerned about the risk of encirclement from the left. Sir John did not agree but wanted to fall back as agreed with Joffre, and hoped that the BEF could pull out of the fight altogether and refit behind the River Oise. Besides concern for his men, he was also worried that he was exposing his small force to the risk of destruction which Kitchener had forbidden. Wilson issued orders to Smith-Dorrien to retreat from Le Cateau the next day.
French was awakened at 2 am on 26 August with news that Haig’s I Corps was under attack at Landrecies, and ordered Smith-Dorrien (3.50 am) to assist him. Smith-Dorrien replied that he was “unable to move a man”. This angered French as he was, at that time, fond of Haig. French was woken from his sleep again at 5 am with the news that Smith-Dorrien had decided to stand and fight at Le Cateau, as the Germans would otherwise be upon him before he had a chance to retreat. Insisting that the exhausted Murray not be woken, French telegraphed back that he still wanted Smith-Dorrien to “make every endeavour” to fall back but that he had “a free hand as to the method”, which Smith-Dorrien took as permission to make a stand. French’s diary and memoirs omit mention of this telegram. Sir John also sent a message to Lanrezac at 5am, asking him to assist Haig (on Smith-Dorrien's right), which he agreed to do, although in the event his help was not needed. On waking properly, French ordered Wilson to telephone Smith-Dorrien and order him to break off as soon as possible. Wilson ended the conversation by saying “Good luck to you. Yours is the first cheerful voice I’ve heard in three days.”
French and his staff believed that the Cavalry Division had been completely destroyed at Le Cateau (it had in fact suffered no more than 15 casualties) and that 5th Division had lost nearly all its guns, destroying II Corps as a fighting unit (in fact units reassembled after the retreat). French later (30 April 1915) told Haig that he should have had Smith-Dorrien court-martialled after Le Cateau. In his memoirs French later claimed that Smith-Dorrien had risked destruction of his corps and lost 14,000 men and 80 guns (actual losses of each were around half of this number). However, it has also been argued that the vigorous defensive action at Le Cateau relieved the pressure and allowed the troops to re-organise, gather up their supplies, and make a fighting withdrawal.
On the morning of 26 August, while the Battle of Le Cateau was in progress, Sir John had a hostile meeting with Joffre and Lanrezac at St Quentin. This meeting, held at Joffre's insistence, was the second and last time Sir John met Lanrezac, who attended only reluctantly. He complained of Lanrezac’s behaviour, to which Lanrezac gave a vague and academic reply. Joffre talked of his Instruction Generale No 2 which talked of a new French Sixth Army forming around Amiens, but although this had been received by GHQ during the night French had not been shown it (Holmes blames Wilson, who had taken charge of the staff as Murray had had a complete collapse). French insisted that he must retreat further, although he agreed to press Kitchener to send the remaining British division (bringing the BEF up to six infantry divisions) to France rather than to Belgium. Joffre stayed for lunch (Lanrezac declined to do so), at which the atmosphere improved as he confessed that he too was dissatisfied with Lanzerac. Joffre was surprised at the “rather excited tone” in which Sir John criticised Lanrezac, unlike his calm demeanour of a few days’ earlier, and came away deeply concerned at the obvious personal friction between French and Lanrezac, but also at Sir John’s reluctance to stand and fight.
GHQ fell back to Noyon (26 August). Huguet reported to Joffre (10.15pm on 26 August) that the British had been defeated at Le Cateau and would need French protection to recover cohesion; he also reported that although the BEF’s fighting spirit was undaunted, the British Government might order the BEF to retreat to Le Havre. Colonel Brecard, another liaison officer attached to the British staff, reported that two out of the five British divisions were destroyed and that, in Wilson’s view, the BEF would need a week to refit. Sir John warned Huguet that there would be “bitterness and regret” in England over British losses, and Joffre, who had decided to order an attack by Fifth Army to take the pressure off the BEF, visited Sir John at Noyon on 27 August and gave him a message congratulating the BEF for its efforts to protect Fifth Army’s flank. In fact Smith-Dorrien’s staff were making intense efforts to hold II Corps together, although at a meeting (held at 2 am on 27 August, as Smith-Dorrien had found GHQ’s present location with great difficulty) French accused him of being overly optimistic. GHQ moved back to Compiegne on 28 August, although Sir John was able to visit his troops on the march for the first time since the 25th, telling men who were resting on the ground of Joffre’s message.
French refused Haig permission to join in an attack by Lanrezac, who wrote of French’s “bad humour and cowardice”. Even Spears felt Sir John was in the wrong here. The BEF also did not join in Lanrezac’s attack on German Second Army at Guise (29 August). Joffre, who had spent the morning with Lanrezac, was concerned at rumours that the BEF might retreat on the Channel Ports, and visited French in the afternoon, urging him to hold his place in the line and promising that Russian successes would soon allow the Allies to attack. However, French insisted that his forces needed 48 hours of absolute rest, and Murray, whom Joffre noticed had been tugging at French’s tunic throughout this, then showed an intelligence report of the strength of the German forces facing the BEF. After Joffre had departed in bad humour, French received an incorrect report that Fifth Army was falling back behind the Oise and issued orders for the BEF to fall back to Rethondes-Soissons; when he received fresh reports that the French were holding their positions after all he replied that it was too late to cancel his orders. Sir John’s opinion of Lanrezac was so low that he did not believe reports of his success at Guise (29 August) until he had sent Seely to interview the French corps commanders.
The BEF was doing little fighting on 29 August and on 30 August had no contact with the enemy at all, and on that day III Corps (4th Division and 19th Infantry Brigade) became operational under Pulteney. On 31 August the BEF engaged in only a few minor cavalry skirmishes. Losses had indeed been high by Boer War standards, and Sir John, believing them to be greater than they were, and that the Kaiser was making an especial effort to destroy the BEF, believed he was carrying out the “letter and spirit” of Kitchener’s instructions to avoid undue loss without Cabinet authority.
Meeting with Kitchener
Spears later wrote of French's coolness and calmness on 30 August. However a few hours after a meeting with Joffre, Sir John telegraphed him that the BEF would have to leave the line entirely and retreat behind the Seine for up to ten days to refit, tracing supply from St Nazaire and moving the forward base to Le Mans rather than Amiens. Kitchener heard of these plans from the Inspector-General of Communications, and when he demanded an explanation (Sir John’s previous messages had been optimistic) French sent a long telegram (31 August) saying he had told Joffre that the BEF was unable to remain in the front line and that he wanted the BEF to move back behind the Seine, and that would take eight days if done at a pace which would not fatigue the troops unduly. He also added (contradicting himself somewhat) that he would have preferred Joffre to resume the offensive, but that Joffre was giving the BEF’s inability to join in as a reason for not doing so. He thought that the French Army had “defective higher leading”.
On 31 August Sir John was sent messages asking him not to withdraw by Joffre, who pointed out that the Germans were already shifting forces to the East and President Poincare (relayed via Bertie, the British Ambassador). Kitchener demanded further details, and after showing French’s previous message to the Cabinet telegraphed again warning that it was the manner and length of the retreat which concerned the Cabinet. Sir John then replied that II Corps was “shattered”, that the BEF could not withstand an attack by so much as a single German corps, and that the best solution would be for the French to counterattack and so “close the gap by uniting their inward flanks”, although he agreed to halt at Nanteuil, which he expected the BEF to reach the following day, if the French halted their own retreat. Kitchener, authorised by a midnight meeting of whichever Cabinet Ministers could be found, left for France for a meeting on 1 September.
They met, together with Viviani (French Prime Minister) and Millerand (now French War Minister). Huguet recorded that Kitchener was “calm, balanced, reflective” whilst Sir John was “sour, impetuous, with congested face, sullen and ill-tempered”. On Bertie’s advice Kitchener dropped his intention of inspecting the BEF. They moved to a separate room, and no independent account of the meeting exists. French admitted that Kitchener had taken exception to his tone, and that he had assured him that this was simply in his mind. In his diary Sir John wrote “we had rather a disagreeable time. I think K found he was making a mistake”. In “1914” French later claimed that he had told Kitchener that although he valued his advice he would not tolerate any interference in his executive authority so long as he remained in command, and that they “finally came to an amicable understanding”. Terraine dismisses as absurd Sir John’s later claims that he resented being called away from GHQ (given that no battle was in progress, and that he had played little directing part in either of the two battles fought so far), and that an inspection of the BEF (by Kitchener, Britain’s most celebrated soldier at the time) might have disheartened the men by the implied challenge to French’s authority. Terraine suggests that Sir John was more anxious to prevent Kitchener from inspecting the BEF as he might have seen for himself that they were less “shattered” than he claimed, and that Haig and Smith-Dorrien might have criticised him if given a chance to speak privately to Kitchener. After the meeting Kitchener telegraphed the Cabinet that the BEF would remain in the line, although taking care not to be outflanked, and told French to consider this “an instruction”. French had a friendly exchange of letters with Joffre.
French had been particularly angry that Kitchener had arrived wearing his Field Marshal's uniform. This was how Kitchener normally dressed at the time, but French felt that Kitchener was implying that he was his military superior and not simply a cabinet member. Tuchman argued that French was particularly conscious of this, as he was known for his own quirks of dress. At Asquith’s behest Churchill attempted to act as mediator, exchanging letters with French (4 September), who replied that Kitchener was “a fine organiser but he never was & he never will be a Commander in the field”. By the end of the year French thought that Kitchener had “gone mad” and his hostility had become common knowledge at GHQ and GQG. In “1914” French claimed that Kitchener had come to Paris to try to stop him retreating, which was untrue – it was the manner of the retreat, without consultation with Britain’s allies, which was the problem.
On 1 September, whilst French and Kitchener were meeting, the British fought a small engagement at Néry. The gap between I and II Corps was finally closed for the first time since 25 August, but GHQ had to be evacuated from Dammartin in a hurry under threat from German cavalry, General Macready being left behind in the confusion and General Robertson having to hastily wrap up in newspaper a leg of mutton he had been about to eat.
Marne and Aisne
French was pleased at the sacking of Lanrezac (3 September), thinking at first that he been arrested, and his Military Secretary reported to the King that “the fat pompous political general” had been sacked. Franchet d’Esperey, Lanzerac's successor, immediately sent a telegram to Sir John signed “Franchet d’Esperey KCVO” promising cooperation.
On return to GHQ, now at Melun, from visits to troops including a talk with Haig who agreed with him that the troops needed rest and replacements (4 Sep) he found his staff had agreed to two plans. Murray had been visited by Gallieni (Military Governor of Paris) and Maunoury (French Sixth Army, and currently under Gallieni’s command) and had drawn up plans for an attack suggested by them. Wilson, on Sir John’s orders, had travelled to meet Franchet d’Esperey and had agreed to the plan which became the basis for Joffre’s Instruction Generale No 6. Gallieni was still planning, with Joffre’s initial agreement, to attack south, not north, of the Marne, so the result of Murray's orders was that the BEF should fall back another day’s march, putting it 15 miles south of where Joffre wanted it to be for his new plan. Sir John at first intended to study the situation before making up his mind.
Joffre sent a copy of his plan to GHQ and asked Millerand to lobby the British Government. Hearing at last that Sir John was willing to cooperate, Joffre arrived for a meeting with French at (2pm on 5 September). He explained his plan to (in French), ending by clasping his hands together tightly enough to hurt them and begging “Monsieur le Maréchal, c’est la France qui vous supplie” ("Field Marshal, France is begging you"). Sir John listened with tears rolling down his reddening cheeks and, unable to find the words in French, replied “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him that all that men can do our fellows will do”. When Murray protested that the BEF could not be ready as soon as Joffre hoped, Joffre relied that Sir John’s word was good enough for him. Although Joffre had dealt tactfully with Sir John (he later claimed in his memoirs that his visit to Melun had simply been to congratulate Sir John on his willingness to cooperate), at a time when he sacked three of his own army commanders (including Lanrezac), ten corps commanders, and thirty-eight divisional commanders – Neillands writes that "one cannot help wonder" whether French would not have suffered the same fate had he reported directly to Joffre. Joffre believed at the time that the BEF were technically under his orders and that French’s uncooperativeness was because the British government were too weak to insist that he obey orders. French was conscious that he was Joffre’s senior in rank and had more combat experience.
The BEF advanced to take part in the First Battle of the Marne on the morning of 6 September, Sir John’s mood marred by a telegram from Kitchener urging him to cooperate with Joffre. This was the result of Joffre’s appeal to Millerand, and Joffre repaired the damage by praising the performance of French and the BEF to Kitchener. Sir John initially thought (14 September) that the enemy was only “making a determined stand” on the Aisne. He urged the importance of entrenching wherever possible (23 September) and stressed (25 September) that heavy artillery would be necessary going forward.
1914: Autumn Battles
Race to the Sea
After lobbying by Churchill (who had an eye on the Channel Ports) and Wilson, French lobbied Joffre (27 September) for the BEF, which was less heavily gunned and more mobile than a similarly-sized French Army, to disengage and try to move around the Allied left flank, part of the outflanking movements known as the Race to the Sea. Joffre agreed in principle, although he had private doubts about having no French troops between the BEF and the sea and later came to believe that this move had, by using up scarce rail capacity for ten days, prevented him from reinforcing Lille and had allowed the Germans to capture it.
Throughout September and October 1914 French warned Kitchener that his forces were running dangerously short of shells, at one point being rationed to 20 rounds per gun per day. French was impressed by the first 9.2-inch howitzers, but very conscious of German artillery superiority, and wrote to Kitchener (24 September) “Krupp is our most formidable enemy at present”. French took a keen interest in the development of mortars and grenades, although during his time as Commander-in-Chief more were produced at the BEF’s own workshops than in the UK. He also pressed the War Office for more machine guns, believing that a battalion needed at least six or seven (as opposed to 2–4 at the start of the war).
The Germans opened fire on the Antwerp outer forts (28 September) and over the opposition of French and Joffre the British 7th Division was earmarked for Antwerp (1 October) instead of for the BEF. Rawlinson’s force at Antwerp was not placed under Sir John’s command until 9 October, but managed to escape to the southwest the following day. French, who did not get on with Rawlinson, was once again suspicious that Kitchener was attempting to usurp operational control of the BEF.
After a temporary stay in Abbeville for five days, GHQ was established in St Omer (13 October) where it was to remain for the rest of French’s tenure. When asked to help shore up the Belgian line on his left French said (16 October 1914) “he would be d-----d if he would be dictated to by Foch who had better mind his own business”.
French had thought in mid-October of establishing an “entrenched camp” large enough to hold the entire BEF around Boulogne, but was soon persuaded by Foch and Wilson to move around the German flank towards Roulers, rebuking Rawlinson, his command now numbered IV Corps, for failing to take Menin (18 October). The following day he ordered Rawlinson to move on Menin (SE of Ypres) and Haig’s I Corps to move on Roulers (NE of Ypres), despite reports that there were at least 3 ½ German corps facing Haig. Sir John had believed the Germans were running out of men, but instead the BEF ran into German forces also trying to turn the Allied flank. At a meeting on 21 October Joffre refused (“his face instantly became quite square”) to lend him enough men to construct a fortified camp around Boulogne; Joffre instead ordered a French corps (under d’Urbal, whom French was pleased to find was “the old Murat type of beau sabreur”) to the BEF’s left, and French ordered the BEF to hold its positions.
French at first reported to Kitchener that the German attacks by Fourth and Sixth Armies were their “last card” and the BEF were holding them off. He was unimpressed by Smith-Dorrien telling him (midnight on 25 October) that his Corps “might go during the night”, although he did send reinforcements.
Falkenhayn now ordered a new attack south of Ypres, between Gheluveld and Ploegsteert Wood, by “Army Group Fabeck”. IV Corps was broken up (27 October) and Rawlinson and his staff sent home to supervise the arrival of 8th Division. French still expected to attack, turning the German western flank, on 29 October, and even after the Germans had pressed I Corps hard SE of Ypres that day (he later claimed in "1914" to have realised that the BEF could now do no more than hold its ground, but he in fact issued orders for the flanking attack to go ahead on 30 October). Sir John supervised the arrangement of reinforcements from Smith-Dorrien and Dubois’ French corps to Haig’s and Allenby’s hard pressed forces at Ypres (30 October). Once again, the British planned to counterattack, but French was roused from his sleep (12.30 am on 31 October) by Foch, who warned him that his staff had spotted a gap in the British lines at Hollebeke Chateau; Foch advised him to “hammer away, keep on hammering” and promised to send a further 8 French battalions and 3 batteries. Sir John spent the crisis day of 31 October visiting Allenby and Gough, and was with Haig when they learned that a single battalion of the Worcesters had retaken Gheluveld (“The Worcesters saved the Empire” French later wrote). He then met Foch at the town hall at Ypres to warn him that he had no more reserves apart from “the sentries at his gate” – the next day (1 November) Haig’s I Corps held its ground, with cooks, grooms and drivers pressed into the line, and aided by French counterattacks which drew off German reserves. The line stabilised, although there was a final day of crisis on 11 November.
The fighting at Ypres, the last before major trenching began, destroyed the last of the original BEF. Since the outbreak of war the BEF had suffered 90,000 casualties, 58,000 of them in October and November, compared to an initial infantry strength (the first seven divisions) of 84,000. Of those who had landed in August, an average of one officer and thirty men per battalion remained. French was particularly disturbed at the lack of company commanders, and extremely reluctant to send trained officers and NCOs home to train the New Armies.
Sir John was unable to get away during the Battle of Ypres to attend the Dunkirk conference (1 November) between Kitchener and Joffre, Foch and Millerand. There Kitchener offered to replace French with Ian Hamilton, but Joffre declined, saying this would be bad for BEF morale and he worked “well and cordially” with Sir John. Foch told Wilson of this (5 November). French sent Captain Freddy Guest to complain to the Prime Minister, who refused to believe it, and both Asquith and Churchill wrote French reassuring letters. French went to see Foch (6 November) to thank him for his “comradeship and loyalty”. This did not stop him writing to Kitchener (15 November) that “au fond, they are a low lot, and one always has to remember the class these French generals come from". French talked of inciting H.A.Gwynne to start a press campaign against Kitchener.
Over lunch (21 November) Haig noted that French looked unwell – French told him he thought he had had a heart attack and had been ordered to rest by his doctors. The King visited France (30 November – 5 December) and passed on his concerns that the Germans were about to invade Britain with 250,000 men, a rumour which French assumed to have been concocted by Kitchener. French’s aides made inquiries – apparently in vain – about an increase in “table money” (expenses for entertaining visiting dignitaries) on top of his official salary of £5,000 per annum.
End of 1914
In late November and early December the Germans moved forces to the East, and French expected the Russians to defeat them soon. In December he offered limited assistance to French attacks, out of affection for Foch and fear that Joffre would otherwise complain to Kitchener, and despite his concerns that the ground on Smith-Dorrien’s front was too wet. Foch said of French (8 December 1914) “How he likes to cry, this Baby”.
The Foreign Office (9 December) formally asked the French government for the BEF to move to the coast where it could cooperate with the Royal Navy and the Belgian Army, but this was rejected by Millerand on Joffre’s advice, and Foch regarded the plan “with the greatest contempt”, although on a visit to GHQ (11 December) he found Sir John only mildly in favour. A German counterattack (20 December) mauled the Indian Corps, who could not handle the cold, so badly that they had to be pulled into reserve.
French was still dissatisfied with Murray's performance as BEF Chief of Staff, but Asquith and Kitchener (20 December) forbade him to replace Murray with Wilson. The BEF was split into Haig’s First Army (I, IV and Indian Corps) and Smith-Dorrien’s Second Army (II and III Corps and 27th Division), effective 25 December. Allenby’s Cavalry Corps and Rimington’s Indian Cavalry Corps continued to report directly to French.
At the Chantilly Conference (27 December 1914) French agreed with Joffre that the British Cabinet was mad. They discussed the relative merits of shrapnel and high explosive shell, and events on the Eastern Front. Joffre told Sir John of his plans for twin offensives at Arras and Rheims in 1915, the former offensive to be assisted by the BEF, and then a further thrust towards the Rhine from Verdun and Nancy. He agreed that the British could take over line up to the coast but only as further reinforcements arrived, which would not be until much later in 1915.
1915: Neuve Chapelle
Deployment of the New Armies
French had hoped to incorporate the Belgian Army into the BEF, but the King of the Belgians vetoed this (2 January). French instead demanded that the New Armies be sent out as battalions and incorporated into existing units (perhaps with battalions combining to form regiments like in continental armies). All the senior commanders agreed that to have the New Armies fighting under their own inexperienced division and corps staff would be folly.
French was further irritated by an “incomprehensible” letter from Kitchener (2 January) stating that no more troops should remain on the Western Front than were necessary to hold the line, and seeking GHQ’s views as to which other theatres British troops should be redeployed. French replied that given sufficient resources he could break the German front, that to attack Turkey would be “to play the German game” and that he preferred an advance into Serbia via Salonika, or preferably an attack to clear the Belgian Coast, and that if Russia collapsed the government would have no choice but to send all available troops to France. French also had Murray hand-deliver a copy of this letter to the Prime Minister, earning French a rebuke from Kitchener for not using the normal channels of communication.
The War Council (7–8 January) discussed French’s demand that 50 Territorial or New Army battalions be sent to France, but in the face of Kitchener’s strong opposition it was agreed instead to examine the possibilities of other fronts. French, having sent Wilson and Murray on ahead to raise support, himself lobbied the War Council (13 January), informing them that he was stockpiling ammunition, expected only 5,000–8,000 casualties in his forthcoming offensive, and that the Germans were short of manpower and would have reached the end of her resources by November 1915. Although he expected Joffre’s offensives in 1915 to be successful, he “relied on the Russians to finish the business”. Kitchener agreed, but the War Council was then swayed by Churchill arguing for an attack on the Dardanelles, and it was agreed to send French only two Territorial Divisions by mid February.
The mooted Flanders Offensive was then cancelled altogether after further lobbying of Kitchener by Joffre and Millerand, who visited England especially to demand that the BEF instead take over more French line. Sir John agreed (15 January), as soon as he was reinforced, to relieve two French corps north of Ypres to allow Joffre to build up French reserves for his own offensive.
Murray was sent off sick for a month (24 January) and French demanded his resignation, despite Murray insisting that he only needed to take a few days off. Robertson replaced him.
Argument with Joffre
Sir John believed (13 February) that the Russians withdrawals were “only a strategic move” designed to overextend the Germans. He ordered Haig to prepare for an attack at Aubers Ridge, rather than an attack by Smith-Dorrien at Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, as he had more confidence in both Haig and his troops than he had in Smith-Dorrien. GHQ then learned (16 February) that Joffre wanted de Maud’huy’s French Tenth Army to attack at Vimy, with which attack Haig was ordered to coordinate his efforts.
At the War Council (9 February) French learned that the regular 29th Division was to be sent to Salonika rather than to France as he had been promised. Joffre wrote a letter of complaint (19 February) that the BEF might not be carrying out Sir John's promise to take over more line; in reply French summoned the liaison officer Victor Huguet to complain of Joffre’s claims that the British had demanded French participation in the offensive and that they had more men per mile of trench than the French did (much of the French front, as Sir John pointed out, required smaller garrisons as it was of less tactical importance or rougher terrain).
Sir John complained (21 February 1915) that Joffre “treated him like a corporal”, although he thought the French “gloriously brave”. When he had calmed down he sent Robertson and Wilson to smooth things over with Joffre, writing that Joffre’s rude letter had probably been written by “some upstart young French staff officer”. However, Joffre was angered by French’s formal reply (23 February) and thought that he ought to be able to carry out the planned relief as he was receiving the 46th (Territorial) Division. Haig visited de Maud’huy (28 February) and learned that he would be lending only limited artillery support to Haig’s offensive. Joffre told GHQ (7 March) that the offensive must be postponed. Millerand wrote to Kitchener to complain, enclosing another letter of complaint from Joffre. Kitchener (3 March) forwarded both letters to Sir John, along with a letter of complaint of his own (which French described as “might be written by an old woman … silly trash”). Joffre thought French (6 March 1915) a “liar” and “a bad comrade”.
French genuinely hoped for a breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle (10–12 March 1915) and personally briefed the cavalry commanders Allenby and Rimington beforehand, although, aware of the effect of modern firepower on cavalry, he cautioned Rimington against getting too close to the enemy. He believed that victory would prove to Kitchener that British efforts should be concentrated on the Western Front, and that it would be merely a prelude to a much larger Battle of Lille. French moved to a forward headquarters at Hazebrouck during the battle.
A renewed attack was planned for 22 March, but French was told by Lt-Gen Maxwell (QuarterMaster General) that sufficient shell was available only for a bombardment half the intensity of Neuve Chapelle, and he was warned by du Cane of defective fuses causing guns to explode (14 March). To some extent the shell shortage was an excuse, as French was also critical of planning errors in First Army’s attack. Kitchener told Asquith (18 March) that French was “not really a scientific soldier; a good capable leader in the field, but without adequate equipment and expert knowledge for the huge task of commanding 450,000 men.”
French's almost daily letters to his mistress in 1915 reveal his wish to see Kitchener sacked, his concern at lack of High Explosive shells, his ambivalent relations with the French (although sympathetic at the political interference which French generals suffered), his anger (shared with many other Western Front generals) at the way scarce men and shells were being sent to Gallipoli, and his belief that the German advance into Russia in 1915 would ultimately fail; he hoped that Germany would sue for peace by the summer of 1915 or spring 1916.
1915: Aubers Ridge and Shells Scandal
Strategic and Tactical Debates
Joffre once again (24 March) renewed negotiations for an Anglo-French offensive in Artois, and once again asked Sir John to relieve the two French corps north of Ypres. He agreed to do so by 20 April, prior to another attack by Haig’s First Army. It was still unclear whether or when New Army divisions would be deployed to France.
French was rebuked by the King for an interview with the Havas News Agency (24 March), in which he had warned that the war would be long (Northcliffe warned him that this would encourage "slackers" at home). French wrote to Northcliffe (25 March) thanking him for his view that efforts should be concentrated on the Western Front rather than dissipated to other fronts as Kitchener wanted. French gave an interview to The Times (27 March) calling for more ammunition.
French breakfasted with Kitchener (31 March) who told him that he and Joffre were “on ... trial” over the next five weeks, and that the Allied governments would reinforce other theatres unless they made “substantial advances” and “br(oke) the German line”. There were rumours in both British and French circles, probably baseless, that Kitchener coveted French’s job for himself. French also objected (2 April 1915) to rumours that Joffre was trying to put the BEF under Foch’s command.
A GHQ Memorandum (4 April) on the lessons of Neuve Chapelle emphasised registration of artillery. The French had achieved better results at Vimy by a long and methodical bombardment. French and Kitchener discussed ammunition (14 April). By April 1915 the BEF had grown to 900,000 men in 28 divisions.
French continued to be dissatisfied at Smith-Dorrien’s grip on his army and in March was concerned that the rate of sickness was running at three times the rate in Second Army as in First.
The Germans attacked (22 April) ground which Smith-Dorrien had recently taken over from the French, using poison gas, causing some French units to break on the British flank. Sir John spurred on Smith-Dorrien in costly counterattacks, but thought the French had made “a horrible mistake” and “Joffre … really deceived me” in holding the line so thinly. French was angry (26 April 1915) that French troops had broken under German gas attack, commenting that French troops had also failed to hold their positions in the retreat of 1914. Smith-Dorrien suggested withdrawing to the so-called “GHQ Line”. French privately agreed, but was angered that the suggestion came from Smith-Dorrien. Plumer was the given responsibility for the Ypres Salient (27 April).
Smith-Dorrien was finally relieved of command of Second Army (6 May).
On 2 May French, who appears to have persuaded himself that a short sharp bombardment might work once again, assured Kitchener that “the ammunition will be all right”, a declaration which Kitchener passed on to Asquith.
The attack at Aubers Ridge, against stronger German positions, (9 May) failed. French watched the battle from a ruined church and attributed the failure to lack of HE shelling (“it’s simple murder to send infantry against these powerfully fortified entrenchments until they’ve been heavily hammered” he wrote to his mistress). He returned to GHQ to find an order to send shells to Gallipoli, although after protest replacement shells were sent from the UK within days.
Fighting still continued at Ypres, and Sir John was under pressure from Joffre to renew the attack at Aubers Ridge. Although he would have preferred (10 May) to stand on the defensive until more High Explosive was available, he agreed to Joffre’s pressure to take over more French line and renew the attack. Haig also (11 May) favoured a “long methodical bombardment”.
After Aubers Ridge Repington sent a telegram to “The Times” blaming lack of High Explosive shell, which despite being heavily censored by Macdonogh was printed after Brinsley Fitzgerald assured him Sir John would approve. French had, despite Repington’s denial of his prior knowledge at the time, supplied Repington with information, and Fitzgerald