An Important Archive Relating to Field Marshall Sir John French

An Important Archive Relating to Field Marshall Sir John French

Field Marshal Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, first Earl of Ypres, K.P., G.C.B., O.M., G.C.V.O., K.C.M.G.

Sir John French's meteoric early career foretold of greatness. He achieved the highest levels of command and his biographer described him as "a brave Victorian general ... the most distinguished cavalry officer since Cromwell." But, at the pinacle of his greatness he was found wanting. In 1914 French was head of the Army, a field marshal and Chief of the Imperial General Staff. On the declaration of war he was appointed commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Times change, however, and the brilliant cavalry leader of the South African War was confronted with a hazy plan with which he had no intimate connection or knowledge. He had perforce to retreat in haste from Mons, his force divided and his French counterparts -in any case unwilling to co-operate as fully as would have been ideal -were almost as in the dark as he was. The year 1915 was dogged by ill-luck and misjudgement. Promised breakthroughs at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos were ill-conceived and the superb soldiers of the B.E.F. were let down by their commander's decisions (or indecision). Short of shells too, the Army could make no progress. After fourteen months in command of the B.E.F. French resigned on 4th December 1915.

But let us return to the "brave Victorian general" and his youthful promise. He was born in 1852, the son of a naval commander, and was destined for the navy. He passed out of HMS Britannia as a midshipman in 1868 but resigned in 1870 and obtained a commission in the Suffolk Artillery Militia. Not until 1874 was he gazetted to the 8th Hussars (shortly afterwards transferred to the 19th Lancers). He climbed steadily up the professional ladder: served as adjutant of his ,regiment and was advanced to captain in 1880 and a majority in 1883. He commanded a detachment of the 19th Hussars with distinction in Egypt, 1884, and was rewarded with a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy.

No stranger to the finer things in life, French enjoyed the privileges of his position, played polo and other games. His succession of mistresses almost led to the premature termination of his career.

French commanded the 19th Hussars in India and in 1895 he became assistant-adjutant-general at the War Office. In this job he produced a new Cavalry Manual and by the eve of the Boer War he was commanding the 1st Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot.

In South Africa French made a great name for himself leading the cavalry in Natal. In spite of difficult overall conditions and a wily foe, French ran rings around the Boer commandos and "virtually cleared Cape Colony of invaders" [ONB], forced the passage of the Modder River and -with two cavalry brigades in open order at the gallop -cleared the road to Kimberley and relieved the town. He swept all before him at Paardeberg, Poplar Grove and Driefontein. For this campaign he was made a substantive major-general and created K.C.B. The gueri II a war that followed was decidely unheroic for anyone involved, but gradually a satisfactory conclusion was achieved and at the end of the war French was promoted lieutenant-general and created K.C.M.G.

At home French was appointed to the Aldershot Command, promoted general and created G.C.V.O. in 1907. In March 1912, before his sixtieth birthday, he reached the top as C.I.G.S.

Sir John French's greatest achievements were in training his cavalrymen and, when the opportunity arose in Egypt and South Africa, leading them in action. His experience and arm of service did not equip him well for the test that was to follow and his First World War career has already been mentioned. He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1914 and in January 1916 was created Viscount French of Ypres, but ignominious recall to the United Kingdom while his army was still abroad, now under a younger man and former subordinate -Douglas Haig -must have rankled. As commander-in-chief of the Home Forces French successfully organised the anti-aircraft defence of the United Kingdom. His final public service was as lord-lieutenant of Ireland, presiding over that country at a particularly unhappy period in its history. He was created Earl of Ypres in 1922 after his retirement. Making his home at Deal Castle, the Earl of Ypres died there after a serious illness in 1925.

During his career, Lord French received the highest rewards of a grateful nation. He was also showered with orders and decorations by foreign governments, including those of Germany, Austria and France. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities conferred honorary degrees and he was granted the Freedoms of many cities.

This collection of bestowal documents for Lord French’s distinguished array of orders and decorations reflects the public service of a great officer, the last cavalry leader in the three-hundred year tradition of dash and elan associated with the British cavalry to command his arm in the field; a man denied the right to bow out on a high by the rapidly changing conditions of modern warfare.