Field-Marshall Sir John French. Image from the British Library.
By WFA member Peter Crook.
Was French unfairly treated?
The Battle of Loos revealed a somewhat unsavoury side to Haig’s character, some would say. Haig connived at the removal of his chief, General French, to get his chief’s job; some have suggested. However, although there is much evidence to suggest Haig was active ‘behind the scenes’, he was not alone in his criticism of French. Neither was the criticism of French exclusively the result of the fiasco at Loos. For some time, French had shown signs of temperamental instability and that he was increasingly out of his depth in the conduct of a war never within his comprehension.
French’s relations with Joffre were uneasy, that is well known - perhaps worse with Kitchener. Even before the Battle of Loos, Asquith, the Prime Minister had, in June, considered removing French. Robertson, the Chief of Staff of the BEF, had talked to the King about replacing French in July and visiting London in early October, had discussed with Lieut. Gen. Murray (CIGS) and the King the possibility of French’s replacement.
On 11 October, Kitchener asked French for an explanation of the handling of the Reserves.
The King arrived in France on 21 October, aware of his generals’ increasing doubts about French’s competence. On 24 October Gough and Haking visited the King after tea and told him ‘everyone has lost confidence in the Commander-in-Chief’. Finally, French’s reputation was irreparably damaged by his deliberately misleading official despatch (2 November) on the Battle of Loos. In this despatch, French stated that the reserves had been released to Haig at 09.30 am on the first day of the battle: in fact, that was the time that Haig sought permission for their release.
French, himself, later admitted that he had not fully understood the nature of the war. His training and experience had been in fighting wars of movement. But he concluded that this war had, within a few months, turned into a kind of siege of enormous continental proportions and that he had not personally been able to develop any strategy to win it. Yet, had Haig, his successor, whose decision (never questioned) to commit the reserves to the battle when they could not possibly succeed, any better grasp of the necessary winning strategy?
The debate continues a century later.
What about French’s failings at the Battle of Loos? French had been uneasy about the battle from the beginning. He did not entirely trust Joffre. As it turned out he was right. Joffre had promised to support the British with an attack directly to their south in order to draw German forces away from Loos. This was, at best, somewhat misleading and, at worst, a dangerous and damaging deception. Joffre had decided instead to make an advance in Champagne his main attack. The, now limited, French attack south of Loos did not begin until six and a quarter hours after the British attack and made little progress.
The following day the local French commander, Foch, was ordered by Joffre to ‘go cautiously .... without giving the British the impression that we are leaving them to attack alone.’ (1)
French may have hoped that the British attack would be brief, given the undoubted strength of the German positions and that Haig would quickly wind it up. It seems clear that he simply did not wish Haig to throw the Reserves into the battle since this would merely prolong it and increase the casualties. Doubtless, French had viewed Haig’s previous attacks in 1915 (Neuve Chapelle; Aubers Ridge; Festubert; Givenchy) with misgivings. Each had produced little if any gain and all enormous losses of men. Considerable casualties had also been suffered in the Second Battle of Ypres in April. French was also uncomfortably aware of the army’s local shortage of artillery and shells. The Battle of Loos, the greatest attack the British were to launch in the war so far, in French’s view might well produce the greatest casualties. French’s fears proved correct and by the Battle’s end among the immense casualties were large numbers of French’s original BEF.
Richard Holmes concludes that ‘French was not a great general’. ‘He was a brave man and a good cavalry leader ...’ But this was a war which had made cavalry virtually redundant - until its very final stages. Holmes again: ‘Whatever French’s failings as Commander-in-Chief in August and September 1914, it was his personality that animated the BEF in its hour of trial.’ (2)
Perhaps no other British general could have held the army together as French did when the BEF was at its weakest and the enemy at his strongest. Furthermore, French, as C-in-C, seems to have been accorded the trust and respect of his troops and it is almost certainly true that Haig, his successor, never managed to obtain either to anywhere near the same degree.
1. Liddell Hart (1970) History of the First World War. Chapter 5. Cassel.
2. Richard Holmes (1981) The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French. Jonathan Cape.