John French

John French

John French the son of Captain William French and Margaret Eccles, was born in Ripple, Kent in 1852. He joined the navy in 1866, but transferred to the army in 1874. He served with the 19th Hussars in the Sudan (1884-85) and was a cavalry commander in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1901).

Appointed Chief of Staff of the British Army in 1911, French took command of the British Expeditionary Force sent to Europe in August 1914. Ironically, his sister, Charlotte Despard, was one of Britain's leading anti-war campaigners.

After Mons French became very pessimistic about the outcome of the war and Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, had to apply pressure in order to persuade him to take part in the Marne offensive. French resigned in December, 1915 and Sir Douglas Haig replaced as leader of the BEF.

French, as commander of the British home forces, was responsible for dealing with the Easter Rising in 1916. Rewarded with the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1918-1921), French was granted £50,000 by the British government when he retired. Sir John French died in 1925.

Primary Sources

(1) General John French, despatch (2nd February, 1915)

The deadly accuracy, range and quick-firing capabilities of the modern rifle and machine gun require that a fire-swept zone be crossed in the shortest possible space of time by attacking troops. But if men are detained under the enemy's fire by the difficulty of emerging from a water-logged trench, and by the necessity of passing over ground knee-deep in holding mud and slush, such attacks become practically prohibitive owing to the losses they entail.

(2) General John French, despatch (15th June, 1915)

All the scientific resources of Germany have apparently been brought into play to produce a gas of so virulent and poisonous a nature that any human being brought into contact with it is first paralysed and then meets with a lingering and agonising death.

Following a heavy bombardment, the enemy attacked the French Division at about 5 p.m., using asphyxiating gases for the first time. Aircraft reported that at about 5 p.m. thick yellow smoke had been seen issuing from the German trenches between Langemarck and Bixschoote. The French reported that two simultaneous attacks had been made east of the Ypres-Staden Railway, in which these asphyxiating gases had been employed.

What follows almost defies description. The effect of these poisonous gases was so virulent as to render the whole of the line held by the French Division mentioned above practically incapable of any action at all. It was at first impossible for anyone to realise what had actually happened. The smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition, and within an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with about 50 guns.