John French spent much of his early military career, like many of his contemporaries, in Africa and India. He was part of the failed 1884/5 mission to relieve General Gordon in the Sudan; and from 1891 served in India.
In India French first met his future rival, Douglas Haig, then a captain. Indeed, Haig later lent French a large sum of money to help the latter stave off bankruptcy. While in India, French had an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. The scandal almost ended his career. He survived and went on to serve with distinction as a cavalry officer during the Boer War where, most notably, in 1900, under the stewardship of Frederick Roberts, he lead the force that relieved the British garrison besieged in the town of Kimberley.
French was appointed Britain’s army chief-of-staff in 1911 and given command of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF. In 1913, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, the BEF crossed the Channel, landing on the continent on 7 August. (Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers; the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’ Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.) French’s orders, from Horatio Kitchener, minister for war, were to work alongside the French but not to take orders from them. The BEF first saw action during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before.
Following the Allies’ Retreat from Mons and with the Germans advancing on Paris, Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, decided to counterattack, aided by the British. But French, concerned for his exhausted men, even at the cost of French soldiers, instead contemplated a complete withdrawal. On 1 September French received a visit in person from Kitchener who ordered him to obey Joffre’s commands.
1915, a year of continuous stalemate, and the disastrous Battle of Loos, did little for the failing reputation of French, whose mood swung from one extreme to another. In December 1915, he was told to resign and was replaced as commander-in-chief by his deputy, Sir Douglas Haig.
By way of compensation, French was showered with various titles and awards, and given command of the British Home Forces until 1918, during which time he had to deal with the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.
French, resentful that he had been usurped by his former deputy, devoted much energy to criticizing Haig, to the point he was summoned to Buckingham Palace and told, in person by the king, to desist.
John French died on 22 May 1925, aged 72.
French’s older sister, Charlotte Despard, was a constant embarrassment. She was, at various times, a suffragette, a Labour Party candidate, a pacifist, an Irish republican, a member of Sinn Féin, a vegetarian, a fan of Mahatma Gandhi, a communist and an admirer of the Soviet Union. One thing that remained constant in her life was Despard’s animosity towards her famous brother.
Read more about the Great War in 1914: History In An Hour and World War One: History In An Hour, both by Rupert Colley and published by William Collins. Available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.