British military officer John Denton Pinkstone French, known as Field Marshal Sir John French, Earl of Ypres, served as the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Forces during World War I. While he made a significant contribution to modern warfare, criticisms of his command style and heavy British casualties under his leadership led to his resignation after approximately 18 months on the Western Front.
Early Life and Military Career
French was born on September 28, 1852, in Kent, England. He was raised by his older sisters after his father, a naval officer, died when French was just 2, and his mother was committed to a mental institution a few years later.
Following preparatory school, French attended a naval academy in Portsmouth and joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1866. However, he transferred to the Army in 1874 after discovering he had a severe fear of heights and began his ascent through the ranks.
As a cavalry general and commander in the Second Boer War, also known as the South African War (1899-1902), French’s successes led to his knighthood in 1900 and promotion to lieutenant general by the war’s end, earning him a reputation as one of Britain’s most skilled commanders and a national hero.
His rise continued with appointments as inspector-general of the Army, chief of the Imperial General Staff and promotion to field marshal in June 1913.
World War I Command
As Britain entered World War I in 1914, French was named commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force. He led troops in the Battle of Mons (August 23, 1914) in Belgium, Britain’s first significant battle along the Western Front. His attempt to delay Germany’s advance was a tactical defeat, as the British were forced to retreat, with substantial casualties on both sides.
Subsequent battles under French’s command also resulted in heavy casualties, including the Battle of Le Cateau in France three days after Mons, the first Battle of the Marne (September 6-12, 1914) and the first Battle of Ypres (October 19 to November 22, 1914).
A January 31, 1915, article in The New York Times referred to French as "the luckiest man in the army" for his ability to seize the most from opportunities.
"It was lucky for him, for instance, that the Boer war occurred, because that gave him the chance to show what he could do as a cavalry leader in the field; it was lucky for him that a few years ago the British authorities wanted their cavalry system reorganized, because that gave him the chance to show what he could do as an organizer; it was lucky for him--provided the Allies win--that the present war broke out, as it gives him a chance to display his abilities of generalship on a large scale. This has been the nature of most of the French luck throughout--chances to prove ability."
However, with a trench warfare stalemate in place and battles over the next few months failing to make advances for the Allies, French’s tactics faced criticism from other commanders. In December 1915, he was effectively forced to resign and General Douglas Haig replaced him. French was then appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Home Forces, responsible for protecting Britain from invasion.
Legacy and Death
In 1916, French was made Viscount French of Ypres in recognition of his World War I service and contributions. From 1918-1921, he served as lord lieutenant of Ireland and the country’s supreme commander of the British Army, representing the British monarchy during a politically charged and divided period of Irish history.
His tenure was marked by conflicts and unrest and he played a crucial part in suppressing the Irish nationalist movement to maintain British control over Ireland. His role ended following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, which led to the creation of the Irish Free State and the abolishment of the lord lieutenant position.
French published a memoir titled 1914, recounting his war experiences. He retired in 1921, and in 1922, his rank was elevated to Earl of Ypres, honoring his leadership during the city’s defense. He died on May 22, 1925, from cancer.