Top British military commander John French (1852-1925) first earned renown as a successful cavalry leader during the Boer War. He was appointed chief of the Imperial General Staff and then commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the start of World War I. Criticized for his indecisiveness with reserve forces at the Battle of Loos, French resigned his post in late 1915. He was created a viscount in 1916 and an earl in 1922, serving as commander in chief of the British home forces and then lord lieutenant of Ireland during those later years.

John Denton Pinkstone French’s unorthodox early career may explain some of his later difficulty in commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914-1915. He began by training for the navy, but transferred to the Suffolk artillery militia in 1870, and then transferred again to the cavalry in 1874. By these unusual means, French joined the regular army. At the start of the Boer War in 1899, French’s talents fitted the old-fashioned cavalry opportunities of the campaign. Clearing the Cape Province of Boers in 1899, French led the relief of Kimberley.

The Boer War made French’s reputation and led to increasingly senior staff positions, culminating in promotion to field marshal in 1913. Along the way, French’s career had been assisted by various influential officers, including Douglas Haig, who saved him from bankruptcy. This protective system helped French, for despite his resignation from the army in 1914 over Irish home rule, he was appointed to command the BEF in the same year. In France, during the BEF’s retreat in 1914, French’s personality proved vulnerable under pressure and swung sharply between optimism and pessimism. Initially, French acted aggressively, but he became discouraged after Mons and advocated taking the BEF out of the line. He was dissuaded by Horatio Kitchener’s intervention. Then, at Le Cateau, Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien’s Second Corps successfully stood fast, in opposition to French’s orders (French never forgave this and later dismissed Smith-Dorrien.) finally, at first Ypres in late 1914, French at first issued attack orders, but again became pessimistic and once more wished to take the BEF out of the line; this time he was dissuaded by Ferdinand Foch.

With the line stabilized in 1915, a series of stalled BEF offensives led to doubts about French's competence. False stories about his handling of the reserves at Loos led to his dismissal in late 1915. Subsequently, French commanded the Home Forces and then became lord lieutenant of Ireland. Despite recent attempts to give French’s strategic thought some coherency, he must be judged as unfit to command at the highest level.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.