John French, 1st Earl of Ypres
John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres (September 28, 1852–May 22, 1925) was a British soldier and Field Marshal, the first commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in World War I.
Born in Ripple Vale, Kent. The son of a naval captain he joined the Royal Navy in 1866 but transferred to the British Army in 1874. he served with the 19th Hussars in the Sudan 1884–85 and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. As a Lieutenant General he served as a cavalry commander in the Boer War from 1899–1902. He was the commander at Aldershot from 1902–07 and was promoted to full General in 1907. He was Chief of Staff of the British Army in 1911, Chief of the Imperial General Staff 1912–13 and was promoted to Field Marshal in 1913.
Given command of the BEF in August 1914, he argued with the Cabinet against Lord Kitchener and Douglas Haig that the BEF should be deployed in Belgium, rather than Amiens, where both Haig and Kitchener believed it would be well placed to deliver a vigorous counter attack once the route of German advance was known. Kitchener argued that the placement of the BEF at Mons would result in having to abandon its position and much of its supplies almost immediately as the Belgian Army would be unable to hold its ground versus the Germans, given the solid belief in fortress at the time it is not surprising that French and the British cabinet disagreed with Kitchener on this issue.
After the BEF's first battles at Mons and Le Cateau, where as Kitchener predicted, it had to retreat from its position to avoid the danger of being flanked when the Belgian position failed, French was increasingly indecisive and more concerned with preserving his troops, even suggesting removing them to the Channel Ports, than aiding the French. He began a tentative withdrawal which threatend to break the line between French and Belgian armies and needed an unwanted emergency meeting with Kitchener on September 2, 1914 to reorganise his thinking and direct the counter-offensive at the First Battle of the Marne. French was particularly upset by the fact that Kitchener arrived wearing his Field Marshal's uniform, he felt Kitchener was implying that he was French's superior and not simply a cabinet member, a fact he mentioned in a letter to Winston Churchill. No one knows exactly what was said during the meeting, as neither man kept any record, but French became increasingly antagonistic towards Kitchener in the following months until he was eventually relieved of command in September 1915.
During the First Battle of Mons French issued a series of hasty orders to abandon positions and equipment which were ignored by his sub-ordinate in charge of the 2nd Corps of the BEF, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien feeling that the orders would result in a collapse of the position, mounted a vigerous counter attack, relieving the pressure and allowing the troops to re-organise, gather up their supplies and make a comfortable fighting withdrawal. Smith-Dorrien also ignored other orders from French which he considered to be useless, stupid and unrealistic, his prize for this was being removed from command on spurious grounds after advocating a tactical withdrawal away from German lines, following the first use of poison gas by German troops. Several days after this French ordered the 2nd Army to perform the exact manoeuvre that Smith-Dorrien had recommended, and had been used as the pretext for his dismissal.
He remained in command as major trenching began and oversaw the fighting at Neuve Chapelle and Ypres that finally destroyed the last of the original BEF. In 1915 his indecision returned, he declined to cooperate with the French and after the failures at Aubers Ridge and at Loos the British offensive operations were almost halted. In September 1915, his incompetence as a field commander no longer in doubt, he was replaced by Douglas Haig.
He returned to England to be appointed Commander of the British Home Forces, three divisions of the old and worn out where he could do no further damage. It was a post he held until the end of the war. He was created Viscount French, of Ypres and of High Lake in the County of Roscommon, in January of 1916. He oversaw the suppression of the Irish uprising in 1916 and was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1918 until his retirement in 1921. In May of 1922 he was created Earl of Ypres.
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