Sir John French. An Appreciation

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
An Appreciation of Sir John French (1916)
Cover illustration by Lucien Jonas.

Sir John French. An Appreciation is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the The Daily Chronicle on 20 december 1915.


An Appreciation of Sir John French

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It is a most difficult matter to get the correct proportion either of events or of characters in as great an epoch as this. It will be many years before the true scale will gradually be found. At the same time it can be said with absolute certainty that John French's name will go down to history as having been the General of our European armies during the sixteen months of greatest national pressure. We have much yet to do, but nothing in the future can be charged with the same possibilities of danger and e wen disaster as those operations of the past through which the returning General has successfully brought us. He has had the hard defensive and constructive period which covers the first half of the war. The present moment seems a fitting one for a short review of his work so far as a civilian observer is qualified to judge it.

When a British army about 80,000 strong, with cavalry, guns, ambulances and every accessory, lined up on the Mons Condé Canal and to the East of Mons upon August 22nd, 1914, a very great work had already been done. War was declared upon the night of August 4th. Here in less than three weeks from the days of peace were two perfectly equipped army corps with another division coming up in their rear at the critical point in Flanders. It was a remarkable piece of organisation for which the War Office and transport service are to be thanked, but which could not have been done without great qualities upon the part of the General. The inner history of every campaign in the past has shown the part which the General plays in suggesting, exhorting, and guiding before he finds things as he would have them. Before ever a shot had been fired Sir John French had done good work for his country.

The battle of Mons followed — an engagement of no great importance as an action, but exceedingly important in its results. On the actual day of battle it cannot be said that more than three or four brigades were seriously engaged — all from the second Army Corps. To understand Sir John's position we have to remember that the whole movement in which the British Army formed the left of the Allied line was an offensive movement to attack the Germans and drive them out of Belgium. This was the reason why bridges in front of the British position were not destroyed. They would be needed for the advance. Two factors were responsible for the very serious position in which Sir John soon found himself and his army, both of them entirely beyond his control. The first was that before ever his battle began on August 23rd the French main army had been defeated at Charleroi upon August 22nd and had been compelled to fall back, leaving his right wing exposed. The other was that instead of having to deal with the mere fringe of the German line the force which was opposed to him was their true striking force, very numerous, very mobile, and altogether formidable. Under these really appalling circumstances surely the historian of the future cannot fail to admire Sir John's attitude. Over-haste and a day-light retirement might mean disaster. Delay was equally dangerous. With a cool avoidance of either extreme he began to fall back after night, preparing a second line of resistance for himself two days march to the south, where he knew that his fresh division would be available.

The hero of the actual retreat must always be Smith-Dorrien, as Ney is the hero of the retreat from Moscow, since in each case the actual pressure was borne by the subordinate General. I venture to prophesy that when all the facts are known, the retreat from Mons will grow rather than fade in the public estimation as a military feat. If, as seems probable, it was von Bulow's men who overtook Haig at Landrecies on 25th, and captured the survivors of the Munsters on 27th, then the whole of von Kluck's five corps were in full cry after our second army corps, strengthened on the 25th by the 4th Division. Sir John French had hoped that the two British corps, separated in the retreat, would have reunited upon the Le Cateau position, so that the centre of the Army, instead of its right wing, would have rested upon that town. The enemy's attacks and the blocked stake of the roads prevented this junction, so that although Smith-Dorrien threw his cavalry out as for as Chatillon upon his right wing he could not get touch with the other corps. Thus, through entirely unavoidable circumstances, three British divisions were left in face of certainly eight and probably ten German ones with an overmastering artillery. Sir John very naturally desired to avoid the action and to carry on until he could reach some good point for a rally. Smith-Dorrien, however, being in closer touch with the rear-guards, came to the conclusion that a battle was the only means of drawing the troops together, and preventing disintegration. The British soldier has always been better in a fight than in a retreat. Too long a retirement with no counter-attack demoralises him. Sir John had the wisdom to leave the matter to the judgment of his subordinate, which was justified to the extent that the Army was safely withdrawn. There is reason to believe that Sir John chivalrously desired to return and share the fortunes of his endangered corps, but that Sir Horace, with equal nobility, would not hear of it lest England's main hope should be involved in a disaster. A few days later the two corps reunited and the terrible danger was past. It should not be forgotten by us that if the latter stages of the retreat were easier than the early ones, the change was at least partly due to the chivalry of d'Amade's little French army, which threw itself across the line. of the German advance near St. Quentin, and, at grievous cost to itself, held it up for the greater part of a precious day.

Sir John's cheerful and imperturable demeanour was one of the things which held up the spirits of his troops. An officer of the Fourth Division describes the surprise and consternation which filled his young soldiers as they saw the weary, battle-stained men from Mons staggering through their lines. They imagined that some great disaster had occurred. "Presently," he adds, "we were all reassured by the passing of a motor-car in which were Sir John and some members of his staff. They were chatting cheerfully together and their appearance put fresh heart into all of us." Such are the imponderabilia of warfare.

It is a matter of history how the Army rallied, and how they turned on their pursuers at the Marne. Only an indomitable commander can keep so high a spirit in his troops. In the battle itself the honours fell to the French, especially to Manoury's army upon our left, whose desperate engagement upon the Ourcq may fairly he placed among the most fateful actions in history. Sir John and his British played inside left to the Allied forward line, but it so chanced that outside left and centre got most of the game. It was at the Aisne, however, that he was again to the fore. Here Sir John was faced by the difficult question whether he should cross the river in pursuit of the enemy without having the means of knowing how far that enemy was about to make a serious stand. The weather was so thick that no reconnaisance was of any avail, but if he waited the enemy might get a day or two of start for the border. He took the risk and found himself next day with an entrenched enemy in front of him and a deep river in his rear. It was a very serious situation, but it was saved by his own indomitable coolness and the tenacity of his troops. He was driven below ground and the war of trenches began.

But the British Army, which had begun as left wing, was now rather in the position of centre forward. It was no slight task to get it back into position in the middle of the game. It was Sir John who saw that it both should and could be done. There followed the remarkable operation of the extraction of the Army and its reassembling in French Flanders. It has attracted the less notice because it was so deftly and successfully done. Had it been marred by a sudden German attack we should have realised more clearly what is at stake when you move such an army from within two hundred yards of the enemy, with an open slope behind you and a few bridges which lie beneath his guns. The movement was as bold as it was successful. But fresh problems more difficult than ever faced the British commander. It had been hoped that lie would find himself with his army outflanking the German line. So he might had it not been for the fall of Antwerp. This catastrophe released at least two corps which were strengthened by three fresh reserve corps from Germany. These five corps swept across Belgium, took possession of the sea coast, and would have driven straight for Calais had not the Belgian resistance upon the Yser and the magnificent stand of the Seventh British Division held them up. As the Seventh Division was on the eve of extermination, Sir John managed to get Haig with his 1st Corps to their aid. Then began that terrible fight which will be a classic in British history. From Ypres, in the North, to Givenchy, in the South the thin British line strained and cracked before the tremendous weight which bulged and sagged but never quite burst it. Sir John and his three hard-working assistants, Haig, Pulteney, and Smith-Dorrien, were like so many desperately over-worked engineers holding up a damn which crumbled before the pressure of a flood. A crack was stopped here, and a rift there, and yet again it was failing in another place. Any plug would do for the leak, sometimes a Territorial regiment, sometimes dismounted troopers, sometimes a welcome handful of the little red legs of Joffre. They were breathless, fateful days, never realised by the folk at home. On the terrible 31st of October, when the line was broken at Ypres and the Germans seemed for a moment to have won home, French, in person, was at Howe under the screaming shells, working hard, with the gallant Haig, to build up that second line which rolled forward as the evening darkened and fell, exhausted but victorious, into the trenches that had seemed to be lost for ever. On November 17th, the worst was over and the trenches stretched, without break or change, from the Yser to the La Bassée Canal. The first Battle of Ypres had been won.

If Sir John was not ready for great enterprises in the spring, it was through no fault of his. His munitions were not yet sufficient. Yet he was stronger than of old, and ho showed it by assuming the offensive. At Neuve Chapelle he took the initiative and inaugurated the tactics of the new warfare by his method of secretly massing his artillery and opening a path for his infantry by a hurricane fire. For all their boasted science this was a lesson to the Germans who had never done it until Sir John showed them the way. Everything was experimental, however, in such attacks, where the limits of what is possible could only be told by trying, since the conditions were so entirely new. That very slowness in the reserves which Sir John was inclined to blame as preventing shim from confirming his victory was in itself the result of operations conducted upon a field which is intersected with trenches laced with barbed wire, and almost impassable to troops in regular formations. Bombs, barbed wire, machine guns, and high explosives had profoundly modified the old warfare — especially to the General who led the attack.

The next problem which faced Sir John was a most difficult one, and in none, as it appears to me, did he show such strength of mind and inflexibility of purpose. His guns had been assembling in the southern area for a considerable attack when the second battle of Ypres broke out in the North, and the Germans, by the aid of their chemists rather than their soldiers, gained some miles of ground. Was Sir John to declare his own attack off and send his guns northwards? The Ypres salient was in danger, but he would not change his plans. Infantry he was ready to spare, but not the guns, nor would he postpone his attack. Upon May 14th it took place and ended on the first day in a bloody repulse. On that very day news was brought him that the cavalry who had been put in the place of the exhausted infantry outside Ypres had themselves been terribly punished and that the whole line of defence was worn to shreds. It must indeed have been a temptation to him to submit to his failure in the South and to make sure of holding the line in the North. But his bulldog spirit would not have it so. He left the North to take care of itself, arguing no doubt that if we were exhausted the German attack might be oven more so. In this he seems to have been correct, since it was not renewed till the 24th. He in the meantime took a day to steady himself from the blow he had received and then attacked once more with new troops on a fresh line, and at night instead of day. For ten days he bored his way into the enemies' lines, and when at last the action fizzled out he had gains of ground and of prisoners which converted a defeat into a success.

Meanwhile a great work must have devolved upon him in assimilating the new material which was pouring over from Britain. It was splendid stuff; the best, I believe, that the island has ever sent forth, and it had in it the making of a grand and victorious army. But it needed working up. Manhood there was in plenty, but leadership, technical knowledge, experience, all had to be tested or supplied. In what proportion to mix the old and the new, and how best to weave them all together into one tough fabric — this was the great task of Sir John French. The full result has not yet been seen, but a formidable force is in the making, as the spring campaign will show.

Sir John French's tenure of office in France has terminated with his victory of Loos. It was a battle in which we lost heavily and in which we attained less than we had hoped, but, none the less, we did undeniably burst into the German line, we captured a considerable slice of their position, we took 3,000 of them prisoners, and we captured 25 of their guns. Of the six divisions who won these fine results two were of the new formations and one was Territorial, showing that already the emergency soldier is worthy to stand by the regular in the hottest fight. The events of Loos are too recent, and in some phases too obscure for discussion, but at least on the tangled question of the advance of the supports we have Sir John's own assurance that at 9.30 on the morning of the battle he had passed them on to General Haig, who in turn had put them under the direction of their immediate commander, the leader of the 11th Corps. We know, therefore, that Sir John had no further responsibility in the matter. To trace the blame, or even to allege that there is any blame, is, with our limited knowledge of the facts, invidious and unseemly.

Such in brief outline is the work of Sir John French in the German war. It was thankless, ungrateful work in which great success was impossible and great disaster was often imminent. He has brought us through it all unhurt. Under his leadership the British soldier has shown that the freedom of the volunteer can produce as fine a fighting machine as the iron, autocratic discipline of the Prussian system. It would have been an evil day for democracy had the result been different. Meanwhile, Sir John may enjoy his well-deserved rest, but the nation will be the easier in its mind from the knowledge that so tried and trusty a soldier is still within its call.