SIR JOHN FRENCH, EARL of YPRES
John Denton Pinkstone French was born
September 28, 1852 in Ripple in Kent, the son of
Commander John T. W. French, a Commander in
the Royal Navy, and his wife, Margaret Eccles.
He attended Eastman’s Naval Academy at
In 1866, he joined H.M.S. Britannia as a naval
cadet and from there the Royal Navy. He cared
little for the Navy and resigned four years later
with the intent of pursuing a career in the Army.
After a stint in the Militia, he obtained a
commission in the 8th Hussars in 1874 but was
transferred a few weeks later to the 19th
Hussars. He was promoted Captain in October of
1880, and Major in 1883.
He served with a party of the 19th Hussar allotted to Sir Herbert Stewart’s column in the Sudan Expedition during 1884 - 85
which was dispatched to aid in the relief of General Gordon. He was present at the actions at Abu Klea, Gubat, and Metammeh,
earning high approbation for his conduct during the campaign and returned to England a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel and Second-in-
Command of the 19th Hussars. In 1889 he succeeded to Command of the Regiment. In 1891, he went to India with the Regiment.
Having served the statutory period in command of the 19th Hussars, in 1892, French became Staff Officer to General Sir George
Luck, Inspector-General of Cavalry in India. When Sir Luck transferred to the War Department, French followed him back to
England and was appointed A.A.G. for Cavalry in 1895.
In May of 1897, French received command of the newly formed 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. Following the outbreak of the
2nd Boer War, in September of 1899 he was given command of the mounted troops under Sir George White in Natal. French’s
first task was to dislodge the Boers from a strong position at Elandslaagte, which he successfully accomplished. French then
successfully held Cape Colony while other British commanders were experiencing setbacks or defeats. In January of 1900, when
General Robert’s began his northward advance, French was ordered to turn Boer General Kronje’s left wing in order to bring
about the Boer’s retreat from Magersfontein and thereby relieve Kimberley.
On the 11th of February, French’s cavalry and mounted infantry forced the River Riet and on the 15th of February, following an
advance which included two successful cavalry charges, French entered Kimberley. Subsequently, French seized Koedoesrand
Drift and then participated in the defeat of the Boers at the battle of Paardeberg (February 15th to the 17th ) which resulted in
the surrender of the Boer Forces under the command of General Kronje. His mounted troops were then again successful against
DeWet and Delarey at Poplar Grove and Driefontein. The advance on Johannesburg continuing, French’s forces turned the Boer
defenders from their position at Kroonstadt. After the fall of Petoria on the 5th of June, French continued to assist Roberts in
his push on Petoria, including playing a leading part at the battle of Diamond Hill on June 11th, and the subsequent pursuit of
General Botha’s forces, including the final advance on Koomati Port.
As a reward for his services French, was promoted Major-General with an effective date of September 23. 1899, and received a
K.C.B. The remainder of French’s service during the Boer War did not rise to the level of his previous service, probably due more
to the transformation of the war into a guerrilla war than to any actions or inactions on French’s part. Nevertheless, he still
managed to capture Middleburg and Barberton in the Eastern Transvaal before assuming supreme control of the Johannesburg
District in November. In June of 1901, he was transferred to the Cape in order to eject the Boers who were again invading those
districts and so commanded the forces south of the Orange River until peace was declared. In August of 1902, French was
rewarded for his services during the final phases of the war by promotion to Lieutenant-General and was given a K.C.M.G.
In 1902, French returned to England to take up the Aldershot Command, a position he held until November of 1907, when he was
promoted to full General and made a G.C.V.O. and in December he was appointed Inspector-General of the Forces. In March of
1912, he was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Although promoted to Field Marshall in 1913, French resigned his
position as Chief of the Imperial General Staff in April of 1914, when his pledge not to use the cavalry forces at Curragh against
Ulster during the Irish Home Rule crisis was repudiated by the Cabinet..
To a large extend, the British Army before the start of the Great War was the product of Field Marshall French’s leadership and
guidance. The fact that it was a modern, fully equipped army ready for a war against European adversaries was due in no small
part to French’s efforts.
Sir Evelyn Wood describes French as the great driving force in the tactical progress of the times. Upon the outbreak of World
War I, the selection of Field Marshall French to lead the British Army was a foregone conclusion and he was given command of
the British Expeditionary Forces in August 1914. He argued with the Cabinet against Lord Kitchener and Sir 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 against the Germans; given the solid military belief in fortresses 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, the BEF 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. Lord Kitchner, then Secretary of War, made a special trip to France to attempt to stiffen
During the First Battle of Mons, French issued a series of hasty orders to abandon positions and equipment which were ignored
by his subordinate in charge of the 2nd Corps of the BEF, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien instead mounted a
vigorous defensive action at Le Cateau on the 25th of February 1914, relieving the pressure and allowing the troops to
reorganize, gather up their supplies and make a fighting withdrawal. As a result of his failure to follow French’s orders to
continue to retreat, a serious rift developed between French and Smith- Dorrien, who was subsequently relieved of his command
after the battle of Ypres for advocating a tactical withdrawal away from the German lines following the first use of poison gas
by German troops. Several days after this, French, upon the advice of General Sir Herbert Plumer, ordered a withdrawal almost
identical to the one Smith-Dorrien had recommended.
French remained in command as the major trenching phase of the war began and oversaw the fighting at Neuve Chapelle, where
French attempted to pierce the German lines in a costly effort which yielded no results of any importance, and at the battle of
Ypres, in which only the determination and tenacity of the British troops kept the Germans from turning their initial gains into a
serious success in an action that finally destroyed the last remnants of the original BEF. In December of 1914, French received
the Order of Merit. In 1915, he declined to co-operate with the French command and after the failures at Aubers Ridge, and at
Loos, where much hard fighting gained little, if any advantage, the British offensive operations were almost halted. French was
universally criticized following the Battle of Loos for his handling of the British reserves which were felt to have been kept by
French too far from the fighting and then chaotically forced marched to the front, resulting in un-necessarily heavy losses.
Questions started to be raised in high places concerning French’s ability to deal with this new type of warfare and in December
1915, he was relieved of the command of the BEF and replaced by his then deputy, General Sir Douglas Haig.
French returned to England where he was appointed Commander of the British Home Forces, a post he held until the end of the
war. His training and experience proved more useful in this capacity. He first completely reorganized the system of military
training, placing it on a sounder footing. Thereafter, he turned his attention to protecting England from what was viewed to be
the very real threat of raid or invasion, for which he developed a fortunately untested plan to destroy any invading enemy on the
beaches when landing, and the problem of the defense of the cities of England against the relatively new threat of aerial attacks.
In 1916, he was charged with the task of putting down the Easter Rising in Ireland.
In January of 1916, French was raised to the peerage as Viscount French of Ypres and of High Lake in the County of Roscommon.
In 1917, he was made a Knight of St. Patrick. Lord French was made a member of the Privy Council and was appointed Lord
Lieutenant of Ireland in 1918. French’s tenure as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was during a period of virtual civil war in Ireland,
with Ireland being governed by military authority based on the new Regulations for the Restoration of Order. However, due to
the restrictions placed upon use of the military, French’s military abilities and experience were of little use. In May of 1921,
Viscount French retired as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and was immediately advanced to an Earldom and given a grant of 50,000
pounds by the British Government. In June of 1922, it was announced that he would be known as the Earl of Ypres.
Field Marshal Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, Earl of Ypres died on the 22nd of May, 1925. He was survived by the wife,
Eleanora, nee Shelby-Lowndes, and two sons, John Richard Lowndes, Viscount French and the Honorable Edward Richard French,
D.S.O., and one daughter, Lady Essex Eleanora French. After a funeral service at Westminster Abbey in London, he was buried
in the local parish churchyard in the Village of Ripple where he was born.
|An unusually early cabinet card photo of John
French in the uniform of the 19th Hussars
taken upon his return from the Sudan
campaign. He is wearing the Egypt medal and
the Khedive' Star. The photographer was
Lambert Westson & Son of Folkestone and
Dover. The reverse of the photo is blank.