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Remembered Today:

The Little Field Marshall, Sir John French


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Just stumbled across this book on Amazon. Wondering if anyone had read it and how it stands up?

My opinion of French is not very high but that is based on a one sided argument in that i have studied the negatives of his Generalship but never looked for the positives(if they exist.). There is a quote that in his diaries he makes a reference to what he called 'Glory and her twin sister murder' This does at least show he had a heart if not a generals ability!!

Any comments


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I enjoyed this book. It sheds light on a rather mysterious but keyfigure of the Great War. I am tempted to buy it myself as it is substantially discounted in many places.

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It is trhe best and I think the only book on French apart from his own disputatious 1914, and his son's biography and volume of correspondence - and it's by RH, who is allways worth reading. I bought my copy many rears ago (remaindered) and it has stayed useful. New edition has a new intro, so the author must have reread it at least but I am not sure if any ammendments have been .

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  • 4 months later...

Book review:

The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French

By Richard Holmes, (London 1981, 2004 edition).

Sir John Denton Pinkstone French is barely remembered by the British public today. Controversy surrounding Douglas Haig and the carnage of 1916-18 has meant that French has received little attention from biographers. Prior to the present book, there were only two attempts at the subject; both pre-date the Second World War and one was written by Sir John’s son. 1

The Little Field Marshal was therefore most welcome when it was first published in 1981. Holmes has since become famous beyond the community of serious military history, thanks to a several highly successful books and an engaging screen presence. His recent triumphs have boosted the market for his earlier works, prompting the publication of this new edition of his biography of French in 2004. All the elements that have made Holmes such a hit are present here: crisp prose, pithy description, thorough research and keen analysis. 2

Despite his low profile in the historiography, French is an important figure in Great War history, being one of only two Commanders in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. He first came to prominence during the Boer War, where his first battle, a minor success at Elandslaagte was transformed into a major victory by the English press. Later, his part in the relief of Ladysmith and his charge at Klip Drift cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s best cavalry leaders.

Holmes's treatment of the war in South Africa is instructive in itself, for he applies his usual piercing logic and clarity of expression to events on veldt. He demonstrates how French's experiences there shaped his thinking for the rest of his career: cavalry should aim for shock action, and morale factors are superior to the physical.

French's exploits in South Africa attracted lavish tribute from the press, which was in turn and lapped up by a nation hungry for heroes. The publicity provided a boost to his future prospects, both in military and amorous affairs. His capacity for extra marital intrigue was legendary, and borne with amazing fortitude by his long suffering wife. The contrast between this aspect of French's character and the dour fidelity of Douglas Haig is stark. Holmes explores the issue with good taste and not a little humour:

There is something charming, if faintly ridiculous, in the prospect of an elderly Field-Marshal signing himself ‘Peter Pan’ and announcing, on the eve of Neuve Chapelle, that: ‘Tomorrow I shall go forward with my War Cry of “Winnifred”.’ 3

During the Edwardian period Sir John climbed ever higher on the professional ladder. Stints as GOC Aldershot, Inspector General of the Forces and Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) followed in quick succession. Having muddled through the Curragh affair as CIGS, French was called to his ultimate test: command of the British Expeditionary Force in a European war. Accordingly, Holmes devotes one third of the book to his period of command, which lasted until December 1915. The scale of his responsibilities eclipsed anything in Sir John's previous experience. Having never commanded more than a cavalry division in action – and that ten years previously - French was now responsible for a whole British army, fighting on the continent for the first time since the Crimean War.

Whether grappling with improbable pronunciations in his schoolboy French, or wading through the sea of communications that flooded into GHQ, Sir John was quick to display alarming signs that his competence was strained. Relations with his French allies got off to a bad start when he first met General Lanrezac, commander of the 5th Army. Unable to communicate in the same language, French’s confused enquiries about whether the Germans were planning to cross the Meuse produced and exasperated response: ‘Tell the Marshal…that in my opinion, the Germans have merely gone to the Meuse to fish.’ 4

Although capable of such clumsy naivety, Holmes acknowledges that French displayed remarkable perception in other aspects. He quickly grasped the need for hand grenades, trench mortars and high explosive shells, and began to demand large supplies from the War Office. As early as September 1914 he forecast that ‘siege operations will enter largely into tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle.’ 5

However, Holmes paints a disconcerting picture of French’s handling of major operations, including the First Battle of Ypres. Whilst Haig and Rawlinson were advancing warily through the countryside and villages east of Ypres, reaching the dawning conclusion that several German Army Corps were swinging around to face them, Sir John called for all out offensive. When they were fought to a bloody standstill by vastly superior German forces, the Commander in Chief urged more attacks. When his troops were hanging onto a line of scraped trenches and shallow breastworks under incessant howitzer fire, French clung to the proposed advance. Throughout the first stage of the battle he appeared unable - or unwilling - to recognise the perilous position his Army was in. The caution of his Corps commanders prevented the complete disaster which strict adherence to French's orders would surely have fostered.

French’s habit of devoting lots of time to visiting units did not help matters. Holmes explains:

It was all very much the Johnnie French style of command: the chat to a South Africa veteran here, the congratulation on the third stripe there. It put the Field Marshal in contact with his soldiers, but kept him away from GHQ.  There were several occasions when decisions could not be taken because the Commander-in-Chief was absent…However encouraging and inspiring it was to chat to old friends on the line of march, it was not the way to fight a modern war. 6

It is difficult to disagree with this conclusion. Such methods helped make French popular amongst the rank and file, but seriously detracted from his ability to influence events.

The Regular Army that Sir John knew and loved was killed in the first six months of the war. Mons, Le Cateau, the Aisne, and Ypres saw casualties on a scale that he had barely conceived of, and the shock to him was palpable. Holmes illuminates a very human side to French’s character, and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the man haunted by visions of the ghosts of his dead friends and silent battalions of slain Tommies.

Holmes may feel for his subject, but this does not deflect him from the clear conclusion that French was out of his depth. In seeking to withdraw the BEF from the fighting line the confused days of late August Sir John displayed fundamental ignorance of the very nature of the struggle he was engaged in. There could be no time to rest and refit, no scope to withdraw behind comforting river barriers and leave the fighting to his Allies. It took an impromptu visit from Kitchener to make plain these uncomfortable truths of continental war in the 20th century.

In some respects, the challenges of 1915 were less exacting than those of the previous year. The war had stabilised into a line of entrenchments and there seemed little prospect of an immediate break through for either side. The bloody struggles at Neuve Chapel, Festubert, Aubers Ridge and Loos served to emphasise the stalemate to which the Western Front had been fought. As the scale of his command increased but French’s room for manoeuvre shrank, in both tactical and figurative terms. Holmes deals capably with French’s conduct of operations and the series of intrigues that undermined his position as C-in-C. Such episodes do little credit to those involved, (Haig included) but Sir John himself was not without guilt. On several occasions he leaked material to a war correspondent in order to attack the government.

The character Holmes paints is able to inspire loyalty and derision in almost equal measure, an unlikely lothario with a lust for love, life and danger. When French was removed from command of the BEF in December 1915 his route to Boulogne was lined for miles by cheering troops. His old regiment, the 19th Hussars, ‘cheered themselves hoarse’ at the quayside. 7 Despite his faults many thousands of Tommies retained their confidence in him to the end.

Overall, the book is almost without weakness, although Holmes helpfully points some out himself in his forward to the new edition. Most involve gently shifting aspects of detail due to works published since The Little Field Marshal first appeared. It is testimony to Holmes’s work that so little has appeared to challenge his conclusions of twenty years ago. Drawn inexorably by his persuasive prose, I can only agree with his view of French:

He was a brave Victorian general, the most distinguished cavalry officer since Cromwell.  His mercurial personality and undisciplined intellect made him ill-suited to dealing with the problems posed by the Western Front in 1914-15.   But however much we may look askance at his irregular private life or financial fecklessness, there is no denying he possessed what Churchill called ‘the sacred fire of leadership.’  It was never enough to make him a great general, but it does begin to explain why many contemporaries, often folk of sound judgement, thought him the man of the hour in 1914.  That they were wrong was their tragedy as well his. 8

Given the lack of other modern studies of Sir John French, there is little with which to compare the book. As - by Great War standards -relatively little controversy remains around the subject and primary sources abound, one may consider this perhaps not the most challenging of projects for a historian of Holmes’s calibre. This is to miss the point. By writing this book over twenty years ago he filled an important gap in Great War historiography and gave us an early indication of the immense talents he would bring to bear later in his career. I heartily recommend it.




1: They are: Chisholm, Cecil, Sir John French: An Authentic Biography (London 1915); French, The Hon Gerald (ed) The Life of Field Marshal Sir John French (London 1931). They are neither widely available nor reckoned entirely impartial, given the particular circumstances of their compilation.

2: The following quotation – from page 151 - is illustrative of Holmes’s style:

Tactical lessons seem clear in retrospect.  For the French knights to charge English archers at Agincourt or for French columns to assail British lines in the Peninsula appears every bit as ill advised as it was for British infantry to stride to destruction on the Somme.  At the time, however, the gallop towards taut longbows, the scramble up the slope, or the measured march across no man’s-land, all seemed feasible solutions to a tactical conundrum.

3: P279.

4: P2-9. Holmes is quoting Spears.

5: P241.

6: P211.

7: P313.

8: Forward to 2004 edition, px[/size=1]

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  • 1 year later...

I am finishing this book now and it has helped me understand a lot more about French and the British military before 1914. At first I thought Holmes might too aplogetic for French, however when things turn after the battle of Loos he makes it quite clear that French lacked the leadership skills to remain in command.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Andy ...

I've read, now, two Richard Holmes books and find their really very thick but like Chinese food ... it leaves you hungary for more ... Redcoat and Tommy were very thin books with information or insight ... a lot of incidents ... how did you find this one ... I don't know much about French ... is it something that will get into the thick of this man?

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To be honest my opinion of Holmes varied as I read... well perhaps thats unfair, my opinion of his approached changed. You are right that there is a lot of information and Holmes interjects opinion when necessary. However at first I thought he was too apologetic towards French - his stated logic is that French is so often the victim in other biographies that he needs a defender. Later in the book though (specifically in the wind up to Loos) Holmes clearly lays blame at French's feet for poor decision making and being so caught up in working with Joffre that he sacrafices the BEF at Loos to maintain the allied military cohesion rather than attack at a less "unfavorable" position.

On the whole I think the book is well worth the read and offers a lot. As someone who knew little of French and only slightly more about events before 1914 (Boer War, Curragh) it was easy to read and follow - although Arm sent many a PM explaining the details of Curragh. I would also add that the foreward to the modern edition is perhaps one of the most insightful and illuminating I have read in any book in quite a while. For that alone I would suggest getting the book.


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Without trying to critique or analyze the book it's quite good and it comes as no surprise at all that he was not close to up to the job. Haig certainly has detractors and supporters but I have not heard a knowledgeable person advocate for French.

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I would also add that the foreward to the modern edition is perhaps one of the most insightful and illuminating I have read in any book in quite a while. For that alone I would suggest getting the book.


I am beginning to feel that reading the preface and introduction is the only useful thing in many books ... maybe that's a signal you need to change reading topics ... but I am currently reading Edmund S. Morgan's book on Virginia Slavery ... published just as I went into Grad school more than a quarter century ago ... it predates Genovese, etc. A bit Marxist ... but doesn't go with this Slaves were all Nat Turners or Simple Sambos ...

Don't know if I'll go through the bother of reading it ... the preface says it all ...

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Picked a clean copy of recently from the local Oxfam shop. Am now looking forward to reading it after this very interesting thread.

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Based on the views expressed in this thread I bought a copy of this book for only £3.95!

An excellent and interesting read so far. French has just arrived at Durban in 1899.

Holmes has quite a nice turn of phrase making the book quite enjoyable to read.

Finding it hard to put this book down.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Managed to finish this book at last. Overall I liked the book and Holmes' writing style but it is not one I would read again.

My opinion of French was never great but then I did not really know a lot about him. This is the first full length biography I have read about the man and, although he how appears more human than before, I have to say that my opinion of him has not improved.

For him personalities appeared to be paramount. He does not seem to have been able to get on with anybody around him and this failure appears to have dictated the pace of everything he did. After a while he comes across as a ridiculous figure and it appears that he was replaced in France not before time. Of course the man had good qualities which Holmes does praise whenever he can, but a modern general has to be a diplomat and a manager as well as these were qualities which French did not have in abundance.

I agree that he was out of his depth but I also think - with the benefit of hindsight of course - that he was out of his period too. He would have done well in the Crimea.

I ended up feeling sorry for him by the time I reached the end of the book.

I mentioned above that I liked Holmes' writing style. This is the first of his books I have read. I am inspired to read more of his writings so that should keep me going until retirement at least.

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A good read and a useful insight of a very complex man.

A product of his time and the British Army.

Out of his depth commanding the BEF, but then, who woudn't have been in 1914?

He did well in the Boer War and Ireland though - a complex man indeed.

I would recommend this book as it shows not only the man and the soldier, but also very useful for some understanding of the mindset and men of the time.

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