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Remembered Today:

When would YOU have removed Sir John French?


Justin Moretti

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This question is motivated by someone, I think it was Terraine, saying that Haig would be remembered as a great commander if he'd taken over the BEF in late 1917 with his reputation unsullied by the Somme and Passchendaele, but that sort-of implies the requirement for Sir John French to retain his command until then. And that got me thinking to what would have been the most appropriate trigger to remove him, and whether it might have happened earlier than it did (his refusal to allow Haig's spoiling attack before St Quentin/Guise comes to mind).

 

In all cases, "State your reasoning" applies. The options are:

 

a) At the point when he actually was removed.

b) Sooner than that (e.g. as soon as the Retreat in 1914, when he first expressed his desire to take the BEF out of the line entirely)

c) At some later stage, after some monumental blunder (e.g. have him take the fall for 1 July 1916, assuming it happens as it did).

d) I would have given Haig the BEF from the start and made Grierson* and Smith-Dorrien the Corps commanders (replacing Grierson with Plumer when he died).

e) Not at all - it wasn't his fault as he had insufficient resources for the war he was being asked to fight.

f) None of the above - clarify below.

 

Let the discussion begin!

 

Sources in print at which I can throw my money would be greatly appreciated. :lol:

 

Edited by Justin Moretti
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I think this is certainly an interesting question but... should we go down that road?? 

hindsight and all??? 

 

I'm not sure he would have done a better job than French right from the beginning, but I can seen where the argument "late 1917 with his reputation unsullied by the Somme and Passchendaele" comes from and  how it makes sense. 

 

M.

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Given that any continental war involving the British Army was necessarily going to be a coalition, [b] because he was unfitted to work with allies, as he proved right from the outset.

 

I like the Haig, Smith-Dorrien and Grierson/Plumer alternative.

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Several days before the BEF had even set foot on French soil, Haig expressed his opinion that French wasn't up to the job.

 

He confided this to the King, according to his diary, on the eleventh of August, 1914.

 

With such doubts extant even before the first shots had been fired, I'm tempted to argue that Grierson's death would have been an opportune moment to effect a major change and put Haig in command.

 

I'll find the door !

 

Phil

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1 hour ago, phil andrade said:

Several days before the BEF had even set foot on French soil, Haig expressed his opinion that French wasn't up to the job.

 

He confided this to the King, according to his diary, on the eleventh of August, 1914.

 

With such doubts extant even before the first shots had been fired, I'm tempted to argue that Grierson's death would have been an opportune moment to effect a major change and put Haig in command.

 

I'll find the door !

 

Phil

 

I agree about French's unsuitability but I cannot join your Grierson dots. 

At a stroke, replacements would be needed for the three top posts. Assuming Haig for French, a replacement for Haig. A replacement for Grierson.

 

A tad unsettling for the conduct of war.

Edited by Muerrisch
clarification
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3 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

Given that any continental war involving the British Army was necessarily going to be a coalition, [b] because he was unfitted to work with allies, as he proved right from the outset.

 

I like the Haig, Smith-Dorrien and Grierson/Plumer alternative.

Agreed and he was too easily bamboozled by Wilson.

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1 hour ago, Muerrisch said:

 

I agree about French's unsuitability but I cannot join your Grierson dots. 

At a stroke, replacements would be needed for the three top posts. Assuming Haig for French, a replacement for Haig. A replacement for Grierson.

 

A tad unsettling for the conduct of war.

 

Since when has the conduct of war been anything but unsettling ?

 

But I must confess that I can’t join up the dots.

 

I was letting imagination run riot, and thought it might be worth suggesting an outlandish answer .

 

Phil

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4 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Several days before the BEF had even set foot on French soil, Haig expressed his opinion that French wasn't up to the job.

 

and we can all guess the motivation behind that comment - not that I necessarily disagree with his opinion!

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8 hours ago, Don Regiano said:

 

and we can all guess the motivation behind that comment - not that I necessarily disagree with his opinion!

 

Yes : Haig was ambitious and keen to exploit the advantage of having the ear of the King.

 

It’s still a bit shocking to read his assessment just  one week after war had been declared.

 

Haig must have known French quite well : his strengths and weaknesses had been apparent, and Haig had personally rescued him financially.

 

So we might reasonably argue that Haig knew whereof he spoke, and was being candid and heartfelt when he confided to His Majesty.

 

It makes me recoil a bit, though : it does seem conspiratorial and there were attractive features to French’s personality that Haig lacked.

 

If French was out of his depth we have to ask ourselves how Haig might have reacted under the awful pressure of the opening battles : look no further than Landrecies......hardly a display of equanimity, bowel problems notwithstanding .

 

Let me pitch another idea into the pot : Neuve Chapelle, March 1915, revealed what Haig’s First Army could accomplish given enough guns and munitions to deploy a local superiority .   A failure, in the end, of course, but a very impressive beginning which  might be attributed to Haig’s technical skills.  He had already given an outstanding account of himself in the defensive role as 1st Corps Commander at Ypres, and this striking initial - albeit local - success in mid March 1915 might be cited as an appropriate moment to promote him to replace French.

 

Phil

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14 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Several days before the BEF had even set foot on French soil, Haig expressed his opinion that French wasn't up to the job.

 

As @Don Regianosaid... we know why... he was intriguing to get the spot and has used his relationship with the king from the beginning for this. 

The question is WHY was he REALLY not up to the job?? Where did the powers-that-be blunder is appointing French in the first place?? Was there a reason not to ?? 

 

I have "the little field marschal" on my reading stack... don't ask where... so I hope I'll understand better once I've read that. 

 

M.

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1 hour ago, Marilyne said:

 

 

As @Don Regianosaid... we know why... he was intriguing to get the spot and has used his relationship with the king from the beginning for this. 

The question is WHY was he REALLY not up to the job?? Where did the powers-that-be blunder is appointing French in the first place?? Was there a reason not to ?? 

 

I have "the little field marschal" on my reading stack... don't ask where... so I hope I'll understand better once I've read that. 

 

M.

Digression.

The OP asks "when"

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agreed... but Justin's point d) suggests Haig should have been in command from the start on, implying the non-nomination of French ... so the two are linked... 

 

M.

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2 hours ago, Marilyne said:

agreed... but Justin's point d) suggests Haig should have been in command from the start on, implying the non-nomination of French ... so the two are linked... 

 

M.

 

d) is illogical under the terms of the OP. I quote: 

 

what would have been the most appropriate trigger to remove him, and whether it might have happened earlier than it did 

 

French was appointed C in C on declaration ..... it did not go automatically with his current post.

Edited by Muerrisch
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15 hours ago, phil andrade said:

 

Since when has the conduct of war been anything but unsettling ?

 

 

 

Phil

 Sorry about that....what I meant to say was anything other than unsettling.

 

I feel no end of a clot !

 

Phil

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9 minutes ago, Muerrisch said:

 

d) is illogical under the terms of the OP. I quote: 

 

what would have been the most appropriate trigger to remove him, and whether it might have happened earlier than it did 

 

French was appointed C in C on declaration ..... it did not go automatically with his current post.

 

this is why I loooove our discussions ... and right now they are SOOOOOO much more interesting than the ATP-3.2.1's view on the functionnal framework of offensive and defensive... 

 

M. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's another potential trigger point - the removal of Smith-Dorrien. French and Smith-Dorrien were always at loggerheads, and whatever you think of SD's performance and dismissal, Plumer being appointed to replace him and then being approved to do what Smith-Dorrien had (in my understanding) been sacked for wanting to do seems particularly dysfunctional. Perhaps that's the point at which you need to think about leaving SD in, removing French, promoting Haig to replace him and giving Plumer I Corps.

 

On 25/11/2020 at 15:49, phil andrade said:

Several days before the BEF had even set foot on French soil, Haig expressed his opinion that French wasn't up to the job.

 

He confided this to the King, according to his diary, on the eleventh of August, 1914.

He turned out to be right, of course, but those in a position to do so weren't going to be convinced just on Haig's say-so. Even Haig's supporters (and I am one) would have to admit that he could be perceived as angling too eagerly for the job.

 

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The last point is intriguing. I understand that Haig had a strong Christian ethos [as do I].

 

If true, did his moral compass, rather than his ambition, put the finger on French? Did he genuinely fear for the army and the country and the King with French in charge?

 

Or was he pretending to have the ethos and succumbing to envy and ambition?

 

 

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6 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

Did he genuinely fear for the army and the country and the King with French in charge?

 

Or was he pretending to have the ethos and succumbing to envy and ambition?

 

 

 

The former, I would say.

 

Surely Haig was making a heartfelt statement.

 

He was certainly ambitious.....but if he was being purely and unethically  conspiratorial, he would-in my opinion - have exercised more guile in the  timing and circumstance of his comments.

 

Phil

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Good point. I do favour that interpretation.

 

Haig had many faults, and has many detractors, all with good cases. I don't think he was bright.

 

The simple fact is that supreme commanders have one overarching duty, to win. To defeat the enemy on the battlefield in the last fight. He and his army, a few regulars, a few SR, a few TF, and a lot of volunteers and conscripts, were the last men standing.

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11 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

 

 

Haig had many faults, and has many detractors, all with good cases. I don't think he was bright.

 

 

Your assessment has impelled me to cite this verdict, from another British soldier.

 

It's pertinent both to the question of Haig's generalship,  and to his relationship with French.

 

Haig was unimaginative.  Maybe he was competent according to his lights, but these were dim ;  ...........Furthermore, he intrigued against his commander-in-chief and his political masters, which in my view is unforgivable, even though he was himself intrigued against.

 

Who can guess who wrote that ?  No cheating, please.....try this without consulting books or wiki......  I bet there'll be forumites who can guess it straight away !

 

The more I think about the way Haig marshalled his Neuve Chapelle attack, the more I think that would have been the propitious moment to give him French's job.  I wonder what strategic impact that might have had regarding the imminent dispatch of the MEF to the Dardanelles.

 

Phil

 

 

 

 

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Without being anti-religious to anyone of any brand of the stuff, then I think Haig;s religious beliefs were sincere-at least in his own mind. This has to be factored with the notion expressed about Montgomery-he was not a nice man but nice men don't win wars.  How a strong level of innate ambition melds to provide a vision of religious outlook to match it has been presumed strongly for a recent PM-but that takes us off Forum and its too close to Chri  to get tasered by the Mods.  So instead lets make reference to the Barchester Novels or to the career of Samuel Wilberforce-"Soapy Sam" (of whom it was said,excellent preacher that he was-"The more he talked about morals, the faster we counted the spoons")  I do not think Haig was the brightest star in the firmament but although the connection with low intelligence and military failure is there, there appears to be no absolute correlation between high intelligence and military success- perhaps a Western Front commanded by James Edmonds, perceived as the bright star of the year Haig was with him at staff college-I think not.

   Haig's religious views were pretty bland, closer to stubbornness than the nuances of theology- but they conveniently came together in his own mind. A careerist general with theistic certainty was a dangerous beast-maybe not to his enemies but to his contemporaries.

    I like to think of Haig's religious outlook versus his ambition in the way of the famous quote about Mr. Gladstone by Mr. Disraeli- "I do not object to Mr. Gladstone having the ace of trumps up his sleeve--I do object to him saying it was God that put it there"

 

 

 

 

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12 hours ago, Muerrisch said:

The simple fact is that supreme commanders have one overarching duty, to win. To defeat the enemy on the battlefield in the last fight. He and his army, a few regulars, a few SR, a few TF, and a lot of volunteers and conscripts, were the last men standing.

That was Haig's aim - to Win A War. Say what you like about the man but he did achieve that. I think we tend to consider the man and his abilities and beliefs with a 21st century view. "Haig had the ear of the King" is often trotted out as an example of his ambition and devious character who snitched on his commander. His religious beliefs were personal and he did not inflict his religion on others. Many had the ear of the King, French and Smith Dorrien are just two examples.

James Edmonds has been mentioned and there is one entry in his memoirs, while they were both at Staff College, that perhaps sums up Haig's character. 

When asked to inspect a road and report on its suitability for moving troops with notes and drawings, Edmonds stated that while everyone was drawing maps complete with fences, trees and even a pillar box, Haig simply drew a brown line to represent the road with an indication of the compass direction, and stated that it was metalled and suitable for cavalry in twos and and infantry in fours.

 

Edited by squirrel
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I would have been tempted at Landrecies when he apparently panicked as his I Corps became separated from II Corps.

Kinder to blame his insides rather than his guts, Diificult to form good judgements when sitting on the pan.

 

My hero among the unattractive bunch of senior officers is Smith-Dorrien, survivor of Isandhlwana, also Wully Robertson.

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6 hours ago, phil andrade said:

Who can guess who wrote that ?  No cheating, please.....try this without consulting books or wiki...

Wasn't it Lloyd George's son?

3 hours ago, PhilB said:

I look forward to the follow up thread - “When would you have relieved Haig?”  :devilgrin:

Lloyd George tried, and IIRC all the people he sent out to canvass for a replacement came back with the news that there was no candidate who could do better than the incumbent.

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