Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

Field-Marshal Viscount French

It is interesting to note that Viscount French is able to claim kinship not only with the English, Scottish, and Irish under his command, but also with our French allies. On his father's side he is descended from the Norman-French family of De Freigne, or De Fraxinis, which settled in Ireland. One of his ancestors, Patrick French, was a burgess of the town of Galway in the sixteenth century, and Patrick's grandson was popularly known as "Tierna More", which in Gaelic means "the great landlord ". This was John French of French Park, who commanded a troop in the Inniskilling Dragoons at the battle of Aughrim. Our marshal's great-grandfather purchased the estate of Ripplevale, in Kent, and his grandfather became a resident English landlord. Through his mother he can claim a connection with Scotland. Her name was Margaret Eccles, and she was the daughter of a West Indian merchant in Glasgow. The father of Lord French was a captain in the navy. After his death a Scottish uncle, Mr. William Smith, became the guardian of the family, which consisted of one son—the future great soldier—and five daughters, one of whom is Mrs. Charlotte Despard, of the "Women's Freedom League".

Lord French was born in Kenton 28th September, 1852. When he was quite a little boy no one imagined he would become a stern and dashing soldier. He was somewhat shy and nervous, and it seemed for a time as if he would elect to be a clergyman, because he so often dressed up as one at home and preached long sermons to his sisters. Nowadays he is known as "Silent French". But one trait of his youthful character he still retains, and that is consideration for others. Soldiers admire him because he is not one of those iron-hearted officers who seem to care little how they waste human lives, and because he always concerns himself greatly regarding their comfort. A pretty story is told about him by one of the old house-servants who knew him as a child. "One morning in the depth of winter," she has said, "when I went downstairs' I found Master Johnnie kneeling on the dining-room hearth trying his best to light the fire. He said in a tone of disappointment: 'I meant to have a good fire for you, but the wretched coal won't burn'."

His father and mother died when he was quite young, and "Master Johnnie "came under the care of his guardian. As he grew up he became fond of reading about wars. His favourite hero was Napoleon Bonaparte. But he did not neglect his lessons. He was always very studious, and early showed a desire to master a subject to which he applied himself.

Following his father's example, he first chose the navy as a career, and went to Eastman's Naval Academy at Portsmouth to study for the examinations. In time he became a midshipman on H.M.S. Warrior. The ironclads of these days were in the transition stage: they were fitted with engines and propellers, but also carried sails like Nelson's ships. A new type of vessel, which was named the Captain, was introduced when French was a middy. Its sides rose only 9 feet out of the water, and it had a raised "hurricane deck", with two revolving turrets carrying six guns. The crew consisted of about 600 men.

Great things were expected of the Captain. It was capable of powerful gun-fire, and afforded a small target to an enemy. But it proved to be thoroughly unseaworthy. Having been attached to the same squadron as the Warrior, on which French was serving, it entered the Bay of Biscay in rough weather. An anxious night went past, and when day dawned the Captain was nowhere to be seen. It had "turned turtle" and gone down with the entire crew. This disaster, which happened on 7th September, 1870, greatly impressed Midshipman French among others.

After four years' life in the navy the young officer left the sea and joined the 8th Hussars, in which he received a commission as a lieutenant. A month later, on 11th March, 1874, he was transferred to the 19th Hussars. His fellow-officers were not greatly impressed by him. "Why," exclaimed one of them, "he looks like a soda-water bottle." For a long time they nicknamed him "Soda-water bottle French ".

But the shy lad of low stature soon showed his worth. He was a most painstaking and studious soldier. He was quick to learn, and never forgot what he learned. Besides, he always did his duty promptly and thoroughly. His promotion was rapid, and he deserved it, for he worked hard.

He first saw active service in Egypt in 1884-5, when he took part in the operations against the Mahdi. He was then a major, and served under General Sir Herbert Stewart, who was pressing southward towards Khartoum to rescue Gordon with a force of less than 2500 men. At Abu Klea, Stewart was attacked by an army of 11,000 Dervishes, and a fierce battle was fought. The little British army formed a square, and although it was penetrated by the enemy, the savage desert warriors were driven back with great slaughter. It was in this action that Colonel Burnaby, a famous British cavalry officer who was fighting as a volunteer, met his death from an Arab spear.

The British pressed on, and next day fought another action, in which Sir Herbert Stewart was slain. About three weeks later Sir Redvers Buller arrived with reinforcements, and enabled the column Stewart had commanded to retire after a message had been received from Gordon saying he was not able to hold out much longer. Buller made special mention of French in his dispatches, adding that the force owed much to him. Shortly afterwards French was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, having proved himself an able and distinguished leader of cavalry. He commanded the 19th Hussars for six years, and then went to India as Assistant-Adjutant-General of Cavalry on the staff. Two years later he was transferred to the War Office, and carried out important reforms. He created a revolution in the training and tactics of cavalry.

When the Boer War broke out French was made a full major-general and given the command of the Cavalry Brigade in the Natal field force. He proved himself to be a superb and dashing leader. His first success was at Elandslaagte, where the Boers had cut the railway line and taken up a strong position. He commanded a mixed force, and after a stiff struggle drove back his opponents and captured their artillery and camp.

The main force of the Boer army afterwards pressed forward and began to surround Ladysmith. General Sir George White resolved to defend the town, and gave French important dispatches to carry to Sir Redvers Buller, then the Commander-in-Chief. He travelled by the last train which left the town. It was attacked by the Boers, but French escaped the showers of bullets that swept through the carriages by lying under a seat of a compartment, where he made himself as comfortable as possible and calmly smoked a cigar.

He afterwards fought several actions which retarded the advance of the Boers, and showed remarkable skill in adapting himself to the new conditions of warfare.

Early in 1900, after the arrival in South Africa of Lords Roberts and Kitchener, Lord French was placed in command of a mounted force between 4000 and 5000 strong, including seven batteries of horse artillery. His orders were to relieve the town of Kimberley, which had been surrounded and besieged by the Boers since October of the previous year. On 12th February he set out from Ramdan. "I promise faithfully", he said to Kitchener, "to relieve Kimberley at six o'clock on the evening of the 15th if I am alive." De Wet was watching this great mobile force and attempted to intercept it. As French was crossing a ford of the Riet River a shell burst near him, and he had a narrow escape from death. It seemed that he bore a charmed life. Strange to relate, French has never been wounded, although oft-times in danger.

In advancing upon Kimberley, French made quite a new use of cavalry. He attacked strongly entrenched positions held by infantry and artillery and passed right through between them. In doing so he opened out his squadrons into very widely extended formation, so that the Boer fire could not be concentrated against them, and dashed on at the gallop. Before his opponents quite realized what was happening, the great cavalry leader had passed behind and beyond them on his way to Kimberley.

The weather was burning hot, and this mobile relieving-force suffered alternately from dust storms and veldt fires. Still the advance was continued according to French's "time-table ". On the 14th Klip Drift, an important strategic position, was successfully occupied. Next morning the men were up early and in the saddle, riding forward at a brisk pace. Kimberley was sighted at half-past two in the afternoon and messages were sent to it by heliograph.

The Boers occupied two kopjes, and French, again extending his squadrons, charged through and round his entrenched opponents, with the result that they found it necessary to abandon the siege and effect a safe retreat. At six o'clock in the evening the gallant general entered the town with a small force and received a stirring welcome.

On the following evening, after engaging in several hours' heavy fighting, French received orders to hasten eastward so as to head off General Cronje's army, which was retiring from its strong position at Magersfontein, and making for Bloemfontein. This difficult task was performed with skill and success. The Boers were held up at Paardeberg while Kitchener advanced with infantry and artillery and completely surrounded them. After a brave and desperate resistance, against over-powering numbers, Cronje and his army of about 2000 surrendered.

On the march to Bloemfontein, and afterwards to Pretoria, General French distinguished himself as a cavalry leader. It was greatly due to his rapid and clever movements that the Boers had to evacuate position after position. The hardest fighting took place with General Botha, who proved himself a leader of great resource and daring.

After Pretoria was occupied, Kitchener planned his wide sweeping movements, which were called "drives", to clear the various districts of their mobile bands of fighting Boers. The greatest "drive" was carried out by French in the Eastern Transvaal. Afterwards he operated in the disturbed parts of Cape Colony. When the peace treaty was signed, on 31st May, 1902, it was recognized that French was without doubt the most original and brilliant leader of cavalry in the British army. Both Roberts and Kitchener praised him on several occasions, but none thought more highly of him than the soldiers under his command. They learned to trust him with absolute confidence, and they loved him because of his unassuming and kindly manner. He was always so cool, so resourceful, so simple and quiet. The brilliant general never posed, as it were, "to the gallery". A boastful word never escaped his lips, and he was generous to a fallen foeman. He always showed great concern about the men under his command, and went about his work as coolly and efficiently as a city man in his office or warehouse. The really great and clever men are often the most humble and considerate.

Lord French held various high military positions after the Boer War. In 1913 he was raised to the rank of Field-Marshal. When war broke out with Germany he was appointed to command the British Expeditionary Force. For seventeen months he discharged his responsible duties with distinction and then retired. In recognition of his great services he was raised by the King to the rank of Viscount. Sir Douglas Haig, a younger and no less brilliant leader, was chosen as his successor.

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