Sir John French - The Man Who Led the First British Army
Commanding the Allies' Left: Field Marshal Sir John D. P French. During the First Phase of the British Army's Vigorous Campaign against the Germans. Photograph © Underwood & Underwood. The Independent, 21 September 1914. GGA Image ID # 18c022649c
DURING the Boer War the Boers were the first to admit the superiority of General French to the English officers. One of their most cunning leaders was General DeWet, who, was once asked how long he expected that he would avoid being captured.
The Old Fox laughed, as he replied: “It all depends upon whom you send after me.”
“How about General Pole-Carew?” had asked him.
“Oh, bosh,” he exclaimed.
“How about General Buller?”
“About two years,” he answered, chuckling.
“And General French?”
“Two weeks,” admitted the cautious DeWet.
This reputation for getting what he went after had been well won by General French, who, although a soldier for many years, had never reached high distinction until the fighting in South Africa brought him into the limelight.
Of Franco-Irish extraction, the eminent leader comes of a fighting stock. On his father’s side he hails from a famous Galway family, which had many soldiers and sailors among its numbers, including John French, who fought in the army of King William, leading a troop of Ennis Killen dragoons at the battle of Aughrim, in 1689.
His father was a sailor, Commander J. T. W. French, who, returning from his life at sea, and retiring from the Navy, settled upon a beautiful estate at Kipplevale, near Walmer.
Here John Denton Pinkstone French was born on September 28th, 1852, in the very year, in fact, that “Papa” Joffre first saw the light of day.
Very little is known of the boy’s home life at Ripplevale, and, as he was the sixth child and the only son in the family, you can see that he grew up normally and not without too good an opinion of his own prowess.
His father and mother both died while he was still young, so he was educated under the care of his sisters. One of these — now Mrs. Despard — was an extremely intelligent and gifted woman, so that our future General had good home training.
Although high-spirited and full of mischief, he was not a bad boy, and everything which he did was done with the greatest enthusiasm.
A person who knew the future Field Marshal at this time says that he was perpetually playing with soldiers, and, when occasion offered itself, would fight over again the campaigns of Napoleon the First, whom he admired as a soldier and not as a man. lie was, in fact, a normal healthy English boy, with just a touch of reticence and taciturnity to mark him from his fellows.
At an early age this now famous warrior was sent to a preparatory school at Harrow, which he soon left for Eastman’s Naval College at Portsmouth. He went through a system of cramming here, and at the age of thirteen passed the entrance examination to the navy.
In the year following (1866) he joined the Britannia as a cadet, but, after a cruise, decided that sea life did not appeal to him as much as a life on shore.
Consequently, at the age of eighteen, we find him leaving the navy in order to enter the army. He would now emulate the career of the great Napoleon, if the opportunity should present itself.
So, we next see John French in the militia with a commission as a Lieutenant. Later we find him in the regular service as an officer in the 8th, and then the 19th, Hussars, which were called the “Dumpies” because men were admitted to it who were beneath the standard height for the British army.
Here, at once, he earned for himself the name of Captain “Cross Trees,” as the result of having once been a naval man. To this day — among the few remaining brother officers of his youth — he is greeted as “Trees.”
French was a good rider, in spite of his squat and sturdy frame; he attended to his duties right manfully, and soon became a most accomplished officer.
One of his closest friends says of him — at this stage of his career— “Although he never attempted to go to the Staff College, he was continually studying military works, and often when his brother officers were at polo or other amusements, he would remain in his room, reading Von Schmidt, Jomini, or other books on strategy.
I recollect once traveling by rail with him in our subaltern days, when after observing the country for some time, he broke out with: “There is where I would place my artillery. There is where I should put my cavalry,” and so on — until the end of the journey.
He was interested in his profession, that was evident, but had, as yet, no opportunity to exhibit his talents in actual fighting. The chance was soon to come.
In 1882 the regiment in which young French was serving was ordered to embark for Egypt in order to take part in the Nile expedition, which proved to be the turning point in his career.
French was a man who had to wait for his opportunities, and thus, lie was thirty-two years of age before he saw this, his first piece of active service.
The Queen’s officer — now a Major — was to prove himself to be an able executive and an excellent master of tactics in the expedition into the silent land, which was to end in a complete failure.
General Gordon, an intelligent and experienced officer, was at Khartoum, which he had reached on February 18th, 1884. In April he found himself besieged, and, in spite of the fact that he warned the home authorities of his perilous position, nothing was done to relieve his distress.
Finally, however, the Government realized that to allow this General to perish at the hands of the Dervishes might lead to the loss of Egypt. With this fact fully impressed upon them, Lord Wolseley was instructed to relieve Khartoum at all costs.
A flying column was thus dispatched across the desert from Korti to Matammeh, and thence to Khartoum. With it went a part of the 19th Hussars, under Lieutenant-Colonel Barlow, and Major French as second in command.
The column marched forward for about two weeks and then came in touch with the retreating enemy at Abu Klea. The 19th Hussars were sent forward to reconnecter and returning reported that the Mahdi — a native ruler — had drawn up a considerable force not far off. Beyond the Dervishes were some wells, and it was important that the British troops should get to them in order to relieve their thirst. After a consultation it was decided to fight a way through to this water at any cost.
Leaving a small force to guard the camp, the main body was formed into a square and advanced across the desert in this form. As the soldiers went forward, the enemy opened a terrific fire upon them, yet, in spite of casualties, the men pressed towards the natives, hauling their guns in the center of the square, and over the rutted and uneven surface of the desert.
The Dervishes did not wait for the English but rushed on to the attack. An eyewitness says that the wild shouting of the Arabs as they advanced sounded like the thunder of the boiling surf.
So fierce was the assault that the British square was broken, and the camel corps of soldiers, mounted upon the native beasts, suffered most severely.
Yet, unable to pierce the center of the English line, the Arabs finally withdrew, and, as they did so, Major French cried out to the 19th Hussars:
“Boys! Now is our chance!”
With a cheer, the cavalry dashed to the charge, and as numerous shells from the light guns exploded among the Dervishes, the men rushed in among them with sword and pistol.
The natives stood for a few moments — then broke and fled — and that night the British column drank at the wells of the desert.
The soldiers now rested, and, as many of the men were very weary, they fell from the backs of their camels — while asleep — their mounts, in wild disorder, wandering far from them.
Next morning, however, they were collected together, and, after a hasty breakfast, the march was resumed.
Open ground at length was reached, where the followers of the Mahdi were found to be in full strength. A fight was inevitable, so a barricade of camel boxes, saddles, and field equipment was thrown up hastily, in order to give protection from a forward attack.
The Hussars were placed within the barricade, while the rest of the regiment — drawn up in front — was formed into a square in order to meet the attack of the enemy. With a wild yelling and shouting, the Dervishes now came on.
Led by emirs on superb horses, eight hundred spearmen hurled themselves headlong upon the British square, which stolidly awaited the attack. Waiting until the enemy was within three hundred yards, the approaching natives were met with a deadly rifle-fire.
Over and over each other rolled the foremost tribesmen, while those in the rear — terrified by the rapidity and power of the British rifle-fire — broke and fled.
Within twenty minutes the battle was over, and, to the faint cheers of the British, the spearmen fled in wild confusion, leaving two hundred and fifty of their dead upon the field.
Strange to relate, not a single British soldier was either killed or wounded, in repelling the charge. A stray bullet “scotched” General Stewart — leader of the expedition — later in the day, who, as he fell, cried out to Colonel Barrow: “Take care of the 19th Hussars. They have done well.”
The column moved forward as soon as it could reform, but, as the grim soldiers plodded across the desert, news came that Khartoum had fallen, and that brave Gordon had been killed by the followers of the Mahdi.
Major French — it is said — was deeply moved by this calamity and shed tears. With Khartoum in the hands of the followers of the Mahdi, the mission of the flying column was ended, and it must, of course, retreat.
Surrounded by the natives, whose numbers had been added to by those who had been besieging Khartoum, the column fell back, while General Buller was sent up to Gubat in order to take command.
With him he brought the Royal Irish and West Kent regiments to reinforce the worn out and somewhat dispirited Britishers.
General Buller saw the bad predicament in which the British troops had fallen and so decided to retreat. On February 13th he evacuated Gubat, and, falling back steadily, finally reached Korti, where he received additional reinforcements under Sir Evelyn Wood, who says:
“There I saw Major French for the first time, when our people were coming back across the desert after our failure, the entire force depressed because of the death of Gordon.
I came upon him about a hundred miles from the river — he was the last man of the last section of the rear guard! We were being followed by bands of Arabs.
They came into our bivouac on the right of which I am speaking, and during the following night they carried off some of our cattle.”
General Buller, himself, fully appreciated the part which Major French played during the retreat, for he says:
" I wish expressly to remark on the excellent work that has been done by a small detachment of the 19th Hussars, both during our occupation of Abu Klea, and during our retreat. Each man has done the work of ten, and it is not too much to say that the force owes much to Major French and his thirteen troopers.”
For two months this flying column had been occupied in this expedition, and it had, indeed, accredited itself with glory. One writer says of the British soldiers:
“They were not men, but heroes,” while Colonel Biddulph has written: “During the whole march from Korti, the entire scouting duty had been taken by the 19th Hussars, so that each day they covered more ground than the rest of the force. Even the fierce Baggara horsemen appeared unwilling to cross swords with the cavalry.”
The part which the gallant French had taken in this affair was fully appreciated by the Government, and a short time after the return of the regiment, the Major was appointed a Lieutenant-Colonel, and second in command of the 19th Hussars.
From this time on he became so much absorbed in military duties, that, when Sir Evelyn Wood inspected the regiment in 1887, he asked: “Of what value is that man?” pointing to Colonel French and received the reply: “He is forever reading military books. He is a hard student and an apt soldier. We all admire the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 19th Hussars.”
Our Field Marshal, in fact, had finally begun to become absorbed in his profession, just as a Physician becomes absorbed in what he is doing, or a Minister of the Gospel in what he is saying and preaching, or one of you boys in how you are going to win that one-hundred-yard dash, or that tennis cup.
He became taciturn, or solemn, and began to assume a rather serious mien, for war is a grim business and the British soldier is always fighting somewhere.
With an empire which stretches around the globe, and upon which the sun never sets, you can well see that any man who assumes a responsible position in His Majesty’s army has his work cut out for him.
He always has something, somewhere, to worry him, for some unruly tribesmen are not always satisfied with the stern and strong hand of the man in khaki, and will suddenly rebel, cut up a regiment or two, and begin to create considerable disturbance which is the business of Generals to look into, and to settle, if possible.
Soon after this the zealous French became Colonel of several regiments, for he was sent to India and made Chief of Staff to General Luck, who had maneuvers of troops dispersed over a wide area of ground.
This was excellent training, and at it the sturdy Irishman went with great enthusiasm, but not recognizing his brilliant services, the Government retired him on half pay.
This was in 1893, and he was but forty-one years of age. No wonder he was depressed, and it has been said that he viewed his life as a failure at this time. “I am just in my prime, “he is reported to have remarked, “and I want to go on and not sit still.”
His retirement was not for long. Returning from India, in 1804, Sir George Luck was appointed Inspector of Cavalry, and, looking around for someone to write a revised Cavalry Drill Book, hit upon General French — then a retired Colonel.
So the disgruntled and retired soldier was recalled and installed in the Horse Guards for the purpose of producing such a volume. The result was a masterpiece of precise, military information.
In 1805 the author was advanced to the grade of Assistant Adjutant-General of Cavalry and was ensconced in the War Office, a place where he was never happy, as he wished to have action, and this was essentially a place of inaction.
Yet he hung on to his duties, performed them to the best of his ability, and here he was serving when Briton and Boer began to clash upon the wide, arid plains of South Africa, and rumors of the Jameson raid stirred up the fighting blood of both Dutchman and Uitlander.
The South African campaign now opened, the blood call went up to Englishmen throughout the world, and all hastened to conquer and subdue the poor, half-clad, illy-armed burghers upon the South African veldt.
At the opening of the bloody affair, a good deal of discussion was made as to who was to have the cavalry command in Natal. General French was not one of those who was spoken of with particular fervor, yet very soon we find him handling the horse in the van of the British armies, and news began to come over the wires of victories by French’s cavalrymen.
General Buller had known what French could do in the Nile campaign, so General Buller had placed the Irishman in command in South Africa, and, ten days after the Boer ultimatum had been delivered to the British agent at Pretoria, French was in Ladysmith.
He arrived there on October 20th, 1899, at five a. m. At nine a. m. he was in the saddle, and at eleven a. m. he was leading a column out to recapture the railway station at Elandslaagte.
The Boers were driven away — after a stout little skirmish — and word was brought forward from Ladysmith that the garrison was surrounded and needed help.
So back went General French — on the gallop. It was hurry up or all would be over with the English in the town.
It was eight o’clock upon a summer morning that the cavalry — enveloped in dust — drew near the Boer laagers, stretching near the railway station of Elaandslaagte.
A slight mist covered the ground, and, as it rose upon the still air, the enemy could be seen in large numbers, near the station, about a colliery building, and near the track of the steam railroad.
The Boers were whooping and hallooing — their hated British enemies were being cooped up in Ladysmith, all was going well with them. They were singing: “Down with the bloody Britishers.”
As they said this — poem — the Natal battery began to fire upon them, and a shell exploded in their midst. Out of their shelters piled the burghers, leaving behind them a trainload of British soldiers, captured upon the previous night.
You can bet that the Tommies escaped to join with their fellows in quick order. Now — with a blare of the bugle — the cavalry went into the Boer encampment on the gallop, and the men of the veldt turned and ran.
The first blood had been for French. Yet the Boers were only temporarily driven off and their long puns soon spoke from the surrounding kopjes. As they did so the telegraph wires began to tick, tick, from Ladysmith.
General George White was speaking, and he said: “The enemy must be beaten off. Time of great importance. For God’s sake bring up your men!”
The Boers were smart fellows and were entrenched on a series of high, boulder-strewn table lands, which offered them excellent defense and perfect cover.
Between them and the cavalry of French lay a wide and yellow patch of scrub-grown veldt. French was on a ridge, and, as he held it, he saw infantry, cavalry, and artillery coining up to his assistance.
Finally his force numbered about three thousand five hundred men, or twice as many as the hidden Boers had with them. There could thus be but one end to the affair, and that would be a British victory.
General French rode out and ordered a simultaneous frontal and flank attack. “The enemy are there,” he said, “and I hope that you will shift them out before sunset. In fact, I know that you will.” The British Tommies grinned.
The soldiers advanced to clean out the Boers, and, when the action had fairly commenced, Sir George White and his staff galloped over from Ladysmith in order to view the affair. French approached them, saluted, and asked for his instructions.
Smiling upon him with great good humor, the chivalrous White, remarked: “Go on, French! This is your show.”
The sky began to darken with inky clouds as the soldiers advanced, and, as the Boers began to shoot, their positions were silhouetted against the skyline by stray puffs of smoke.
The artillery, meanwhile, shook the ground with their grumbling roar as the Tommies struggled on towards where the burghers were hiding. As the roar of the guns increased, the howl and crash of thunder shook the skies.
It was a fearful vortex of sound, and one of the war correspondents says that he found himself humming the “Ride of the Valkyries” -- an awesome piece written by the great Richard Wagner.
Yet in spite of this diapason of sound, the Devons with wild cheers — crept forward upon the sedge- grown veldt, always nearer and nearer to the hills in front, where the puff, puff, of the guns was clear and plain.
Up eight hundred feet they stumbled and fell in the face of Mauser and shrapnel — up, up, always up and on they groped their way as many fell to rise no more.
At length the top of the ridge had been reached and lo — there before them were the three guns which had poured shot and shell among them.
They were silent now, while around, in their last sleep, were lying hundreds of Boer farmers in frock coats, and with sprigs of green in their hats.
A smile was upon their faces as they lay there in windrows: beaten to the earth bv the deadly fire of the Devons.
The bugle’s notes shrilled out a blast of triumph as the Manchesters, the Devons, and the Gordons — with a cheer — now threw themselves at the retreating burghers, who still kept up the fighting.
What ho! Suddenly, and without warning, a white flag was seen to flutter from behind a kopje, in front. The Boers had had a great sufficiency and wished to collect their wounded. French had scored a first victory for the men from the foggy isle in the far north.
From now on he was to be called French “The Lucky” and not "Old Trees." Thus ended the battle of Elandslaagte, which means the place where the elands -- you have seen them in the Zoo — like to lie down. But someone else lay down here — and it was not an antelope either.
After the battle nice things began to be said about this dapper little Irishman, and Julian Ralph — an American journalist — wrote: “He is quiet, undemonstrative, easy, and gentle.
When you are under his command you do not notice him, you do not think about him — unless you are a soldier, and then you are glad that von are here.”
A soldier has said that, when towns and railway stations were captured, the English Tommies would find allusions to the English cavalryman chalked upon the walls. One read:
"We are not fighting the English — they do not count --we are only fighting the "French.’”
At one farmhouse was found written upon a whitewashed board:
“Why are we bound to win? Because, although we have only ninety thousand burghers that means ninety thousand Generals — but the English, though they possess two hundred thousand soldiers, have only one General — and he is French.”
And even one of those double-laced, Kaiser-ridden, step-straight-or-I’ll-knock-you-down German officers of the General Staff in Berlin, when Berlin was a military hotbed, said of him:
"General French’s name is the most dreaded of all the Englishmen. He impresses his troops with his strong and resolute personality.”
The war, meanwhile, went merrily on and England found that this handful of Boer farmers could put up as excellent fight as could be wished.
The burghers, in fact, were a hard lot to beat, and, as more and more men poured into South Africa, the time seemed to be far distant when the map of Southern Africa would be all red.
General French was kept quite busy, and, as the Boers continued to surround Ladysmith, he and General White determined to attack. It was that or waiting painfully long to be relieved.
On October 30th, the British filed out to the attack in three columns, determined, if possible, to beat back the advancing Boers, to put them to flight, and to save Ladysmith from complete envelopment.
On the left, Colonel Carleton was to advance and seize a long ridge called Nicholson’s Nek, some six miles north of Ladysmith. This would protect the British left wing, while on the right the infantry was to advance under cover of French’s cavalry and mounted infantry.
In the center the artillery was to go forward. If all went well the Boers would be driven out of their position, and a part of their force would be surrounded and captured.
It looked like an excellent plan, but it did not work out as well as General White had wished.
Disaster was in store for the English columns, and, as Carleton's force went forward, the mules from the battery bolted, leaving the guns behind, so that they could not be moved.
Not daunted, the men went onward, breasted Nicholson’s Nek in the darkness and — without artillery — suddenly found themselves surrounded by an overwhelming host of Boers.
After grim fighting, the gun-less column was forced to surrender. The central force of guns was no match for the Boer artillery, and it was forced to retire.
On the right French advanced — with his cavalrymen — fought all day but was also made to retreat. It became perfectly plain that Ladysmith would become completely invested by the victorious Boers, so General French determined to get through while there was still time for it.
He consequently escaped by train to Pietermaritzburg, and, although shot at en route, was not wounded by the Boer bullets. French — the lucky — was having his usual luck.
The British army was in a serious position, and, when General French went to Cape Town to consult with General Buller, he found that his chief was exceedingly worried over the outlook.
Sir George White and his force were surrounded in Ladysmith; Mafeking and Kimberly were both invested by the enemy, and a great invasion was threatened along the entire northern boundary of Cape Colony.
In order to deal with all of these troublous situations Buller had only one army corps, disposed as follows: One column, under Lord Methuen, was advancing to the relief of Kimberly; another, under General Gatacre, was attempting to hold in check the Boer invasion of Cape Colony; while a third, to be controlled by Buller, himself, was massing at Chieveley, prior to advancing to the relief of Ladysmith.
To General French was given the command of a fourth column which was to harass the burghers around Colesburg.
At this work the intrepid general showed himself to be adept, and when — by the end of the year — Lord Roberts arrived upon the scene, he sent immediately for the stolid Irishman in order to entrust him with a serious task: the relief of Kimberly.
“I want you to do what Lord Methuen has failed to do,” said the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces.
French smiled, as he answered:
“I promise faithfully to relieve Kimberly at 6 o’clock on the evening of the 15th, if I am alive.”
The brilliant cavalryman set immediately to work to perfect his plan of attack, and, at his camp on the Modder river, gathered four thousand eight hundred men, with seven batteries of Horse artillery.
He was about one hundred miles from the mining town of Kimberly, while between him and his objective, lay General Cronje, with a force as large as French’s own.
It was summer — the air was hot — and the arid veldt lay in front, unwatered and without animal life. The task in the fore was no easy one, and, had a man of less courage been there only failure would have resulted in an advance.
The General set his square jaw and looked ahead of him: He would, could, and must succeed.
The front was a pass in the hills called the Pass of Magersfontein, and, in order to make the Boer leader Cronje believe that he was about to force this in order to relieve Ladysmith, and not Kimberly, the English General sent numerous cavalry patrols to harass the Boer pickets stationed there. It was a bluff — pure and simple— but it worked only too well, for the suspicious Cronje hastened thither with a large command, eagerly expecting to be attacked in force.
There was still another way to go forward, by Koodeesberg’s Drift towards the west, and here, too, the cavalry under Macdonald, spent a strenuous day in threatening to advance.
This, also, was a bluff — the real advance was to be by Waterval Drift towards the east, where the Boers would have few scouts. When all was ready, the long lines of khaki-clad cavalrymen defiled to the veldt from their canvas camp, and the great advance on Kimberly had begun.
As the General advanced — POOM — came the sound of a Boer gun, and, with a resounding crash, a shell exploded between French and his staff officers. The Irishman looked quizzically around, as he remarked:
“There are too many of us riding together. We must keep apart.”
Then he rode forward in order to reconnoiter the ground from the top of a neighboring kopje. In a few moments the Horse Artillery had the gun silenced, and, as the British troops swerved towards the right flank and headed for the Riet river, the burghers drew off in order to fight them as they were crossing.
Now was a race for the ford. The Tommies spurred onward, galloping for the De Kiel’s Drift, while the burghers — appreciating what they were after — endeavored to get there first. It was a neck-and-neck affair, but the English were able to get there before the burghers, and, by midnight, the entire division of troops marching Kimberly-ward, was able to cross and bivouac on the right bank of the stream, pending the arrival of the baggage-train, left far in the rear, and plowing along in a sea of dust.
The Boers retreated out of reach of shell and bullet, and, as night fell, the moon shone red in the sky, which was — said some — an auspicious omen for success.
The heat was intense, and the scorching summer sun knocked out many a good, American horse, transported from Texas to faraway South Africa in order to help win the war.
Over one hundred died upon that day alone, and as they fell to the ground, the men were forced to trudge along over the veldt until they reached some ammunition cart.
Water was scarce. Wells were few and far between, so, when the column advanced next day, it had its own troubles. The horses became worn out, and so tired were they that the General’s gallopers, or orderlies, who were continually traversing the column, in front, were unable to spur their mounts to anything swifter than a walk.
The river bent and swung at this place, and, in order to get at the Boers, the column had to cross another bend. Consequently it was headed towards Klip Kraal Drift, but, seeing this move, the Boers attacked on the right.
The column was, accordingly, bent away from this crossing, and, as the Boers pursued, the force again headed for the Klip Drift. The burghers were nonplussed and retreated backward, and as they did so the entire British army — in two divisions — Broadwood on the right, and Gordon on the left, went after them.
The Englishmen crossed the river and routed the enemy on the other side with little difficulty, while the entire supply train of the burghers fell into their hands. Cronje, himself, rode dejectedly from the scene.
As the staff officers went through the ford, or drift, one of the lieutenants plunged into an eddy and caught some geese. lie swung them onto his saddle and went upon his way rejoicing.
When the soldiers bivouacked that evening a pig ran the gauntlet of the camp — amidst roars of laughter, even from the serious and care-worn General French, himself — and dodged past lances, bayonets, knives, sticks, boots, water-bottles, and swords, until caught by a frisky Tommy, who shared him with his friends that evening.
A wagon of fresh fruit was also captured, and in it were many baskets of grapes — sweet, and not sour, as you might think.
The Boers had retreated — that was true — but they kept up a fierce sniping upon every side, and with their keen eyesight picked off many a private.
One of the General’s Aide-de-Camps rode out to lead Lord Kitchener and his staff into camp, and, although fired at by many a Boer marksman, he succeeded in getting through.
Next day the army advanced towards Bloemfontein, and, scarcely had the advance begun, when a murderous fire broke out from the river, on the southwest. Also, on the northwest a sheet of rifle-fire blazed forth, and the army under "French was in a current of cross-fire. From every kopje and hill spouted bullets.
What was General French going to do?
Sweeping the horizon with his glass, as horses snorting with fear, and riderless, galloped past, he muttered as he squared his pugnacious jaw:
They are over here to stop us from Bloemfontein, and they are there to stop us from Kimberly — we have got to break through.” He was about to attempt a seemingly impossible task, — a cavalry charge, as the bullets spat death in his face.
Now occurred one of the great charges in history:
All around, in front of the British army, were the burghers. Crouching behind hummocks and hastily made breastworks they glared down upon the khaki-coated and dust-stained Britishers, as they sang a strange hymn of Dutch origin.
A tornado of shellfire and bullets rained down upon the advancing Tomnies, who, with jaws set and faces bronzed, marched forward as did Caesar’s veterans in Gaul.
In front were the Ninth and the Sixteenth Lancers — Gordon in command — and a man of the old Scottish fighting clan. Their horses were in a pitiable state, because of the heat and dust, but in spite of this they went on, and, pointing their lances straight forward, rode up the heights which stood between them and the spitting rifles.
On, on, they galloped, until — before you knew it — they were right amongst the guns. Down went riders and horses in clouds of dust.
Guns spat, wailing cries ascended to the sky, and fierce cries of “Surrender!” “Surrender!” came from the throats of the burghers, as throwing down their long rifles they begged for mercy.
The Lancers ploughed through the trenches, slashing to right and left, while, behind them, in perfect order, swept the entire division.
The Boers broke and ran pell-mell, pursued by the exultant Lancers, and as General French trotted forward with his staff his eyes twinkled. The Irishman had again done the seemingly impossible.
A halt was made in order that the artillery might be advanced, and as the guns barked out their slogans of death at the retreating followers of Oom Paul Kruger, the force went onward, until — in the distance — appeared the smokestacks of Kimberly.
A weak and tired cheer came from the dusty throats of (The British —Kimberly was relieved — and the heliograph went “spat," "spat." “spat" as it tremulously told the news to waiting and watching thousands. Hurray! Hurray! The conquest of South Africa had begun auspiciously.
Well! Well! Well! About six o'clock that evening, an officer rode out of the besieged city to meet the soldier who had saved it. At seven o'clock, just one hour after General French had promised to be there, the Irishman entered the main street with his staff.
Eagerly the officer from the town gripped him by the hand, saying: “Thank God, General, you are here.” That night they all dined at the DeBoer's Sanatorium, where someone sang, with a good baritone voice: “God Save the Queen.”
Next morning the news was brought in:
“Conje has evacuated Magersfontein.”
All started up, for the old fox was crafty and he was apparently bent on escape. Then, a bit later, came word from Lord Kitchener, which was:
Cronje, with ten thousand men, is in full retreat from Magersfontein. He is moving along the north bank of the Modder river toward Bloemfontein.
I have already had a rear-guard action with him. If you — with all available horse — will prevent his crossing the river, the infantry from Klip Drift will press on and annihilate or take the entire force prisoners.”
Alas! Of his five thousand troopers only two thousand could be found whose horses were fit to carry them in a dash to head off the fleeing Boer leader.
Yet — to the shrill call of the bugle — they left Kimberly at three a. m. on February 17th, and, making straight for Koodoos Rand Drift, happened to steer for the very crossing which Cronje himself had taken.
Horses dropped out on the way, but, almost within view of the cautious Boer, French and his troopers seized the Drift and had the burghers cut off.
Lord Kitchener was coming up in his rear — French was in front of him — all that was left for him to do was to intrench and fight it out.
So swiftly Cronje moved his army down the river and took possession of a long neck of sandy soil between Paardeberg Drift and Wolvesgral Drift. He was hopelessly bottled up.
The Boer Fox lay still within his river-bed encampment as the British foe closed slowly but surely in upon him on every side. The net was drawn — he could not get away — and, as the artillery rained lyddite and shrapnel into his laager, the burghers knew that the jig was up.
Meanwhile, the Boers flocked in to aid him from every side, but French was sent out to check them, while the main body kept up its continuous hammer, hammer, hammer, at poor, beaten Cronje.
The shells ripped and tore through his encampment, killing men and horses. It was a veritable Inferno. No human beings could stand such punishment.
At length the white flag went up. Cronje was beaten, yet—game to the last — he came out to deliver his four thousand men with ill grace. It was February 27th, and, as the bagpipes of the Gordon Highlanders shrilled a reel upon the arid wastes of South Africa, the telegraph bore the news to every part of the civilized globe, hearing joy to those who sympathized with the British arms, and gloom to those who hoped to see the Boer Republic established.
To General French and his cavalrymen was mainly due this timely capitulation, for, in the face of heat, dust, fatigue, and lack of water, they had headed off the Boers and had beaten them at their own game. Yet the war was not yet over, and the South Africans had yet to be “rounded up."
A correspondent says of General French:
“He is perfectly accessible to anyone but speaks very little when addressed. He must be a fine judge of men, for he has a splendid staff around him — splendid in the sense that they are all soldierly like himself and are all active and useful. Judging from the way his men live in the country when they are swarming over it, he must be easy, as true soldiers are in those situations, though the discipline of the rank and file is excellent.
You do not notice his dress, but, if you should, it would seem to be more serviceable than smart."
That the General had a sense of humor is well illustrated by the following incident:
One night he stopped in a Boer house, where he shook hands with each member of the family, saying pleasant things to them. This seemed to please them greatly, but one of their number appeared to be quite war-like, for he said: “ I would be fighting you if I had not got consumption;”
The General laughed, as he replied: “Oh, I am sorry to hear that you are ill. I hope that you will soon get better.”
As for Cronje, his capture did not give General French any rest, for, upon the very day that this South African lion surrendered, news came that a rescue party was coming to his assistance and already held a hill on the southeast of the Modder River, which was much flooded by recent rains.
General French thought it best to lead out two brigades — with their batteries — in order to make a reconnaissance.
The General endeavored to ford the river — mounted upon a spirited horse — but when he was in the middle of the stream, the animal slipped and fell with him, flinging him into the midst of the swirling current.
He clung to the saddle girth, and, as the charger struggled in mid-stream, it upset Colonel Haig — now the famous leader of the British army.
The Colonel was swimming to the rescue, and, as he himself went down, he was swung into the branches of an overhanging willow-tree. The horses now plunged forward, while Haig and French swam to shore, and, dripping yet determined, jumped upon fresh mounts and advanced across the veldt in the direction of the Boers. But seeing the approach of the English the burghers had withdrawn to a safe distance.
“Well, how do you feel, old top ? ” asked General French, as he scrambled to the bank. “ I feel, myself, like a drowned rat.”
“Why— I am feeling fine,” said Haig, blowing the sand out of his mouth. “Only my revolver won’t work, and a detested burgher may be nearby.”
“No fear,” chuckled General French, “ the Boers are on the hike, as fast away from us as they can go.”
Gaining fresh mounts from their men, the two well- known military leaders now hurried after the Boers, but, as the Commander-in-Chief had said, it was quite obvious that General De Wet had no intention to remain quiescent and stand up to the advancing British horse.
DeWet and Delarey — his artillery officer — escaped with all their guns, and. under the eye of Oom Paul Kruger, himself, rode safely away towards Pretoria.
The British cavalrymen — urging their horses forward, unsuccessfully endeavored to catch up with the foe.
The Boors collected at a place called Poplar Grove, but, remaining here only a short time, pushed back to Driefontein, where French and his cavalrymen began to surround them.
Next, the burghers dropped backward to Bloemfontein, but, making only a weak defense of this place, they again retreated, and the town surrendered on March 13th.
French and his hard riders rested here for six weeks, mainly to gain remounts for the cavalry, and, as they camped in comparative comfort, their patrols continually scoured the country nearby, keeping in constant touch with the keen-eyed Boer scouts, and driving them back whenever they hit them. Describing the General at this time, a writer has said:
“General French is quite the shyest man in the entire British army and looks less like a cavalryman than anyone whom you could imagine. He is a heavy man, always looks half asleep — although who is more wide awake? — has a very red complexion, gray mustache, thick-set figure, and is so reticent that he will hardly ever talk.”
While the cavalry rested and recuperated at Bloemfontein, Lord Roberts was coming up with the main British army, and, by May the first, the troops had the opportunity of again advancing to the attack.
The infantry preceded the cavalry, General French being one of the last to leave the town of Bloemfontein, but, overtaking Lord Roberts at Kronstad, they quickly came into action with the Boers.
By a turning movement, the burghers were forced to surrender the town, and, as they dropped backward, Lord Roberts crossed the Vaal River with his army. French, meanwhile, was first at the outskirts of Johannesburg, which the British entered on May 31st.
The Boers had decamped, were on their way to Pretoria, their capital, and as the British troops approached, also retired from this famous town.
It was the close of the reign of Oom Paul in South Africa. While sad-eyed and stolid Dutch women looked timidly out from their farmhouses next day they saw the dust-stained British columns streaming by.
To the boom of the bass-drums and to the shrill tones of the bagpipes, the conquerors of South Africa — the hawk- nosed, clear-eyed Britishers — marched with a swinging stride through the streets.
“French!” said Lord Roberts to his able cavalry officer, “push the Boers east by a turning movement on their flank! I will follow by a frontal attack on foot.”
The cavalry-leader nodded and rode off to lead his dust-stained horsemen once more to the advance.
The burghers were upon some ridges, the chief of which was known as Diamond Hill. They threw a steady stream of bullets into the British as they advanced, but the cavalrymen dismounted, — fighting their way up to the summit on foot.
Thus they occupied themselves for two full days, until Lord Roberts’ men came up from Pretoria — struck the infantry in the front and allowed French and his men to drive the hard-fighting farmers from their position.
Unfortunately for the British the horses of the cavalry brigade were pretty well spent, otherwise the Boers could not have again escaped. DeWet made off to continue a desultory warfare for many months, his force splitting up into several bands of marauding bushwhackers.
Enraged and discomfited by the numerous surprises which the British sprung upon them, the Boers often began sniping from various vantage points in captured villages and towns.
But General French knew how to treat these fellows, as the following proclamation, issued at the town of Barberton, will testify:
This is to give notice that, if any shooting into the town or sniping in its vicinity takes place, the Lieutenant-General commanding will withdraw the Troops and will shell the town without further notice.
D. Haig, Lt. Col.,
Chief Staff Officer to Lt. General French. Sept. 5th, 1900.
Needless to remark, the sniping stopped immediately.
The Boers were now about done for, and, during the early part of 1901, the cavalry leader was able to clear the fighting farmers out of the central district of Cape Colony.
On June 8th, he took supreme command of the operations of the district, and by the end of November, the enemy had been driven to its northeastern and its southwestern extremities.
In August 1902, the now-famous General was able to return to England. Thus, unheralded, unheeded, and quietly, the fighting Irishman sailed to the old country, now possessing more Empire than ever held by Greece or Home.
For a second time the taciturn leader went into retirement, until — wakened by the booming guns in Belgium — he was again in action: for Great Britain had waked to find herself engaged in the bloodiest contest of all history.
Who was to lead her forces? Who but the well-tried leader of the Nile campaign and the fighting upon the veldt of South Africa? Who, but silent, ready, square-shouldered, bandy-legged General French.
On August 15th, 1914, the British army was across the channel and at its camp on the hills above Boulogne. On Saturday, August 22d, they came in touch with the Germans and the great fight had begun.
The arrival upon French soil of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force was the signal for a great popular outburst upon the part of the French people, whose enthusiasm and joy were unbounded.
France would not have to fight these blood-thirsty Germans alone, that was certain, and as, standing upon the quarter-deck of the scout Sentinel, Sir John French was recognized, the cheering was deafening.
When the massive gray warship slipped up to the side of the quay, and the British General, smiling with pleasure, walked across the gangway, the cheering was redoubled, and the strains of the British national anthem were intermingled with that of the Marseillaise.
At this propitious moment, the “Figaro” — a prominent Parisian paper — paid this compliment to the British leader: “Here he is — French — a name of good omen.
The splendid soldier, the most eminent of popular leaders among our neighbors, has been placed, as everyone expected in Britain, and everyone hoped in our army, at the head of the admirable troops who bring their support to the cause of the right.”
And, as persons were reading this, the Kaiser issued the following proclamation to his gray-clad legions:
“It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valor of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.”
In spite of this insult, the British force was in the best of spirits. Holding the extreme left of the Allies’ position they had the duty of repelling any frontal attack and preventing any enveloping movement.
The cavalry divisions were well in front, and on the 22d and 23d of August these advance squadrons did some excellent work, some of them penetrating the German position as far as Soignes.
But the Germans were coming up in force, and, on Sunday the 23d, word came in that they were commencing an attack on the Mons line, between Mons and Bray.
To the right of the British line the French were retiring, and, met by an overwhelming onrush of Germans, the British also had to begin a retreat. This they did doggedly and firmly, as becomes the British character.
A new line for the British army had been established by General French at Varmand, to St. Quentin and Ribemont, and to this the troops fell back, their retreat covered by the cavalry, under General Allenby, who was subsequently to conquer Jerusalem.
Closely followed by the Kaiser’s best, the entire force fought, as they turned backwards, suffering a loss of between seven hundred and a thousand men.
The army was slowly and doggedly fighting a rear-guard action — showing the Kaiser what that contemptible little force could accomplish. Meanwhile, far to the southwest of them, the French, too, were falling back to the Marne, determined to do or die near the river of that name just as their forebears had done centuries before, when Attila the Hun attempted to invade the fair land of France.
General French — keenly alive to the terrible battle that was raging — was watching developments with an eagle eye. As he rode by in his motor car, one day, he was greeted by a song to the tune of “D’ye ken John Peel,” which ran:
“ D’ye ken .John French, with his khaki suit,
His belt and gaiters and stout brown boots,
Along with his guns, and his horse, and his foot,
On the road to Berlin in the morning.”
“Yes, we ken John French and Joffre, too,
And all of his men of the Tricolor true,
And Belgians and Russians, a jolly good few,
On the road to Berlin in the morning.”
General French smiled and whirled onward.
The Prussian soldiers fought with a complete disregard for life that was magnificent. Time after time they would hurl themselves against the British line with a force that was seemingly irresistible.
But every shock was repulsed by a steadiness and bravery that, so far as one can judge, was worthy of the finest traditions of the British army.
As one German peasant regiment after another was driven back, its place was taken by fresh troops. The flower of the German cavalry was brought into action, only to be cut to pieces with fearful slaughter.
The British artillery simply plowed great gaps in the German ranks. The British bayonet charges were irresistible, and the fields were covered with mounds of dead.
Daring deeds were often reported officially. On August 26th at LeCateau, the whole of the officers and meu of one of the British batteries had been killed or wounded, with the exception of one subaltern and two gunners.
These continued to fire and came unhurt from the battlefield. On another occasion a portion of a supply column was cut off by a detachment of German cavalry and the officer in charge was summoned to surrender.
He refused, and, starting his motors off at full speed, dashed safely through, losing two lorries.
It was four days of terrific fighting — by the 29th of August General Joffre visited the English Headquarters where he saw the serious predicament that the English troops were in, and, with a due regard for the safeguarding of Paris, directed the 5th French army corps to attack the German army on the Somme, with a view of checking the pursuit.
The British forces, meanwhile, retired to a position a few miles north of a line running between Soissons and Compiègne.
General French was going ever backwards, but, true to his British nature, he was not downcast. He knew — and everyone else knew — that there would come a time when this retreat would be turned into an advance, so he hummed a tune daily and hourly just to keep his spirits up. Of this particular time of action he says in his report:
“The right flank of the German army was now reaching a point which appeared seriously to endanger my line of communications with Havre. I had already evacuated Amiens, into which place a German reserve division was reported to have moved. Orders were given to change the base to St. Nazaire and establish an advance base at Le Mans. In spite of a severe defeat inflicted upon the Prussian Guard 10th, and the Guard Reserve Corps of the German army, by the 1st and 3d French Corps on the right of the 5th Army, it was not part of General Joffre's plan to pursue this advantage, and a general retirement on to the line of the Marne was ordered, to which the French forces in the east theater were directed to conform.”
So, back went the English — fighting all the way — giving the Germans all that they had bargained for and drawing nearer to the French line along the river Marne.
From Sunday, August 23rd, up to September 27th, from Mons back as far as the river Seine, and from the Seine to the Aisne, the army under the command of “Silent” French, was ceaselessly engaged, without a single day’s halt or rest of any kind.
Many documents were captured upon the German prisoners, and that they had changed their opinion of the English army was very evident. One of the letters found upon a dead German ran as follows:
“We had great difficulties with the British troops. They have a queer way of causing losses to the enemy. They make good trenches in which they wait patiently. They carefully measure the ranges of their rifle-fire, and they then open a truly hellish fire on the unsuspecting cavalry. This was the reason why we had such heavy losses. According to our officers the British striking forces are exhausted. The British people never wanted war. But in spite of this they can certainly fight. One of our companies has lost one hundred and thirty men out of two hundred and forty.”
The German officers were apparently much impressed with the use the British soldiers made of cover. "They creep up, but you never see them,” said one captured officer: while another one remarked:
“They are terrible fighters and never give in until they are beaten to death. Nothing seems to scare them.” Still another said: “The English, in spite of their lack of training, are grim and desperate fighters. What the officers have said of them is all untrue, and even the Prussian Guard had difficulty in handling the fierce attacks which were launched against us.”
In an official dispatch, published during the last week of October, the Commander of the British army told the War Office of the British army’s work in the fierce fighting afield, up to the 8th of that month when the English began to envelop the right flank of the German army, and the retreat was turned into an advance.
So well was this written that the New York World called the General a great reporter, and so thoroughly was the fighting described that it will always remain as a truthful picture of events upon this momentous occasion in the history of the world. “No one can read his reports,” said a Chicago paper, “without being struck with his weighty lucidity, his calm mastery of the important facts, the total absence of any attempt at ‘effect,’ and the remarkable suggestive hits of pertinent description.”
The British army — after the fighting at the Aisne — began to be the aggressor, but as the effective leader we must now leave our great cavalryman, for after the 5th of December, 1915, he resigned his position, being made Viscount and Commander of the troops of the United Kingdom, he was relieved by Sir Douglas Haig, the Aide-do-Camp who had fallen into the Modder River with him many years before, and who had so joyously swum ashore.
That the General was popular with his men is well exemplified by the following remarks from a letter at the front:
“There is no side about our leader. When General French passes along, he is just as ready to smile on the ordinary Tommy as on the highest officer. He takes a keen interest in our life in the trenches, and he’s dead “nuts” on the officers who don’t take enough interest in their men. He never asks the impossible from us, and he always acts as though he could rely on us to get out of a tight corner. He knows we’re doing the best for him and the country in this war, and he gives us credit for it. He’s not one of your showmen, but a hard fighter from head to toe, and he expects every man under him to be the same. He stops when he has the time just to have a chat with us for the sake of finding out what we think of it all and whether we are being properly looked after.”
Another soldier said:
“The whole army has absolute confidence in General French. He is such a splendidly cool leader. Nothing flurries him, and he treats the troops like men. When he passes along the lines, he doesn’t come looking sulky or stern, but he will talk as pleasantly to the ordinary soldier as to the highest officer. Yes, the army in France will follow General French anywhere.”
Shortly after French had returned to England, an elderly gentleman, with a white mustache, was waiting to cross Whitehall, when a patrol of Boy Scouts halted quite close to him.
The gentleman smiled upon the lads, but their Scout Patrol Leader, taking the smile of approval for a sneer, promptly turned upon him a fighting face.
“It’s all very well for you to grin,” he said. “We’re doing our best for our country anyway. What have YOU done, old frosty whiskers?”
Just at this moment, a policeman happened to pass by, and stopping, he whispered something to the Scout Leader, who immediately stammered out: “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir, I thought — I thought—”
“That’s all right, boy,” said the old gentleman, laughing. “Good-bye, lads, and be sure to be clean boys.”
That good-natured gentleman happened to be: Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, K.C.M.G., G.C.B., K.C.B., G.C.V.O., D.C.L., LL.D., Commander-in- Chief of the British Expeditionary Force to France.
Charles H. L. Johnston, "Sir John French: The Man Who Led the First British Army," in Famous Generals of the Great War Who Let the United States and Her Allies to a Glorious Victory, Boston: The Page Company, 1919.