French, Sir John Denton Pinkstone (1852–1925), 1st earl of Ypres, field-marshal and lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 28 September 1852 at Ripple Vale, near Deal, Kent, the only son (he had five sisters) of Captain John Tracey French, RN, and his wife, Margaret (née Eccles). His father died in 1854 and shortly afterwards his mother was declared insane and placed in a nursing home, where she died in 1867. French was therefore brought up by his elder sisters, one of whom was Charlotte Despard (qv). His father came from a cadet branch of the Frenches of Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon, and his paternal grandfather, Fleming French, had moved to Ripple in 1818. Despite these tenuous links, French regarded himself as Irish.
Education and early career
It was originally hoped that French, like his father, would follow a naval career. After attending a preparatory school at Harrow he was sent to Eastman's Naval Academy, Portsmouth, and then in August 1866 joined HMS Britannia. He spent four years in the Royal Navy before resigning in November 1870 to seek entry into the army. During the next four years he served with the Suffolk Artillery Militia while also studying for his army entrance examination. He passed this exam on his second attempt and was gazetted to the 8th (Queens’ Royal Irish) Hussars in February 1874, though he transferred within a matter of weeks to the 9th Royal Hussars. This marked the beginning of a long cavalry career.
On 23 June 1875 French married Isabella Ireland Soundy. This marriage was carried out secretly while he was only a second lieutenant and without the knowledge of his brother officers. The marriage ended in divorce in 1878. It appears that it was kept secret even from his second wife and children and was not mentioned in early biographies or in his original entry in the DNB. In the autumn of 1880 his regiment was stationed in Ireland and helped to guard volunteers working on the Mayo estate of Lord Erne during the Boycott incident. French was attacked on one occasion while escorting a work party.
On 10 August 1880 French married Eleanora Selby-Lowndes, with whom he had two sons and two daughters (one of whom died from a childhood accident). In 1884–5 he campaigned in the Sudan with the force attempting to relieve General Gordon and distinguished himself as commander of the rearguard during the retreat. He was subsequently stationed at Aldershot and India.
Although he retained a certain fondness for his wife (and she loved him enough to tolerate his infidelities), French was a lifelong and compulsive womaniser; when one of his affairs – with the wife of a fellow officer – led to his being cited as co-respondent in the subsequent divorce case (1893), he was put on half-pay for two years, during which he and his family lived in Charlotte Despard's country residence, and only escaped being sent into retirement through the patronage of Sir Redvers Buller, who had commanded him in the Sudan. His chronic financial extravagance brought about another crisis in the spring of 1899, from which he was extricated through a loan (possibly never repaid) from his subordinate Douglas Haig. This marked the beginning of a relationship which ended only when Haig displaced French as British commander in France. The austere presbyterian staff officer and the flamboyant, self-consciously Irish cavalry commander had strongly contrasting personalities, and for much of their early careers they complemented each other; it is quite possible that Haig believed he was doing the army a service in making it possible for French to continue his career. (Both men were freemasons, so the loan may also have been a gesture of fraternal solidarity.) Nonetheless, such indebtedness of a senior officer to a junior whose promotion he was in a position to influence marked a clear conflict of interest, and contributes to the air of intrigue and self-indulgence which influences the historical reputations of Haig and French.
Second Boer War
The events of the Second Boer War (1899–1902) appeared to confirm that French's rescues from disaster had benefited his country. After serving with distinction in the early fighting in Natal, French (accompanied by Haig) escaped from Ladysmith just before it was encircled by Boer forces. Through skilful delaying tactics he held off the Boer invasion of Cape Colony long enough for British reinforcements to land; later he took a leading role in the relief of Kimberley and the subsequent encirclement of Piet Cronje's retreating army. In a war marked by British setbacks, French became a popular hero. He was appointed to command East Transvaal in 1900, operating against Cape Colony rebels until the end of the war; his harsh and unimaginative view that Cape Boers who took up arms against the crown were simply rebels who deserved severe punishment prefigured his experience as lord lieutenant of Ireland.
French was made a lieutenant-general and a KCMG at the end of the campaign. He socialised extensively with King Edward VII, which added to his influence. Posted to command 1st Army Corps at Aldershot (1901–7), he then served as inspector-general of the forces, responsible for army reform. French's Boer War victories had involved several successful cavalry charges, which he interpreted (ignoring the particular circumstances of the South African campaign) as confirming the traditional view that the primary role of cavalry should be to take the initiative and achieve moral superiority over the enemy by the charge with cold steel. He therefore opposed the view, favoured by Lord Roberts (qv) and theorists such as Erskine Childers (qv), that the cavalry horse should be regarded as a transport system for mounted infantry. Although French's views were to be disproved by experience, he had engaged in some reading (albeit selective) and acquired a reputation as a theorist which relied more on his field reputation than scholarly attainments. French was appointed chief of the imperial general staff in March 1912 and promoted to the rank of field-marshal in June 1913.
Aftermath of Curragh mutiny
In March 1914 French endorsed a document given after the Curragh mutiny to General John Gough (qv) by the secretary of state for war, Colonel Seely, which guaranteed that no action would be taken against officers who had threatened to resign their commissions rather than take action against the UVF (the so-called Curragh incident) in terms which implied that the army need not obey future orders if they disagreed with them politically. French was obliged to resign when the government repudiated Seely's action. Although French was personally and professionally on close terms with General Henry Wilson (qv), on whom he relied for much staff work and strategic planning, his position reflected confusion rather than political commitment. He believed, as did Seely, that the document simply reflected the collective will of the cabinet, whose meeting had taken place under somewhat confused circumstances. The actual mutineers despised French for what they saw as subservience to politicians.
British expeditionary force
The outbreak of the Great War brought French back to service as commander-in-chief of the British expeditionary force (BEF). His command of the BEF is associated with a series of setbacks, beginning with the retreat from Mons in late August 1914. The retreat was marked by conflict both with the French high command (there was considerable confusion – for which others as well as French were responsible – over whether the British forces were to act independently or under the command of Marechal Joffre; at one point French was given the impression that the French were preparing to assist him in a counter-attack when they were in fact retreating; at another French attempted to break off contact with the French and retreat independently and had to be overruled by his superiors) and with some of his subordinates – notably Horace Smith-Dorrien, whose decision to fight a delaying action at Le Cateau, though approved by most subsequent commentators, was denounced by French, who blighted Smith-Dorrien's subsequent career. French did, however, take the vital decision to continue the retreat rather than risk encirclement and capture by taking shelter in the fortress of Maubege, which fell shortly afterwards. Although French was popular with his men – his frequent appearances at or near the front did much to raise morale – his limitations rapidly became apparent. He was a field officer with no staff experience, which limited his understanding of the logistics of modern warfare, though he did show understanding of the implications of the new conditions for warfare and some tactical flexibility, including an understanding of the increased role of artillery. He was also highly emotional and increasingly weighed down by the casualty figures. Limited consolation was provided by his affair with Mrs Winifred Bennett (née Youell), whom he had met when offering condolences on the death of a previous lover. French now lived apart from his wife and family, and for the rest of his career Mrs Bennett's presence as his openly acknowledged mistress was much commented upon.
French's attempts to break the German lines at Neuve Chapelle (March 1915) and Loos (September 1915) failed, with heavy losses. Criticism of his command increased at home. While French laid the blame on a shortage of shells (his leaks to newspapers on this subject helped to bring about the replacement of the Liberal government by a coalition in May 1915), he was increasingly seen as incompetent by his fellow officers – including Haig, who began to intrigue against him. On 6 December 1915 French resigned his command of the BEF under pressure from above. On his return to England he was given command of all forces on home service (1916–18) and in January 1916 he was created 1st Viscount French of Ypres and High Park , Co. Roscommon.
Lord lieutenant of Ireland
French's home defence duties included visits to Ireland; since he believed himself to have a special understanding of Ireland, this merely reinforced his preconception that the Irish people as a whole were mainly docile and peace-loving and that political protest was due to a small number of agitators. He intended to retire to Ireland and in 1917 bought Drumdoe House, Co. Roscommon. In May 1918 he was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, charged with implementing conscription and preparing for Irish self-government. He had originally been intended as one of three lords justices; however, St John Brodrick, 1st earl of Midleton (qv), and J. H. Campbell (qv) refused appointment. French was more naïve about the situation and regarded his acceptance as a matter of military duty. The appointment of a military man as lord lieutenant was widely seen as heralding an iron fist policy; however, massive nationalist mobilisation led to the indefinite postponement of conscription – though French opposed this decision and continued to press for its implementation.
French believed that he had been given absolute predominance in Irish matters; however, a rift rapidly developed between him and the chief secretary, Edward Shortt (qv). While French believed some form of home rule to be inevitable, he thought that it must be preceded by the suppression of unrest and hoped it could be limited to federalism of the type now advocated by Walter Long (qv), who exercised considerable influence over his administration. Shortt, a pro-home rule liberal, realised the limitations of French's security-oriented policy after the arrests sparked by the alleged ‘German plot’ of 1918. French's attempts to coordinate the Dublin Castle administration through the creation of interlocking councils were obstructed by Shortt, who managed to keep the nine-member ‘viceroy's advisory council’ (composed of upper-class moderate nationalists and unionists, whom French saw as having much more influence over public opinion than was actually the case) from developing into a quasi-cabinet.
Shortt's replacement by the weaker Ian MacPherson (qv) early in 1919 marked the renewed ascendancy of French – or, rather, a clique of hard-line officials who had come to dominate him and acted in his name with the support of Long. The leaders of this group were French's private secretary, Edward Saunderson (1869–1929) (son of the former unionist leader), and the assistant under-secretary, John Taylor (1859–1945). Under-Secretary James MacMahon (qv), whose appointment French had initially supported in the hope of facilitating contacts with the catholic hierarchy, was marginalised as French was influenced by Saunderson's belief that the catholic clergy and their lay allies were inherently untrustworthy. Plans for post-war economic reconstruction, devised in the belief that economic development could dispel nationalist demands for self-government, were strangled by administrative incompetence and an increasing focus on a harsh security response to the escalating activities of the IRA. French persuaded the cabinet to agree to the proscription of Sinn Féin and its auxiliary organisations en bloc, rather than the alternative policy of attempting to detach moderates from the gunmen. He pressed for extended internment and the implementation of martial law. As guerrilla war progressed, southern unionists such as Geoffrey Henry Browne, 3rd Baron Oranmore and Browne (qv), were horrified by French's reminiscences about his counter-guerrilla activities in the Boer War and his view that it might be necessary to subdue Ireland by barbed wire and blockades on the South African model, even if all the southern loyalists were burnt out by the rebels in the process.
Some commentators on French's career in Ireland have tended to limit his responsibility for the policy pursued in 1919 and early 1920, pointing out that in February and March 1919 he was absent from Ireland because of influenza followed by pneumonia, which permanently reduced his vitality. However, he clearly approved of it and took responsibility for it at the time. The general comic-opera air of his administration was reinforced by the barely disguised visits of Mrs Bennett to the viceregal lodge, which attracted considerable comment in Dublin official circles. The law adviser W. E. Wylie (qv), who favoured a more moderate policy, later remarked that French was a dear old man, but that after seeing him in action he never ceased to wonder how the BEF had ever escaped from Mons. The deteriorating security situation was highlighted on 19 December 1919 when, returning from a rare visit to Drumdoe, French's car was ambushed at Kelly's Corner, near the entrance to the Phoenix Park, by IRA men commanded by Dan Breen (qv). French escaped unhurt, though a member of the escort and an IRA man were killed. Breen was subsequently scolded by Charlotte Despard (now a vocal supporter of Sinn Féin), who informed an amused Breen that ‘John is as patriotic an Irishman as any of you’.
From April 1920 French lost his residual influence over Irish policy. The pliable MacPherson was replaced as chief secretary by Hamar Greenwood (qv). Sir Nevil Macready (qv) arrived as commander-in-chief of the forces and was dismayed by the administrative disarray he encountered. His report led to an inspection of Dublin Castle by three senior civil servants led by Sir Warren Fisher, the displacement of Taylor, and the arrival of a group of high-calibre civil servants, led by Sir John Anderson (qv), with orders to reform the Dublin Castle administrative machinery, address the security situation, and open contacts with opinion-formers and possible peace-makers. Macready's personal fondness for French (he had served under the latter in South Africa and regarded him as ‘one of the most lovable men I have ever met’) assisted the lord lieutenant in evading blame for the situation; French blamed as much as he could on the departed MacPherson and claimed credit for policy initiatives which others had originated. This self-serving evasiveness, which coexisted with genuine personal kindness and charm, contributed to the disgust which many of his associates came to feel for him. Among these were Haig and Saunderson; the latter (who privately referred to Mrs Bennett as ‘the wreck of a Continental Harlot’) left at the beginning of August 1920, having quarrelled with the highly strung viceroy after the killing by the IRA of Frank Brooke (qv), a member of French's advisory council. French continued for a time to support those such as General H. H. Tudor (qv) who advocated a military solution, but by February 1921, after much careful handling by Anderson's subordinate Mark Sturgis (qv), who took over Saunderson's role while Saunderson retained title and salary, he was expressing support for peace initiatives and adopting a new South African analogy – the idea that Michael Collins (qv) might imitate Jan Christian Smuts as rebel turned imperialist.
French was finally replaced by Viscount FitzAlan (qv) at the end of April 1921 as part of the preparation for the final peace initiative. Sturgis, who had grown fond of him, commented: ‘He is a terribly pathetic figure – such a little while ago the hero of England and now goes out to nothing’ (Sturgis, 167).
Characteristically, French devoted some of his time in office to conversations with the journalist Lovat Fraser, leading to the publication of an indiscreet and self-serving account of his BEF command, 1914 (1919). The widespread controversy which followed, as the numerous colleagues whom French had accused of incompetence responded to his criticisms, further lowered his reputation. French's motives were partially financial; he was always careless with money and given to risky financial speculation, and his fondness for high living did not cease after he left office.
With incredible misjudgement, in 1921 he bought a second Irish country house (Hollypark, near Boyle, Co. Roscommon) as a possible alternative residence to Drumdoe. The ill feeling aroused by his actions as lord lieutenant, which had included the confirmation of death sentences, made it impossible for him to live in Ireland as he had intended, while Irish unrest made both houses virtually unsaleable; much of his furniture was looted from Drumdoe by republicans during the civil war.
French became 1st earl of Ypres in June 1922. After a brief period in France he was appointed captain of Deal Castle in August 1923. He lived in the castle until his death from bladder cancer on 22 May 1925 and was buried at Ripple.
The white-moustached, short, stout French (he felt an affinity with Napoleon, possibly because of their physical similarity, and collected Napoleonic memorabilia) appears almost as the stereotypical ‘donkey’ general of the Western Front, thinking of cavalry in the age of the machine-gun. While he was lampooned in such representations as the musical Oh! What a lovely war (in the 1969 film version he was played by Laurence Olivier), French has generally been overshadowed in popular consciousness by Haig, who commanded the BEF for longer and presided over much larger battles. Although Haig is widely demonised, he has also attracted numerous defenders who argue that he did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances and was eventually vindicated by victory. French has generally lacked such defenders, with the exception of his second son, Gerald, who grew close to the old man in his last years and published several books defending his reputation. Historians of the First World War tend to criticise him severely, and even sympathetic commentators such as his biographer Richard Holmes maintain that he lacked the aptitude required for the high offices he held towards the end of his career.
There are large collections of French's papers in the Imperial War Museum and at the British Staff College at Camberley and a portrait of him in the Cavalry Club, Piccadilly. He is commemorated on memorials in Ypres cathedral and Canterbury cathedral.