J. W. Fortescue, “Lord French’s ‘1914,’” Vol. 232, Quarterly Review (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1919), pp. 352-363. In this article Fortescue explains why, “this to be one of the most unfortunate books that ever was written.”
No man, it has been well said, was ever written down except by himself; and we wish that Lord French had pondered this aphorism before he sat down to write this book. The Field-Marshal at the opening of the war enjoyed a military reputation which was second only to Lord Kitchener’s in this country; and he had worthily earned it. The memories of South Africa are swamped in those of the past five terrible years; yet there are some who have not yet forgotten the name of Colesberg and the excellent and audacious service of General French which is associated with that name. At the close of the Boer War no one was surprised to see him rise successively to the command of the First Army Corps at Aldershot, to the Inspectorship-General of the Forces, and to the supreme post of the Chief of the General Staff. Lord Haldane has testified to the valuable assistance which he received from Sir John French in preparing the forces of the Empire for the great struggle which has so recently been brought to a successful end; this is a thing which we must never forget. The time will come when the country will set aside old political prejudices and acknowledge the vast debt which it owes to Lord Haldane; and then the names of the officers who were associated with him in his reorganization of the forces of the Empire will likewise be remembered with honour.
The country therefore heard with confidence and satisfaction of the appointment of Sir John French to command the British Expeditionary Force in August, 1914. People hardly realized that his army was, though small in numbers, incomparably the best trained, the best equipped, the best organised and the best disciplined that Britain had ever put into the field. It was (we say it after mature consideration) certainly superior to that which Wellington led from Portugal to the campaign of Vitoria in 1813, and from the battlefield of Vitoria through the Pyrenees to Toulouse. This is no small praise, but it is the truth. It was felt in 1914 that Sir John French was the right man to command such an army.
By Aug. 20 the British force–four infantry divisions and one cavalry division–was assembled; the infantry southeast of Landrecies, the cavalry northeast of it about Maubeuge, seeking touch with the French Fifth Army under General Lanrezac, on the left of which the British were appointed to stand. A great advance of the French and British line along the whole length of the French frontier from Longwy north-westward to Landrecies was, so Lord French tells us, in immediate prospect; and all ranks were in the highest spirits. So far only one misfortune had overtaken the British, namely the sudden death of Sir James Grierson, who commanded the II Corps, on Aug. 17. Sir John French asked that Sir Herbert Plumer might take General Grierson’s place. Lord Kitchener preferred to send Sir Horace Smith Dorrien; and thereby hangs a very sorry tale.
On the 21st the British began their movement northward; and at the close of the day the cavalry reached the line of the Mons Canal on either flank of Mons, while the four divisions of infantry, according to Sir John French’s account, radiated forth (so to speak) from Maubeuge the I Corps north-eastward to Givry, and the II Corps north-westward to Sars-la-Bruyere. This, if correct, would be a rather a curious disposition; but it is not correct. Lord French cannot describe even his first day’s march with accuracy. On the 22nd the Field-Marshal motored eastward to visit General Lanrezac, and came upon the French Army in retreat. What had happened was obscure to him then and is still somewhat obscure to us now; but the fact of the retirement was certain. Unable to find General Lanrezac, Sir John French returned to his own troops, but did not arrest their further advance, which had gone forward in accordance with his previous orders. Nightfall found the II Corps on the Mons Canal, upon a line running from Obourg (three miles east of Mons) westward, with the cavalry moving away westward to prolong the left of the II Corps, and the I Corps thrown back on the right from Mons south-eastward.
Concerning the object of these dispositions Sir John French is silent, but it is certain from his own confession that he had some idea of an offensive movement. Early on the morning of the 23rd the Germans opened an attack between Obourg and Mons, which gradually spread westward until the whole line of the II Corps was engaged. This was the action of Mons, which the Field-Marshal airily dismisses as mere ‘heavy pressure upon our outposts.’ General Smith-Dorrien, he says, ‘was nowhere threatened by anything more than cavalry supported by small bodies of infantry.’ Unfortunately German as well as British accounts show that large bodies of German infantry were engaged, and that they suffered very heavily. But the Field-Marshal cares nothing for facts so long as he can say something unpleasant about General Smith-Dorrien. He implicitly blames Sir Horace for evacuating the untenable salient of Obourg, and drawing back the whole of his line slightly to conform with the movement; and he sneers at his subordinate for feeling anxious when he, the august chief, was calm.
The sequel showed that the subordinate was right. At 5 p.m. Sir John received ‘a most unexpected telegram’ from General Joffre, saying that Lanrezac’s army was in full retreat, and that three German corps were moving against the British front and a fourth round their left. As the Field-Marshal had seen the French retirement with his own eyes and had been warned, buy his own admission, on the 22nd that at least three German corps were opposed to him, it is difficult to understand why this telegram was ‘most unexpected.’ However, he still waited for yet another telegram, which reached him at 11:30 p.m., before he gave his orders for retreat. Thus, on his own showing, Sir John French wasted from six to seven previous hours until he decided to extricate his army from a position of the utmost peril.
On the 24th the retreat began. The Field Marshal would have us believe that the I Corps covered the retreat of the II. This is ludicrously incorrect. The II Corps was heavily engaged all along the line, and fought a desperate flank action on the extreme left with brilliant success; whereas the I Corps was not pressed in the least. Lord French gives the whole of the credit for the flank action to the cavalry, thought the brunt was borne by the 1st Norfolks and 1st Chesires, and to the 19th Brigade which had no share in it at all. The II Corps was commanded by General Smith-Dorrien and therefore could no nothing right. Even a clever little movement, by which Sir Horace made the 3rd and 5th Divisions change places, is set down as ‘confusion,’ and is described quite unwarrantably, as having hampered the retreat of the I Corps. By a singular irony, however, Lord French does blunder into commendation of the 8th Brigade which, though he forgot it for the moment, belonged to the II Corps, but was commanded by Doran and not by Davies, as he inaccurately says.
On the 25th the retreat was continued. An awkward obstacle, the Forest of Mormal, lay in the way; and it was necessary for the I Corps to pass to east and the II Corps to west of it. At the day’s close the two corps were six miles apart, General Haig’s left being at Landrecies, where it ought not to have been, and General Smith-Dorrien’s right in its appointed place at Le Cateau. How did this come about? The Field-Marshal talks vaguely about serious German attacks on the I Corps at Maroilles and Landrecies, and assigns as the time of the engagement Landrecies a varying series of hours from 9 p.m. on the 25th to the early morning of the 26th–all for the purpose of excusing the failure of the I Corps to arrive at its proper halting-ground. This is quite useless. There must have been some grave mistake or neglect on the part of his staff; and we cannot forget that, though Lord French covers Sir Archibald Murray and Sir Henry Wilson with fulsome praise in his book, he did not keep them on his staff till the end of his command. Sir Archibald, being Chief, must, in the absence of further information, be held responsible for the gap between the I and II Crops, and for the action of Le Cateau which followed in consequence.
The Field-Marshal’s orders were for the retreat to be continued on the 26th; and General Smith-Dorrien had issued his commands accordingly to the II Corps. It was past midnight, however, before he could ascertain the whereabouts of all his troops; and then he discovered that the 4th Division, which had joined the army on the 25th, was in isolation in advance of his line, that his troops were greatly exhausted, and that the cavalry was so weary and so much dispersed that it could not be counted on longer to cover the retreat. He therefore took his memorable decision to stand and fight, in spite of the Field-Marshal’s orders. Lord French condemns this resolution, omitting, however, to say anything about the situation of the 4th Division, and inserting instead a story (of which we are sorry to say that we believe not one word) about General Allenby’s warning Sir Horace that, unless he continued his retreat, he would be surrounded. And here we approach the most astonishing and unsavoury incident in the whole of Lord French’s volume.
In his despatch of Sept. 7, 1914, the Field-Marshal gave General Smith-Dorrien full credit for the cool courage he had shown in accepting battle at Le Cateau. Further, he by implication blamed the French General Sordet, for failing to help Smith-Dorrien. In the volume before us he takes back his praise, alleging that, when he wrote his dispatch, he was unaware of the service rendered by General Sordet; and he now contends that, but for General Sordet, Sir Horace would have been pinned to his ground and surrounded. Now it is an indisputable fact, established by documentary evidence, that General Smith-Dorrien, in addition to writing his own thanks to General Sordet and recounting his obligations to him in a special order to his troops, reported within three days to Lord French himself the good help that he had received from General Sordet, and begged that thanks might be sent to him through General Joffre. The Field-Marshal’s statements upon this point, therefore, both in his dispatch and in his book are not correct.
The fact, we fear, is that on the 26th Lord French and his staff completely lost their heads, and that, in the vain endeavor to conceal this, he has taken leave of all sense of accuracy. He would fain have us believe that at Le Cateau, as at Mons, General Smith-Dorrien was opposed by nothing but cavalry; but this absurd contention can be equally disproved in both cases. It is significant that the Germans never mention and never have mentioned the action of Le Cateau, which is pretty sure evidence that it went ill for them. Lord French, in his eagerness to belittle it, contends that, without General Sordet, General Smith-Dorrien would never have escaped. Yet the safe retreat of the II Corps was assured long before General Sordet came into action. Lord French avers (on p. 78) that the fight cost at least 14,000 men and 80 guns, and on p. 87 that the casualties of the II Corps since Aug. 23 numbered 15,000 men and 80 guns. The two statements are plainly incompatible with one another; and the actual casualties at Le Cateau–as Lord French could easily have ascertained if he desired to know the truth–did not exceed 8000 men and 36 guns. He actually has the effrontery to asset that the German cavalry reached St. Quentin, in pursuit of the II Corps, on the evening of the 26th, whereas it had not done so even on the morning of the 28th. Lastly, he commends the withdrawal of the I Corps from Landrecies, which was hardly even hampered by the enemy, as one of the most brilliant episodes of the whole retreat.
No doubt there is ignorance as well as malice in this portion of his narrative. Lord French himself, long before the issue of the action of Le Cateau was decided, hurried away to Noyon, forty miles from the battlefield, and there waited, leaving his army for one day, if not two, to look after itself. Happily Von Kluck, instead of pursuing the II Corps, marched south-westward across its rear; and the British force continued its rapid retreat unmolested. It is evident that Lord French sent home very gloomy reports, for they brought Lord Kitchener to Paris, where there was a stormy interview between the two Field-Marshals. As to what actually passed, we are too distrustful of Lord French’s accuracy to accept his account for gospel; but we must record our entire agreement with him upon one point, namely that a Commander-in -Chief in the field must not, so long as he be Commander-in-Chief, be subjected to interference from home. The Government may remove him if it so pleases, but, if it does not remove him, it must leave him alone.
Retreat gave place to advance and to the battle of the Marne. Lord French throws little new light on the rather feeble movements of the British on Sept. 6; but he, who ignores the great work of the II Corps during the retreat, finds space to describe every petty action of the cavalry and I Corps in the subsequent movements. The truth is that, though the British share in the battle of the Marne was important, it was not very arduous. As to the battle of the Aisne, again, he has little of interest to say; and it is not until its close, when he very rightly pleaded for the transfer of the British Army to its old place on the left of the line, that Lord French’s narrative again becomes arresting.
It seems that the resolution of the Belgian Government to abandon Antwerp, when the Germans began actively to threaten it, came as a most disagreeable surprise to the Field-Marshal. ‘It was difficult (he says) to understand why the Belgians, who had fought so well at Liege, were unable to do more in defence of a fortress which was much stronger, and situated, moreover, in a position where it could be supported by the British fleet.’ Was it so difficult? The example of Liege had shown that no fortifications could stand for long under high-explosive shells of large caliber; and forty-five miles–the shortest distance between Antwerp and the sea–is surely longish range even for the very newest guns of the British fleet. Or does Lord French think that the fleet could have steamed up the Scheldt to Antwerp or near it? However Lord French at once realized that Antwerp was to be made the base for a German advance against the channel ports; and he very naturally and rightly became eager to move north-ward as soon as possible in order to relieve Antwerp, if it might still be saved, or, if not, at any rate to bar the way to the sea.
Unfortunately Lord Kitchener and Mr. Churchill were also framing plans for the relief of Antwerp on their own account, and making arrangements with General Joffre in furtherance of the same, without consulting Lord French in the first instance at all. A hundred and twenty years ago Henry Dundas had initiated operations upon this same Belgian coast under his own direction, ignoring the Duke of York, who was in command of the Army in the field; and history repeated itself. The relief of Antwerp failed egregiously; and the Belgian Army, having delayed its retreat until dangerously late, suffered very heavy losses before it reached the Yser. Beyond doubt Lord French is right in maintaining that the Troops sent by Lord Kitchener and the First Lord of the Admiralty to save Antwerp should have been placed under his command, subject to the supreme direction of General Joffre; and there is very much to be said for his contention that, if this had been done, Lille would have been saved. Antwerp has been a tender spot to British statesmen for over three centuries; and it seems that both the Admiralty and the War Office lost their heads when they realized that it was in serious danger.
Meanwhile the main British Army had been travelling northward from the Aisne; and the race for the sea, begun by both French and Germans in September, had become very keen. There were high hopes that the British and French would on the 13th make a combined advance, and that the French left would reach Lille and the British centre Courtrai. Unfortunately the Germans were too quick for the Allies; and to save the French from being outflanked in the north, it was necessary to throw the II Corps hastily into the fighting line in that most difficult and detestable country just to the north of La Bassee. This was hard upon the II Corps, which had borne all the brunt of the retreat and had, by sheer ill-fortune, happened also upon the most difficult ground in the valley of the Aisne. Many of its battalions had suffered so heavily that their numbers, in spite of the drafts sent to them, were very low; and they were sadly short of officers. In such circumstances its fighting power had necessarily been diminished; and General Smith-Dorrien could not but be alive to the fact. Lord French endeavoured, as he himself tells, to calm Sir Horace’s misgivings by point out that the cavalry, the 4th Division and the 19th Brigade had all of them been as heavily engaged at Le Cateau as the II Corps. We should doubt if his arguments carried great weight. In the first place the cavalry was very little engaged at Le Cateau; and in the second, the 4th Division had not been seriously engaged before that action, whereas the II Corps had had two severe days’ fighting on the 23rd and 24th, as well as a wearing day on the 25th of August before it turned and stood to bay at le Cateau on the 26th. To this day we believe that Lord French has no idea of the work done by the II Corps between the 23rd and the 26th. He has persuaded himself that the I Corps covered the retreat of the II, which is the exact reverse of the truth; and he has not grasped the elementary fact that the II Corps lost more men in combat with the enemy on the 23rd than did the I Corps during the whole of the retreat.
In any case this premature, though inevitable, launching of the II Corps into the fighting line seems to have militated against the success of the great offensive movement in the north upon which Lord French, apparently General Foch also, had built great hopes. The British troops were thereby broken up; and the II and III Corps, instead of standing side by side, were some miles apart, the gap being filled by French cavalry, which, in such a country, was at great disadvantage.
Meanwhile the Cavalry Division and the III Corps cleared the high ground that lies east of Cassel and the lower hills to south of it, encountering no very serious opposition; and the II Corps also made some progress. But there was continual evidence that the Germans were growing stronger and stronger on the line from La Bassee northward, and the Allied troops were none too thick at any point. On Oct. 19 the I Corps came up from the Aisne; and Lord French had to make up his mind whether he should use it to reinforce his sorely tried troops from Menin southward to La Bassee, or to meet, by a counter-offensive, the enemy’s threats against Ypres and the Yser. On the one hand, if the Germans succeeded in driving a wedge through the British at some point south of Menin–and the place of junction with the French about La Bassee was likely to be chosen for the purpose–then they would either force the British Army to surrender or drive it into the sea. On the other hand, if they broke through the line about Ypres or to the north of it, they would reach the sea-board and master the Channel ports. Lord French, as he puts it, had to choose between the certain disaster of losing the Channel ports and the less certain though, if it should overtake him, more overwhelming disaster of being driven into the sea. He decided to avert the certain disaster, thereby taking terrible risks; and the event showed that his judgment was correct. This in our opinion, is the one great thing that Lord French did during his period of command on the Western Front; and too gladly admit that it was really and truly great. He had every right to select for himself the title of Lord French of Ypres.
On Oct. 21 he launched the I Corps to an attack for the recovery of Bruges; and on the same day, whether before or after he had committed these troops to their offensive he does not tell us, he learned that the Germans had brought up four fresh Reserve Corps to break his line at Ypres. The strength of this reinforcement and the suddenness of its appearance came to him, as he confesses, like a bolt from the blue. Apparently the Intelligence Departments of the Belgian, French and British armies must all equally have been taken by surprise. Then the storm broke, and the projected offensive of the Allies became a stubborn, almost desperate, defensive. The story of the first battle of Ypres afford such numberless examples of British coolness and tenacity that it is hard to select any one of them as more conspicuous than the rest. Lord French dwells in particular upon the defence of Messines by the cavalry; and, though he may foster some natural prejudice in favour of the arm in which he was trained we do not think that he is unduly partial here. He gives no instances of individual gallantry, and herein shows sound sense; but we can never read of those days without recalling Lieutenant Stewart, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who on Oct. 24 went out with two men only to parry a flank attack upon his battalion and shot down seventy Germans, including the teams of two machine-gun detachments, with his own rifle.
Lord French’s account of the crisis of the battle on Oct.31 is highly dramatic:
‘As I passed through Ypres on the way to Haig there were manifest signs of unusual excitement, and some shells were already falling in the place…I saw loaded vehicles leaving the town, and people were gathered in groups about the streets chattering like monkeys or rushing hither and thither with frightened faces…I had not gone more than a mile from the town, when the traffic in the road began to assume an anxious and most threatening aspect. It looked as if the whole of the I Corps were about to fall back in confusion on Ypres. Heavy howitzers were moving westward at a trot–always a most significant feature of a retreat–and ammunition and other wagons blocked the road almost as far as the eye could reach. In the midst of the press of traffic and along both sides of the road, crowds of wounded came limping along as fast as they could go, all heading for Ypres. Shells were screaming overhead and bursting with reverberating explosions in the adjacent fields.’
Sir John pursued his way on foot to the Chateau of Hooge and found General Haig and his Chief of Staff, John Gough, anxious but cool, poring over their maps. They gave a bad account of affairs; and the Commander-in-Chief passed the worst half-hour of his life until a staff officer came galloping in with the news that the lost village of Gheluvelt had been retaken, and that the advancing Germans had been checked. Lord French’s account of the reason for the sudden turn of the tide is the usual one–that Brigadier-General FitzClarence had on his own initiative summoned the Worcesters of the 5th Brigade and ordered them to counter-attack. But is it not the fact that the Worcesters had been held ready by the Divisional Commander for just such a contingency, and were brought in to action according to his orders? This in no way detracts from the good service of General FitzClarence in the actual direction of the counter-attack; and it must not be considered derogatory to the fame of the Worcesters if we mention that the Berkshires also attacked Gheluvelt independently, and contributed not a little to the re-establishment of a favourable situation. A Commander-in-Chief has no time to trouble himself with such details; but we, who have leisure, can do justice to the good work of one of the finest battalions of the Old Army.
With the last phase of the famous battle we shall not concern ourselves further than to note that the II Corps, which had been withdrawn from the line, utterly exhausted, on Oct. 28, was gradually drawn into it again, brigade by brigade or battalion by battalion, until almost the whole of it had been absorbed into the I Crops. Even so Sir Douglas Haig had under him but a shadow of a corps, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was left with hardly a man under his command. Such was the price of the victory of Ypres–the destruction of the Old Army, probably the finest, for its numbers, that ever went for the to war.
We shall not follow Lord French into the rather controversial matter which concludes his volume. We agree heartily with him that it was a great mistake in Lord Kitchener to raise new armies, instead of utilizing the organization for expansion of the Territorial Force which Lord Haldane had already prepared for him; but beyond that we shall not go. We have found too many inaccuracies in this book to permit us to accept any statement of his without the utmost caution; and, though this may seem to be a hard saying, we must warn our readers to follow our example.
Upon the whole we must pronounce this to be one of the most unfortunate books that ever was written. It does not preach even sound military doctrine. There is some parade of commonplace military reading, but there is also the curious teaching that such a river as the Somme or the Oise would provide a military barrier, behind which a retreating army could rest and refit. Surely such a notion is hardly one which in these days should be put forward upon the authority of a Field-Marshal. But this is not the worst. It is the spirit of the whole work which really gives us pain. The author has descended to misstatements and misrepresentations of the clumsiest and most ludicrous kind in order to injure the reputation of a subordinate, who is forbidden to defend himself; and, coming from one in his high position, this brings shame and dishonor not only upon the Field-Marshal himself but upon the Army. A worse example to young officers than is to be found in this book we cannot imagine. We entreat them to avoid it, or, if they do read it, to study it for warning against what is wrong rather than for instruction in what is right. Lord French is, it is true, still the recipient of honours and rewards; but no accumulation of titles, batons, grants, orders or decorations can ever fit him to stand in the company of such men as Ralph Abercromby, John Moore, Rowland Hill and Thomas Graham. Let these, and not Lord French, stand before the youth of Britain as the models upon which to train themselves to be officers and gentlemen.