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Title: Sir John French - An Authentic Biography
Author: Chisholm, Cecil
Language: English
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       *       *       *       *       *


[Illustration: FIELD-MARSHAL SIR JOHN D.P. FRENCH, G.C.B., G.C.V.O.,
K.C.M.G. _From a portrait by his son, J.R.L. French._]



SIR JOHN FRENCH
AN AUTHENTIC BIOGRAPHY

BY

CECIL CHISHOLM, M.A.

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
SIR EVELYN WOOD, V.C.
AND A PORTRAIT BY J.R.L. FRENCH

HERBERT JENKINS LIMITED
ARUNDEL PLACE HAYMARKET
LONDON S.W. MCMXV

    "This is the happy warrior--this is he
    That every man in arms should wish to be."

    _Wordsworth._



WYMAN & SONS LTD., PRINTERS, READING AND LONDON.



INTRODUCTION

BY FIELD-MARSHAL SIR EVELYN WOOD, V.C.


I regard John Denton French as the man who for the last twelve years
has been the driving force of tactical instruction in the British
Army. He made use of all the best ideas of the Generals who preceded
him in the Aldershot Command, and he was, I think, instrumental in
causing the appointment of Horace Smith-Dorrien and Douglas Haig to
succeed in turn to that nursery of soldiers.

How sound his judgment has proved to be may be discovered from the
dispatches--carefully worded--in which he describes how Smith-Dorrien
conducted the most successful retreat since that of Sir John Moore to
Corunna, 1808-9, and how Douglas Haig carried his Army across the
Aisne river in the face of the enemy's fire opposition.

From 1884-5, when as a Squadron Officer he showed marked determination
in the abortive expedition for the relief of Gordon, until 1899-1902
in South Africa, he has been the foremost man to inculcate the
"Cavalry Spirit," and unlike many advocates of that spirit, he has
never become a slave to the idea. He has been at pains to teach the
Cavalry soldier that when he can no longer fight to the best advantage
in the saddle, he is to get off his horse and fight on foot. This is a
marked feature of his military genius.

He is intensely practical; and he is possessed of great moral and
physical courage which never fail to assert themselves in the face of
the most difficult situations. They were conspicuously shown during
the Boer War when, with an extraordinary determination, he formed up
his men on their tired and exhausted horses and advanced in extended
order, galloping through the Boers in position, and reaching Kimberley
as the result of his heroic determination.

When, in the earlier part of this War, things were not going well, I
was asked to give my opinion of our chances of success. I said that I
did not think that our prospects were then bright, but although many
men had gone "Hands up" before John French, he would never put up his
own, whatever happened.

        EVELYN WOOD, F.-M.
  _November 10_,
    1914.



PREFACE


In writing this biography of Field-Marshal Sir John French I have been
deeply indebted to many of his personal friends for helping me with
first-hand impressions of our General in the Field. A number of
military writers have been almost equally helpful. Among those to whom
I owe sincere thanks for personal assistance are Lady French, Mr.
J.R.L. French, Mrs. Despard, Field-Marshal Earl Roberts, Field-Marshal
Sir Evelyn Wood, General Bewicke Copley, Colonel E.K. Aylener, Colonel
Kendal Coghill, Colonel Charles E. Warde, M.P., the Editor of the
_Army and Navy Gazette_, Mr. Percy J. King, the Editor of the
_Regiment_, Mr. Frederick W. Carter, Mr. Leonard Crocombe and Mr. S.R.
Littlewood, who put valuable material at my disposal.

I shall be very grateful for any further biographical particulars,
stories, or corrections for incorporation in subsequent editions: all
communications should be addressed to me, care of my publishers.

      C.C.



  _The outside wrapper is reproduced from a drawing by E. Oakdale,
  by courtesy of Mr. Holbrook Jackson, Editor of "T.P.'s Weekly_."



CONTENTS

                                                             PAGE
INTRODUCTION                                                  iii

PREFACE                                                         v


CHAPTER I
EARLY DAYS

  A Kentish Celt--A Rebellious Boy--Four Years in the
    Navy--With the 19th Hussars--"Captain X Trees"--A
    Studious Subaltern--Chafing at Home--The First
    Opportunity                                                 1

CHAPTER II
WITH THE NILE EXPEDITION

  A Forlorn Hope--Scouting in the Desert--The Battle of
    Abu Klea--Metammeh--The Death of Gordon--A Dangerous
    Retreat--"Major French and His Thirteen Troopers"          10

CHAPTER III
YEARS OF WAITING

  Second in Command--Maintaining the Barrow
    tradition--The Persistent Student--Service in
    India--Retires on Half-pay--Renewed
    Activities--Rehearsing for South Africa                    23

CHAPTER IV
ELANDSLAAGTE AND RIETFONTEIN

  The Unknown Commander of Cavalry--Who is General
    French?--Advancing without Reinforcements--"This is
    your Show, French"--The White Flag--The
    Chess-Player--The Victor in Anecdote                       32

CHAPTER V
THE TIDE TURNS

  White's Dash from Ladysmith--Nicholson's Nek--The
    Reverse at Lombard's Kop--A Cavalry Exploit--French's
    Dramatic Escape from Ladysmith                             45

CHAPTER VI
THE CAMPAIGN ROUND COLESBERG

  The Fog of War--A Perilous Situation--Damming "The
    Flowing Tide"--Shows His Genius as a Commander--A
    Campaign in Miniature--Hoisting Guns on Hilltops--The
    Fifty-mile Front--Saving the Situation                     52

CHAPTER VII
THE DASH TO KIMBERLEY

  French's Pledge--The Task--The First Shell--"Hemmed
    in"--"We must break through"--The Lancers' Charge--In
    and Out of Kimberley--The Surrender of Cronje              67

CHAPTER VIII
ROUNDING UP THE BOERS

  French in the Modder--At Bloemfontein--French and the
    Artist--An Ambush--Doing the Impossible Again--Short
    Shrift with Barberton Snipers---Some French Stories        82

CHAPTER IX
WORK AT HOME AND RESIGNATION

  At Aldershot--Driving Training at High Pressure--
    General French is "fairly well pleased"--Strenuous
    Manoeuvres--Chief of the Imperial General
    Staff--Ulster and Resignation                              97

CHAPTER X
HIS BELIEF IN CAVALRY

  The Lessons of the Boer War--Cavalry _v_. Mounted
    Infantry--A Plea for the Lance--The Cavalry
    Spirit--Shock Tactics still Useful                        106

CHAPTER XI
THE MODERN MARLBOROUGH

  Europe's Need--The Plight of France--A Delicate
    Situation--The Man of "Grip"--A Magnificent Retreat       116

CHAPTER XII
FRENCH, THE MAN

  A Typical Englishman--Fighting at School--Napoleon
    Worship--"A Great Reporter"--Halting Speeches and
    Polished Prose. A South African Coincidence--Mrs.
    Despard and the Newsboy--The Happy Warrior                121

Index                                                         149



SIR JOHN FRENCH

CHAPTER I

EARLY DAYS

    A Kentish Celt--A Rebellious Boy--Four Years in the
    Navy--With the 19th Hussars--"Captain X Trees"--A Studious
    Subaltern--Chafing at Home--The First Opportunity.


"If I don't end my days as a Field-Marshal it will not be for want of
trying, and--well, I'm jolly well going to do it." In these words,
uttered many years ago to a group of brother officers in the mess room
of the 19th Hussars, Sir John French quite unconsciously epitomised
his own character in a way no biographer can hope to equal. The
conversation had turned upon luck, a word that curiously enough was
later to be so intimately associated with French's name. One man had
stoutly proclaimed that all promotion was a matter of luck, and French
had claimed that only work and ability really counted in the end. Yet
"French's luck" has become almost a service proverb--for those who
have not closely studied his career. Luck is frequently a word used to
explain our own failure and another man's success.

Not that success and John French could ever have been strangers. There
are some happy natures whose destiny is never in doubt, Providence
having apparently planned it half a century ahead. Sir John French is
a striking instance of this. Destiny never had any doubt about the
man. He was born to be a fighter. On his father's side he comes of the
famous old Galway family of which Lord de Freyne, of French Park, Co.
Roscommon, is now the head. By tradition the Frenches are a naval
family, although there have been famous soldiers as well as famous
sailors amongst its members. There was, for instance, the John French
who fought in the army of King William, leading a troop of the
Enniskillen Dragoons at Aughrim in 1689.

Sir John French is himself the son of a sailor, Commander J.T.W.
French, who on retiring from the Navy settled down on the beautiful
little Kentish estate of Ripplevale, near Walmer. Here John Denton
Pinkstone French was born on September 28, 1852, in the same year as
his future colleague, General Joffre. His mother, a Miss Eccles, was
the daughter of a Scotch family resident near Glasgow.

[Page Heading: PLAYING WITH SOLDIERS]

Of the boy's home life at Ripplevale very little is known. He was the
sixth child and the only son of the family. Both his parents dying
while he was quite young, he was brought up under the care of his
sisters. But there is no reason to suppose that he was therefore
spoilt; for one of these ladies shared in a remarkable degree the
qualities of energy and determination which were to distinguish her
brother. Young French's earliest education was largely guided by this
gifted sister, who is now so well known in another field of warfare as
Mrs. Despard.

It is extremely difficult to say what manner of boy the future
Field-Marshal was. Only one fact emerges clearly. He was high-spirited
and full of mischief. Everything that he did was done with the
greatest enthusiasm, and already there were signs that he possessed an
unusually strong will.

Inevitably games quickly took possession of his imagination. Very soon
the war game had first place in his affections. He was perpetually
playing with soldiers--a fascinating hobby which intrigued the curious
mind of the rather silent child. French, in fact, was a very normal
and healthy boy, with just a touch of thoughtfulness to mark him off
from his fellows.

He was not, however, to enjoy the freedom of home life for very long.
At an early age he was sent to a preparatory school at Harrow, which
he left for Eastman's Naval College at Portsmouth. After the necessary
"cramming" he passed the entrance examination to the Navy at the age
of thirteen. In the following year (1866) he joined the _Britannia_ as
a cadet. Four years of strenuous naval work followed. But like another
Field-Marshal-to-be, Sir Evelyn Wood, the boy was not apparently
enamoured of the sea. As a result he decided to leave that branch of
the service.

That action is typical of the man. He is ruthless with himself as well
as with others. If the Navy were not to give scope for his ambition,
then he must quit the Navy. Already, no doubt, his life-long hero,
Napoleon, was kindling the young man's imagination. But the English
Navy of those days gave little encouragement to the Napoleonic point
of view. It was bound up with the sternest discipline and much red
tape. If rumour speaks true young French was irritated by the almost
despotic powers then possessed by certain naval officers. So he boldly
decided at the age of eighteen to end one career and commence another.

To enter the sister service he had to stoop to what is dubbed the
"back-door," in other words a commission in the militia. It seems
rather remarkable that one of our most brilliant officers should have
had this difficulty to face. Incidentally it is a curious sidelight on
the system of competitive examinations. But there are several facts to
remember. Sir John French's genius developed slowly. One does not
figure him as ready, like Kitchener, at twenty-one, with a complete
map of his career. In these days he was probably more interested in
hunting than in soldiering. The man who is now proverbial for his
devotion to the study of tactics was then very little of a book-worm.
Indeed he seems to have shown no special intellectual or practical
abilities until much later in life.

[Page Heading: THE "DUMPIES"]

In 1874 he was gazetted to the 8th Hussars, being transferred three
weeks later to the 19th. At that time the 19th Hussars was scarcely a
crack regiment. With two other regiments raised after the Indian
mutiny it was nicknamed the "Dumpies," owing to the standard of height
being lowered, and it had yet to earn the reputation which Barrow and
French secured it. About John French the subaltern, as about John
French the midshipman, history is silent. No fabulous legends have
accumulated about him. Presumably the short, firmly-built young
officer was regarded as normal and entirely _de rigeur_ in his
sporting propensities.

The subaltern of the 'eighties took himself much less seriously than
his successor of today. The eternal drill and the occasional
manoeuvres were conducted on well-worn and almost automatic
principles. As a result, the younger officers found hunting and polo
decidedly better sport. Few or none of them were military enthusiasts;
and study did not enter largely into their programme. It entered into
French's--but only in stray hours, often snatched by early rising,
before the day's work--or sport--began.

Despite constant rumours to the contrary, there can be no question
that French was a most spirited young officer and a thorough
sportsman. He at once earned for himself the sobriquet of "Capt. X
Trees," as a result of his being a "retired naval man." To this day
among the very few remaining brother officers of his youth, he is
still greeted as "Trees."

As might be expected, French showed no desire to pose as "the glass of
fashion or the mould of form." He never attempted to cultivate the
graces of the _beau sabreur_. His short square figure did not look
well on horseback and probably never will. But he was admitted to be a
capable horseman and to have "good hands." Although not keen on polo
he was very fond of steeplechasing. Of his love for that sport there
is ample proof in the fact that he trained and rode his own
steeplechasers.

[Page Heading: A DIFFICULT TEAM]

One of his best horses was a mare called "Mrs. Gamp," which he lent on
one occasion to a brother subaltern--now Colonel Charles E. Warde,
M.P. for Mid-Kent. Riding with his own spurs on French's mare, Colonel
Warde was one of three out of a field of four hundred to live through
a Warde Union run which was responsible for the death of six hunters
before the day was over.

Young French also became a very good whip. Along with Colonel H.M.A.
Warde--now the Chief Constable of Kent--he had a thrilling adventure
in coach driving. When the regiment first started a coach it was
necessary to bring it from Dublin to the Curragh. The two subalterns,
neither of whom had ever driven four horses before, commandeered four
chargers belonging to brother officers. One of the animals was a
notorious kicker. But they took them up to Dublin and drove the coach
twenty-eight miles down to the Curragh next day, arriving there alive
and with no broken harness!

At that time French differed from his fellow officers probably rather
in degree than in temperament. Although a very keen sportsman he did
not put sport first. Colonel C.E. Warde, one of his closest friends,
gives the following description of the man. "Although he never
attempted to go to the Staff College he was continually studying
military works, and often, when his brother subalterns were at polo or
other afternoon amusements, he would remain in his room reading Von
Schmidt, Jomini, or other books on strategy. I recollect once
travelling by rail with him in our subaltern days, when after
observing the country for some time, he broke out: 'There is where I
should put my artillery.' 'There is where I should put my cavalry' and
so on to the journey's end."

In spite of these evidences of a soldier's eye for country, there is
nothing to show that French had developed any abnormal devotion for
his work. He was interested but not absorbed. In 1880 a captaincy and
his marriage probably did something to make him take his career more
seriously. His wife, Lady French, was a daughter of Mr. R.W.
Selby-Lowndes, of Bletchley, Bucks. They have two sons and a daughter.

A few months after his marriage he accepted an adjutancy in the
Northumberland Yeomanry. For four uneventful years he was stationed at
Newcastle, where the work was monotonous and the opportunities almost
_nil_.

[Page Heading: THE WAITING GAME]

Naturally the young man fretted very much at being left behind with
the Yeomanry when his regiment was ordered to embark for Egypt in
1882. And he never rested until he was allowed to follow it out in
1884. It was in many ways a new 19th which the young officer re-joined
in Egypt. The regiment hurried out in 1882 had at last come under a
commander of real genius in Colonel Percy Barrow, C.B., and in that
commander French was to find his first real military inspiration. It
is difficult to judge what his future might have been but for this one
man and the Nile Expedition, which proved the turning point in
French's career as it did in that of his regiment.

Then, as ever, French was a man who had to wait for his opportunities.
He was thirty-two years of age before he saw this, his first piece of
active service. Where Kitchener found, or made, opportunities for
military experience, French was content to wait the turn of events. So
it has been all through his life. He has never forestalled Destiny; he
has simply accepted its call. But when an opportunity presented itself
he always seized it, and the Nile Expedition was no exception to the
rule. Major French, without Staff College training, without the usual
diplomas, was to prove himself once and for all a master tactician.



CHAPTER II

WITH THE NILE EXPEDITION

    A Forlorn Hope--Scouting in the Desert--The Battle of Abu
    Klea--Metammeh--The Death of Gordon--A Dangerous
    Retreat--"Major French and His Thirteen Troopers."


Sir John French's first experience of actual warfare was a bitter one.
If ever the British Government bungled one of their military
enterprises more thoroughly than another, it was the Nile Expedition
of 1884-5. What began as a forlorn hope ended in complete failure, and
in three short months French experienced the miseries of retreat, of
failure, and of work under an invertebrate War Office.

To this day no one has ever justified the hidden processes of logic by
which the Government responsible came to the conclusion that the
Soudan must be evacuated. It is true that the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed,
had won considerable successes against our forces since his appearance
in 1881. But no army of any dimensions had ever been opposed to his
"Divine powers." Why Gordon should have been entrusted with the
evacuation is not so doubtful. W.T. Stead and other journalistic
pundits conceived him to be the man for the task, however much Egypt's
ruler, Lord Cromer, might differ from their verdict. So to Khartoum
Gordon was sent with an all too small band of followers. Presumably
the authorities imagined that the man who had worked miracles in China
with neither men nor money would settle the Soudan on equally
economical terms. But the Mahdi's black braves were other mettle than
the yellow men, as Gordon himself well knew from his past experience
in the Soudan.

[Page Heading: THE SLEEPER WAKES]

Reaching Khartoum on February 18, 1884, he quickly discovered how
perilous the defeat of Baker Pasha at El-Teb had made his position. He
at once warned his superiors, but nothing was done. In April he found
Khartoum besieged, but even that did not startle the Home authorities
from their lethargy. At length, however, the Government realised that
to allow their General to perish at the hands of the Dervishes might
be to forfeit their prestige in Egypt. Lord Wolseley was accordingly
instructed to relieve Khartoum at all costs.

Those instructions were more easy to give than to obey. Wolseley
decided to send a flying column across the desert from Korti to
Metammeh and thence to Khartoum; and a second up the Nile. With the
luckless flying column went part of the 19th Hussars, under
Lieutenant-Colonel Barrow. Major French was second in command.

On December 30, General Herbert Stewart's little force, with its
thousand odd men and two thousand camels, was on parade for inspection
near Korti. At first there was some doubt as to how the camels would
stand the attack of the Mahdi's wild warriors.

"In order to test the steadiness of our camels as regarded noise and
firing, the 19th Hussars one day at brigade drill charged on the
unprotected mass of camels, cheering and yelling. Everybody expected
to see them break their ropes and career wildly over the desert. The
only result was that one solitary camel struggled to his feet, looked
round and knelt down again; the others never moved an eyelid.

"That was satisfactory: and as firing into them with blank cartridges
and over them with ball had already been tried ... with no visible
result, the general opinion was that they would stand charging niggers
or anything else in creation with equanimity. Sad to say we came to
the conclusion that it was want of brains _pur et simple_ that caused
our steeds to behave thus docilely: any other animal with a vestige of
brain would have been scared to death, but, as it was, no one
regretted their deficiency."[1]

[Page Heading: THE KITCHENER WAY]

Before the corps set out from Korti, Sir Herbert Stewart sent for the
chief men at Ambukol who knew the desert route. Showing them money he
asked whether they would act as guides. This they refused to do. Said
Stewart, "You will come anyway. If you like to ride to Metammeh tied
on your camels well and good; if you prefer not being lashed on, you
will get these nice presents." They agreed to go! So they were sent to
ride ahead of the column, guarded by some of the 19th, who had orders
to shoot if they attempted to fly. But no such effort was made.

The rest of the 19th had more arduous work to do. During the whole
weary march they were far ahead of the column scouting.

"On coming to a plain with hills in the distance, you'd see various
specks on the tops of the furthest hills, and with the help of your
glasses discover them to be the 19th. Sir Herbert (Stewart) was
immensely pleased with them and pointed them out to me as being the
very acme of Light Cavalry."[2]

The column itself was almost half-a-mile in length, even when by night
it marched in close order. It was a strange sight to see the camels,
with long necks outstretched, swaying across the desert towards the
horizon, both the men and their ostrich-like steeds enveloped in a
huge cloud of dust. A wind storm arose more than once, flinging
blinding clouds of sand in the men's faces. On New Year's Eve,
however, the soldiers shouted themselves hoarse with "Auld Lang Syne"
as they plodded wearily along the moonlit desert.

Very soon the cavalry had an opportunity to distinguish themselves. On
the following day a halt was called "to allow the indefatigable 19th
to find out the reason of a faint light burning far off on the
plain.... They returned with several natives, a string of camels and
several loads of dates. They had found ... the natives bivouacked for
the night, surprised them, captured as much loot as possible and
bolted the rest."[3]

After a fortnight's marching the column came in touch with the enemy
at Abu Klea. At this time French's work was peculiarly dangerous. He
spent night after night in the desert in solitary watching and waiting
for the Dervishes.

On January 16 the 19th Hussars were sent to reconnoitre. They
reported that the Mahdi had mustered considerable force between the
British camp and the wells. Stewart determined to fight his way
through to the wells at any cost. Leaving a very small force to hold
his camp, he formed his main body into a square, in which form it
advanced. No sooner had the advance begun than the enemy opened a
terrific fire. Yet the square pushed on, despite constant halts
necessary to assure its formation remaining intact, as the guns were
hauled over the rutty and uneven surface of the desert.

Soon, however, the Dervishes rushed to the attack, and Stewart found
himself outnumbered by four to one. The attack was delivered with
appalling force. The Arabs' shouts as they rushed forward have been
described by an eye-witness as like the thunder of the sea.

[Page Heading: THE BROKEN SQUARE]

Their onslaught was so sudden that the square was broken, the heavy
camel corps suffering specially severely. So did the naval brigade
whose solitary Gardner gun jammed at the critical moment. When Lord
Charles Beresford was attempting to clear it his assistants were all
speared and he himself was knocked senseless under the gun. Somehow or
other, with much difficulty, he managed to get back to the square.

During the afternoon, however, the Arabs' attack began to diminish in
violence. Here was the cavalry's opportunity. They charged the enemy
with great impetuosity. Gradually the Dervishes were driven off by the
aid of the artillery. But there were the wells still to capture, and
the detachment of the 19th Hussars was given that important mission.
They were able to accomplish it without resistance. That night the
thirsty force was able to drink water again--albeit yellow in colour
and weird of taste.

After a brief rest the advance on Metammeh was continued, with the
Hussars still in the van. On the following night there was a scene of
wild disorder. It was very dark and camels began to stumble and lose
their places in the long grass.

The men were so weary that many went to sleep and even fell from their
camels, which wandered along unguided and strayed far from the column.
The night was extraordinarily dark, and there was no moon to light the
way for the exhausted column through the wild and pathless country,
which would have been difficult to traverse even in broad daylight. At
times it was discovered that the troops were going in a circle and the
rear guard found itself in front of the force.

When at last open ground was reached the enemy were found to be in
strength. Once again a fight was inevitable for the tired force. So
Stewart had a zeriba of camel saddles, boxes, etc., hastily flung up
to protect his men. By this time the horses of the 19th Hussars were
so done up as to render them useless. French's regiment, therefore,
was left with some artillery, under Colonel Barrow, in the zeriba,
along with the war correspondents, who had tried in vain to make a
dash back to Abu Klea.

[Page Heading: THE GUARDS AT ABU KLEA]

The rest of the force once more formed into a square to meet the
enemy's attack. It was like a tornado when it came.

With a headlong rush eight hundred spearmen, led by emirs on
magnificent horses, hurled themselves upon the British square. Without
a tremor the troops awaited their onslaught, cheering loudly as they
saw the fluttering banners of the enemy approach. The brunt of the
attack was on the left angle of the front face, where the Guards and
Mounted Infantry received the charge, at a distance of three hundred
yards, with a fire so deadly that the front ranks of the yelling
Dervishes were mown down. The battle was over within a few moments.
The enemy never got within thirty yards of the square, but with broken
ranks and wild confusion the spearmen fled, leaving two hundred and
fifty of their dead upon the field.

This rapid victory was largely due to the garrison in the zeriba, who
made very effective use of their guns. The enemy left two hundred and
fifty dead on the field. Yet not a single British soldier was either
killed or wounded in actually repelling the charge. Among those
seriously wounded later in the day was General Stewart, who died of
his wounds a few days later. Almost his last words to Colonel Barrow
were, "Take care of the 19th Hussars; they have done well."

But all this gallantry was vain. While the force was still near
Metammeh, news came of the fall of Khartoum. An officer who was with
him when the blow fell has recorded that he never saw French so
profoundly moved as he was on the receipt of these black tidings. With
Khartoum fallen the mission of the flying column was ended. Its
position indeed had become extremely precarious. The problem before
the authorities was now not how to relieve Khartoum, but how to
relieve the Relieving Expedition.

It cannot be said that they solved it very successfully. Buller was
sent up to Gubat to take command. With him he brought only the Royal
Irish and West Kent Regiments to reinforce the column. And his
instructions were to seize Metammeh and march on Berber!

[Page Heading: HIS FIRST RETREAT]

Once on the scene, however, Buller soon saw the hopelessness of the
situation. Considering that the fall of Khartoum had released a host
of the Mahdi's followers, the storming of Metammeh was now a doubly
difficult enterprise; an attack on Berber would have been simply
suicidal. Buller accordingly determined on a retreat.

On February 13 he evacuated Gubat. On March 1 his advance guard had
reached Korti. In this retreat the 19th Hussars again did splendid
work. For days on end the column was submitted to that unceasing
pelting of bullets which Buller characterised in one of his laconic
dispatches as "annoying." But Barrow, the Hussars' chief, was a master
of the art of reconnoitring. Time and again he and his men were able
to deceive the enemy as to the direction of the column's march. It was
then that French had his first experience in "masterly retreat."

How sorely the column was pressed may be shown from one incident.
While he was preparing to evacuate Abu Klea, Buller received
information to the effect that the enemy was advancing upon him with a
force of eight thousand men. He determined upon a desperate measure.
He left standing the forts which he had intended to demolish and
filled up the larger wells.

A desert well, to the Oriental, is almost sacred, and never even in
savage warfare would such a course have been adopted. But Buller knew
that the absence of water was the only thing that could check the rush
of the oncoming hordes, and this deed, terrible as it may have seemed
to the Eastern mind, was his sole means of covering his retreat.
Orders were therefore given to fill up all the principal wells with
stones and rubbish. It was certainly an effectual measure, for the
enemy would be delayed for many hours, perhaps days, before he could
restore the wells and obtain sufficient water to enable him to
continue in pursuit of the British force which was so hopelessly
outnumbered. In the circumstances Buller could not be blamed for
saving British lives at the price of Oriental tradition.

Sir Evelyn Wood was also sent with reinforcements from Korti to
strengthen the force at Gakdul Wells. There he met French for the
first time. "I saw him," Sir Evelyn relates, "when our people were
coming back across the desert after our failure, the whole force
depressed by the death of Gordon. I came on him about a hundred miles
from the river--the last man of the last section of the rear guard! We
were followed by bands of Arabs. They came into our bivouac on the
night of which I am speaking, and the night following they carried
off some of our slaughter cattle."[4]

[Page Heading: MENTIONED IN DISPATCHES]

Major French was quickly able to distinguish himself in the retreat.
For Buller was a believer in cavalry and used it wherever possible. In
his dispatch on the retreat he paid French the following handsome
tribute:

"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 retirement. 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."

The flying column occupied just two months in its fruitless
expedition. But no more trying experience was ever packed into so
short a time. On that march across the Bayuda desert history has only
one verdict. It is that pronounced by Count von Moltke on the men who
accomplished it:--"They were not soldiers but heroes." None of the men
earned the title more thoroughly than Major French and his troopers.
"During the whole march from Korti," says Colonel Biddulph, "the
entire scouting duty had been taken by the 19th Hussars, so that each
day they covered far more ground than the rest of the force."[5] The
enemy themselves came to respect the little force of cavalrymen. "Even
the fierce Baggara horsemen appeared unwilling to cross swords with
our Hussars," wrote one who accompanied the column. Major French and
his regiment had firmly established their reputation.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] _With the Camel Corps up the Nile_, by Count Gleichen, by
permission of Messrs. Chapman and Hall.

[2] _With the Camel Corps up the Nile_, by Count Gleichen, by
permission of Messrs. Chapman and Hall.

[3] _With the Camel Corps up the Nile_, by Count Gleichen, by
permission of Messrs. Chapman and Hall.

[4] For this and much other valuable information the writer is
indebted to Field-Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood.

[5] _The Nineteenth and their Times_, by Col. J. Biddulph, by
permission of Mr. John Murray.



CHAPTER III

YEARS OF WAITING

    Second in Command--Maintaining the Barrow tradition--The
    Persistent Student--Service in India--Retires on
    Half-pay--Renewed Activities--Rehearsing for South Africa.


After the success in the Soudan Major French had not long to wait for
promotion. A few days after General Buller's tribute he was appointed
Lieutenant-Colonel of his regiment. So that he came back to England as
second in command of the 19th Hussars.

From this time onward he became entirely absorbed in his profession.
It is true that he had always been interested in it; but there is no
question that Barrow was the man who had shown him the fascination of
scientific generalship. While making the reputation of the 19th,
Barrow had unhappily lost his own life. He died as the result of
re-opening an internal wound while tent-pegging in the following year.
French determined to carry on his work, and at Norwich the training
of the 19th Hussars rapidly became famous throughout the Army.

One young officer, now General Bewicke Copley,[6] was attached to the
19th from another regiment in order to study their methods. He tells
how he was greatly struck by the brilliant work which French was
doing. His strict discipline and his terrific ideas of what training
meant, may have struck some of his young subalterns as scarcely
yielding them the ideal existence of the _beau sabreur_. Probably they
were right; but they were being licked into a state of amazing
efficiency.

In 1887 it fell to Sir Evelyn Wood's lot to inspect the regiment.
Pointing to French, he asked his Colonel, "Of what value is that man?"
The reply was, "He is for ever reading military books." And he has
been reading them ever since!

A couple of years later he attained the rank of Colonel, with command
of his regiment. Very soon Sir Evelyn was to discover the answer to
his question. For he was anxious at that time to introduce the
squadron system. French was the one commanding officer who carried it
out. In spite of the very large amount of extra work it entailed, he
was willing to take any number of recruits and train them in the new
method. That method was finally allowed to lapse, although it has been
adopted in another form for infantry regiments. It is typical of
French that he was willing to slave over the unpopular way of doing
things, while other men adhered to the traditional and official
methods.

[Page Heading: THE AUTHORITIES ASTONISHED]

While French was still busy elaborating new theories and testing them
at manoeuvres, his regiment was ordered to India. There he met one of
his future colleagues in South Africa, Sir George White. He was also
fortunate in working with one of the most brilliant of all British
cavalry trainers, Sir George Luck.

The latter considered that the cavalry regiments in India required
drastic reorganisation. French was ready to carry it out. To increase
the efficiency of the cavalry extensive manoeuvres were organised.
French acted as Chief of the Staff to General Luck, and astonished the
authorities by the way in which "he conducted troops dispersed over a
wide area of ground, allotting to each section its appointed work and
bringing the complete movement to a brilliant conclusion."

But the Government's recognition of his brilliant work was by no means
encouraging. In 1893 Colonel French was actually retired on half-pay!
It is an admirable system which allows the middle-aged officer to
make way for youth in the British army; but the spectacle of a French
despatched into civil obscurity at the ripe age of forty-one, has its
tragic as well as its comic side. That it acutely depressed him we
know. For a time he was almost in despair as to his career.

Actually, however, these two years "out of action" were probably
invaluable to him--and to the army. For the first time he had the
opportunity for unrestrained study; and much of that time was spent,
no doubt, in thinking out the theories of cavalry action which were
yet to bring him fame and our arms success.

Much of his most valuable work dates from this period of enforced
retirement. He was present, for instance, during the cavalry
manoeuvres of 1894 in Berkshire. He took part in the manoeuvres as a
brigadier. His chief Staff Officer, by the way, was Major R.S.S. (now
Lieut.-General Sir Robert) Baden-Powell, while the aide-de-camp to the
Director-General of manoeuvres was Captain (now Lieut.-General Sir)
Douglas Haig. Here French formulated what was to be one of the axioms
of his future cavalry tactics. One of those present at headquarters
has recorded his remarks.

[Page Heading: THE FUNCTION OF CAVALRY]

"There is," said French, "no subject upon which more misconception
exists, even among service men, than as regards the real rôle of
cavalry in warfare. My conception of the duties and functions of the
mounted arm is not to cut and to hack and to thrust at your enemy
wherever and however he may be found. The real business of cavalry is
so to manoeuvre your enemy as to bring him within effective range of
the corps artillery of your own side for which a position suitable for
battle would previously have been selected."[7]

It is difficult to conceive a more clear and concise statement of the
function of cavalry. It differs widely from the rather grim utterance
of the late Sir Baker Russell, who stated that the duty of cavalry was
to look pretty during time of peace, and get killed in war.

Happily Colonel French's theorising was not without its effect. The
Berkshire manoeuvres showed a number of flagrant shortcomings in our
cavalry. Several military men, ably seconded by _The Morning Post_,
insisted on the reorganisation of that arm. After the customary
protest, officialdom bowed to the storm.

French's old chief, Sir George Luck, was brought back from India to
institute reforms. The first thing that the new Inspector-General of
Cavalry insisted upon was a revised Cavalry Drill Book. Who was to
write it? The answer was not easy. But eventually Colonel French was
called in from his retirement and installed in the Horse Guards for
that purpose.

The result was a masterpiece of lucid explanation and terse precision.
The book evolved into something much more than a mere manual of drill.
For it is also a treatise on cavalry tactics, a guide to modern
strategy, and a complete code of regulations for the organisation of
mounted troops.

No sooner was the book issued than another problem arose. Who was to
carry out all these drastic alterations? Once again, recourse was had
to the half-pay Colonel in Kent! Who so fit to materialise reforms as
the man who had conceived them? So in 1895 Colonel French was
ensconced in the War Office as Assistant Adjutant-General of Cavalry.
There were great reforms instituted.

British cavalry was placed on a brigade establishment at home
stations. Which means that, for the first time, three regiments were
grouped into a brigade and placed under the command of a staff
colonel, who was entirely responsible for their training. In the
summer months the regiments were massed for combined training.

In spite of the revolution he was accomplishing, it is doubtful
whether French was at all happy at the War Office. He is essentially a
man of action. Unlike Kitchener, he prefers execution to organisation,
and he probably chafed horribly over the interminable disentangling of
knots which is efficient organisation. His one consolation was the
solution every night before he left his desk of a refreshing problem
in tactics.

[Page Heading: FROM STOOL TO SADDLE]

There are endless stories of his pacing up and down that back room in
Pall Mall like a caged lion. Like Mr. Galsworthy's Ferrand he hates to
do "round business on an office stool." His temperament is entirely
dynamic. Everything static and stay-at-home is utter boredom to him.
Probably no soldier ever showed the qualities and the limitations of
the man of action in more vivid contrast.

His trials, however, were not of long duration. So soon as the brigade
system had been fully organised he was given command of one of the
units which he had created--the Second Cavalry Brigade at Canterbury.
Here he was able to achieve one of his most notable successes. It
happened during the 1898 manoeuvres. As commander of a brigade, French
was chosen to lead Buller's force in the mimic campaign. His opponent
was General Talbot, an older officer who worked on the stereo-typed
methods. The antiquity of his antagonist's ideas gave French his
opportunity. He made such a feature of reconnaissance that the experts
declared his tactics to be hopelessly rash. But by the mobility of his
force he continually checked and out-manoeuvred his opponent--appearing
in the most unexpected places in the most unaccountable ways.

[Page Heading: THE CRITICS ROUTED]

At the end of the manoeuvres the fighting centred round Yarmbury
Castle. All day French had been harassing General Talbot's forces. At
last, by a rapid movement, his cavalry surprised several batteries of
the enemy's horse artillery. He commanded them to dismount and made
the whole force his prisoners. When the umpires upheld his claim, the
experts aforesaid were given considerable food for thought.

The general conclusion was that luck had contributed to his success,
and that in actual warfare such recklessness might lead to disaster.
Consequently, French's opponents were justified to some extent in
their insistence that the old methods were best. Indeed, his success
only strengthened prejudice in certain quarters.

Happily, however, the original mind won the day. And in 1899, French
was given command of the first cavalry brigade at Aldershot, with the
rank of Major-General. This is the highest post open to a cavalry
officer in his own sphere during the time of peace. Thus French's
critics were finally routed, and he was free at last to train British
cavalry according to his own brilliant and original ideas.

FOOTNOTES:

[6] To General Bewicke Copley the writer is indebted for much kind
assistance in writing this chapter.

[7] Quoted in _M.A.P._, March 3, 1900.



CHAPTER IV

ELANDSLAAGTE AND RIETFONTEIN

    The Unknown Commander of Cavalry--Who is General
    French?--Advancing without Reinforcements--"This is your
    Show, French"--The White Flag--The Chess-Player--The Victor
    in Anecdote.


From the end of the South African War until the outbreak of the
European War the British nation had never taken its army seriously. At
best it had shown very tepid interest in its work. Some brief Indian
skirmishing might momentarily flash the names of a few regiments or a
stray general upon the public mind. But for the most part we were
content to take the army very much for granted, forgetful of Mr.
Dooley's sage pronouncement that "Standing armies are useful in time
of war." Prior to the Boer War the public ignorance on the subject was
even more appalling.

[Page Heading: A NEW STAR]

At the opening of the South African campaign there was a good deal of
vague discussion as to who should have the cavalry command in Natal.
But General French was not one of the officers prominently mentioned.
Yet, he had already risen to a position analogous to that which
General von Bernhardi then occupied in the German army. In any other
European country his name would have been practically a household
word. Even to the English newspaper writer it was a paradox and a
problem.

"Who is this General French?" people asked one another, when news of
his first victories came to hand. Scarcely anyone was able to answer
the question. One finds curious corroboration of the prevailing
ignorance of French's career in a society journal of that date. In
January of 1900, a then most popular social medium was almost
pathetically confessing its perturbation on the point. After giving a
description of General French, the writer goes on rather in wrath than
in apology--"Since I wrote the above paragraph, I have found a letter
in an Irish paper, which declares that the French of whom I have just
spoken is not the hero of Colesberg. The French of whom I have spoken
is George Arthur (_sic_), while the Colesberg French is John Denton
Pinkstone French. Of John Denton Pinkstone French I have found no
details in any of the ordinary books of reference. Probably some
correspondent will supply me with the details." There was a lapse or
six weeks before any further information was forthcoming.

But there was one man who knew his French. General Sir Redvers Buller
had found his worth on the Nile Expedition, in repeated autumn
manoeuvres at home, and in many a long discussion on military topics.
His casting vote, therefore, made French Commander of Cavalry in
Natal.

Major Arthur Griffiths has supplied an admirable little sketch of
French's appearance at this time. "He is short and thick, and of
rather ungainly figure. Although he can stick on a horse as well as
anyone, rides with a strong seat, and is indefatigable in the saddle,
he is not at all a pretty horseman. His mind is more set on
essentials, on effective leadership with all it means, rather than
what soldiers call 'Spit and polish': he is sound in judgment,
clear-headed, patient, taking everything quietly, the rough with the
smooth; but he is always on the spot, willing to wait, and still more
ready to act, when the opportunity comes, with tremendous effect."

That description is true in general, if not in detail. For patience is
certainly not one of French's personal, if it be one of his military
virtues. A close friend of his agreed to the word "tempestuous," as
most nicely describing his temperament. Like every good soldier, in
fact, French has a temper, for which he is none the worse. If apt to
flame out suddenly, it quickly burns itself out, leaving no touch of
resentment in the scorched.

[Page Heading: RECALLED TO LADYSMITH]

Ten days after the Boer ultimatum had been delivered to the British
agent at Pretoria, French was in Ladysmith. He arrived there, to be
pedantically accurate, on October 20, 1899, at 5 a.m. At 11 a.m. he
was in the saddle, leading a column out to recapture the railway
station at Elandslaagte, which, with a newly-arrived train of troops,
the Boers had seized overnight. No sooner had his men begun to locate
the enemy, than French was recalled to Ladysmith. Reluctantly the men
turned back to reinforce Sir George White's small garrison, for what
he feared might prove a night attack. Soon afterwards, however, news
of General Symons' victory at Talana came in to cheer the men after
their fruitless sortie.

At once Sir George White saw his opportunity. It was the Boers, and
not the British, who now stood in peril of a sudden attack. There was
little sleep for French's men that night. At 4 a.m. next morning they
were again on the march for Elandslaagte.

About eight o'clock on one of those perfect mist-steeped summer
mornings that presage a day of burning heat, French's force came in
sight of the Boer laagers. As the mist cleared the enemy could be
spied in large numbers about the station and the colliery buildings
and over the yellow veldt. French ordered the Natal Battery to turn
its little seven-pounder on the station. One of the first shots told;
and the Boers came tumbling out of their shelter, leaving the
trainload of British soldiers, captured the previous night, free to
join their comrades. Soon afterwards the station was in the hands of
the British, as the result of a dashing cavalry charge.

But the Boers were only temporarily dislodged. Their long range guns
very soon shelled the station from the neighbouring kopjes with deadly
effect. French was compelled to withdraw. The stupidity of the enemy,
in leaving the telegraph wires uncut, enabled him immediately to
acquaint Sir George White with the peril of his situation. White's
orders were emphatic: "The enemy must be beaten and driven off. Time
of great importance." The necessary reinforcements were hurried to the
spot.

[Page Heading: IN HIS ELEMENT]

French did not wait for their arrival before striking at the enemy.
The Light Horse, under Colonel Scott Chisholme, quickly took
possession of a low ridge near the railway station, which fronted the
main line of the enemy's kopjes. While he held this ridge French had
the satisfaction of seeing infantry, cavalry and artillery coming up
the railway line to his assistance. In the late afternoon his force
numbered something like three thousand five hundred men, outnumbering
the enemy by more than two to one.

Those who ask why so many men were required, do not understand the
position in which the British force found itself. The enemy were
entrenched on a series of high, boulder-strewn tablelands, which
offered almost perfect cover. Between these tablelands and French's
force lay a wide and partly scrubless stretch of veldt. Over that
terrible exposed slope his men must go, before they could come within
useful range of the enemy. French was faced with a most perilous and
difficult enterprise. However, that is precisely what French likes. He
rose to the situation with ready resource. It was not easy to locate
the exact position of the enemy ensconced amid these covering hills.
So in the afternoon he ordered a simultaneous frontal and flank
attack. Just which was front and which was flank it was for his
lieutenants to discover. Sir Ian Hamilton's instructions to the
infantry were brief but decisive. "The enemy are there," he said, "and
I hope you will shift them out before sunset--in fact, I know you
will."

When the action had fairly commenced, Sir George White and his staff
galloped over from Ladysmith. French approached, saluted, and asked
for instructions. The chivalrous White's only reply was, "Go on,
French; this is your show." All the afternoon he stayed on the field,
watching the progress of events, and approving French's dispositions.

The battle proved to be, in many ways, one of the most spectacular in
history. For as the infantry advanced, under a steady hail of shell
and bullets, the sky began to darken. The Boer positions stood
silhouetted by stray puffs of white smoke against a lowering cumulus
of clouds. While the artillery on both sides shook the ground with an
inferno of sound, the storm burst. The thunder of the heavens became a
spasmodic chorus to the roar of the guns. One correspondent has
described how he found himself mechanically humming the "Ride of the
Valkyries" that was being played on such a dread orchestra. Slipping
and stumbling, cursing and cheering, the Devons crept forward across
the sodden grass. Many of the bravest, among them Chisholme, went down
on that plain of death. Far beyond the level veldt there were
something like 800 feet to climb in the face of Mauser and shrapnel.
At length, however, the top of the ridge was reached. There stood the
three guns that had wrought such havoc, now silent among the corpses
of the frock-coated burghers who had served them.

[Page Heading: THE WHITE FLAG TRICK]

The Boers still kept up the fight, however, on the further side of the
plateau. The cheering Gordons, the Manchesters and the Devons now
flung themselves at the remnant of the foe. Suddenly a white flag was
seen to flutter defeat from a kopje beyond the laager. On the instant
the soldiers paused at the surprising notes of the "Cease fire,"
followed by the "Retire." For a moment they wavered between discipline
and dismay. At that instant from a small kopje east of the nek came a
violent burst of firing as some fifty of the enemy made a last effort
to regain their position.

There was a momentary panic in the British lines. But a little bugler
shouted "Retire be damned," and sounded the "Advance." Gradually the
infantry recovered, and the Gordons and Devons, rushing on the enemy,
took a fearful revenge for the dastardly trick.

French had scored his first victory within a day of his arrival. What
wonder if men called him "French the lucky?" From now onwards that
tradition was to cling to his name. But a great deal more than luck
went to the winning of Elandslaagte. Had French not advanced his men
throughout in open formation, the day might never have been his. It
has been said that he was our only general to master the Boer methods.
He was certainly the first and the most able imitator of those
methods. But he was prepared to meet them before he ever stepped on
South African soil. For his whole theory of cavalry tactics is based
on the realisation that massive formations are now hopelessly out of
date.

[Page Heading: LUCK OR BRAINS]

One of the newspaper correspondents[8] happened to run across French
twice during the battle. He tells how at the end of the engagement he
met the General, who had come along the ridge in the fighting line of
the Manchesters and Gordons, and offered him his congratulations on
the day. He adds: "Last time I had met him was when the artillery on
both sides were hard at it; he appeared then more like a man playing a
game of chess than a game of war, and was not too busy to sympathise
with me on the badness of the light when he saw me trying to take
snap-shots of the Boer shells bursting amid the Imperial Light Horse
near us."

French's luck lay in his ability to see his opportunities and grasp
them. But the soldier will never be convinced on that point, even if
French himself attempt his conversion. For him the British leader has
remained "The luckiest man in the army" ever since Elandslaagte. Yet
in a letter to Lady French after the engagement he had written, "I
never thought I would come out alive."

As frequently happened in the South African campaign, success could
not be followed up. Having cleared the railway line, French was unable
to garrison his position, and returned next morning to Ladysmith. A
couple of days later he was again in action, and again he was
successful. It had become necessary to keep the way open for General
Yule and his jaded forces now in retreat from Dundee. White determined
to sally out and distract the enemy. Once again the heavy share of the
work fell on French and his cavalry.

Marching out from the town towards Modder Spruit they found the enemy
holding a range of hills about seven miles from Ladysmith.

Flanked by the artillery, and supported from the rear by rifle fire,
the infantry advanced to a convenient ridge from which the Boer
position might be shelled. There they were joined by the field and
mountain batteries, whose well-directed fire played great havoc among
the enemy.

During the engagement one costly mistake was made. The Gloucesters on
reaching the summit of the slope, attempted to descend on the other
side. Their advancing lines were ploughed down by a deadly fire. "In
the first three minutes," said an eye-witness, "Colonel Wilford, who
was commanding the regiment, had fallen shot through the head, and a
number of the men lay dead and dying about him. So fierce was the
attack that no living thing could have remained upon the exposed
slope, which boasted not even a shred of cover of any kind." Slowly
and silently the Gloucesters retired.

By two o'clock the infantry fire had ceased, and White had received
news that Yule was nearing Ladysmith in safety. He therefore decided
to withdraw his troops. This was no easy matter, for the Boers,
instead of relinquishing their position, had merely retired for a
short distance. The retreat, however, was safely carried out, thanks
largely to the masterly fashion in which French's cavalry covered the
retirement.

From a military point of view the engagement would scarcely be called
important. But from a strategic point of view it was invaluable. It
certainly saved General Yule's force, which the Boers would otherwise
have cut off on its way to Ladysmith. This would scarcely have been
difficult, for the column was in no condition to fight. That it
covered twenty-three miles without food, water, or rest before
nightfall in its exhausted condition was in itself remarkable.

[Page Heading: THE ONLY GENERAL]

This was the last successful engagement that the British forces were
to fight for many a day. But that was not French's fault. In the first
week after his arrival he had scored two distinct successes and won
for himself a reputation among the Boers. He was indeed the only
British general for whom they at that time expressed the very
slightest respect. In a week his name became a by-word among them. A
soldier[9] has recorded how, when towns or railway stations were
captured, our men would find allusions to French chalked on the wall.
Thus: "We are not fighting the English--they don't count--we are only
fighting the 'French.'" Quite early in the campaign this inscription
was found on the wall of a Boer farm house: "Why are we bound to win?
Because although we have only 90,000 burghers, that means 90,000
generals--but the English, though they have 200,000 soldiers, have
only one General--and he is French." That was in the days before
Roberts and Kitchener were on the scene.

But the Boers were not alone in their appreciation of French. One of
the authorities of the German General Staff wrote of him "His
(French's) name was one of those most dreaded by the enemy," and "he
impressed his personality on the troops." Perhaps the best description
of the man ever penned, however, came from the brilliant American
journalist, Julian Ralph. "As to his personality, the phrase 'The
square little General' would serve to describe him in army circles
without a mention of his name.

"He is quiet, undemonstrative, easy, and gentle. When you are under
his command you don't notice him, you don't think about him--unless
you are a soldier, and then you are glad you are there."[10]

FOOTNOTES:

 [8] The correspondent referred to is Mr. George Lynch.

 [9] "A.D.C." _The Regiment_.

[10] In the _Daily Mail_.



CHAPTER V

THE TIDE TURNS

    White's Dash from Ladysmith--Nicholson's Nek--The Reverse at
    Lombard's Kop--A Cavalry Exploit--French's Dramatic Escape
    from Ladysmith.


So far the tide of battle had flowed fairly equally between the two
armies. Thanks to French, White had won the two engagements which he
had to undertake in order to save Yule's column. In Ladysmith he had
now an admirably proportioned force of 10,000 men, quite adequate for
the town's defence. Across the Atlantic an Army Corps was hastening to
his succour. He had only to sit still and wait in Ladysmith,
fortifying it with all the ingenuity that time would permit.

Unfortunately he was not content to sit still and wait behind his
entrenchments. He determined not to be hemmed in without a struggle.
Be it remembered that at that time the British commanders had not
fully realised the numbers, the equipment and the intrepidity of
their opponents. The traditional chastening of experience was still
wanting. As Napier has it, "In the beginning of each war England has
to seek in blood the knowledge necessary to ensure success; and, like
the fiend's progress towards Eden, her conquering course is through
chaos followed by death."

It was a very beautiful if a rather optimistic plan of attack that
White arranged for the morning of October 30. He divided his forces
into three columns. During the night of the 29th Colonel Carleton,
with the Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters, was to advance upon and
seize a long ridge called Nicholson's Nek, some six miles north of
Ladysmith. This would protect his left wing. On the right flank the
infantry were to advance under cover of French's cavalry and mounted
infantry, while the artillery was to advance in the centre.

Provided that all went well the plan was of course superb. No sooner
had the main army won their action at Lombard's Cop than it would
swing round to the right and wedge the Boers in between its artillery
and the force on Nicholson's Nek. But suppose anything happened to
Carleton? Or suppose that the main action was lost? In either case
disaster would be inevitable. In the event, French was alone able to
stick to his time table. Misfortune befell both Carleton on the left,
and Grimwood on the right.

[Page Heading: THE MULES BOLT]

At 10.0 p.m. Carleton was on the march; and two and a half hours later
Grimwood's brigade had set out eastward. By some mistake two of his
battalions followed the artillery to the left instead of taking the
infantry route. Of that error Grimwood remained in ignorance until he
reached his destination near the south eastern flank of Long Hill
towards dawn. Soon afterwards the Gordon Highlanders were amazed to
find an officer in their ranks from Carleton's column, jaded and
spent. He reported that all the mules of his battery had bolted and
had not been recovered.

The day had begun with a double disaster. Grimwood's force was not all
at White's disposal; Carleton's was not to appear at all. Never had a
general's plans gone more thoroughly agley.

Of the unequal engagement which ensued little need be said here. A
ludicrously insufficient force was attempting to encircle a larger and
better equipped one. The result was not long in doubt. Although
White's forty-two guns pounded away bravely, they were no match for
the heavy artillery of the enemy. One huge Creusot gun had been
dragged to the top of Pepworth Hill whence it threw a 96lb. shell a
distance of four miles. There were also several 40 lb. howitzers which
hopelessly outranged the British guns.

From a front over eight miles in extent there poured in a converging
artillery fire against which our guns could do nothing. Gradually the
right flank was pushed back along with the centre; and the left flank
was now non-existent. During the afternoon the inevitable retirement
took place, under the Creusot's shells. Had not Captain Hedworth
Lambton rapidly silenced the gun on Pepworth Hill with his naval
battery, opportunely arrived at the critical moment, the retreat might
well have been a rout. As it was the tired force which wandered back
to Ladysmith had left 300 men on the field.

Irretrievable disaster had overtaken Carleton's column. While
breasting Nicholson's Nek in the darkness the men were surprised at
the sudden clattering by of a Boer picquet. The transport mules,
panic-stricken, fled _en masse_, wrecking the column as they stampeded
down the hillside, felling men as they went. It was a gunless,
ammunitionless and weary column which the Boers surprised in the early
morning. The end was the surrender of the force to the enemy.

[Page Heading: A BRILLIANT SUCCESS]

The British position was now serious. Nothing could prevent Sir George
White and his forces from being cooped in either Colenso or Ladysmith.
But it is typical of French that he found a last opportunity of
out-manoeuvring the Boers before leaving Ladysmith. In the battle of
Lombard's Cop his cavalry had taken but a small part. Had some of
them, however, been sent with Carlton's column to keep it in touch
with the base, the issue of its enterprise might possibly have been
different.

A couple of days afterwards, on November 2, French found an
opportunity to score. The Boers had moved round our lines and posted
their guns in a very advantageous position. White therefore ordered a
bombardment by the naval guns to which the Boers replied. Whilst they
were so engaged French crept round behind Bester's Hill, where the
Boer commander had a large camp. Before Joubert realised what the
movement meant French was upon him. Field artillery, along with the
naval guns, supported his advance. While this double fire was
distracting the Boers, French stormed their laager. The enemy fled,
leaving their camp and all its equipments to French. This brilliant
little success was practically a cavalry exploit, and it was typical
of much that was to follow.

It now became obvious that Ladysmith was becoming completely invested.
The Boer lines which had been three miles from the town were creeping
nearer. Assuredly the belligerent town was no place for a cavalry
officer.

[Page Heading: THE ESCAPE]

French determined to leave Ladysmith. It would not be easy to break
through the lines of the net that was closing round the city. Whether
or no the railway was still open was uncertain. When French's
aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Milbanke, now Sir John Milbanke, V.C., asked
the station-master whether a special train could get through to
Pietermaritzburg, that worthy indignantly scorned the idea. With the
Boers at Colenso it would certainly be madness--a fool's errand.
Milbanke, however, used persuasions which resulted in an effort being
made to run the gauntlet. That evening an engine and a few carriages
duly drew up at the station. Very soon French's staff was aboard. As
the train was about to start a short and agile elderly officer might
have been seen to dash across the platform into the last carriage,
where he ensconced himself beneath a seat lest the train be stopped
and searched. Very soon bullets were rattling through the carriage
windows, and it was an excessively uncomfortable journey that the
British General and his staff endured. But they were at last free to
carry out fresh services for their country. Five months were to pass
before another train crossed these metals.



CHAPTER VI

THE CAMPAIGN ROUND COLESBERG

    The Fog of War--A Perilous Situation--Damming "The Flowing
    Tide"--Shows His Genius as a Commander--A Campaign in
    Miniature--Hoisting Guns on Hilltops--The Fifty-mile
    Front--Saving the Situation.


So far French had justified the tradition which called him lucky. Any
competent and experienced general _might_, with luck, have won the
battle of Elandslaagte. That victory did not mark French out as a
commander of genius. But what followed in the campaign round Colesberg
did.

It is very much to be regretted that the circumstances of the case
forced this campaign to be fought amid an unusually dense variety of
"the fog of war." Owing to the difficulty and danger of the operations
and the extended front on which they were carried out, any newspaper
correspondent present could hope to chronicle only a sub-section of
the action. The public, therefore, was without any complete record of
what happened.[11] To the man in the street the British general and his
forces seemed to spend three months in perpetual dodging in and about
some thirty square miles of kopjed veldt.

[Page Heading: THE "INEFFICIENT" GENERAL]

Yet French's column was the pivot on which the whole British plan
turned. This campaign in miniature gave French his chance finally to
disprove the fallacies of the critics at home. Before his appointment
in October, he had actually been described by some of his opponents as
"inefficient to command in the field." This is the tragedy of many a
brilliant cavalry leader--it is impossible for him to demonstrate his
ability save in actual warfare.

When French went down to Cape Town to consult with General Buller, he
found his Chief oppressed by serious misgivings. Sir George White and
his force were surrounded in Ladysmith; Mafeking and Kimberley were
both invested by the enemy; and a great invasion was threatened along
the whole northern boundary of Cape Colony. To deal with all these
difficulties Buller had only one army corps. One column, under Lord
Methuen, was advancing to the relief of Kimberley; another, under
General Gatacre, was attempting to stem the Boer invasion of Cape
Colony; while a third, to be led by Buller himself, was massing at
Chieveley, prior to advancing to the relief of Ladysmith. French was
given command of a fourth column with which he was to harass the Boers
around Colesberg. A Boer commando under Schoeman had seized a passage
on the Orange River at Norval's Pont on November 1. On the 14th the
Boers entered Colesberg; and a proclamation was issued declaring the
district to be a Free State territory.

[Page Heading: WORRYING TACTICS]

From the first no striking victories were anticipated for French's
little force. It was to act as a dam, rather than as a weapon of
destruction. It was a rather flimsy dam at that. Buller's
instructions, which at first spoke of a "flying column," soon declined
to suggestions of "a policy of worry without risking men." In
particular it was to stop raids on the railway line which might impede
Methuen's advance on Kimberley.

Collecting a part of his force at Cape Town, French left on November
18. On the following night he reached De Aar, where Major-General
Wauchope gave him another couple of companies of Mounted Infantry.
Acting on Wauchope's advice, he determined to make Naauwpoort his
base. Buller had suggested Hanover Road. But French on arrival found
that Wauchope was right. The country round Naauwpoort proved to be
much more level, was less closely laced with wire fences, and afforded
better means of communication both by road and rail.

No sooner had he arrived (on November 21) than he ordered a
reconnaissance to be made on the following morning. His cavalry came
within eight miles of Colesberg, without seeing the enemy. Accordingly
French determined to attack the town, and asked for reinforcements of
cavalry for that purpose. On November 23, however, further
reconnaissance supported by a trainload of infantry showed that the
situation had developed. It was found impossible to approach Arundel,
as the kopjes north of Arundel station were occupied by the Boers.

Reporting the state of affairs to headquarters, French said that, in
his opinion, the Boers should be pushed out of Colesberg immediately,
as they were being reinforced daily, and were spreading disaffection
throughout the Colony. But he was not in a position to do more than
worry the enemy for several days. However, his persistent
night-and-day fretting of Schoeman's forces achieved the desired
result. His ubiquitous patrols seriously alarmed the Boer general as
to the safety of his outposts at Arundel. A squadron of Lancers
discovered one day that the kopjes round Arundel had been evacuated.

After that a dash on the town followed. Here again the policy of nag
and bluster had frightened the Boers out of their position. There were
only a hundred men in it when the British force arrived; and they fled
precipitately at the mere sight of it. Next day, Colonel Porter struck
even farther north with his cavalry and mounted infantry, occupying a
kopje three miles north of the town.

There followed a brief lapse in active hostilities. The Boers heavily
entrenched themselves on the neighbouring hills; and a prisoner taken
by our men said that Schoeman had at least 3,000 men, with some useful
guns, and was waiting for further reinforcements.

French's position now became critical in more than one sense of the
word. For in mid-December news of the triple British disaster came
through to hearten Schoeman and his men. Cronje had inflicted a
crushing defeat on Methuen at Magersfontein; Botha had crippled Buller
at Colenso; and Gatacre's force had met with a reverse at Stormberg.
Elated by his colleagues' successes, Schoeman was spoiling for the
fray. Could he once gain a victory over French, the whole of Cape
Colony would probably join the rebellion. Both east and west the Dutch
population were simply waiting a sign to rise.

With the whole of South Africa in revolt, our position of "splendid
isolation" in Europe might well have induced Continental
complications. The foreign Press, indeed, was almost unanimous in its
jubilations over this series of disasters. The German papers in
particular, filled their pages with the most atrocious insults and
jibes. Such was the situation in "Black Week." There was much ominous
talk on the Continent about "the flowing tide." Only one obstacle
prevented these dire prophecies from coming true. French and his
little force possibly stayed the tide of a world conflict, through
checking the rebel torrent between Naauwpoort and Colesberg.

[Page Heading: A TIGHT CORNER]

It is typical of his perfect _sang froid_, that in this excessively
tight corner, French found time to send a cheering Christmas greeting
to friends at home. "We shall drink your health on Christmas Day," he
wired on behalf of himself and his staff, "and we hope you are well,
and having as good a time as we are."

French's use of Arundel was masterly. For him to attack was
impossible; about this time he was outnumbered by something like five
to one. His one aim, therefore, was to keep the Boers from the
railway line. The moment that his scouts discovered the Boers throwing
out detachments to defend a kopje, French would have an elaborate
attack, or a reconnaissance in force to drive the enemy in. At this
time scarcely a day passed without its "affair" of one sort or
another. If it was not a night attack, then it was a miniature siege,
or a flanking movement--or a piece of bluff! His men were in the
saddle night and day. One of those present has related how he
practically lived on his horse for two months.

Did Schoeman attempt to force a pitched battle, then French, by a
series of simultaneous flank and rear movements, would harass him out
of the possibility of a general action. It is doubtful, indeed,
whether during this lively period of his life the Boer commander ever
really had time to meet either his fellow commanders or his
lieutenants and discuss a concerted plan of action. No sooner was a
general movement visible in the Boer camps, than French and his men
swept out, or threatened to sweep out, on some dangerous design. Every
morning the General himself made a personal reconnaissance in the
neighbourhood.

[Page Heading: A BRILLIANT EXPLOIT]

During his reconnaissance on December 31, French came to the
conclusion that an offensive movement was at last possible. Colesberg
lies in a little plateau, ringed round by a quadrangle of kopjes, all
of which were strongly held by the enemy. Just beyond this quadrangle,
however, one or two kopjes projected from its western face. French
determined to seize one of these, from which he could push forward
along the enemy's flank, jeopardising his line of retreat.

As usual, the venture was brilliantly conceived and ably carried out.
During the day a squadron of Hussars was sent forward to Maeder's
Farm, some five miles on the line of march. There the men bivouacked
under arms, and at midnight set out on a silent march to the west.
Under the screen of darkness and perfect silence the advance was
speedy. Even the regimental carts were dispensed with, lest the
creaking of their wheels might betray the advance. Not until the
column was near its objective, McCracken's Hill, did the Boers suspect
its approach. An amazed shouting and some wild rifle-fire from the
outposts--and McCracken's Hill was in French's hands.

The cavalry now wound round the hill towards the road. But their
commander, Colonel Fisher, found it impossible to take the hills
commanding the road. As generally happened, a complicated engagement
ensued. The Boers attempted to retake McCracken's Hill next morning,
adding a counter-attack to the north-east and an enveloping movement
on the right to the already complex situation. But French checkmated
every move, although he finally thought it wise that Colonel Fisher
should evacuate the hill he had so cleverly won. That night both
French and Schoeman were wiring for reinforcements in the hope of
clearing up the situation.

[Page Heading: THE FATE OF THE SUFFOLKS]

Some days afterwards came the only reverse which French ever received
at the hands of the Boers. There has been endless argument as to who
was directly responsible for the disaster to the Suffolks. It seems
best simply to record the fact that the order was given by French as
the result of pressure brought to bear on him by the enthusiastic
colonel of the Suffolks. The key to the Boer stronghold lay in the
kopje of Grassy Hill. Lieutenant-Colonel A.J. Watson had frequently
reconnoitred the Boer position in company with General French. As a
result, he was confident that his battalion could rush the position.
On January 5 he begged for permission to attempt the feat. On the
following day French authorised him to make the attack should he see a
favourable opportunity, on condition that he first informed the
General of his plans and probable time of attack. This he failed to
do, and that night, without further warning, Watson and his men crept
noiselessly out of camp, walking either in canvas shoes or in
stocking-soles in order to deaden the noise of their footsteps.

The foremost ranks were scrambling breathlessly towards the summit,
when a withering Boer fire fell upon their panting lines. It was clear
that they were not only discovered but expected. Watson ordered a
withdrawal. But withdrawal from that stark boulder-strewn hill-side
was almost an impossibility. The column fell into disorder, some
advancing and some retreating, under a fierce fire from the enemy.
Watson himself gathered together the rear company and attempted, with
reckless gallantry, to lead it to the summit. He was among the first
to fall, riddled with bullets, and although his officers perished with
him almost to a man, the men beat a hasty retreat, in face of the
enemy's destructive fire. The affair accounted in all for eleven
officers and 150 men. No doubt the gallant Watson was largely to
blame. But the facts seemed to show that the enemy were in some way
apprised of his intentions. Against such a chance as this, strategy
and generalship are helpless. Certainly French would be the last man
in the world to deny any responsibility, had he been to blame for
that one mishap in a memorable campaign.

One fact was now clear beyond dispute. The enemy's right had been
strongly reinforced and was too alert to allow of much hope of
successful action against it. Nothing daunted, French therefore
directed his energies to the left. A few days later (January 11) he
accomplished the _tour de force_ of the campaign. In the plain to the
west of Colesberg there arose an isolated kopje, some six hundred feet
in height, called Coles Kop. This hill, which rises almost sheer from
the plain, taxes the wind of the unencumbered climber to the utmost.
Being higher than the surrounding kopjes, it commands both Colesberg
and the enemy's laager. The Boers had left it ungarrisoned, thinking
it useless either to themselves or to the enemy. They made a very
great mistake. For the mere hint that a thing is impossible fires
French to attempt it.

[Page Heading: PREPARING A SURPRISE]

One day Schoeman woke up to find shrapnel assailing him apparently
from nowhere. It was coming from a 15-pounder which Major E.E.A.
Butcher, R.F.A., had coaxed up to the top of Coles Kop in three and a
half hours by dint of much scientific haulage and more sinew. The
Boers themselves never equalled this extraordinary feat.

To hoist the guns on to the hilltop was the least part of the
undertaking. Guns without ammunition are useless. To get shells on to
the kopje without disaster was an infinitely more difficult
undertaking. He solved it by installing a hill lift. The veldt is not
a very promising engineering shop; but Butcher was not easily beaten.
Using steel rails for standards and anything worthy the name for
cable, he soon had the framework erected. To the uprights were fixed
snatchblocks over which he passed his carrying wires. On this mountain
lift he was able to send weights up to 30 lbs., thanks to an ingenious
system of pulleys. Nor was the lift altogether rustic, for a drum and
ratchet made it double-acting, so that as one load went up another was
automatically let down. It is only fair to say that the Boers
themselves were masters of the art of haulage. How they managed to get
their guns to the top of kopjes remained for long a mystery to our
men. Butcher, however, quickly taught his men to beat the enemy at
their own game, although nothing else quite so dramatic as the Coles
Kop incident is on record.

During this proceeding French had been distracting the enemy by a
demonstration to the south-east of Colesburg. Consequently the shells
from nowhere began to pour into their laager during breakfast
(January 12) with devastating results. The laager was instantly
abandoned, and a second, two thousand yards farther off, suffered the
same fate. When Butcher had finally been able to get a second
15-pounder up the hill, the Boers were compelled to shift every camp
they possessed into sheltered positions.

Most of these exploits show the resource and the daring which mark
French's tactics. But his caution is no less remarkable. One instance
of it will suffice. Shortly after the Coles Kop incident, it was
discovered that the Boers had left open a portion of the road from
Colesberg, where it goes through a narrow pass known as Plessis Poort.
Immediately French planned its capture. One detachment was sent to
occupy Bastard's Nek, another defile to the west of Plessis Poort.
Covered by a cross-fire from the artillery, the infantry were to move
forward and seize the road. In order to divert the Boers' attention
from these matters, a demonstration was ordered along the whole
British line. Advancing carefully the infantry met with little
opposition, a fact which made French suspicious. As the silence
continued he abruptly ordered the "Retire." The moment that his men
obeyed, a fierce fire broke out from the enemy, who were present in
force. French's caution was justified.

[Page Heading: MASTERS OF TACTICS]

During all this time the rival fronts had been gradually stretching
out, in the constant effort to parry outflanking movements, until they
reached the extraordinary length of fifty miles. Yet at the utmost
neither general could throw more than ten thousand men into the field!
During the last days of French's command, the fighting had become more
a matter of outpost skirmishes than anything else. The Boer generals,
who now included De Wet and Delarey, were entirely taken up with the
effort to out-manoeuvre the irrepressible French.

It was here that French first mastered the new problem of modern
warfare--the extended front. The ability of the rival generals
gradually gave the campaign the resemblance of a Mukden or a Mons in
miniature. That the British force was not entirely out-manoeuvred by
such masters of tactics as Delarey and De Wet says something for
French's extraordinary mastery of a new method of warfare in something
like six weeks' time.

Herein lies French's peculiar genius. Although he knows all the
methods of all the schoolmen, he is capable as one soldier expressed
it, "of making his own tactics brand new on the spot." To that fact
one may attribute his consistent superiority to the Boer. Where even
Kitchener and Roberts doubted, French invariably did the right thing.
During the following fortnight he had more brilliant opportunities of
demonstrating his unique abilities.

FOOTNOTES:

[11] To those interested enough to pursue the subject further, I
commend _With French and his Cavalry in South Africa_, by C.S.
Goldman. (Macmillan & Co.)



CHAPTER VII

THE DASH TO KIMBERLEY

    French's Pledge--The Task--The First Shell--"Hemmed in"--"We
    must break through"--The Lancers' Charge--In and Out of
    Kimberley--The Surrender of Cronje.


By the end of the year French had saved the situation in Cape Colony.
Realizing this, Roberts summoned him to Cape Town on more important
business. Into French's hands he placed the task which Methuen had
failed to accomplish through adverse circumstances--the Relief of
Kimberley. When Lord Roberts, with customary precision, had stated
exactly what he wanted, he was surprised to receive a dramatic pledge
from his General. "I promise faithfully," said French, "to relieve
Kimberley at 6 o'clock on the evening of the 15th, if I am alive."

It may be asked why the case of Kimberley was considered so urgent by
Lord Roberts. There are those who have suggested that the presence of
the millionaire, Cecil Rhodes, in the beleaguered city was
responsible for the authorities' energy in the matter. The mere
suggestion, however, refutes itself. For Rhodes was the one man who
did more than any other to have the defences of the city brought into
a state of some sort of efficiency. The fact is that there was
discontent among the civil population and a constant peril of
surrender. For this the great hundred pound shells which hurtled
destruction across the town's streets from the neighbouring heights
were chiefly responsible.

On the face of it, French's promise might then have been taken for a
piece of reckless bravado. The camp on the Modder River in which he
gathered his forces together was over a hundred miles from Kimberley.
The commander-in-chief had promised him a full cavalry division of
eight thousand five hundred men. But on February 11, French had barely
four thousand eight hundred men, with seven batteries of Horse
Artillery at his disposal. Between his camp and the mining city lay
Cronje with a mobile force as large as French's own. Add to this that
the ground to be covered consisted largely of arid and well-less
veldt, affording neither food nor drink for man or beast. The time too
was the African summer, with all the difficulties of handling partly
raw English troops to be faced. The task before French and his men
was certainly such as might have appalled a less courageous leader.

[Page Heading: DECEIVING CRONJE]

Guile as well as daring had much to do with the success of the
enterprise. The vast concentration camp, with its flapping seas of
canvas, was in itself a huge blind. Through its bustle and publicity
French meant Cronje to conclude that he was about to force the Pass of
Magersfontein, and thence to relieve Ladysmith. For this Cronje
prepared himself with customary care. Meantime, French proceeded, as
ever, to belie the very justifiable expectations he had aroused.

The most obvious route for French would be over Koodoesberg's Drift
towards the west. Accordingly Macdonald's Highland Brigade spent a
strenuous day in threatening the Drift and returned to camp.

After a day's rest Macdonald's horses were again ready for the field.
On Sunday morning therefore, February 11, the long column filed
silently out of camp. At 10 o'clock the main body had covered 22
miles, reaching the farmhouse of Ramdam. By that time Cronje's
outposts had probably realised that the camp which French had
carefully left standing at the Modder River was simply a city of
canvas from which the inhabitants had departed.

Next day the force was again on the march at 3.0 a.m. It now took an
easterly course in order to force a crossing on the Riet River. Its
goal was Waterval Drift. But so intense was the darkness that after an
hour of difficult movement the General ordered a halt, until dawn,
when he ordered the division to make the feint on Waterval. He was not
certain whether the Drift was held in force by the enemy or not. But
very soon conviction came in a shell nicely aimed at the General in
person. It burst between French and his staff. "There are too many of
us riding together," was his only comment, as he moved forward to
reconnoitre the ground from the top of the nearest kopje.

Very soon the Horse Artillery had the gun silenced, and the whole
division swerved to the right just as the Boers drew off down stream
to wait for the English crossing. Immediately the whole division was
making for De Kiel's Drift further up stream. The banks proved to be
steep and difficult, but a ford was discovered. As the cavalry neared
the bank a party of Boers saw the ruse, and a neck-to-neck race for
the Drift began. By a piece of daring horsemanship our cavalry got
home first, and the Boers arrived too late to dispute their passage.
By mid-day the division was able to cross and bivouac on the right
bank, pending the arrival of the baggage train, left far behind.

[Page Heading: DELAYED TRANSPORT]

The Riet River is by no means a refreshing torrent; it winds its slow
way in muddy melancholy to the cleanly water of the Vaal. But at least
it contained water in which both men and horses could forget the heat
of the veldt. All day the weary cavalrymen waited for the supplies,
which did not come until they were attempting to snatch a few hours of
sleep. The transport horses stumbled and strained their way up the
banks in the early hours of the morning.

There was pleasant excitement in camp, however, when both Roberts and
Kitchener rode over to congratulate French on his progress, and wished
him "good luck" for the rest of the journey. But the delay in
transport was annoying to French. Neither the men nor their horses
received any supplies until the morning was well advanced. And the sun
was already scorching the veldt before the division was ready to
advance. That delay was to be paid for in sweat and suffering. On that
day alone over one hundred horses died or fell out from exhaustion.
Their tired riders were forced to trudge across the veldt at what pace
they could, or to find ignominious relief in the ammunition carts.
Shortly after mid-day, however, a welcome well of water was reached.
Here, thought the parched and foot-sore men, was relief at last. But
once again they were doomed to disappointment. It is one of French's
characteristics that he practises an exquisitely perfect loyalty both
to the army and to his superiors. That well of sparkling water was
destined for the infantry tramping on behind. Reluctantly the troopers
turned aside on their tedious way. Not a drop of the water was
touched.

By this time the men's sufferings from thirst and dust were intense.
At two o'clock they neared Klip Drift, where they were fiercely
attacked by a large body of Boers. The guns of the first brigade,
however, quickly put the enemy to flight, but the General thought it
well to make certain alterations in the order of his advance. These
changes were only accomplished with the greatest difficulty. So tired
were the horses that even the General's gallopers, who were
continually traversing the column's half-mile front, were often unable
to spur their horses to anything better than a walk. Very quickly the
enemy returned to the attack, pestering French on the right. Realising
his peril, he changed his course suddenly and headed away from the
Klip Kraal Drift. Naturally, the enemy rushed off to block his way.
For an hour and a half the Drift appeared to be the division's urgent
objective. Then, without warning, he as suddenly turned about and
swung back to Klip Drift.

[Page Heading: THE BOERS FLEE]

These manoeuvres had reduced the horses almost to the last stage of
exhaustion. Many of them fell dead by the way. But at last the river
was reached. Still the actual crossing was not yet. Once again French
showed his extraordinary mastery of finesse. He ordered preparation to
be made for the actual crossing at Klip Drift and Rondeval Drift.
Having thrown Gordon to the left to effect one crossing and Broadwood
to the right to effect another, French advanced so rapidly that Cronje
was utterly nonplussed. Gordon opened a heavy shell fire which
completely disconcerted him, although only a very few of the guns
could come into action. Soon afterwards Gordon was crossing the river
in pursuit. The Boers fled, in spite of the natural strength of their
positions and the utterly exhausted state of our men. But neither
Gordon on the left, nor Broadwood on the right, was satisfied with
merely effecting a crossing. Both went in pursuit of the enemy towards
Kimberley. The result was a complete rout. The Boers' camp, their
ammunition, their wagons, fell entirely into our hands.

The rout was not without spasmodic touches of humour, even for these
jaded men. "One of the Staff plunged into the river and caught some
geese, but someone else ate them; a pig ran the gauntlet through the
camp--amidst roars of laughter, even from the serious General--of
lances, bayonets, knives, sticks, boots, water-bottles, anything to
hand, and at length was caught by a lucky trooper, who shared his
feast that night with his friends. A wagon of fresh fruit was taken,
sufficient to make thirsty men's mouths water, but some thought the
grapes were sour."[12]

The next day was perforce spent in camp, resting the tired troops and
awaiting the arrival of supplies. The baggage was not on the scene
until late in the afternoon, much to the discomfort of French's men.
It was midnight before Lord Kitchener and his Staff were near the
camp. One of French's aides-de-camp, Captain J. Laycock, rode out in
solitary peril, and although continually sniped at by the Boers, was
able to lead Lord Kitchener and his Staff safely into camp. All day
the Boers had been making the men's lives a burden through unexpected
sniping and feints. French is said to have admitted that had any of
their attacks been driven home, his plans might have been seriously
disconcerted. "Could the Boers learn to attack they would be a most
formidable foe," was his verdict on the situation.

[Page Heading: THE ROAD BLOCKED]

At 9.30 on February 15 the column set out on the last stage of their
journey. French, with the idea of putting the enemy off the track, led
his men towards Bloemfontein. His idea was eventually to dash straight
for Kimberley with his whole division, hemming the enemy's rear and
flank in at Magersfontein, where Methuen's force could hold him in
front. Scarcely had the advance begun, however, when a murderous fire
broke out from the river on the south-west, followed almost
instantaneously by a cross fire from a line of kopjes on the
north-west. The road to Bloemfontein was blocked; and the road to
Kimberley was exposed to a cross fire from the enemy's two positions.
This was checkmate with a vengeance. It was thought that some two
thousand Boers held the kopjes ahead of French. At once he ordered the
guns into position and boldly replied to the enemy's fire. The column
was now nearing a plain several miles in width, guarded on one side by
a ridge running from north to south, and on the other by a hill. The
Boers held both hill and ridge in force. So that whatever the guns
might do, the position was difficult--if not impossible. By all
military rules French was "hemmed in." To a lesser man retreat would
have seemed inevitable, though disastrous. Once again it was French
_v._ The Impossible. A member of his staff relates how, sweeping the
horizon with his glass, while riderless horses from the guns galloped
past, he muttered, squaring the pugnacious jaw, "They are over here to
stop us from Bloemfontein and they are there to stop us from
Kimberley--we have got to break through." In an instant his decision
was taken. He would attempt the impossible--a direct cavalry charge in
the teeth of the enemy's fire.

[Page Heading: A TERRIFIC CHARGE]

He immediately ordered Gordon to charge the right front. The members
of his Staff expected that the General would now take up a position of
security in the rear of the column, before the grim work began. But he
kept his place in the van with his Staff. His officers were
practically certain that not only the first, but several of the
leading squadrons would be utterly wiped out. There appeared to be
nothing in heaven or earth which could prevent huge losses. Gordon led
his men--the Ninth and Sixteenth Lancers--in superb style. Despite the
pitiable condition of the horses, it was a charge worthy of the
British Army. A strong fire poured in from the Boer trenches and from
the kopjes above. But as the huge masses of armed men gained the
inevitable momentum and pounded down upon the enemy in a cloud of
sword-lit dust, the Boers fled before these clattering hoofs. Throwing
up their guns they begged for mercy. But nothing could stop the
terrific impetus of the charge. Nearly one hundred and fifty Boers
fell as the Lancers ploughed through their trenches. Behind the
Lancers the whole division now swept on in perfect order, led by the
Greys. "So the whole division swung up the plain at the gallop. It was
a thrilling time never to be forgotten," wrote Boyle. So wild was the
Boer fire that our casualties only amounted to four men wounded and
two horses wounded.

The plain once cleared, a halt was made for the guns to come up, to
hold the enemy on the left. When the Artillery had joined the main
force, the advance was again begun. The plain once crossed, the smoke
stacks of Kimberley came into view. At sight of these dingy symbols of
the commerce they had risked all to save, the men raised a tired
cheer. Kimberley was relieved--although the nervous operators to whom
French attempted to heliograph the fact, persisted in pessimistically
believing that he was the enemy.

By far the worst of the work was now over. Before French reached
Kimberley, however, the Boers made a last effort to stay his
victorious advance. But they were driven back with heavy loss. Only
the frightful condition of his horses prevented French from turning
rout into annihilation. But his worn-out animals were quite beyond
pursuing even a beaten enemy.

At length, Kimberley, seeing the huge sand cloud on the horizon, came
to the conclusion that it enveloped the horsemen, not of Cronje but of
French. About six o'clock in the evening an officer rode out of the
besieged city to meet the soldier who had saved it. At 7--just one
hour after the moment of French's historic promise, the General
entered Kimberley with his Staff. He dined that night at De Beer's
Sanatorium.

But there was no rest for the conquerors. At 3.30 on the following
morning the cavalry was harrying the Boers to the north-east. At 5
o'clock they came upon a body of Boers on a well-fortified ridge, who
were covering the army's retreat. Unable to operate vigorously against
them owing to the condition of his forces, French forced them to draw
in their outposts. But it was impossible to do more. His horses were
half dead. And in the terrific heat "the tongues of men and horses
become black from thirst." Realising the hopelessness of the
situation, French returned to the town.

[Page Heading: A MAGNIFICENT RESPONSE]

Rest was not yet, however. Scarcely had he retired than news came that
Cronje had decided to evacuate Magersfontein. No confirmation
followed, however. The General, therefore, advised his Staff that at
last a night's rest was possible. A couple of hours later a telegram
arrived from Lord Kitchener, announcing that Cronje, with ten thousand
men, was in full retreat from Magersfontein, with "all his wagons and
equipment and four guns, along the north bank of the Modder River
towards Bloemfontein, that he had already fought a rearguard action
with him, and if French with all available horses and guns could head
him and prevent his crossing the river, the infantry from Klip Drift
would press on and annihilate or take the whole force prisoners."

General French responded magnificently to the call of this
opportunity. Another man might have pleaded that his troops and horses
were utterly unfit for work, but with French the greater the
obstacles, the stronger is his determination to win through! Of all
his five thousand men, only two thousand could be found whose horses
were fit to carry them in that wild dash to head off the Boer
Commando.

At 3 a.m. on February 17, French left Kimberley, and by a marvellous
piece of far-sighted calculation made straight for Koodoos Rand Drift,
the very crossing which Cronje himself had chosen. His horses died on
the way, but French reached the river first and seized the Drift,
almost under the enemy's eyes.

Cronje was completely surprised. The previous evening, French had been
in pursuit of the Boers north of Kimberley; now he had suddenly
appeared 35 miles to the south, and was facing the enemy, determined
to cut off his retreat. Swiftly Cronje moved down the river and took
possession of a long stretch between Gaardeberg Drift and Wolveskraal
Drift.

It must have been an anxious night for General French, for had Cronje
realised how small was the force that thus held him at bay, and made a
desperate effort to break through, there would have been little chance
of thwarting him. But Cronje lay still in the river bed, while the
British forces closed swiftly in and the net was drawn closer round
him.

[Page Heading: CRONJE SURRENDERS]

For ten long days the Boer General held out, while the British
artillery poured shells into his laager. Meanwhile the Boers flocked
in from every side to endeavour to rescue Cronje from his hopeless
position. French undertook to check them and hold them back, leaving
the main army to deal with the surrounded enemy.

General French and his men were in continual action for the next few
days. But the soldiers gloried in their work, for they were cheered by
the message from Queen Victoria in appreciation of their excellent
work, particularly in the relief of Kimberley, which had earned for
them "the gratitude of the whole nation."

At length, on February 27, Cronje surrendered, and four thousand men
laid down their arms. Thus closed the most brilliant exploit of the
British Arms in South Africa--an exploit whose success can be largely
traced to the extraordinary mixture of dauntless courage, practical
acumen and remorseless persistence which mark the genius of Sir John
French.

FOOTNOTES:

[12] _The Cavalry Rush to Kimberley._ By Captain Cecil Boyle,
_Nineteenth Century_, June, 1900.



CHAPTER VIII

ROUNDING UP THE BOERS

    French in the Modder--At Bloemfontein--French and the
    Artist--An Ambush--Doing the Impossible Again--Short Shrift
    with Barberton Snipers--Some French Stories.


To have relieved Kimberley and partially effected the capture of the
redoubtable Cronje in the course of a fortnight, was no mean
accomplishment. The average commander would have been content to rest
his forces after such exertions. But French is never tired. The very
day that Cronje surrendered news came through that a rescue party was
coming to Cronje's assistance, and already held a hill on the
south-east of the Modder. Although the river was in flood, as the
result of torrential rains, French forthwith led out two brigades with
their batteries to make a reconnaissance. In forcing the stream both
French and his A.A.G. very nearly lost their lives. Losing its
foothold the General's horse took fright and fell, flinging him into
the raging torrent. As the animal strove to recover, it upset Colonel
(now Sir Douglas) Haig, who was coming to the rescue, dashing rider
and horse into an over-hanging willow tree. Both French and Haig
luckily managed to get themselves free from their plunging animals and
struck out for the shore. Dripping but determined, they jumped on to
fresh mounts, and advanced in two steamy haloes across the dusty
veldt. Of course, not a solitary Boer was in sight for ten miles at
least!

[Page Heading: AT POPLAR GROVE]

It very quickly transpired, however, that the Boers were strongly
entrenched at Poplar Grove. At their head were French's most
redoubtable opponents in the Colesberg campaign--De Wet and Delarey.
For once his old antagonists were able to get back at least a little
of their own. Their position extended across the river and was
protected by a chain of hills, with kopjes between, not to mention the
wired fences, ditches and other wiles in which they excelled.

Lord Roberts determined that an attack must be delivered before the
enemy had time to recover from the shock of Cronje's surrender. French
was, therefore, ordered to circle round the Boer left flank, thus
cutting off his retreat, while the infantry delivered a frontal
attack.

The result was a compliment to the terrible French and his cavalry.
No sooner did the Boers realise that the horsemen were upon them, than
they beat a hasty retreat. Before the cavalry were in position, the
Boers and their wagons could be seen scurrying off for the river.
Arm-chair critics at home have strongly criticised French for what
followed. They claim that what should have been a rout, ended in an
orderly escape. But they forget several factors in the situation.

While French's men were urging their spent horses forward to overtake
the enemy, it became obvious that De Wet had very cleverly covered his
retreat. First from a farmhouse in the rear, and, when it was taken,
from a low kopje, a small body of men poured forth a hail of bullets.
In manoeuvring to take the kopje, the tired cavalry allowed the astute
De Wet and Delarey to escape with their guns intact. Kruger and Steyn
also, who had come up to hearten their followers, got away.

Maddening as it was to French to see his old enemy escape through his
fingers like this, the condition of his men and of his horses had to
be taken into account; they were dead beat. For once the manoeuvring
of De Wet proved as successful as when it was practised by French at
Colesberg. Finally the event of the day is attributable to two of
French's best qualities--his caution and his extreme parsimony in the
matter of human life. A more ruthless leader might possibly have
captured the Boer guns. But it is extremely doubtful whether he would
have taken De Wet, Delarey or any other of the well-mounted Boer
leaders.

From Poplar Grove the enemy fell back on Driefontein. On March 10,
French again drove them, although not without real difficulty, from
their stronghold. This accomplished, the army pushed on towards
Bloemfontein, which surrendered on March 13. For six weeks the main
body halted there to rest, but chiefly to obtain remounts for the
cavalry. During that time, however, French's men were not idle. They
continually patrolled the surrounding country, keeping in constant
touch with the enemy and driving him back for many miles from the
town.

[Page Heading: A PAINFUL SITTING]

One unhappy afternoon the General spent in sitting for a painter in
Bloemfontein. It was probably the severest ordeal of the campaign for
that retiring soldier. "General French," wrote the painter's youngest
daughter, "is quite the shyest man in the British army, and looks less
like a cavalry officer than you could possibly imagine. He is a heavy
man, always looks half-asleep--although who is there more wide
awake?--has a very red complexion, grey moustache, thick-set figure,
and the last personality in the world to help an artist as a sitter.
He promised to sit for the painter, although most characteristically
he could not for the life of him think what he had done to be of
sufficient interest for anyone to want to sketch him. At last, after a
great deal of trouble, the painter got him to sit one morning just
outside the club at Bloemfontein. That sitting was the shortest and
most disjointed the painter has ever had. The General sat bolt upright
in a chair, reading his paper upside down through sheer nervousness,
and, if he left that chair once, on one excuse or another, he left it
a hundred times, coming back looking more thoroughly upset and nervous
each time, until at last he never came back at all. And the painter's
only chance of sketching him was at the club during dinner!"[13]

At last the main army was ready for work again, and on May 1 the
troops moved out of the fever-stricken town. French and his cavalry
were the last to leave, but they overtook Lord Roberts and the main
body, and led the way to Kroonstad, once again the seat of the Free
State Government. Here by one of his famous turning movements, French
cleverly forced the enemy to surrender and give up the keys of the
town. Keeping ahead of Lord Roberts and his forces, he crossed the
Vaal River and was first at the gates of Johannesburg, which the
British entered on May 31.

[Page Heading: THE GUNS]

After two days in the mining city, Lord Roberts' triumphant forces
moved on their way to Pretoria. French's next task was to cut the
railway communications to the north of Pretoria. In carrying this out
he made a wide detour to the west, where his cavalry found themselves
in a treacherous country of kopjes, scrub and menacing gorges, a type
of country most dangerous to mounted men. Anxiously he pushed forward
to reach open country before nightfall (of June 2). But the Boers were
before him. A sudden hail of Mauser bullets and shells announced an
ambush. But French was undismayed. "Quietly, in complete mastery of
the situation, General French gave his orders. 'Make room for the
guns,' passed down the line; and like a fire engine to the rescue, up
dashed a section of horse artillery and a pom-pom."[14] Very quickly
the enemy was beaten off, in spite of the fatigue of a thirty-two
mile march. No further resistance was met with as the men passed
through the rich, orange-growing country round Pretoria. On June 4,
French had completed his enveloping movement, and taken up his
position to the north of the town. In the afternoon the cavalrymen
learnt, with no little chagrin, that Lord Roberts had already entered
Pretoria.

When the efforts to negotiate peace with Botha had failed, French was
instructed by Lord Roberts to push the Boers east by a turning
movement on their flank, which he would follow by the usual frontal
attack on foot. So energetic were the Boers in harassing Lord Roberts'
force, that drastic action had become necessary. It proved to be one
of the most difficult enterprises that the cavalry had undertaken.

As usually happened the Boers were securely ensconced on ridges, the
chief of which was known as Diamond Hill, while our men were condemned
to work round from a level plain open to the enemy's fire. In order
not to become a series of conspicuous targets, the cavalrymen were
forced to dismount and fight their way up to the ridges on foot. For
two days they fought gallantly against a steady fire, until the
infantry's attack on the enemy's other flank gave French his chance
to drive them out. For a third time the plight of his horses finally
forbade his taking full advantage of his success. The Boers were
driven back, but without being severely punished. The ubiquitous De
Wet, need one add, showed a clean pair of heels.

[Page Heading: A DARING VENTURE]

In July, French was in command of the forces operating in Eastern
Transvaal. There followed a long and arduous march towards the east
which, after the capture of Middleburg, ended in the surrender of
Barberton. It was in the beginning of September that French turned his
attention to the enemy's forces collected round the latter town. He
commenced his operations by circulating reports of an intended action
in the opposite direction. While the Boers prepared to meet this he
was able to reach Carolina with comparative ease. Here he remained for
three days in order to prepare for a flanking movement against
Barberton. As he must cut himself off entirely from sources of supply,
such preparation was very necessary. French was about to attempt one
of the most daring achievements of his career. He was going to take
mounted men over a miniature Alps. The Boers were prepared for his
attacking Barberton from every direction save one. They never supposed
for a moment that the British troops would attempt to force the
Nelshoogte Pass. For what did it mean? The scaling of precipitous
heights, and the passage along narrow ledges of men, horses and guns.
It would have been a difficult task for mountaineers, far less for
heavily burdened cavalrymen.

French, however, was determined to do the impossible "once more." He
would repeat the miracle of Coles Kop on a titanic scale. Accordingly,
after a day's hard fighting, he rested his men for a night near the
entrance to the pass. On the following morning, the enemy having
disappeared, the advance was sounded. Up a narrow path, whose gradient
was frequently one in four, the men crawled, often on hands and knees,
while their horses stumbled on behind. Frequently they were scaling
towering crags several hundred feet in height, from which there was
sometimes a sheer fall of over a thousand feet. In teams of sixteen
the oxen panted, struggled and frequently perished in the attempt to
drag the heavy guns up the fearful incline. Only a man of indomitable
courage would have attempted such a feat. But French lost not a single
man in the process. Perhaps the division's perfect belief in his luck
did something towards nerving the men for the ordeal.

The top of the pass once reached, French determined to make a sudden
descent on Barberton. Taking a leaf out of the Boers' book, he left
the whole of his baggage behind to lighten the horses, and rushed his
men towards the town. On descending the other side of the pass the
soldiers had still to lead their horses, who were as often on their
haunches as their feet. Barberton and the Boers saw the oncoming of
the British force with blank amazement. It was the last thing in the
world they expected. The Boer Commando in possession, six hundred
strong, had just time to escape from one end of the town as French
entered it at the other.

[Page Heading: A WAY WITH SNIPERS]

Enraged at the surprise that had been sprung on them, the Boers
commenced sniping the town from various vantage points in the
vicinity. But French knew how to treat the sniper. The following
notice was immediately dashed off by the local printing press and
posted all over the town.

  TO THE INHABITANTS OF BARBERTON.

  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 shell the Town without
  further notice.

        By order,

          D. HAIG, Lt.-Col.
    Chief Staff Officer to Lt.-General French.

  _September 15, 1900._


The sniping stopped forthwith.

One of the first things that French did was to go and personally
rescue his old enemy, Schoeman, from the local jail. That worthy,
having surrendered, had come into bad odour with his fellow
countrymen. In consequence he had been incarcerated at Barberton. For
once the unfortunate Schoeman was glad to see the face of his old
enemy again!

French rested his forces in Barberton for three weeks, leaving the
town on October 3. The march back to Pretoria was, if anything, more
trying than the adventurous dash to Barberton had been. Apart from the
trying climb over the heights of the Kaapsche Hoop, and the eternal
sniping of the Boers, the weather now brought new sufferings. The men
were exhausted by days of heat, and soaked by nights of torrential
rain. It was a thoroughly tired and jaded force which finally reached
Pretoria on November 3.

One incident of that trying march shows how ably French dealt with
Boer bluff. The enemy had made prisoner a captain of the R.A.M.C, and
sent a message that they would shoot him unless General French pledged
his word that he would burn no Boer farms. French replied that unless
the captured medical officer were brought into the British camp next
morning, he would burn the town of Bethel to the ground; and, if he
were shot, ten Boer prisoners would be similarly put to death. The
doctor was brought into camp next morning.

[Page Heading: LORD ROBERTS' RETURN]

In inspecting the cavalry on their return, Lord Roberts expressed his
high appreciation of French's work and informed him that, while
retaining his cavalry command, he had been appointed to the command of
Johannesburg and district.

At the end of the month Lord Roberts returned to England to take
command of the Home Forces; and several months elapsed before French
was able actively to take up that long rounding-up of the Boers which
Kitchener was now planning in such elaborate detail. During the early
part of 1901 he was able to clear the Boers out of the central
district of Cape Colony. On June 8 he took supreme command of the
operations in that Colony, and by November he had confined the enemy
to its north-eastern and south-western extremities.

Not until Midsummer, 1902, was French able to return home. Before that
he had spent some time recruiting his health in Cape Town. Very eager
were the loyal citizens to fête the most successful of all the British
Generals. But French would have no banqueting on his account. The war,
he characteristically explained, was not yet ended, and so long as it
was in progress he was not inclined to accept any public hospitality.

Anything like show or ostentation is foreign to French's whole nature.
If there are few stories of his exploits in South Africa, there lies
the reason. He is far too modest a man to prepare _bons mots_ or
pretty _jeux d'esprit_ for public consumption. Also he is by nature a
silent man. His silence is not the detached, Olympian and rather
ominous silence of Kitchener. It proceeds simply from a natural
modesty and reticence, which reinforce his habitual tendency to "think
things over." He is the type of man whom hostesses have to "draw out";
he never talks either on himself, the army or any other subject. To
"do his job" better than anybody else in the world could do it is
enough for French; chatter about it he leaves to less busy people.

His habitual taciturnity, curiously enough, is one of the traits which
endears him to the army. For French's silence has no trait of
churlishness. It is the silence of a man utterly absorbed in the task
before him, the man whom Tommy Atkins admires. "If the British soldier
likes one thing in a General more than another," wrote a soldier who
served with French in South Africa, "it is the golden gift of silence,
especially when joined to straight action, just to distinguish him
from the old women of both sexes. Whenever French penned a dispatch,
or an order, or a proclamation, he wasted no ink and strained no pen
nibs; but he never penned anything if there was a way of doing the
thing himself."[15]

[Page Heading: A SHIRT-SLEEVED GENERAL]

In South Africa he earned the title of "the shirt-sleeved General,"--a
soubriquet that conveys a subtle compliment from Tommy's point of
view. Actually French was often to be seen walking about in camp
during his heavy marches in shirt-sleeves. One afternoon a
correspondent rode up to the lines, and seeing a soldier sitting on a
bundle of hay, smoking a dilapidated looking old briar pipe, asked
where the General was. "The old man is somewhere about," coolly
replied the soldier. "Well, just hold my horse while I go and search
for him." "Certainly, sir," and the smoker rose obediently and took
the bridle. "Can you tell me where the General is?" inquired the
correspondent of a staff officer further down the line. "General
French? oh, he's somewhere about. Why, there he is, holding that
horse's head!" And the officer pointed directly to the smoker, still
tranquilly pulling at his pipe, and holding the horse! Needless to say
"Uncle French" and his men hugely enjoyed the correspondent's
awakening.

Such a man is bound to be the idol of the ranks. "What a good leader
General French is," wrote Driver Payne, of the Royal Horse Artillery,
to a friend. "He seems so cool at excitable moments; he does not lose
his head and rush his men into danger. In fact, he always looks before
he leaps, and when he does leap, he makes us move--and the Boers too."
Perhaps French was best summed-up one day by a trooper whom, in a curt
word, he had just sentenced to barracks for some offence. "The General
don't bark much," he remarked, "but, crikey, don't he know how to
bite!"

FOOTNOTES:

[13] _M.A.P._, August 25, 1900.

[14] _With General French and his Cavalry in South Africa._ By C.S.
Goldman. By permission of Messrs. Macmillan & Co., Ltd.

[15] _The Regiment_, September 5, 1914.



CHAPTER IX

WORK AT HOME AND RESIGNATION

    At Aldershot--Driving Training at High Pressure--General
    French is "fairly" well pleased--Strenuous Manoeuvres--Chief
    of the Imperial General Staff--Ulster and Resignation.


With Lord Kitchener, General French had a wonderful welcome on his
return from South Africa. The former had certainly added a few leaves
to his laurel wreath, but French brought back a complete new crown of
his own. His return home in July was a triumphal progress. At
Southampton, in replying to congratulations, he paid a fine tribute to
his men.

French's hatred of ostentation in any form prevented him from allowing
Society to fête him to its heart's content. He was the most retiring
of lions; and, like Kitchener, he allowed London to idolise him only
at a distance. A knighthood was one reward of his services; and after
a brief rest he was back at Aldershot as Lieutenant-General in
command.

For the first time French found himself in command of all arms of the
service in time of peace. After his arrival, instruction was driven at
high pressure. No sooner had he arrived than he turned out the whole
of his command--"just to see how they looked!" Such a thing had
scarcely ever happened before; and the order sent desolation to the
hearts of some of the officers. For it meant that the whole force,
every man, horse and gun had to turn out forthwith, in full marching
order, and ready for action. After the first feverish digging out of
accoutrements and tents, however, the men became hardened to these
sudden alarums and excursions. They became a part of the programme.

The cavalry especially was trained to an extraordinary degree of
perfection. The most rigorous methods in use abroad were used and
bettered. The result was the production of a body of men who, like
Wellington's heroes of Torres Vedras, "were ready to go anywhere and
do anything."

[Page Heading: "FAIRLY" WELL PLEASED]

In December, 1907, French was appointed Inspector-General of the
Forces. In this extremely exacting office, his qualities of
thoroughness and grip had splendid scope. A glance at his comments
discloses the high standard of excellence which he exacted from every
branch of the service. Only the other day timid folk were bewailing
his methods at manoeuvres. Four horses had succumbed to a gruelling
day of fierce exertion. But French expressed himself as "well
pleased." One does not remember his ever going farther up the giddy
incline of the superlatives. Probably his exacting eye never yet met
the corps of his dream. He had a terrible word with which he was wont
to emphasise the fact of disenchantment. How often did one read
"General French expressed himself as 'fairly' well pleased with what
he saw"? A withering qualitative. French was determined to infuse the
whole army with his own professional love of efficiency. To that end
he phrased his judgments with extraordinary care. His remarks were as
nicely aimed and as carefully timed as his cavalry charges. Nor did
they lack shattering force on occasion.

After five years of "tuning up" the army, French took command of its
administration. In 1912 he was appointed Chief of the Imperial General
Staff, a body formed on the lines of the efficient German General
Staff. Of the nature and value of the reforms instituted under his
direction it is too early yet to speak. Suffice it to say that in the
European War they have met the almost intolerable strain with signal
success. For once we presented to the Continent the unparalleled
spectacle of a War Office "ready for action."

In particular Sir John French encouraged originality of thought among
his officers by frankly seeking critical contributions for a new
service journal, and by putting various opportunities for individual
enterprise in their way.

In the midst of these invaluable if slightly uncongenial
administrative activities, Sir John French was brought to a tragic
standstill. A political intrigue cut across his soldier's life, and
ended its usefulness for the time being. At this early date it is
extremely difficult to disentangle the rights and wrongs of the Gough
incident. But there is no need to enter into the political aspect of
the case here. Suffice it to deplore the sticky mess of party politics
which threatened to gulf a great career.

[Page Heading: THE ULSTER CRISIS]

In the month of March the Government believed that they had serious
reason to expect disturbance in Ireland. Accordingly, General Sir
Arthur Paget was summoned to the War Office to consult his military
chiefs. Apparently, General Paget was instructed--so far as can be
gathered in the absence of documentary evidence--to lay before his
officers a certain choice of action. He accordingly called a meeting
of his officers, whom he informed that "Active operations were to be
begun against Ulster; that he expected the country to be in a blaze by
Saturday (March 21); and that he was instructed by the War Office to
allow officers domiciled in Ulster to disappear, but as regards others
that any who resigned would be dismissed." The officers were given two
hours to make their decision. Out of a total of 72 officers in the
Brigade, 59 "would, respectfully, and under protest," prefer to be
dismissed, while five claimed exemption on the ground of being
domiciled in Ulster.

A few days later it was explained on behalf of the Government that no
operations were intended against Ulster, and that through "an honest
misunderstanding" General Paget had misinterpreted his instructions.
Brigadier-General Gough was therefore asked to return to his command,
finally obtaining a written undertaking, signed by the Secretary of
State for War, that the troops would not be used in Ulster. In
addition to Colonel Seely's signature, that of the Chief of the
Imperial General Staff (Sir John French) and of the Adjutant-General
(Sir J.S. Ewart) appeared on the memorandum.

Now it transpired that two important paragraphs of the memorandum were
written by Colonel Seely, but presumably they were not sanctioned by
the Cabinet. The paragraphs in question ran: "His Majesty's Government
must retain their right to use all the forces of the Crown in Ireland,
or elsewhere, to maintain law and order, and to support the Civil
Power in the ordinary execution of its duty.

"But they had no intention whatever of taking advantage of this right
to crush political opposition to the policy or principles of the Home
Rule Bill."

As they stand these two paragraphs are a trifle ambiguous. The fact
apparently occurred to General Gough. For he asked Sir John French
explicitly whether they could be taken to mean that he could not be
called upon to order his brigade to take part in the coercion of
Ulster to the Home Rule Bill. Sir John French wrote across the note
that this was his belief. On the strength of this General Gough
returned to his command.

[Page Heading: A QUESTION OF HONOUR]

When the facts of the case were known, the Government were severely
criticised by the Labour and the Nationalist parties. In replying to
these criticisms, on Wednesday, this pledge was declared to be "not
operative." As the result, Colonel Seely, who had signed the
assurance, threatened resignation. On Friday, March 26, it was known
that both Sir John French and Sir J.S. Ewart had resigned their
positions. Every effort was made to induce these distinguished
officers to reconsider their decision, but without avail. To remain in
office would mean repudiating their pledged word. To this course no
possible pressure could induce Sir John French to agree. He persisted
in his resignation: and the Prime Minister solved a very dangerous
situation by himself taking up the office of Minister of War, which
Colonel Seely had now resigned.

So Sir John French went for a second time into retirement. Nothing
less could be expected of one whose views on discipline are so
extremely strict and whose ideals of loyalty are notoriously so high.
To have remained in office would have been to impair the authority of
the Imperial General Staff, quite apart from failing in loyalty to a
pledged word. For all these reasons Sir John French chose eclipse
rather than dishonour.

Unquestionably he viewed the _impasse_ purely from the military point
of view. His dislike of anything like politics in the army is well
known. Mr. Asquith's famous dictum on taking up the office of
Secretary for War is an echo of General French's invariable advice to
his officers--"You will hear no politics from me, and I expect to
hear none from you."

What his attitude towards the officers at the Curragh was in the first
instance, is a matter of mere surmise. It has been said that he would
personally have dealt very sharply with those concerned. But such
statements obviously lack authority. Sir John French is much too
discreet an officer to babble his views abroad on such a point. All we
know is that at the time he strongly deprecated politics in the army
in several speeches of considerable force. A psychological problem in
army feeling was closely bound up with the issue. It is enough to
emphasise the fact that Sir John French is himself no politician and
did what he did because his honour demanded nothing less.

[Page Heading: A HOLIDAY]

For four months the most energetic man in the Army was able to
rusticate. Actually nothing ever fell out more happily than this
enforced holiday. His duties during the past few years had necessarily
been extremely exhausting. He had rarely had time for the rest and
relaxation that make for physical and mental freshness. Now he gave
himself to the walking, the riding and the yachting he so keenly
enjoys, and so rarely indulges in. For the General has, at least,
taken the love of the water from his otherwise tedious days in the
Navy. He is an expert yachtsman and has explored a large part of the
British coast at one time or another. Riding and hunting are, however,
the only sports he now takes very seriously. He rides a great deal
during his busiest days at home, running down from London to the Manor
at Waltham Cross for the purpose when occasion permits.

Until the beginning of August, Sir John French was able to revel in
his new found freedom. When the call came, it found him feeling better
and fitter than he had done for years. Perhaps even political intrigue
serves a purpose in the game of the War Gods.



CHAPTER X

HIS BELIEF IN CAVALRY

    The Lessons of the Boer War--Cavalry _v._ Mounted Infantry--A
    Plea for the Lance--The Cavalry Spirit--Shock Tactics still
    Useful.


It does not necessarily follow that because a man is a great cavalry
leader, he therefore has ideas on the subject of cavalry. To the
popular mind cavalry suggests clouds of dust and a clatter of hoofs,
the flashing of swords, followed by the crash and sound of an
engagement. The man who would conduct this imagined spectacle
satisfactorily would therefore be dependent rather on the timely
uprush of the spirit than on the mechanical certainty of the mind. He
would need to act by inspiration and impulse, rather than by cold
thought. Quite obviously some other and less resplendent being would
have to time the rise of his curtain in the theatre of war. He would
be the last man whom one would figure, like Kipling's successful
General, "worrying himself bald" over a map and compasses.

[Page Heading: THEORY AND PRACTICE]

But the popular version does less than justice to the modern cavalry
leader in general and to French in particular. We have seen him as a
subaltern poring over his books before his colleagues were out of bed.
We have seen him varying the monotony of War Office administration by
solving problems in tactics. Indubitably he is a student: incidentally
he is an innovator. This fact of mental duality raises him in a moment
out of the ruck of mere cavalry experts--of both sorts. On the one
hand he is not a competent machine working out other people's ideas in
the field of battle: on the other he is no blundering theorist whose
ideas crumple into ineffectual dust under the stress of actual
warfare. He can carry out with the ardour of the soldier the schemes
which he has formulated with the cold cunning of the strategist. It is
difficult indeed to say in which field of cavalry work he more greatly
excels--that of theory or practice. We shall see later that he
possesses qualities altogether apart from those of the theoriser or
the man of action. Suffice it now to glance at the astonishingly
complete theory of cavalry on which his marvellous execution is
founded.

One reaches the bedrock of French's curiously sane conception of war
when one asks him to define war. In dealing with those gentlemen who
tell us that the Boer War was fought under such abnormal conditions
that it is useless as a ground-work for conclusions as to future wars,
he uttered a memorable retort. "All wars are abnormal," he observed,
"because there is no such thing as normal war."[16] There we have one
of the axioms both of his theory and of his practice. There can be no
fixed conditions, and so there can be no final theories as to the
conduct of warfare. Theory is simply a means to an end. And the
successful general is he who most ably adapts the general body of
theory suitable for all cases to the particular campaign on which he
is engaged.

[Page Heading: A VEXED QUESTION]

Broadly, however, French has very clearly defined what he considers to
be the use and the abuse of cavalry. After the Boer War, as is well
known, opinion on the subject of the future of the mounted arm was
bitterly divided. There were those who saw in French's success a
justification for the cavalrymen of the old school, armed _cap à pie_.
There were others who, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, saw the end of
their day approaching. The author of _The Great Boer War_ says of the
charge before Kimberley: "It appears to have been one of the very few
occasions during the campaign when that obsolete and absurd weapon the
sword was anything but a dead weight to its bearer." And again: "The
war has been a cruel one for the cavalry.... It is difficult to say
that cavalry, as cavalry, have justified their existence. In the
opinion of many the tendency of the future will be to convert the
whole forces into mounted infantry.... A little training in taking
cover, leggings instead of boots, and a rifle instead of a carbine,
would give us a formidable force of 20,000 men who could do all that
our cavalry does, and a great deal more besides.... The lesson both of
the South African and of the American Civil War is that the light
horseman who is trained to fight on foot is the type of the
future."[17] This is the opinion of a very competent civilian who
deeply studied the South African campaign. But it is the opinion of a
civilian.

On the other hand many experts, most of them military men, insist that
the day of shock tactics is far from done. They instance the charge
before Kimberley as a case in point. Obviously all the elements of
disaster were there. Only a brilliant use of the traditional cavalry
attack saved the situation--and Kimberley. Situations of that sort
are bound to arise again. How is the mounted infantryman, lacking the
_elan_ and spirit of the cavalryman, to meet the situation?

[Page Heading: TOO MUCH CAUTION]

French takes an attitude somewhat midway between these two extremes.
He, of all men, has developed cavalry most successfully on what might
be called mounted infantry lines. That is to say, he has taught his
men to fight on foot, to take cover at every opportunity, and to
master the whole art of reconnaissance. But at the same time, he
objects to extremist[18] views as to the abolition of the cavalry
spirit. "One or two distinguished foreign soldiers who have publicly
commented upon that campaign have said that what is termed the
'Cavalry Spirit' is opposed to the idea of dismounted action. They
hold that the cavalry disdain to dismount, and they see in riding the
end instead of the means. They consider that events in the Far East
teach us that we must render our cavalry less devoted to 'manoeuvres'
and to 'tournaments,' in order to enable them to fit themselves to
take part in modern fighting; that the times have come when the
methods of warfare should be changed; and that the cavalry must
determine to defeat the enemy by dismounted action entirely.

"I cannot speak with any certainty as to what has happened in European
Armies, but as regards the British Cavalry, I am absolutely convinced
that the Cavalry Spirit is, and may be encouraged to the utmost,
without in the least degree prejudicing either training in dismounted
duties or the acquirement of such tactical knowledge on the part of
leaders as will enable them to discern when and where to resort to
dismounted methods.

"How, I ask, can the Cavalry perform its rôle in war until the enemy's
Cavalry is defeated and paralysed? I challenge any Cavalry officer,
British or foreign, to deny the principle that Cavalry, acting as such
against its own Arm, can never attain complete success unless it is
proficient in shock tactics.

"Cavalry soldiers must, of course, learn to be expert rifle shots, but
the attainment of this desirable object will be brought no nearer by
ignoring the horse, the sword or the lance. On the contrary, the
_elan_ and dash which perfection in Cavalry manoeuvres imparts to
large bodies of horsemen will be of inestimable value in their
employment as mounted rifle-men when the field is laid open to their
enterprise in this rôle by the defeat of the hostile Cavalry. That the
Cavalry on both sides in the recent war did not distinguish
themselves or their Arm, is an undoubted fact, but the reason is quite
apparent. On the Japanese side they were indifferently mounted, the
riding was not good, and they were very inferior in numbers, and hence
were only enabled to fulfil generally the rôle of Divisional Cavalry,
which they appear to have done very well. The cause of failure on the
Russian side is to be found in the fact that for years they have been
trained on _exactly the same principles_ which these writers now
advocate. They were devoid of real Cavalry training, they thought of
nothing but getting off their horses and shooting; hence they
lamentably failed in enterprises which demanded, before all, a display
of the highest form of Cavalry spirit."

On the other hand Sir John French protests against the tendency to
_ultra-caution_ in handling cavalry at manoeuvres. The cavalry charge
is always a risk. The risk taken by the Field-Marshal, for instance,
when he ordered the famous charge which won him the way to Kimberley,
would certainly have been regarded as fatal at official manoeuvres. It
is absurd, he insists, that the umpires should call on cavalry to
surrender the moment that they come face to face with an infantry
fire. Such a moment may be the cavalry's great opportunity.

[Page Heading: VIEWS ON CAVALRY]

Many of the modern armies, he holds, are suffering from cavalry
without confidence. And there is abundant evidence to justify the
charge. Bernhardi has pointed out that the phenomenal successes of the
German cavalry in the war of 1870-1 were due not to its own
extraordinary valour, but to the absence of opposition on the part of
the French. Von Moltke made a similar criticism (which Sir John French
approves) on the Prussian cavalry after the war of 1866. "Our cavalry
failed," he wrote, "perhaps not so much in actual capacity as in
_self-confidence_. All its initiative had been destroyed at
manoeuvres, where criticism and blame had been almost synonymous, and
it therefore shirked independent bold action, and kept far in the
rear, and as much as possible out of sight."

French, in fact, is convinced that the "cavalry battle" is by no means
a thing of the past. Until the enemy's cavalry is overthrown, the work
of the mounted infantryman cannot begin. So long as opposing countries
train efficient cavalry, the clash of the rival horsemen is the
inevitable preliminary of any campaign.

At the same time his views on the specialisation of training are far
from extreme. The cavalry spirit must be encouraged: but it must not
be permitted to overshadow that wider _camaraderie_ which is the Army
spirit. "It is not only possible but necessary," he says, "to preach
the Army spirit, or, in other words, the close comradeship of all arms
in battle, and at the same time to develop the highest qualities and
the special attributes of each branch. The particular spirit which we
seek to encourage is different for each arm. Were we to seek to endow
cavalry with the tenacity and stiffness of infantry, or to take from
the mounted arm the mobility and the cult of the offensive which are
the breath of its life, we should ruin not only the cavalry, but the
Army besides. Those who scoff at the spirit, whether of cavalry, of
artillery, or of infantry, are people who have had no practical
experience of the actual training of troops in peace, or of the
personal leadership in war. Such men are blind guides indeed."[19]

For cavalry, then, Sir John French sees a brilliant future. "The
opinion which I hold and have often expressed is that the _true rôle
of cavalry on the battlefield is to reconnoitre, to deceive and to
support_. If the enemy's cavalry has been overthrown, the rôle of
reconnaissance will have been rendered easier. In the rôles of
deception and support, such an immense and fruitful field of
usefulness and enterprise is laid open to a cavalry division which has
thought out and practised these rôles in its peace training, and is
accustomed to act in large bodies dismounted, that I cannot bring
myself to believe that any equivalent for such manifest advantages can
be found even in the most successful raid against the enemy's
communications by mounted troops."[20]

[Page Heading: A HISTORIC PHRASE]

How brilliantly Sir John French trained his men to accomplish these
multiple activities, recent history has shown. We may note in passing,
however, that mechanics have now divested the cavalry of one of their
chief functions. The aeroplane is now the eye of the army and the
strategical rôle of the cavalry is no more. The mounted arm will
almost certainly now be confined to screening operations and to shock
tactics, after the opposing armies have come into touch with one
another. History, therefore, has obviously justified Sir John French
in his championship of the cavalry spirit. Without it his horsemen
would have been no match for the German cavalry. Thanks to their
training, they "went through the Uhlans like brown paper" in General
Sir Philip Chetwode's historic phrase.

FOOTNOTES:

[16] Sir John French's Preface to _Cavalry_ by General von Bernhardi.
By permission of Messrs. Hugh Rees, Ltd., and Messrs. Hodder &
Stoughton.

[17] _The Great Boer War_, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By permission of
Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co.

[18] Sir John French's Preface to _Cavalry in Future Wars_, by General
von Bernhardi. By permission of Mr. John Murray.

[19] From Sir John French's Introduction to _Cavalry_, by General F.
von Bernhardi, by permission of Mr. Hugh Rees and Messrs. Hodder &
Stoughton.

[20] From Sir John French's Introduction to _Cavalry_, by General F.
von Bernhardi, by permission of Mr. Hugh Rees and Messrs. Hodder &
Stoughton.



CHAPTER XI

THE MODERN MARLBOROUGH

    Europe's Need--The Plight of France--A Delicate
    Situation--The Man of "Grip"--A Magnificent Retreat.


On August 4, Great Britain woke up to find herself engaged in one of
the most terrific contests in history. Out of an assassination at
Serajevo had sprung a European war. In demanding apologies for the
death of its Archduke, Austria-Hungary, with the connivance of
Germany, refused to be conciliated with the most adequate apologies
offered by Servia. The result was a protest from Russia, which would
doubtless have allayed the situation, but for the aggressive attitude
dictated to Vienna from Berlin. In the sequel Great Britain found
herself arrayed with Russia and France against the Austro-Germanic
forces.

The question arose as to who should lead the English expeditionary
force so sorely needed to stem the tide of the German legions as it
rolled over an outraged Belgium and an unprepared France. There was
never any doubt as to whom the great task should be entrusted. Sir
John French was obviously the man for the task.

[Page Heading: A CAPABLE STAFF]

Fate pointed to him not only as the greatest active military leader in
this country, but as the one man possessing the peculiar qualities
called for in this campaign. There may be more brilliant intellects in
the army, but there is no other such leader of men. This campaign was
bound to be a long, a hazardous and a delicate enterprise. It called
for a man of extraordinary grip and pertinacity of purpose. These
qualities French possesses to a marked degree. He has also the power
of sensing ability in other men. In South Africa he was able to
surround himself with one of the ablest General Staffs in Europe.
French's extraordinary rapidity of thought, his lightning decisions,
and his masterly grip of the most complex situation, allied with
lieutenants competent to undertake the most difficult operations which
he may suggest, provides a combination probably unequalled in history.

In another respect French is peculiarly suited to the onerous task
imposed upon him. His innate sense of loyalty makes him a colleague of
rare qualities. On the face of it the British commander's position
called for very great tact. It was delicate almost to a distressing
degree. Allied commanders have always to struggle with the teasing
element of friction. Sir John French eliminated that at the outset.
Even more difficult was the problem of seniority. General Joffre, who
is French's superior, is his inferior in rank, not being a
Field-Marshal. Here was a situation teeming with difficulties. The
slightest clumsiness on the British Commander's part would have caused
a crisis. There were no crises, because French is a diplomatist as
well as a soldier.

No sooner had the British army fairly landed on French soil than it
was faced with the worst trial of war--a prolonged and perilous
retreat before overwhelming odds. But Sir John French knew all that
was to be known of the scientific retreat. Had he not seen it thirty
years ago on an Egyptian desert, and practised its every form time and
again on the African veldt? In four days the British force covered 60
miles in orderly and aggressive retreat, without once giving way to
confusion or disorder. The men who had been with French in South
Africa, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and General Sir Douglas Haig,
had the situation in hand from the first. The retreat was a triumph
for the British army, and particularly for the cavalry which French
had trained. Nor was its route that desired by the German Headquarters
Staff. Through the vigour of his cavalry charges, French was able to
dictate his own line of retreat. He had held his position long enough
to save the French left wing; and he had retreated in order before a
force five times that of his own.

[Page Heading: SPLENDID PRAISE]

French's old South African commander, Lord Roberts, was particularly
struck by the retreat from Mons. He expressed his admiration in the
following remarkable letter to Lady French:

    _12 Sept., 1914._

  MY DEAR LADY FRENCH,

  I write these few lines to tell you how much I admire your
  husband's Dispatch, and how proud I am of the splendid work done
  by the troops under his command. When the whole story of the war
  comes to be known, the masterly way in which the Retreat from
  Mons--under vastly superior numbers--was carried out, will be
  remembered as one of the finest military exploits ever
  achieved....[21]

  I trust you will continue to get good news of Sir John, and that
  you are keeping well yourself. With kindest regards, in which
  Lady Roberts and my daughters join,

  Believe me,
    Yours sincerely,
      (_Signed_) ROBERTS,
        (F.-M.).

That was only the first chapter in the story of his new achievements.
The authentic history of his latest successes remains to be written.
The French, however, were not wrong in dubbing the British
Field-Marshal "the modern Marlborough." For French belongs to the same
dogged, cautious school as Marlborough and Wellington. His genius is
one of those which include an infinite capacity for taking pains.
Indeed his thoroughness is more than Teutonic. In this war, French
has, so far, found no Napoleon to fight. It is, indeed, questionable
whether the Germans have a commander of his excellence on the field.
But the preparations of the German Headquarters Staff may be admitted
to be Napoleonic in their elaborate and far-seeing perfection. Yet
time and again, as in the Napoleonic wars, they have gone down before
a British General who unites the dash of von Roon with the caution and
the prescience of Moltke.

FOOTNOTES:

[21] Published by courtesy of Lady French and Earl Roberts.



CHAPTER XII

FRENCH, THE MAN

    A Typical Englishman--Fighting at School--Napoleon
    Worship--"A Great Reporter"--Halting Speeches and Polished
    Prose. A South African Coincidence--Mrs. Despard and the
    Newsboy--The Happy Warrior.


So far, this book has necessarily been chiefly a record of events.
That was inevitable, for the man of action writes his story in deeds.
Nor was there ever a great soldier who made less clamour in the world
of newspapers than General French. He has never adopted the studied
reticence of Kitchener nor yet the chill aloofness of certain of his
colleagues. War correspondents are not anathema to him; neither does
he shudder at the sight of the reporter's pencil. Yet, somehow, few
anecdotes cluster round his name.

Perhaps that is because his modesty is not a pose, although it has
become almost a tradition. It is simply a natural trait in a modest
and rather retiring disposition. French simply will not be talked
about--and there is an end of the matter.

If one were asked to describe the man, one might best answer that he
is the Englishman to the _n_th. degree. It is usual to find that the
man of extraordinary merit is in some degree a contrast with and a
criticism of the mere average mortal of his set. The dour urbanity of
Kitchener, for instance, is Oriental rather than English, and
contrasts strangely with the choleric tradition of the army officer.
So the infinite alertness and constant good humour of Roberts has a
quality of Latin _esprit_ very foreign to the English temperament. But
there are no such peculiarities about French. He is the very essence
of healthy normality.

Yet, although of Celtic descent, he is essentially English. He has not
hacked his way to fame in the manner of the Scot, nor has he leapt
upon her pedestal with the boisterous humour of the Irishman. He has
got there in the dogged but sporting English way, taking Fortune's
gifts when they came, but never pushing or scrambling for them when
they were out of reach.

One catches the spirit of the man in the schoolboy. When he first went
to school at Harrow, the boys, knowing that sisters had been
responsible for his education, were prepared to take it out of him.
But as French was ready to fight at the slightest provocation, and
equally ready to swear eternal friendship when the fight was done, he
quickly won his way through respect to popularity.

[Page Heading: AN ADMIRER OF NAPOLEON]

Despite this quality, the steadfast object of his admiration has been
one of the most abnormal and theatrical figures in history--Napoleon.
It is, however, Napoleon the soldier and not the personality that has
attracted French, who, by the way, possesses a wonderful collection of
Napoleonic relics. He sees Napoleon as the greatest strategist the
world has known. As such the Corsican claims his unstinted admiration:
but there his admiration stops. For French is altogether humane. There
is nothing of the iron heel about either his methods or his manners.
His extreme parsimony of life we have seen as the cause of the only
criticism which has ever been levelled against him.

By a strange coincidence, however, his worship of Napoleon has proved
itself invaluable in an unexpected way. In following Napoleon's
campaigns out in detail, French had traversed every inch of Waterloo,
and much of the Belgian battle-ground in the European war. There can
be little doubt that the success of some of his work has been due to
his detailed knowledge of the scene of operations.

Inevitably, perhaps, French suggests Napoleon in certain subtle traits
of character rather than in personality. His rapidity of thought, for
instance, has probably rarely been equalled, since Napoleon set Europe
by the ears. An officer under his command in South Africa, has
recorded how, day after day, for weeks on end, French would answer the
most intricate questions on policy and tactics over the telephone with
scarcely a moment's delay. Such inhuman speed and accuracy of decision
link French with the greatest commanders of history.

There is just a suggestion of Napoleon too, in his habitual attitudes.
He usually stands with legs wide apart and arms folded either across
his chest or clasped behind his back. But the perfect cheerfulness of
his smile banishes any fear of Corsican churlishness of manner. It is
very certain that French is not feared by his staff: he is worshipped
by them. The reason for that is not far to seek. Although his temper
is irascible, it is not enduring. Often it will flash out in wrathful
words, but the storm is quickly over. Men of this choleric temper are
always beloved, for good humour inevitably underlies the ebullitions
of so light a rage. They never nurse hatreds nor brood over trifles.
Also they are healthily impervious to the wiles of flattery or the
snare of favouritism. There is nothing of the jealous and erratic
genius about French. To read his dispatches is to find praise lavishly
given to subordinates but no mention of self. For he looks after his
assistants and leaves his own record to fate. He has, indeed, mastered
the art of being great enough to allow others to be great. Hence the
excellence which always marks his General Staff.

[Page Heading: THE SOLDIERS' IDOL]

Such qualities must inevitably endear a General to his officers, to
the men who have to bear the brunt of their Chief's personality. But
do they appeal to the private? Both Napoleon and Wellington
indubitably took immense pains to surround themselves with a shroud of
mystery. Under their dark mantles, the ranks must feel, lay buried the
talisman of success. We know that his officers found "the sight of
Wellington's long nose on a frosty morning worth another ten thousand
men" to them. Sir John French has cultivated neither a nose, nor a
frown, nor even a chin. How does he manage to be the idol of his men?
it may be asked. Simply and solely by being himself. Without any of
the meretricious arts of the personality-monger, he has impressed his
personality on the troops in a most memorable way. This is largely due
to the impression of quiet confidence which he always gives. You feel
you are safe with French. Nothing, you know, will ever upset the cool
sanity of his reasoning, the balanced decision of his judgments. This
impression of certainly is strengthened by the distinctly masterful
carriage of the man. His short, stocky figure, like General Grant's,
suggests that fatigue is unknown to him. This is indeed the case. The
story has often been told of how the General and his staff once
decided, after an exhausting day, to spend the night in a lonely farm
in South Africa. The house only boasted one bed, which was of course,
reserved for the General. But French insisted on a tired member of his
staff occupying the solitary mattress, and wrapping himself up in a
rug, went contentedly to sleep on the floor.

His mind is as tireless as his body. The operations round Colesberg
could only have been undertaken in their complicated entirety by a
General who did not know what mental fatigue meant. This physical and
mental fitness French has most carefully studied to preserve. At one
time, several years ago, he feared a tendency to avoirdupois, and
instantly undertook a stern but successful bulk-reducing regimen.
Apropos the regimen there is a story. Just before the present war, a
bulky package was one day delivered to him at his club. French opened
it negligently, expecting to discover the inevitable knick-knack of
doubtful utility. But this was not the usual gift. It was a package of
weight-reducing preparations.

[Page Heading: AN INDEPENDENT THINKER]

French's mind, however, is original as well as tireless. Just there
lies the unique quality of his gifts. The art of war is necessarily
one of the most highly systematised and therefore the most hide-bound
in the world. No man is more perilously in danger of having his mind
swathed in red tape and numbed by discipline than the soldier. In
modern times the tendency to employ masses has not lessened the
tendency to stereotype habits of thought. The danger of the mechanical
soldier is stressed by no one more forcibly than by General von
Bernhardi. He holds that a self-reliant personality is as essential as
a profound knowledge of generalship to the modern commander. French
possesses both. Although profoundly versed in all the doctrines of the
schoolmen, he is never afraid to jump over the traces where they would
lead to a precipice. He has never been hampered, as so many soldiers
are, by his studies. Knowledge he has always used as a means to an
end, which is its proper vocation. To this independence of mind, as to
nothing else, may be attributed his phenomenal success amid the
abnormal conditions of Boer warfare. Where the books end, French's
active mind begins to construct its own "way out" of the corner.

The Boers were indeed the first to admit his superiority to the other
English officers, if not to themselves. De Wet was once asked in the
early stages of the war how long he expected to avoid capture. He
replied, with a smile, that it all depended on which General was
dispatched to run him down. When a certain name was mentioned, the
reply was "Till eternity." General B---- was next mentioned. "About
two years," was the verdict. "And General French?" "Two weeks,"
admitted De Wet.

French has, of course, never accepted social life in this country on
its face value. The young officer who was studying when his friends
were at polo or tennis, was under no illusions as to the havoc which
an over-accentuation of the sporting and social side of life was
playing with the officers' work. Nowadays, like Kitchener, he is bent
on producing the professional and weeding out the "drawing-room"
soldier. No wonder that his favourite authors are those acutest
critics of English social life and English foibles, Dickens and
Thackeray. The former's "Bleak House" and the latter's "Book of
Snobs" are the two books he places first in his affections.

[Page Heading: A GREAT REPORTER]

He is himself a writer of parts. We are, ourselves, so close to the
event he describes, that we are perhaps unable to appreciate the
literary excellence of the despatches which French has sent us on the
operations in France. A Chicago paper hails him, however, as "a great
reporter." "No one can read his reports," the writer remarks, "without
being struck with his weighty lucidity, his calm mastery of the
important facts, the total absence of any attempt at 'effect,' and the
remarkably suggestive bits of pertinent description."

Undoubtedly, the Americans are right--provided that these dispatches
were actually penned by the General himself.

His speeches may be obvious and even trite; his letters may lack any
flavour of personality; but these dispatches are literature. Like his
hero Napoleon, like Cæsar and Wellington, Sir John French has forged a
literary style for himself. There is nothing amateurish or
journalistic about his communications from the front. The dispatch
from Mons, for instance, is a masterpiece of lucid and incisive
English. It might well be printed in our school-histories, not merely
as a vivid historic document, but as a model of English prose.

Not that Sir John French's style is an accident. Like most of the
other successes of his career, it is the result of design. The man who
laboriously "crammed" tactics laboured equally hard over the art of
writing. The many prefaces which he has written to famous books on
strategy and war bear traces of the most careful preparation.

Apart from his dispatches, however, French has written some virile,
telling English in his prefaces to several books on cavalry and on
military history. The most interesting is that which he wrote for
Captain Frederick von Herbert's _The Defence of Plevna_. He prefaces
it with a dramatic little coincidence of war capitally told. "During
the last year of the South African War, while directing the operations
in Cape Colony, I found myself, late one afternoon in February, 1902,
at the north end of the railway bridge over the Orange River at
Bethulie, strangely attracted by the appearance of a well-constructed
and cleverly hidden covered field work, which formed an important part
of the 'Bridge head.' Being somewhat pressed for time I rode on and
directed my aide-de-camp to go down into the fort, look round it, and
then catch me up. He shortly overtook me with an urgent request to
return and inspect it myself. I did so, and was very much struck, not
only with the construction of the work and its excellent siting, but
also with all the defence arrangements at that point of the river.
Whilst I was in the fort the officer in charge arrived and reported
himself. Expressing my strong approval of all I had seen, I remarked
that it brought back to my mind a book I had read and re-read, and
indeed studied with great care and assiduity--a book called _The
Defence of Plevna_, by a certain Lieutenant von Herbert, whom, to my
regret, I had never met. 'I am von Herbert, and I wrote the book you
speak of,' was the reply of the officer to whom I spoke."[22]

[Page Heading: OSMAN PASHA]

Osman Pasha was a soldier after French's own heart. Indeed, his
tenacity was probably equal to that of his critic. Hence this fine
tribute: "The great soldier who defended Plevna refused to acknowledge
such a word as defeat. When things were at their worst his outward
demeanour was calmest and most confident. There was no hysterical
shrieking for supports or reinforcements. These might have reached
him, but through treacherous jealousy he was betrayed and left to his
own resources. In spite of this no thought of capitulation or retreat
ever entered the mind of Osman Pasha...."[23] What a wonderful little
cameo of courage!

One wonders whether the school-boy who sent French the following
letter on his return from South Africa knew the quality of his
writing.

  "MY DEAR FRENCH,--You are a great British General. I want
  your autograph, but, whatever you do, don't let your secretary
  write it."

I have said that Sir John French is the average Englishman in an
accentuated degree. How then does he regard war? If the plain truth be
told, we are not at heart a martial nation. We have made war when we
have been compelled to it by the threat of an Armada or the menace of
a Napoleon. But we have not cultivated war, at least since our wode
days, as a pastime and a profession. Nor is French that abnormal
being, an Englishman governed by the blood lust. Mrs. Despard has said
that in reality he regards war as a hideous outrage. He has no
delusions as to the glory of war. By no chance could he be ranked
among the romanticist of the battlefield. That, perhaps, is why he
never is, never has been, ruthless or remorseless with the men whom he
commands.

[Page Heading: FRENCH AND THE SUFFOLKS]

If ever French had cause for anger, it was over the unlucky incident
of the Suffolks, the one failure unwarrantably attributed to his ever
victorious arms. Yet he was the one officer who softened the
bitterness of that reverse to the men. He met the regiment in the
Transvaal just eight months after the disaster. His speech to the
troops, as reported in at least one paper, is well worthy of
preservation. After referring to his pleasure in meeting them all
again, he said: "What you did at Colesberg is still fresh in my
recollection ... but what I wish especially to recall is the sad event
of the night of January 5th and 6th, and to express my sympathy with
you on the loss of your gallant leader, Colonel Watson, who on that
night showed splendid qualities as a noble and able officer. Now, it
has come to my knowledge that there has been spread about an idea that
that event cast discredit of some sort upon this gallant regiment. I
want you all to banish any such thought from your minds as utterly
untrue. You took part ... in a night operation of extreme difficulty
on a pitch dark night, and did all in your power to make it a success.
So do not let any false idea get into your minds. Think rather that
what took place brings honour to your regiment, and add this event to
the long list of honours it has won in the past. I want you all to
bear in mind about such night operations, that they can never be a
certain success, and because they sometimes fail it does not,
therefore, bring discredit on those who attempted to carry them out.
You must remember that, if we always waited for an opportunity of
certain success, we should do nothing at all, and that in war,
fighting a brave enemy, it is absolutely impossible to be always sure
of success: all we can do is to try our very best to secure
success--and that you did on the occasion I am speaking of. I thank
you for that and all the good work you have done since, and remember
above all that no slur whatever attaches to your regiment for the
result of that occasion."

With these finely sympathetic words might be placed French's speech to
his troops before the battle of Elandslaagte. "Men," he said, "you are
going to oppose two thousand or three thousand Dutch. We want to keep
up our honour as we did in the olden time--as soldiers and men, we
want to take that position before sunset."

[Page Heading: FRENCH AND HIS MEN]

In that single phrase, "as soldiers and men," one has the key to
French's popularity with the ranks. He treats the men as human beings
and not as machines. In other words, he understands the British
soldier through and through. Mrs. Despard has told a touching little
story of the affection which he inspires in his men. She was returning
home one evening when she was surprised by a question as she stopped
to buy the customary evening paper. "Are you Mrs. Despard, General
French's sister?" asked the ragged wretch. She admitted that claim to
distinction. The man then told her, with much enthusiasm, how when
working with a battery in a very hot corner during the South African
war, he had seen the General ride over to cheer them up. "Now, hi
don't care 'oo that man is, and I don't care 'oo I am, I love that
man," he said rather huskily. Mrs. Despard has told how she forgot her
paper that night in shaking the ex-soldier's hand.

For this tact in dealing with his men, Sir John French has largely to
thank the vein of acute sensibility which runs through his character.
This sensibility can be traced in his mouth, which is remarkably
finely chiselled. We have seen it in his childhood, when he shrank
from some of the usual noisiness of boyhood. And Mrs. Despard has
crystallised it in a phrase. Feeling depressed on one occasion before
addressing a meeting on some reforms which she considered urgent, she
confessed to her brother that she was spiritually afraid. "Why," he
replied, "don't worry, I've never yet done anything worth doing
without having to screw myself up to it." French, very obviously, is a
man for whom spiritual doubt may have its terrors. One cannot figure
him as harbouring the narrow if sincere religion of a Kitchener or a
Gordon.

One might sum him up as the _beau-ideal_, not only of the cavalry
spirit, but of the scientific soldier. He can lead a cavalry charge
with the dash of a Hotspur: and he can plan out a campaign with the
masterly logic of a Marlborough. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he
has attained extraordinary mastery over the science of war without
himself becoming a scientific machine. In many ways he bears, in
character and temperament, a striking resemblance to his colleague in
arms--General Joffre. Although Joffre is three inches taller than
French--he is five foot nine--he is otherwise very similar in
appearance. There is the same short, powerful physique, the narrow
neck surmounted by a massive head and heavy jaw, and the same broad
forehead, with masterful eyes peeping from beneath bushy eyebrows.
Neither of these men on whom hangs Europe's destiny is in the least
degree strident or self-assertive. Indeed, both tend to be listeners
rather than talkers. Both have the same trick of making instantaneous
decisions. Both scorn to be merely "smart" in outward appearance; both
are devoted to efficiency in detail; and, most suggestive of all, each
finds himself eternally compared to General Grant! Probably the
latter's dogged personality forms the best possible common denominator
for these two remarkable men.

[Page Heading: AN OPPORTUNITY]

It is said that when news of the war in South Africa reached French,
momentarily obeying a natural impulse, he waved his hand and cried,
"Hurrah for South Africa." If anyone had any right to thank Heaven for
that particular campaign, it was certainly French. But he would have
"hurrahed" any campaign that gave opportunity for his powers. After
all, the soldier's stage is the battlefield. Without wars he is
without an active rôle, and must spend his years drudging in the
rehearsal theatre of the Colonies. If he be so original and so
thorough a soldier as French, his abilities will be at an even graver
discount. For the rehearsal is not the play; and the best Generals,
like the ablest actors, are notoriously weak at rehearsal, which does
not pluck fully at their energies. Probably French would have hurrahed
for South Africa, however, had he had no special abilities at all.
For nowhere is he happier than on the battlefield. If the grisly game
of war must be played, French plays it with all his heart. It is the
game which destiny put him on the stage to play; the game which he has
devoted his life to mastering; and the only game in which he has ever
seriously interested himself.

Luck invariably follows the man who is utterly absorbed in his
profession, for the simply reason that, being always engrossed in his
work, he is always alive to his opportunities. French's luck consists
solely in the fact that he happens to be a soldier. Men of Kitchener's
organising genius may be many things; in nothing, not even in the
arts, are they likely to seriously fail. But French is a soldier in
the sense quite other than Kitchener. He is a man made for the
endurance of hardship and for the facing of hard practical
difficulties in the field. It is as natural for him to conduct a
campaign as it was for Pope to "lisp in numbers, for the numbers
came." He is the Happy Warrior in being.


FINIS

FOOTNOTES:

[22] From Sir John French's Preface to _The Defence of Plevna_, by
Capt. Frederick von Herbert, by permission of Messrs. Smith, Elder.

[23] From Sir John French's Preface to _The Defence of Plevna_, by
Capt. Frederick von Herbert, by permission of Messrs. Smith, Elder.



APPENDIX

THE MONS DESPATCH

_To the Secretary of State for War_

      _September 7, 1914._

  MY LORD,

  I have the honour to report the proceedings of the Field Force
  under my command up to the time of rendering this despatch.

  1. The transport of the troops from England both by sea and by
  rail was effected in the best order and without a check. Each unit
  arrived at its destination in this country well within the
  scheduled time.

  The concentration was practically complete on the evening of
  Friday, the 21st ultimo, and I was able to make dispositions to
  move the Force during Saturday, the 22nd, to positions I
  considered most favourable from which to commence operations which
  the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, requested me to
  undertake in pursuance of his plans in prosecution of the
  campaign.

  The line taken up extended along the line of the canal from Conde
  on the west, through Mons and Binche on the east. This line was
  taken up as follows:--

  From Conde to Mons inclusive was assigned to the 2nd Corps, and to
  the right of the 2nd Corps from Mons the 1st Corps was posted. The
  5th Cavalry Brigade was placed at Binche.

  In the absence of my 3rd Army Corps I desired to keep the Cavalry
  Division as much as possible as a reserve to act on my outer
  flank, or move in support of any threatened part of the line. The
  forward reconnaissance was entrusted to Brigadier-General Sir
  Philip Chetwode with the 5th Cavalry Brigade, but I directed
  General Allenby to send forward a few squadrons to assist in this
  work.

  During August 22 and 23 these advanced squadrons did some
  excellent work, some of them penetrating as far as Soignies, and
  several encounters took place in which our troops showed to great
  advantage.

  2. At 6 a.m. on August 23 I assembled the Commanders of the 1st
  and 2nd Corps and Cavalry Division at a point close to the
  position, and explained the general situation of the Allies, and
  what I understood to be General Joffre's plan. I discussed with
  them at some length the immediate situation in front of us.

  From information I received from French Headquarters I understood
  that little more than one, or at most two, of the enemy's Army
  Corps, with perhaps one Cavalry Division, were in front of my
  position; and I was aware of no attempted outflanking movement by
  the enemy. I was confirmed in this opinion by the fact that my
  patrols encountered no undue opposition in their reconnoitring
  operations. The observation of my aeroplanes seemed also to bear
  out this estimate.

  About 3 p.m. on Sunday, the 23rd, reports began coming in to the
  effect that the enemy was commencing an attack on the Mons line,
  apparently in some strength, but that the right of the position
  from Mons and Bray was being particularly threatened.

  The Commander of the 1st Corps had pushed his flank back to some
  high ground south of Bray, and the 5th Cavalry Brigade evacuated
  Binche, moving slightly south; the enemy thereupon occupied
  Binche.

  The right of the 3rd Division, under General Hamilton, was at
  Mons, which formed a somewhat dangerous salient; and I directed
  the Commander of the 2nd Corps to be careful not to keep the
  troops on this salient too long, but, if threatened seriously, to
  draw back the centre behind Mons. This was done before dark. In
  the meantime, about 5 p.m., I received a most unexpected message
  from General Joffre by telegraph, telling me that at least three
  German Corps, viz., a reserve corps, the 4th Corps and the 9th
  Corps, were moving on my position in front, and that the 2nd Corps
  was engaged in a turning movement from the direction of Tournay.
  He also informed me that the two reserve French divisions and the
  5th French Army on my right were retiring, the Germans having on
  the previous day gained possession of the passages of the Sambre
  between Charleroi and Namur.

  3. In view of the possibility of my being driven from the Mons
  position, I had previously ordered a position in rear to be
  reconnoitred. This position rested on the fortress of Maubeuge on
  the right and extended west to Jenlain, south-east of
  Valenciennes, on the left. The position was reported difficult to
  hold, because standing crops and buildings made the siting of
  trenches very difficult and limited the field of fire in many
  important localities. It nevertheless afforded a few good
  artillery positions.

  When the news of the retirement of the French and the heavy German
  threatening on my front reached me, I endeavoured to confirm it by
  aeroplane reconnaissance; and as a result of this I determined to
  effect a retirement to the Maubeuge position at daybreak on the
  24th.

  A certain amount of fighting continued along the whole line
  throughout the night, and at daybreak on the 24th the 2nd Division
  from the neighbourhood of Harmignies made a powerful demonstration
  as if to retake Binche. This was supported by the artillery of
  both the 1st and 2nd Divisions, whilst the 1st Division took up a
  supporting position in the neighbourhood of Peissant. Under cover
  of this demonstration the 2nd Corps retired on the line
  Dour-Quarouble-Frameries. The 3rd Division on the right of the
  Corps suffered considerable loss in this operation from the enemy,
  who had retaken Mons.

  The 2nd Corps halted on this line, where they partially entrenched
  themselves, enabling Sir Douglas Haig with the 1st Corps gradually
  to withdraw to the new position; and he effected this without much
  further loss, reaching the line Bavai-Maubeuge about 7 p.m.
  Towards midday the enemy appeared to be directing his principal
  effort against our left.

  I had previously ordered General Allenby with the Cavalry to act
  vigorously in advance of my left front and endeavour to take the
  pressure off.

  About 7.30 a.m. General Allenby received a message from Sir
  Charles Fergusson, commanding 5th Division, saying that he was
  very hard pressed and in urgent need of support. On receipt of
  this message General Allenby drew in the Cavalry and endeavoured
  to bring direct support to the 5th Division.

  During the course of this operation General De Lisle, of the 2nd
  Cavalry Brigade, thought he saw a good opportunity to paralyse the
  further advance of the enemy's infantry by making a mounted attack
  on his flank. He formed up and advanced for this purpose, but was
  held up by wire about 500 yards from his objective, and the 9th
  Lancers and 18th Hussars suffered severely in the retirement of
  the Brigade.

  The 19th Infantry Brigade, which had been guarding the Line of
  Communications, was brought up by rail to Valenciennes on the 22nd
  and 23rd. On the morning of the 24th they were moved out to a
  position south of Quarouble to support the left flank of the 2nd
  Corps.

  With the assistance of the Cavalry Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was
  enabled to effect his retreat to a new position; although, having
  two corps of the enemy on his front and one threatening his flank,
  he suffered great losses in doing so.

  At nightfall the position was occupied by the 2nd Corps to the
  west of Bavai, the 1st Corps to the right. The right was protected
  by the Fortress of Maubeuge, the left by the 19th Brigade in
  position between Jenlain and Bry, and the Cavalry on the outer
  flank.

  4. The French were still retiring, and I had no support except
  such as was afforded by the Fortress of Maubeuge; and the
  determined attempts of the enemy to get round my left flank
  assured me that it was his intention to hem me against that place
  and surround me. I felt that not a moment must be lost in retiring
  to another position.

  I had every reason to believe that the enemy's forces were
  somewhat exhausted, and I knew that they had suffered heavy
  losses. I hoped, therefore, that his pursuit would not be too
  vigorous to prevent me effecting my object.

  The operation, however, was full of danger and difficulty, not
  only owing to the very superior force in my front, but also to the
  exhaustion of the troops.

  The retirement was recommenced in the early morning of the 25th to
  a position in the neighbourhood of Le Cateau, and rearguards were
  ordered to be clear of the Maubeuge-Bavai-Eth Road by 5.30 a.m.

  Two Cavalry Brigades, with the Divisional Cavalry of the 2nd
  Corps, covered the movement of the 2nd Corps. The remainder of the
  Cavalry Division, with the 19th Brigade, the whole under the
  command of General Allenby, covered the west flank.

  The 4th Division commenced its detrainment at Le Cateau on Sunday,
  the 23rd, and by the morning of the 25th eleven battalions and a
  Brigade of Artillery with Divisional Staff were available for
  service.

  I ordered General Snow to move out to take up a position with his
  right south of Solesmes, his left resting on the Cambrai-Le Cateau
  Road south of La Chaprie. In this position the Division rendered
  great help to the effective retirement of the 2nd and 1st Corps to
  the new position.

  Although the troops had been ordered to occupy the Cambrai-Le
  Cateau-Landrecies position, and the ground had, during the 25th,
  been partially prepared and entrenched, I had grave doubts--owing
  to the information I received as to the accumulating strength of
  the enemy against me--as to the wisdom of standing there to fight.

  Having regard to the continued retirement of the French on my
  right, my exposed left flank, the tendency of the enemy's western
  corps (II) to envelop me, and, more than all, the exhausted
  condition of the troops, I determined to make a great effort to
  continue the retreat till I could put some substantial obstacle,
  such as the Somme or the Oise, between my troops and the enemy,
  and afford the former some opportunity of rest and reorganisation.
  Orders were, therefore, sent to the Corps Commanders to continue
  their retreat as soon as they possibly could towards the general
  line Vermand-St. Quentin-Ribemont.

  The Cavalry, under General Allenby, were ordered to cover the
  retirement.

  Throughout the 25th and far into the evening, the 1st Corps
  continued its march on Landrecies, following the road along the
  eastern border of the Forêt De Mormal, and arrived at Landrecies
  about 10 o'clock. I had intended that the Corps should come
  further west so as to fill up the gap between Le Cateau and
  Landrecies, but the men were exhausted and could not get further
  in without rest.

  The enemy, however, would not allow them this rest, and about 9.30
  p.m. a report was received that the 4th Guards Brigade in
  Landrecies was heavily attacked by troops of the 9th German Army
  Corps who were coming through the forest on the north of the town.
  This brigade fought most gallantly and caused the enemy to suffer
  tremendous loss in issuing from the forest into the narrow streets
  of the town. This loss has been estimated from reliable sources at
  from 700 to 1,000. At the same time information reached me from
  Sir Douglas Haig that his 1st Division was also heavily engaged
  south and east of Maroilles. I sent urgent messages to the
  Commander of the two French Reserve Divisions on my right to come
  up to the assistance of the 1st Corps, which they eventually did.
  Partly owing to this assistance, but mainly to the skilful manner
  in which Sir Douglas Haig extricated his Corps from an
  exceptionally difficult position in the darkness of the night,
  they were able at dawn to resume their march south towards
  Wassigny on Guise.

  By about 6 p.m. the 2nd Corps had got into position with their
  right on Le Cateau, their left in the neighbourhood of Caudry, and
  the line of defence was continued thence by the 4th Division
  towards Seranvillers, the left being thrown back.

  During the fighting on the 24th and 25th the Cavalry became a good
  deal scattered, but by the early morning of the 26th General
  Allenby had succeeded in concentrating two brigades to the south
  of Cambrai.

  The 4th Division was placed under the orders of the General
  Officer Commanding the 2nd Army Corps.

  On the 24th the French Cavalry Corps, consisting of three
  divisions, under General Sordêt, had been in billets north of
  Avesnes. On my way back from Bavai, which was my "Poste de
  Commandement" during the fighting of the 23rd and 24th, I visited
  General Sordêt, and earnestly requested his co-operation and
  support. He promised to obtain sanction from his Army Commander to
  act on my left flank, but said that his horses were too tired to
  move before the next day. Although he rendered me valuable
  assistance later on in the course of the retirement, he was unable
  for the reasons given to afford me any support on the most
  critical day of all, viz., the 26th.

  At daybreak on August 26 it became apparent that the enemy was
  throwing the bulk of his strength against the left of the position
  occupied by the 2nd Corps and the 4th Division.

  At this time the guns of four German Army Corps were in position
  against them, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien reported to me that he
  judged it impossible to continue his retirement at daybreak (as
  ordered) in face of such an attack.

  I sent him orders to use his utmost endeavours to break off the
  action and retire at the earliest possible moment, as it was
  impossible for me to send him any support, the 1st Corps being at
  the moment incapable of movement.

  The French Cavalry Corps, under General Sordêt, was coming up on
  our left rear early in the morning, and I sent an urgent message
  to him to do his utmost to come up and support the retirement of
  my left flank; but owing to the fatigue of his horses he found
  himself unable to intervene in any way.

  There had been no time to entrench the position properly, but the
  troops showed a magnificent front to the terrible fire which
  confronted them.

  The Artillery, although outmatched by at least four to one, made
  a splendid fight, and inflicted heavy losses on their opponents.

  At length it became apparent that, if complete annihilation was to
  be avoided, a retirement must be attempted; and the order was
  given to commence it about 3.30 p.m. The movement was covered with
  the most devoted intrepidity and determination by the Artillery,
  which had itself suffered heavily, and the fine work done by the
  Cavalry in the further retreat from the position assisted
  materially in the final completion of this most difficult and
  dangerous operation.

  Fortunately the enemy had himself suffered too heavily to engage
  in an energetic pursuit.

  I cannot close the brief account of this glorious stand of the
  British troops without putting on record my deep appreciation of
  the valuable services rendered by General Sir Horace
  Smith-Dorrien.

  I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the
  Army under my command on the morning of the 26th August could
  never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and
  unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present
  to personally conduct the operation.

  The retreat was continued far into the night of the 26th and
  through the 27th and 28th, on which date the troops halted on the
  line Noyon-Chauny-La Fère, having then thrown off the weight of
  the enemy's pursuit.

  On the 27th and 28th I was much indebted to General Sordêt and the
  French Cavalry Division which he commands for materially assisting
  my retirement and successfully driving back some of the enemy on
  Cambrai.

  General D'Amade also, with the 61st and 62nd French Reserve
  Divisions, moved down from the neighbourhood of Arras on the
  enemy's right flank and took much pressure off the rear of the
  British Forces.

  This closes the period covering the heavy fighting which commenced
  at Mons on Sunday afternoon, August 23, and which really
  constituted a four days' battle.

  At this point, therefore, I propose to close the present
  despatch.

  I deeply deplore the very serious losses which the British Forces
  have suffered in this great battle; but they were inevitable in
  view of the fact that the British Army--only two days after a
  concentration by rail--was called upon to withstand a vigorous
  attack of five German Army Corps.

  It is impossible for me to speak too highly of the skill evinced
  by the two General Officers commanding Army Corps; the
  self-sacrificing and devoted exertions of their Staffs; the
  direction of the troops by Divisional Brigade and Regimental
  Leaders; the command of the smaller units by their officers; and
  the magnificent fighting spirit displayed by non-commissioned
  officers and men.

  I wish particularly to bring to your Lordship's notice the
  admirable work done by the Royal Flying Corps under Sir David
  Henderson. Their skill, energy, and perseverance have been beyond
  all praise. They have furnished me with the most complete and
  accurate information, which has been of incalculable value in the
  conduct of the operations. Fired at constantly both by friend and
  foe, and not hesitating to fly in every kind of weather, they have
  remained undaunted throughout.

  Further, by actually fighting in the air, they have succeeded in
  destroying five of the enemy's machines.

  I wish to acknowledge with deep gratitude the incalculable
  assistance I received from the General and Personal Staffs at
  Headquarters during this trying period.

  Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray, Chief of the General
  Staff; Major-General Wilson, Sub-Chief of the General Staff; and
  all under them have worked day and night unceasingly with the
  utmost skill, self-sacrifice and devotion; and the same
  acknowledgment is due by me to Brigadier-General Hon. W. Lambton,
  my Military Secretary, and the Personal Staff.

  In such operations as I have described the work of the
  Quartermaster-General is of an extremely onerous nature.
  Major-General Sir William Robertson has met what appeared to be
  almost insuperable difficulties with his characteristic energy,
  skill and determination; and it is largely owing to his exertions
  that the hardships and sufferings of the troops--inseparable from
  such operations--were not much greater.

  Major-General Sir Nevil Macready, the Adjutant-General, has also
  been confronted with most onerous and difficult tasks in
  connection with disciplinary arrangements and the preparation of
  casualty lists. He has been indefatigable in his exertions to meet
  the difficult situations which arose.

  I have not yet been able to complete the list of officers whose
  names I desire to bring to your Lordship's notice for services
  rendered during the period under review; and, as I understand it
  is of importance that this despatch should no longer be delayed, I
  propose to forward this list, separately, as soon as I can.

      I have the honour to be,
  Your Lordship's most obedient Servant,
    (Signed) J.D.P. FRENCH, Field-Marshal,
          Commander-in-Chief,
        British Forces in the Field.



INDEX

  Abu Klea, battle of, 17.

  Asquith, H.H., 103.


  Baden-Powell, Lieut.-General Sir Robert, 26.

  Barrow, Col. Percy, 12, 18, 19, 23.

  Beresford, Lord Charles:
    Knocked senseless, 15.

  Bernhardi, General von, 33, 127.

  Bewicke Copley, General--Admiration of French, 24.

  Bloemfontein, 75, 85, 86.

  Botha, General, 56.

  Buller, Sir Redvers:
    Relief for the Expedition, 18.
    Desperate measure, A, 19.
    Checking the enemy's advance, 20.
    Tribute to French, 21.
    His knowledge of French's value, 34.
    Oppressed by misgivings, 53.
    Preparing to relieve Ladysmith, 54.
    Disaster at Colenso, 56.

  Butcher Major E.E.A.: Ingenious solution of a difficulty, 62, 63.


  Carleton, Colonel, 46, 47, 48, 49.

  Cavalry:
    Test against camels, 12.
    Distinguishing themselves, 14.
    Buller's belief in, 21.
    Enemy's respect for, 22.
    Cavalry regiments in India, 25.
    French's, Sir, J., idea of the function of, 26.
    Opinion of the late Sir Robert Russell, 27.
    British cavalry reform, 28.
    Worrying the enemy at Colesberg, 55.
    Race for De Kiel's Drift, The, 70.
    Popular idea of cavalry, 106.
    Use and abuse of, 108.
    Lesson of the Boer War, 109.
    French's, Sir J., confidence in, 114.
    Mounted arm in modern warfare, The, 115.

  Chisholme, Colonel Scott, 36, 38.

  Colenso, 50, 56.

  Colesberg, 33, 55, 59, 62, 64, 84, 127, 134.

  Cromer, Lord, 11.

  Cronje, General, 56, 68, 69, 73, 73, 79, 80, 81, 82.

  Curragh, The, 7, 104.


  Delarey, General, 65, 83, 84.

  Despard, Mrs., 2, 136.

  De Wet, General, 65, 83, 84, 129.

  Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, 99.

  "Dumpies," The, 5.


  Eccles, Miss, 2.

  Elandslaagte, 40, 41, 52, 135.

  Ewart, Sir J.S., 101, 103.


  Fisher, Colonel, 59.

  French, General Sir John:
    Boyhood, 3.
    War game, The, 3.
    8th Hussars, Gazetted to the, 5.
    Naval career, Early, 4.
    Sportsman, As a, 6, 7.
    Nickname, His, 6.
    Strategy, Interest in, 8.
    Marriage, 8.
    Egypt, Ordered to, 9.
    Scouting in the desert, 14, 15.
    Wood, Sir E., First meeting with, 20.
    Mentioned in Dispatches, 21.
    Promotion, 23.
    Reorganisation of cavalry regiments in India, 25.
    An enforced retirement, 25.
    Function of cavalry, His idea of the, 26.
    Effect of his cavalry theory, 27.
    Appointment at the War Office, 28.
    Temperament, His, 29.
    Notable success, A, 30.
    Promotion to Major-General, 31.
    Public ignorance of his work, 33.
    Sketch by Major Arthur Griffiths, 34.
    Arrival at Ladysmith, 35.
    Result of a cavalry charge, 36.
    Difficult enterprise, A, 37.
    His opportunity, 38.
    His first victory, 39.
    Impression of him on the battlefield, An, 40.
    Secret of his ability, 41.
    Won a reputation among the Boers, 43.
    An American journalist's description, 44.
    Out-manoeuvring the Boers, 49.
    Leaving Ladysmith, 50.
    Confounding the critics, 53.
    Object at Colesberg, 54.
    Cavalry attack, A, 55.
    Cheering Christmas greeting, A, 57.
    Cavalry tactics, His, 58.
    Brilliant venture, A, 59.
    Disaster to the Suffolks, The, 60.
    His remarkable caution, 64.
    Problem--modern warfare, mastered, A, 65.
    Ability for doing the right thing, 66.
    Promise to relieve Kimberley, 67.
    Greatness of the undertaking, 68, 69.
    Congratulated by Lords Roberts and Kitchener, 71.
    Boers routed, 73.
    French _v._ The Impossible, 76.
    Kimberley relieved, 78.
    Cutting off Cronje's retreat, 80.
    Escape of De Wet, 84.
    Narrow escape from death, 82.
    Sitting for his portrait, 86.
    Command of the forces in Eastern Transvaal, 89.
    Imitating the Boers, 91.
    Releasing Schoeman from jail, 92.
    Command of the operations in Cape Colony, 93.
    His modesty, 94.
    "Shirt-sleeved General, The," 95.
    Artilleryman's tribute, An, 96.
    Return from South Africa, 97.
    Appointed Inspector-General of the forces, 98.
    His love of efficiency, 99.
    Appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 99.
    Gough incident, The, 100, 101.
    His resignation, 103.
    Student and an innovator, 107.
    Objection to extremist views, 110.
    His value in the present crisis, 118.
    Man as he is, The, 123.
    Worship of Napoleon, His, 124, 125.
    Secret of his popularity, 126.
    Literary ability, 130.
    How he regards war, 133.

  French, Lady, 8.

  French, Commander J.T.W., 2.

  Freyne, Lord de, 2.


  Gatacre, General:
    Boer invasion of Cape Colony, 54.
    Reverse at Stormberg, 56.

  Gordon, General, 11.

  Griffiths, Major Arthur, 34.

  Grimwood, Colonel, 47.

  Gough, Brigadier-General, 101, 102.


  Haig, Lieut.-General Sir Douglas, 26, 83, 119.

  Hamilton, Sir Ian, 37.

  Hussars, 19th, 1, 5, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22.


  Joffre, General, 2, 119, 137.

  Joubert, General, 49.


  Khartoum:
    Besieged, 11.
    Effort to relieve, 12.
    Fall of, 18.
    Release of the Madhi's followers, 19.

  Kitchener, Lord, 5, 9, 29, 66, 71, 74. 79, 93, 97, 122, 139.

  Kimberley, 53, 54, 68, 75, 77, 78, 100, 101.

  Kruger, President, 84.


  Ladysmith, 35, 38, 41, 42, 45, 46, 48, 49, 50, 53, 54, 69.

  Lambton, Captain Hedworth, 48.

  Laycock, Capt. J., 74.

  Lombard's Cop, 49.

  Luck, Sir George:
    Opinion of cavalry regiments in India, 25.
    Instituting cavalry reforms at home, 27.


  Mahdi, The, 10, 11, 12, 15.

  Mafeking, 53.

  Magersfontein, 56, 75, 79.

  Methuen, Lord, 53, 67, 75.

  Milbanke, Sir John, 50.

  Modder River, 69.

  "Modern Marlborough, The," 120.

  Moltke, Count von, 21.

  _Morning Post, The_, 27.


  Nile Expedition, 9.


  Paget, General, 101.

  Porter, Colonel, 56.

  Pretoria, 88, 92.


  Relieving Expedition, 18.

  Rhodes, Cecil, 67, 68.

  Roberts, Earl, 66, 67, 71, 83, 86, 87, 88, 93.


  Seely, Colonel, 101, 102.

  Selby-Lowndes, Richard William, 8.

  Schoeman, General, 56, 58, 92.

  Smith-Dorrien, General Sir Horace, 119.

  Stead, W.T., 11.

  Stewart, General Sir Herbert:
    Testing the camels, 12.
    Compelling the guides, 13.
    Outnumbered by Dervishes, 15.
    Hasty protection, 17.
    Last words, His, 18.

  Steyn, President, 84.

  Stormberg, 56.


  Talbot, General, 29, 30.


  Warde, Colonel Charles E., 7.

  Watson, Lieut.-Colonel A.J., 60, 61, 134.

  Wauchope, Major-General, 54.

  White, Sir George:
    French's, Sir. J. colleague in South Africa, 25.
    Peril at Ladysmith, His, 35.
    Orders to French, His, 36.
    Chivalrous reply, A, 38.
    Attempt to distract the enemy, 41.
    Difficult retreat, A, 42.
    Two successful engagements, 45.
    An optimistic plan, 46.
    Seriousness of British position, 49.
    Surrounded in Ladysmith, 53.

  Wilford, Colonel, 42.

  Wolseley, Lord:
    Khartoum, Orders to relieve, 11.
    Flying column, Dispatch of, 12.
    Wood, Sir Evelyn, 4.
    First meeting with French, 20.
    Discovery of French's value, 24.


  Yule, General:
    Retreat from Dundee, 41.
    His force saved, 42, 45.

       *       *       *       *       *

  Typographical errors corrected in text:

  Page 151: optimisitc replaced by optimistic
  Page  73: pursut replaced by pursuit

       *       *       *       *       *





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