Childhood & Early Life
John French was born on September 28, 1852, in Kent, into an Anglo-Irish family. His father, Commander John Tracey William French, was part of the army that fought the Portuguese Civil War. His mother’s name was Margaret Eccles. Following his father’s death, French’s mother suffered a mental breakdown and was subsequently declared insane.
French had six sisters. Following his parents’ death, he was raised by his sisters. He was admitted to a preparatory school in Harrow. Later, he joined ‘Eastman’s Royal Naval Academy’ in Portsmouth. French considered himself to be Irish, although his family lived in England for several generations.
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In 1866, John French started his career with the ‘Royal Navy.’ In 1869, he served as a midshipman on the ‘HMS Warrior.’ Later, he resigned from the ‘Royal Navy,’ as he suffered from acrophobia and seasickness.
In 1870, French joined the ‘Suffolk Artillery Militia.’ In 1874, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the ‘8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars.’ Later, he was transferred to the ‘19th Hussars.’ During this period, French became an expert hunter and steeplechaser. By 1880, he was elevated to the position of captain.
In 1884, French played a major role in the Sudan Expedition, also known as the Nile Expedition, which was conducted to relieve Major General Charles Gordon. He impressed his seniors with his timely actions and was promoted to the position of lieutenant colonel.
In 1891, French was posted to India with the ‘19th Hussars.’ While in India, he became involved in an adulterous relationship with the wife of a fellow officer. This affair was known to the public, and French’s career was adversely affected. He was on half-pay for several years.
After the divorce scandal, French was appointed as the assistant adjutant-general at the ‘Army Headquarters.’ Due to the interference of powerful patrons such as Douglas Haig, French was back in active service and was promoted to the position of major-general.
John French played a major role in the Second Boer War. He commanded the cavalry operations under Field Marshal Frederick Roberts. During the operations in Colesberg, French was successful in preventing the advancement of the Boer forces. In the Klip Drift operations, too, French was highly applauded for his tactics and confidence.
In 1901, French was appointed as the “Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath,” in recognition of his contributions in the crucial phases of the Boer War. During the later phases of the war, French served under Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener. Although the two men had entirely different personalities, Kitchener praised French for his loyalty and willingness to accept responsibilities.
In 1902, French was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the ‘1st Army Corps.’ In 1907, he was selected as the inspector general of the army. In 1911, he was made an aide-de-camp general to King George V. Although he had disagreements with several officers, he continued to find favor with powerful patrons. French was involved in the “cavalry controversy,” where he argued that the cavalry should be trained to shoot but the sword and the lance should be their major weapons.
In 1912, French was appointed as the “Chief of the Imperial General Staff.” Later, he got embroiled in the ‘Home Rule Ireland’ crisis and was forced to resign. In 1914, he was appointed to command the ‘British Expeditionary Force,’ which was sent to World War I.
French had a controversial involvement in World War I. While working with the ‘Allied’ powers, he had clashes with the French general Charles Lanrezac. Under French’s command, the ‘British Expeditionary Force’ suffered heavy casualties in the battles of Mons and Le Cateau. He wanted to withdraw the ‘British Expeditionary Force’ from the ‘Allies.’
During World War I, French had disagreements with Lord Kitchener. French was reluctant to co-operate with the French army. After the Battle of Loos, he was widely criticized for his slow deployment of ‘XI Corps.’ In 1915, the British prime minister demanded his resignation. French was replaced by his former colleague, Douglas Haig.
In 1916, John French was appointed as the commander-in-chief of the ‘British Home Forces.’ During this period, he played a crucial role in suppressing the Easter Rising. French had increasing differences with Douglas Haig. In 1918, he was appointed as the “Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” He held this position throughout the Irish War of Independence. In 1921, he resigned from the position. Following his retirement from the ‘British Army,’ French was elevated to the ‘Earldom of Ypres.’
Family & Personal Life
In 1875, John French married Isabella Soundy. The marriage was kept a secret, as officers of his rank were not allowed to marry at that time. The couple separated in 1878. In 1880, French married Eleanora Selby-Lowndes. They had two sons, John and Gerald, and a daughter, Essex. Another daughter was accidentally suffocated in infancy by her nurse.
On May 22, 1925, at the age of 72, John French breathed his last at the ‘Deal Castle.’ He was suffering from a bladder cancer. His body was taken to London, and was cremated at the ‘Golders Green Crematorium.’ His ashes were escorted to ‘Victoria Station’ by a military procession. The burial was held as a private service.
French published a memoir, ‘1914,’ relating his experiences during World War I.’ It was ghost-written by journalist Lovat Fraser. French was the “Lord Lieutenant of Ireland” when the book was published. The book was highly criticized by his former colleagues, as it allegedly misrepresented several facts. French had also started writing an autobiography, which he could not complete.