Magazine article The Spectator

The Little Field-Marshal: The Life of Sir John French

Magazine article The Spectator

The Little Field-Marshal: The Life of Sir John French

Article excerpt

Both lion and donkey THE LITTLE FIELD-MARSHAL: THE LIFE OF SIR JOHN FRENCH by Richard Holmes Weidenfeld, £18.99, pp. 427, ISBN 0297846140

Richard Holmes wrote this book 20 years ago when he was a humble lecturer at Sandhurst, long before his splendid television performances had made him a national figure. He has not had to do much to update it. In a useful foreword he describes the progress made since he wrote it in the historiography of the war - the Lions v. Donkeys debate, the research into both the operational doctrine and the social background of the British army, developments on the home front - but the focus of this biography is too limited for him to have felt it necessary to modify his original text. He might have reconsidered what he has to say about the Schlieffen Plan in the light of the recent controversy as to whether it existed at all, but this is nitpicking.

French, unlike Haig, is not a controversial figure. Most of us would endorse Brian Bond's verdict, 'A brave fighting general who found himself out of his depth.' For the 'Lions led by Donkeys' school, he is an easy target. He was every inch - not that there were many of them - a cavalry general who had performed brilliantly in the Boer war, where he showed all the qualities of leadership, common sense and, above all, luck that are needed by generals in any kind of war. He had studied his profession in so far as any of his contemporaries had, and prepared himself so far as he was able for the high command in the coming European war that Edwardian soldiers saw as inevitable. Like most Edwardian soldiers - with the notable exception of Douglas Haig - he was a good judge of horseflesh, a compulsive womaniser, and spent much too much time and money at the tables. Like many senior officers one is tempted to say like all good senior officers - he was quite out of his depth in the world of high politics in which promotion landed him. …

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