HotFreeBooks.com
Sir John French - An Authentic Biography
by Cecil Chisholm
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Transcriber's Notes: In the original book, the unique headers on the odd numbered pages have been reproduced with [Page Heading: ] tags. A number of obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document.

* * * * *



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 role 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.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse