Sir John French | Blame | 29 Sep 1915

Battle of Loos

With the Germans turning up the pressure on the Hohenzollern Redoubt higher and higher, General Haig has his eyes firmly on the most important priority: how to ensure that Sir John French cops all the blame for the failure to hold Hill 70 and break through the reserve German line. He writes a long and exceptionally pissy letter to Lord Kitchener in which he takes every possible opportunity to slide the knife into his boss.

It is Haig’s contention that success was entirely possible on the 25th and 26th of September, but was prevented mainly because Sir John French stationed the reserves too far to the rear and then took far too long to release them to move into the battle. We’ll take these points in reverse order.

First, the composition of the two reserve divisions deserves some criticism. 21st and 24th Divisions were both of Kitchener’s Army, men who had volunteered in 1914 on the outbreak from war, fresh from training, and completely green without any shakedown period in the trenches before going into battle. They’d been selected on the idea that they would be exploiting a breakthrough rather than slogging through trenches, and therefore their lack of any kind of battle experience would not be a problem. That’s clearly a terrible and gargantuan error, and it’s fair enough to lay a large part of the blame at Sir John French’s door (although Haig does not, before the battle, appear to have considered it a problem either).

Second, the stationing of reserves to the rear is perhaps not such a bad idea as Haig would have Kitchener believe. Sir John French was doubtful about the chances of a breakthrough, and that if there was one it was most likely going to be on the second day of the battle. With this in mind, the decision to station the reserves out of German artillery range becomes rather more understandable. Still probably a mistake, but more in the nature of a simple and forgivable error of judgment.

Third, and most damningly, Haig’s criticism of French’s speed of reaction is entirely justified. The decision by Sir John French to go at short notice from GHQ at St Omer to a forward past at Lilliers, which had no direct telephone line either to General Haig’s advanced HQ or to General Haking, commanding the reserves, seems to defy rational explanation. French also maintained personal control over when the reserves were to be deployed. So, when Haig received reports of success soon after zero hour on the 25th he immediately sent a car to Lilliers to request they start to move. French instead decided to himself go to see Haig, and didn’t arrive until some four hours after the request had first been made. Having been convinced, he then decided not to use Haig’s telephone to give the necessary orders to General Haking, but pissed away another 40 minutes while he was driven to give the order personally.

However, there’s one important thing to note here. The case that Haig is now building against French is fatally flawed. There was never a breakthrough against the German reserve line anywhere from Lens to Hulluch, or anywhere else for that matter, nor does it seem as though one would have been possible against a line protected by 40-yard belts of barbed wire without another bombardment equal to the preliminary bombardment for the offensive. The Battle of Loos simply wasn’t capable of breaching the reserve line. Whether Haig had been misled into believing by inaccurate reports, or invented the suggestion that success would have been possible if he’d been able to quickly commit reserves out of whole cloth, I’m not sure and don’t care enough to try to find out.

It’s a tricky one. I do, somewhat cautiously, be of the opinion that this battle does demonstrate that Sir John French wasn’t up to commanding a BEF whose numbers in the field will soon begin to approach a million men. For all his many flaws, General Haig appreciates that the way to command a modern large army is, like General Joffre, to sit at an easily-accessible location where you can always be found and can instantly communicate via the telephone to other HQs; and to move heaven and earth to get swift, accurate reports to that location as quickly as possible. French simply doesn’t get it. It’s not necessarily his fault. The British Army was never designed to put multiple army-sized formations into the field in a major land war. None of these senior officers have been trained to command the kinds of forces that they’re now having to command; inevitably, some will find themselves unequal to the task.

Anyway. Right now, it doesn’t even necessarily matter whether Haig’s claim that success would have been possible is accurate. If he can get Lord Kitchener to agree with him that it would have been, then for the purposes of French’s job security then the objective accuracy of the idea is irrelevant…

Artois & Champagne

And, speaking of inaccurate reports that the German reserve line has been broken through, that’s exactly what arrives at General Castelnau’s headquarters at Second Champagne early in the morning. What’s actually happened is that the reserve line has been penetrated and that the attackers are now clinging onto a couple of trenches in that line. However, for reasons that have never satisfactorily been identified, that somehow got mangled during transmission into reports of a complete breakthrough.

Castelnau is naturally electrified, immediately orders heavy attacks and activation of the cavalry reserve to exploit this breakthrough, and contacts General Petain to launch yet another push from Second Army. This could be a serious disaster in the offing…

Meanwhile, Third Artois has exploded into life as both sides throw the kitchen sink at the crest of Vimy Ridge, the top of the hill changing sides time and time again. It’s quite a wide, flat area with steep drops on either side, about 500 yards or so, more than enough to comfortably contain two front-line trench systems…

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas and friends are being kept on high alert to go into the attack at a moment’s notice. After the last few days of bullshit, they’re in no mood to obey.

Each one had come to the same resolution. We would not attack. We would not move out from the trench. The word went from the front to the rear and back again, at least twenty times: “Pass the word. We’re not attacking.” Some may call this cowardice. But mounting an attack against sturdy, well-defended trenches, protected by thick barbed-wire entanglements, without the slightest artillery fire beforehand—wouldn’t you call that criminal?

Beside me, Father Galaup told me that if the order came, saying “Forward!” his priest’s conscience would compel him to go forth, even if he were the only one.
“I have one favor to ask you,” he said. “If I’m killed in the attack, I beg you not to leave me unburied out there. Nothing horrifies me more than the thought of being prey to the rats and the crows.”

Barthas declines, so Galaup compromises. If Barthas, his corporal, follows the order to advance with a direct order to stay put, he’ll stay put with a clear conscience. The men continue waiting for the order, and eventually Gayraud, the inside man, arrives with news that another unit has refused to attack and they won’t be going anywhere today.

Mother

The British landships project continues apace. With the Battle of Loos demonstrating the urgent need for a reliable way to destroy barbed wire, they literally can’t finish too soon. The War Office has a testing ground at Wembley, and Colonel Swinton has had a full-size wooden model of “Mother”, his prototype landship, to demonstrate to the great and the good. Influential representatives from the Ministry of Munitions, the War Office, and the BEF Experimental Committee are all present. The exercise is a complete success and gains the project plenty of important new supporters. More to come.

Battle of Es Sinn

The British Empire force outside Kut-al-Amara prepares for another day of battle at Es Sinn. However, they’re taken almost completely by surprised when the sun rises and they find that instead, the Ottomans have decided once more to advance swiftly to the rear. The cavalry and the gunboats attempt a chase, but can’t achieve much thanks to very difficult river conditions above Kut and a well-organised enemy rearguard. While they do that, the blokes march into Kut unopposed and the town is surrendered.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Battle of Loos
Battle of Champagne (Second Champagne)
Battle of Artois (Third Artois)

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2 thoughts on “Sir John French | Blame | 29 Sep 1915

  1. You really need some ominous music to go with the last paragraph. (Also, it appears that you do be of the opinion that the Battle of Loos does demonstrate that French wasn’t up to his job, a sentence that probably wants rewording before it appears in a book).

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