15 December 1915 – Transition

Nine days after submitting his resignation, Field Marshall Sir John French (see above) officially steps down from his position as commander of the British Expeditionary force today. Elevated within the peerage and made commander-in-chief of troops inside the United Kingdom, French is nevertheless being forcibly demoted after many months of growing dissatisfaction with his performance in London; as we know from the official announcement, the decision against him has been made at the highest possible level.

General Sir Douglas Haig has been appointed to succeed Field-Marshal Sir John French in command of the Army in France and Flanders.

Since the commencement of the War, during over sixteen months of severe and incessant strain, Field Marshal Sir John French has most ably commanded our Armies in France and Flanders, and he has now at his own insistence relinquished that command.

His Majesty’s Government with full appreciation of and gratitude for the conspicuous services which Sir John French has rendered to the country at the front, have, with the King’s approval, requested him to accept the appointment of Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief the troops stationed in the United Kingdom, and Sir John French has accepted that appointment.

His Majesty the King has been pleased to confer upon Sir John French the dignity of a Viscount of the United Kingdom.

French knew his career was in trouble before the end of November. Upon being informed of where he really stood eleven days ago, French agreed to stand down in this manner for honor’s sake. He has lobbied for his own chief of staff, Major General William Robertson, to assume his vacated command over Haig, a former friend turned bitter rival. Unbeknownst to French, however, Robertson is in fact the officer who convinced King George V to replace him with Haig.


Sir Douglas Haig riding. He will command the British Army on the Western Front for the rest of the war

The first quiet rumblings against French emerged in the war’s opening weeks when his moody outbursts and poor relationship with his French allies nearly undid the alliance during the mad retreat from Mons. Publicly praised for advancing into the gap between the German 1st and 2nd Armies at the Marne, thus forcing the Germans to retire to the Aisne, he was privately excoriated for not advancing faster, allowing the enemy to escape destruction. But it was his use of the press as a means to fight internal battles with London that really began his reputational slide, while the high casualties and poor results of the Battle of Loos in September and October led to open criticism of his leadership.

That latter event was also his breaking point with Haig, who complained that French had failed to bring needed reserves forward during the critical hours of the operation’s first day. Defensive, French lied about his actions in official dispatches, harming his image as a man of integrity. Their dispute quickly spread through the military chain of command like a cancer and threatened to split the General Staff, harming the good order and discipline of the Army — and forcing the king’s hand.


MG Robertson (center) rides in a carriage with Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss (left)

Even on his way out, French participated in a series of planning conferences at Chantilly during the first half of December that have locked British strategy in place for Haig next year. Shrewd, aggressive, unafraid of innovations such as the tank or the airplane, Haig still shares French’s overconfidence, his propensity for political shenanigans, and now his battle-plan for a war of attrition. Apocalyptic offensives in 1916 will cement Haig’s own reputation as a ‘butcher’ for ruthlessly wasting British lives, yet these events have already been set in motion for him.