The wrong man in the wrong place: An Irishman’s Diary about John French

In May 1918, French was appointed Lord Lieutenant in Ireland

Sir John French. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sir John French. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

In December 1915 Field Marshal Sir John French was removed as British commander-in-chief after a series of military debacles.

For reasons best known to himself and which are still unclear to this day, French held reserve troops back just when a breakthrough seemed imminent at the Battle of Loos, which was then the biggest offensive of first World War, in September 1915.

For his nemesis, Douglas Haig, this was the excuse he needed to have French removed and install himself as commander of the biggest army Britain had ever assembled.

The pair had a long history going back to the Boer War. Haig was independently wealthy, frugal and dour; French was feckless with money, a gambler and a womaniser. He was from wealthy Anglo-Irish stock. The French family owned substantial estates and gave their name to Frenchpark in Co Roscommon, but the money went down another branch of the family.

Haig lent French money to pay off debts and French felt continually indebted to a man who would use intrigue against him at every opportunity.

Instead of French being fired, he was moved sideways and put in charge of home defence. French was to prepare home forces for a possible German invasion.

Instead, the United Kingdom would find itself facing a rebellion from within, and French was in charge when the Easter Rising broke out. The British government, disastrously as it turned out, ceded policy in dealing with the rebellion to the British army. French appointed Gen Sir John Maxwell to deal with the aftermath of the rebellion.

That decision alone would have earned him the undying enmity of Irish republicans.

In May 1918 French was appointed Lord Lieutenant in Ireland.

‘German plot’

French’s first major act as lord-lieutenant was to be party to the arrests of 70 prominent members of Sinn Féin arising out of the so-called “German plot”.

In April 1918, Joseph Dowling, a member of the Irish brigade that Roger Casement had recruited from German prisoner-of-war camps, was put ashore by a German submarine off the coast of Co Clare. Dowling made lurid claims that the Germans were plotting another uprising in Ireland. He adduced no evidence to back up his claim and none has ever been found, but the British proceeded with a series arrests anyway.

The arrests had an effect opposite to that which was intended. It emboldened rather than enfeebled Sinn Féin. Many of the leaders would still have been in jail at the time of the British general election in December 1918. It boosted their electoral prospects considerably.

War of Independence

When the War of Independence started in 1919, he was soon disabused of the notion he could ever live peacefully in Ireland.

In December, a group of IRA men tried to assassinate French in the Phoenix Park. The attack was a disaster, and French who was hit on the head by a hand grenade, narrowly escaped.

French came belatedly to realise the British could not win a guerrilla war which had the support of the majority of the people. He always felt conflicted over Ireland and vacillated between the mailed fist and the hand of friendship towards the Irish.

There was no such ambivalence on the part of his Anglo-Irish contemporary Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. He, unlike French, would be assassinated by the IRA.

Wilson wrote of French: “Poor little man. He is so weak and pliable and then has such inconsequential gusts of illogical passion. He is an imperialist, a democrat and a home ruler all at the same time.”

Insight came too late for French and he was removed as lord lieutenant in April 1921. This was a final indignity.

He bought a second house in Roscommon, Hollypark near Boyle, in 1921. This was clearly the triumph of hope over experience.

He could never live in Ireland after the War of Independence and spent his final years as the captain of Deal Castle near where he grew up in Kent. He died of bladder cancer in 1925. At so many crucial junctures of his life, he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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