|Sir John French and the Earl Kitchener|
One of the most momentous meetings of the Great War occurred just before the Battle of the Marne and may have been utterly essential for its success. The key participants were two British field marshals. The BEF commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, concerned at heavy British losses at the Battle of Le Cateau, was considering withdrawing his forces from the Allied line. By 31 August 1914 Joffre, President Poincaré (relayed via Bertie, the British Ambassador) and Minister of War Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener (1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum) sent him messages urging him not to do so. Kitchener, authorized by a midnight meeting of whichever Cabinet ministers could be found, left for France for a meeting with Sir John on 1 September.
As the retreat from Mons had continued, Sir John French had slipped deeper and deeper into what certainly appears to have been depression. There is no doubt that he was mercurial, and exaggerated casualty figures from Le Cateau were certainly worrisome. His orders specified that although he was to cooperate with the French, he was not to put the B.E.F. at risk of destruction if he could possibly avoid doing so. His trust in the French was shaken by what he regarded as a tendency to retreat without warning, thus leaving the flanks of the B.E.F. uncovered. His command of the French language was not good and interviews with Allied commanders had not improved relations. Convinced that disaster loomed, he resolved to remove the B.E.F. from the battle line for regrouping, reinforcement, and resupply. The French, desperately trying to cobble together a resistance and desperate to organize a counter-thrust, were appalled. Sir John was unmoved and drove his men to the point that medical reports told of threads in heavy knit socks having literally to be pulled from the flesh of wearers' feet. He intended to move the B.E.F. to safety behind Paris. The two best biographers of Sir John French are George Cassar and Richard Holmes, and although both show respect and sympathy for him, neither offers much defense beyond depression for his actions in the retreat from Mons.
The man who had to sort out the situation was Britain's best-known soldier at the beginning of World War I—Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener, who had been appointed Secretary of State for War on 7 August 1914. It was to him that Allied pleas for the B.E.F. to stand its ground went, and he was French's political boss. His attitude about French was less than enthusiastic. French felt that Kitchener treated him virtually as a subordinate in the field and had ideas of taking command. On 1 September, Kitchener went to Paris and wearing his full field marshal's regalia, met with French and effectively ended the retreat. French, in his memoir of 1914 condemns Kitchener for undermining his authority and asserts (French's is the only account of the conversation) that Kitchener actually approved of the retreat. Although French has some support, most of those who have discussed the situation have agreed that Kitchener was simply trying to put some starch into French and get the B.E.F. back into the battle. The result was that the B.E.F. reversed its direction and moved into the Battle of the Marne.
Sources: The Battles of the British Expeditionary Forces: 1914–1915, Fred R. van Hartesveldt; Wikipedia