Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The French-Kitchener Meeting of 1 September 1914

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 PoincarĂ© (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

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