World War One through place names. Mount French, South Main Divide.
A party comprising J.K. Inglis, E.A. Duncan, and Jack Murrell made the first ascent of this peak on 30 November 1914.
By then the First World War had been underway for nearly four months. At a time when many New Zealanders retained strong emotional and practical ties to Britain, the fighting taking place on the Western Front was a matter of considerable public interest. While their fellow climbers Hugh Wright and H.E. Hodgkinson were labelling the adjacent summit Mount Joffre, after the leader of the French Army, Inglis, Duncan, and Murrell chose to name this peak for the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Field Marshal Sir John French was the logical choice to lead Britain’s forces on the continent. He had fought with distinction as a cavalry commander during the Second Boer War in South Africa, and had served as Inspector-General of the Army and Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
Yet French’s time at the head of the BEF proved to be a difficult one. The Allies were initially forced into a chaotic retreat through Belgium and north-eastern France, before managing to stabilise the front at the Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of Ypres. When Trench warfare became well established during 1915, the BEF suffered dreadful casualties for little discernable gain at Neuve-Chapelle, Second Ypres, and Loos. Apparent command failures at the latter engagement saw French come under heavy criticism, with several politicians and senior officers working to undermine his position. He was eventually forced to resign in December 1915 and was replaced by Douglas Haig.
French did go on to hold other senior positions. He served as Commander-in-Chief Home Forces throughout 1916 and 1917, before being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in May 1918.
- Holmes, Richard, The Little Field-Marshal: Sir John French, London: Cape, 1981.
- New Zealand Geographic Board, ‘New Zealand Gazetteer’
- Reed, A.W., Place Names of New Zealand, Rosedale: Penguin, 2010.