About Charlotte Despard

Mrs Charlotte Despard
Charlotte French, the daughter of William French, a naval commander from Ireland, was born in RippleKent, in 1844. By the age of ten her father had died and her mother was committed to an insane asylum and she was sent to London to live with relatives.
She had a conventional education. Later she was to recall: "I asked my governess why God had made slaves, and I was promptly sent to bed. Oh, how I hated the nurses and governesses, and I stood at the gates of my home and envied the little village children. They were free. They had liberty… The village children could run about as they liked and did not seem to be troubled by those superior persons, nurses and governesses. I went to the nearest railway station and tried to buy a ticket. Needless to say, I was stopped, but I had gone so far that I could not return that night, and I spent it alone at a station inn. After that, lest I should infect my sisters with my spirit of insubordination, I was kept in solitary confinement for three or four days, and then sent away to school."
Charlotte Despard
For several years she toured the continent with her unmarried sisters. Charlotte met Maximilian Carden Despard, an Anglo-Irish businessman who had made a fortune in the Far East. The couple married on 20th December 1870. With her husband's encouragement, she published her first novel, Chaste as Ice, Pure as Snow in 1874. During the next sixteen years Charlotte wrote ten novels. Most of these novels were romantic love stories but A Voice from the Dim Millions dealt with the problems of a poor young factory worker. Charlotte was unable to find a publisher for this novel.
When her husband died in 1890, Charlotte decided to dedicate the rest of her life to helping the poor. She left her luxurious house in Esher and moved toWandsworth to live with the people she intended to assist. According to her biographer, Margaret Mulvihill: "There she funded and staffed a health clinic, as well as organizing youth and working men's clubs, and a soup kitchen for the local unemployed. During the week she lived above one of her welfare shops and her identification with the local community was sealed by her conversion to Catholicism. At the end of 1894 she was elected as a guardian for the Vauxhall board of the Lambeth poor-law union. She proved herself a brilliant committee woman, bringing a rare combination of informed compassion, practical experience, and military efficiency to the board's deliberations."
In 1894 Despard was elected as a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth. Charlotte became friends with George Lansbury and for the next few years became involved in the campaign to reform the Poor Law system. Charlotte Despard joined the Social Democratic Federation and later the Independent Labour PartyDespard also got to know Margaret Bondfield, the trade union leader and Keir Hardie, the new leader of the Labour Party.
Charlotte Despard
Despard became a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). However, in 1906, frustrated by the NUWSS lack of success,she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation established by Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Christabel PankhurstSylvia Pankhurst and Adela PankhurstThe main objective was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic pointed out, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.”
Despard later recalled: "I had sought and found comradeship of some sort with men. I had marched with great processions of the unemployed. I had stood on the platforms of Labour men and Socialists. I had tried to stir up the people to a sense of shame about the misery of their homes, and the degradation of their women and children. I had listened with sympathy to fiery denunciations of Governments and the Capitalist systems to which they belong. Amongst all these experiences, I had not found what I met on the threshold of this young, vigorous Union of Hearts."
On 23rd October, 1906, Charlotte Despard was arrested with Mary Gawthorpe during a protest meeting at the House of Commons. As Sylvia Pankhurstlater explained: "Mary Gawthorpe mounted one of the settees close to the statue of Sir Stafford Northcote and began to address the crowd of visitors who were waiting to interview various Members of Parliament. The other women closed up around her, but in the twinkling of an eye dozens of policemen sprang forward, tore the tiny creature from her post and swiftly rushed her out of the Lobby. Instantly Mrs. Despard stepped into the breach; but she also was roughly dragged away."
In 1907 she was imprisoned twice in Holloway Prison. However, like other leading members of the WSPU she began to question the leadership ofEmmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women were having too much influence over the organisation.

A meeting of the WSPU (left to right) Christabel PankhurstJessie Kenney,
Nellie MartelEmmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard.

In a conference in September 1907, Emmeline Pankhurst told members that she intended to run the WSPU without interference. As Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence pointed out: "She called upon those who had faith in her leadership to follow her, and to devote themselves to the sole end of winning the vote. This announcement was met with a dignified protest from Mrs. Despard. These two notable women presented a great contrast, the one aflame with a single idea that had taken complete possession of her, the other upheld by a principle that had actuated a long life spent in the service of the people. Mrs. Despard calmly affirmed her belief in democratic equality and was convinced that it must be maintained at all costs. Mrs. Pankhurst claimed that there was only one meaning to democracy, and that was equal citizenship in a State, which could only be attained by inspired leadership. She challenged all who did not accept the leadership of herself and her daughter to resign from the Union that she had founded, and to form an organisation of their own."
As a result of this speech, Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-MartynDora MarsdenHelena NormantonMargaret Nevinson and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign.
In a speech in 1910 Despard argued: "Fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages, the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job, and 'men and women will unite to effect a complete transformation to the industrial environment… A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband. It is indeed deplorable that the work of the wife and mother is not rewarded. I hope that the time will come when it is illegal for this strenuous form of industry to be unremunerated."
Despard spent a great deal of time in Ireland and in 1908 she joined with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins to form the Irish Women's Franchise LeagueIn 1909 Despard met Gandhi and was influenced by his theory of "passive resistance". As the leading figure of the WFL. Despard urged members not to pay taxes and to boycott the 1911 Census. Despard financially supported the locked-out workers during the labour dispute inDublin and also helped establish the Irish Workers' College in the city.
The Women's Freedom League grew rapidly, and soon had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. The WFL also established its own newspaper, The VoteTeresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard were both talented writers and were the main people responsible for producing the newspaper. It was used to inform the public of WFL campaigns such as the refusal to pay taxes and to fill in the 1911 Census forms. Another contributor was one of Britain's leading writers, Cicely Hamilton.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.
Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography,Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."
Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU 
organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

The Womens Freedom League
Despard, like most members of the Women's Freedom League, was a pacifist, and so during the First World War she refused to become involved in the British Army's recruitment campaign. Ironically, her brother, General John French, was Chief of Staff of the British Army and commander of the British Expeditionary Force sent to Europe in August 1914. Her sister, Catherine Harley, was also a supporter of the war and served in the Scottish Women's Hospital in France.
Despard argued that the British government was not doing enough to bring an end to the war and supported the campaign of the Women's Peace Councilfor a negotiated peace. After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918, Charlotte Despard became the Labour Party candidate in Battersea in the post-war election. However, in the euphoria of Britain's victory, Despard's anti-war views were very unpopular and like all the other pacifistcandidates, who stood in the election, she was defeated.

Despard's biographer, Margaret Mulvihill, has argued: "Among the suffragette leaders she had stood out as a supporter of Irish home rule, and when that movement gave way to the struggle for complete independence she became an active supporter of the British solidarity organization the Irish Self Determination League. Her sympathy for the Irish republican movement brought her into direct conflict with her brother, who in 1918 had been sworn in as lord lieutenant of Ireland. While he set about crushing the rebels, his sister was supporting them."
In 1920 Despard toured Ireland as a member of the Labour Party Commission of Inquiry. Together with Maud Gonne, she collected first-hand evidence of army and police atrocities in Cork and Kerry. The two women also formed the Women's Prisoners' Defence League to support republican prisoners. In the 1920s Despard became involved in the Sinn Fein campaign for a united Ireland.
In 1930 Despard and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington made a tour of the Soviet Union. Impressed with what she saw she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and became secretary of the Friends of Soviet Russia organization.
Charlotte Despard died on 10th November 1939, after a fall in her new house near Belfast.


This Piece from THE IRISH POST

Raising a glass to Ireland’s finest

Last Updated Aug 2010
IF journalism is the first draft of history, Mike Pentelow and Peter Arkell may well have produced the first draught of history, a celebration of the commoners, many of them Irish, who have had the singular honour of having a pub in Britain and Ireland named after them.

In Ireland, of course, the idea wouldn’t work as most pubs are named after the landlord, but in royalist England there are thousands called the King’s Head or named after a monarch or nobleman, such as the Marquis of Granby, who set up his ex-soldiers as tavern keepers, the first of many fascinating nuggets of knowledge I came across in A Pub Crawl Through History: The Ultimate Boozers’ Who’s Who.

But history is not all about kings and queens, and while there are few Irish Post readers who would feel inclined to toast Queen Victoria or the Duke of York, there is another England of rebels, revolutionaries and reformers to whom this fascinating book raises a metaphorical glass.

The first thing to say is that this is not a conventional pub guide, rating the beer, the service or the quality of the soft furnishings, though there is an index of those that are featured in last year’s real ale guides.

As the authors explain: “The pubs are equally as varied as the characters they are named after, from the seedy to the salubrious, and they can change overnight.” Instead, it’s potted histories or pint-sized biographies of 170 individuals over 359 pages, from highwaymen (Dick Turpin) to entertainers (Charlie Chaplin) and sports stars (Matt le Tissier).

But the overriding focus, the passion that sent the pair on their wild beer chase around Britain and Ireland, are the pubs that commemorate Robert Kett, who led the fencing off of common land in 1549; Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’s Castle, named after the leaders of the peasants’ revolt of 1381; and Joseph Arch, who formed the agricultural workers’ union.

There are 20 or so pubs featured that are named after Irish men and women, most of them writers or rebels but with a couple of murderers thrown in. If you’re ever in Edinburgh and could murder a pint, check out the Burke and Hare on High Riggs, named after the bodysnatchers William Burke and Wiliam Hare, who killed 16 people in their lodging houses to provide bodies for Dr Robert Knox’s anatomy school to dissect. To give a flavour of the book’s entertaining style, here’s the last few lines of the section.

“A rhyme of the time went: ‘Burke’s the murderer, Hare’s the thief, and Knox the boy who buys the beef.’ Nowadays, students of anatomy examine living bodies... the striptease dancers who perform at the Burke and Hare pub, nicknamed ‘the Pubic Hair’ by the locals because of the entertainment.”

I had heard of pretty much every Irish character in the book, with the exception of
Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), where the Charlotte Despard pub named after her as recently as December 2008 stands on the corner of Despard Road, N19 (named after Maximilian, her wealthy Anglo-Irish banker husband) and Archway Road in the heart of Irish north London.

She was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in Kent — her brother would become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As a suffragette, Despard was twice imprisoned in nearby Holloway Road, first at the age of 62 and again at 65, and she was to be jailed again when she moved to Ireland and joined Sinn Féin and founded the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League and later helped found the Communist Party of Ireland. In the 1913 Dublin lockout, she gave the workers’ families considerable financial support.

She stood for Labour in Battersea in the 1918 election but her wartime pacificism cost her votes. Today there is a Charlotte Despard Avenue in Battersea. She was also a prolific writer of poetry and novels. Dean Swift on Dublin’s Francis Street is named after the author of Gulliver’s Travels, as well as being Dean of nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

He is is buried there next to his lover Stella Johnson with the epitaph: “He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.” He bequeathed his estate to found St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, explained in the verse: “

He gave the little wealth he had/ To build a house for fools and mad/ And showed by one satirical touch/ No nation wanted it so much.”

Adam HochschildHistory Today Volume: 61 Issue: 6 2011 
John French died on May 22nd, 1925. In this article from our June 2011 issue, Adam Hochschild looks at his relationship with his sister, Charlotte Despard, a radical campaigner and suffragette.
Charlotte Despard addressing an anti-Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in the early 1930sCharlotte Despard addressing an anti-Fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in the early 1930sNo two people living in the public eye better reflect the divisions that characterised society in the late 19th and early 20th century – or have a more unexpected connection – than John French (1852-1925) and Charlotte Despard (1844-1939).
French’s name is the more familiar because of his role as British commander-in-chief on the Western Front for the first 16 months of the First World War. But his entire career embodies the confident high noon of the British Empire. The son of a retired naval officer whose ancestors originally came from Ireland, his cheerful smile, black hair, thick moustache and blue eyes gave him an appeal that women found irresistible. What French could not do, however, was hold onto money. He spent lavishly on horses, women and risky investments, running up debts, then turning to others for relief. A brother-in-law bailed him out the first time; loans from a series of relatives and friends soon followed.
French was delighted to join the cavalry, a branch of the military so clearly destined to play a central role in winning the Empire’s wars. Officers of his regiment, the 19th Hussars, wore black trousers with a double gold stripe down the side and leather-brimmed red caps emblazoned with a golden badge. At 28 he married Eleanora Selby-Lowndes, the daughter of a hunt-loving country squire, the perfect mate for a rising, well-liked cavalryman. After winning some glory in a colonial war in the Sudan in 1884 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel at the unusually young age of 32. Only a few years later, a bit bow-legged from more than a decade on horseback, he took command of the 19th Hussars. Through the wall of their quarters, John and Eleanora French and their children could hear the growls and roars of the regimental mascot, a black bear.
Service in India followed. With his family left behind in England, French spent his spare time in pursuit of another officer’s wife, whose angry husband then sued for divorce citing French as a co-respondent. There were also rumours that he had been involved with his commander’s wife. When he returned to England in 1893 word of these episodes slowed his career. On half pay, as officers often were between assignments, he, Eleanora and their three children were forced to move in with a forgiving older sister. In disgrace he waited restlessly for a new posting or, better yet, a war.
In John French’s England little of the wealth the country drew from colonies like India ever reached the poor. In a cramped terraced cottage near a coal mine a hungry family might share a single room and an entire unpaved street a single hand-pumped water tap; in the vast slums of London’s East End, one boarding house bed might be shared by two or three workers sleeping in eight-hour shifts. Just as combating the Empire’s enemies in distant corners of the world shaped the likes of John French, so combating injustice at home shaped other Britons of this generation – even, in some cases, those who sprang from French’s own class.
Among them was the woman now remembered by her married name, Charlotte Despard. As girls she and her sisters would slip through the fence around the formal garden of the family estate to play with children in the nearby village until their parents discovered and put a stop to it. This – in her memory at least – fanned a rebellious spark and at the age of ten she ran away from home. At a nearby railway station, she later wrote: ‘I took a ticket to London where I intended to earn my living as a servant.’ Although caught after one night she was, she said, ‘not tamed’.
Charlotte married in 1870. Maximilian Despard was a well-to-do businessman, but like his new wife he favoured Home Rule for Ireland, rights and careers for women and many other progressive causes of the day. Together they travelled widely, going to India several times but always returning to their spacious country home, Courtlands, in Surrey, which stood amid 15 rolling acres of woods, lawn, stream and formal gardens. A dozen servants were employed indoors alone. Living on an even grander estate nearby, the Duchess of Albany recruited Charlotte for her Nine Elms Flower Mission, in which wealthy women brought baskets of flowers from their gardens to the poorest corner of London’s overcrowded Battersea district. This was as far as a proper upper-class woman was expected to go in response to poverty.
After her husband died in 1890, however, Despard startled everyone by making Battersea her home. She opened two community centres there, complete with a drop-in health clinic. Nutrition classes and youth programmes were offered as well as subsidised food for new mothers. Charlotte moved into the upper floor of one of the centres, although for a time she continued to retreat to Courtlands at weekends.
It was said that you could smell Battersea long before you reached it for its air was thick with smoke and fumes from a large gasworks, an iron foundry and coal-burning railway locomotives on their way to Victoria and Waterloo stations. Coal dust coated everything and dilapidated houses and apartments swarmed with vermin. Battersea was also, Despard quickly discovered, a centre for radical politics and the growing trade union movement. The neighbourhood where she worked was largely filled with Irish, evicted tenant farmers or families who had fled impoverished parts of Dublin in search of a better life.
In identification with Battersea’s Irish poor and thumbing her nose at the upper-crust Protestant world of her birth Despard converted to Roman Catholicism. Nor was this all: ‘I determined to study for myself the great problems of society’, she later wrote. ‘My study landed me in uncompromising socialism.’ She befriended Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor and in 1896 was a delegate to the Second International, a meeting of the federation of socialist parties and trade unions from around the world. Just as she left behind the life she had been expected to lead, so Despard left behind its dress. She now clothed herself always in black and instead of the elaborate upper-class women’s hats of the time she covered her greying hair with a black lace mantilla. In place of shoes she wore open-toed sandals. She dressed this way at all times and before long would wear these clothes to gaol.
In every way the lives of Charlotte Despard and John French form the greatest possible contrast. He was destined to lead the largest army Britain had ever put into the field; she came vigorously to oppose every war her country fought, above all the one where he would be commander-in-chief. They both went to India, but he drilled cavalrymen whose job was to keep India British; she returned committed to Indian independence. He would remain a staunch defender of the established order, she a defiant revolutionary. And yet, despite all this, something bound them together.
John French and Charlotte Despard were brother and sister. More than that, for almost all their lives they remained close. She was eight years senior to ‘Jack’, as she called him, and he was the beloved little brother to whom she had taught the alphabet. His sexual adventuring and reckless spending, which dismayed other family members, never seemed to bother her. When French returned from India under a cloud of debt and scandal Despard took him and his family under her roof at Courtlands, lending him money long after his exasperated other sisters ceased to do so.
French remained fond of the sister who had helped to raise him. In 1894 she was elected as a guardian for the Vauxhall board of the Lambeth poor-law union and when she gave her first public speech at Wandsworth town hall her brother accompanied her. After she was overcome at the door by stage fright he encouraged her with the comment: ‘Only nervous people are ever of any real use.’
Happily for him a war soon began in which the cavalry was urgently needed. In early 1900, by now promoted to general, he found himself joyfully in action in South Africa winning great attention for a dramatic cavalry charge that broke the Boer siege of Kimberley, the town that produced 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds.
One thing that made the Boer War different from Britain’s earlier imperial wars, however, was that many people believed their country shouldn’t be fighting it at all. The Boers were seen as noble victims of a grab for land and wealth and a vigorous British anti-war movement included French’s own sister. When Charlotte Despard first addressed a peace rally in Battersea angry pro-war hecklers tried to shout her down. But this left-leaning community already felt at war with Britain’s upper classes. It appreciated underdogs and anti-war sentiment soon spread. Before long even a street in the area was renamed after Piet Joubert, a Boer commander whose soldiers fought several battles against Charlotte’s brother’s troops. Despard’s stance did not dampen her affection for Jack, nor his for her. She did not seem to think of him as someone responsible for the ‘wicked war of this Capitalistic government’ that she fulminated against from lecture platforms. Sister and brother dismissed the other’s political opinions as forgivable quirks.
Kimberley and other Boer War victories brought French a knighthood and, after he returned home, a prestigious post commanding Britain’s 1st Army Corps at Aldershot, Hampshire. ‘This is certainly a great piece of luck for me’, French wrote to a friend. ‘I think it ensures my participating in the next war.’
The next war, however, appeared as if it might be at home. Take, for example, the crowd that surged into Parliament Square on a cold, rainy February 13th, 1907. To the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body’ some 400 women, marching four abreast, lustily sang:

    Rise up women! For the fight is hard and long,
    Rise in thousands, singing loud a battle song. 

Leading the march was Charlotte Despard. ‘I asked myself’, she wrote that year, ‘ “Can this be the beginning? Is this indeed a part of that revolutionary movement for which all my life long I have been waiting?” ’
The cause was votes for women. Despard poured all her energy into it with the thrill of a new love affair. To many horrified Englishmen the new movement did indeed seem revolutionary. Colonial natives, the Irish, the lower classes, could always be expected to cause trouble, but women? When the females marching on Parliament, brandishing umbrellas, came up against the phalanx of mounted police the officers made their horses rear, knocking women to the ground. In the skirmish that followed a constable grabbed at Despard, ripping off her coat sleeve. Finally, much to her satisfaction, she was arrested and, along with more than two dozen other women, sentenced to jail. As the leader of the march she received a longer term than most: 21 days in solitary confinement.
Later that year Despard formed the Women’s Freedom League, a particularly militant faction of Britain’s splintered suffrage movement. By the following year a further 53 branches had formed across the country. There was no doubt who the dominant figure was, for the organisation’s telegraph address was simply, ‘Despard, London’. No matter how much Despard identified with the dispossessed she never lost her aristocratic sense of entitlement, not even on the four occasions she went to prison. ‘I was thrilled to see that stately and commanding figure enter’, another prisoner wrote:
Her first act was a calm refusal to take the medicine the doctor had prescribed. ‘I have never taken medicine in my life – I do not propose to begin now.’ Her word was immediately taken as law. All the officers appeared to be in awe of her.
To the end of her life no cause was too radical for Charlotte. A friend once said: ‘I’ve only got to send a telegram to Mrs Despard to say, “Tomorrow noon I’m going to attack Battersea Town Hall,” and she’d be there, she won’t ask me why.’ Always, she hoped, revolution was at hand. ‘News in the Paper which makes one think that the class war has already begun’,  Despard wrote hopefully in her diary in early 1914, a time of great labour strife. If there was a revolution in Britain someone destined by his position to play a central role in suppressing it was her brother, who had just been promoted to field marshal. However Despard remained on friendly terms with ‘my dear old Jack’ and she recorded that he paid her a ‘delightful’ visit that spring. The thought that brother and sister might someday find themselves on opposite sides of some revolutionary barricade apparently didn’t bother either.
When war began in the summer of 1914 French led the British Expeditionary Force across the English Channel. In Paris, however, President Poincaré was disappointed to discover that despite his name, the jovial Briton spoke little French. (The field marshal himself believed otherwise. Reportedly, he was addressing one group of French officers when several of them called out, ‘Traduisez!’ He tried to explain that he was already speaking their language.)
With her younger brother commander-in-chief, Despard for a time fell uncharacteristically silent. She set up the Despard Arms, a teetotal pub, on Hampstead Road, near Euston and the other big north London railway stations through which troops passed on their way to France. Soldiers could find food, baths, a dormitory, a clubroom and a soccer team, the Despard Uniteds. On a trip back to London, her brother himself visited the pub and exhibited his usual buoyant common touch in chatting with the troops.
From all reports British soldiers seemed to love the ebullient field marshal who wandered around his headquarters after hours in a blue dressing gown whistling. Their confidence was not shared by the minister for war, Lord Kitchener. But Sir John was not worried by the Germans. ‘I think I know the situation thoroughly’, he told Kitchener, ‘and I regard it as quite favourable to us.’ In the early weeks of the war he noted in his diary ‘The usual silly reports of French “reverses” were going about. All quite untrue!’
Nothing daunted the field marshal, not even the epic retreat his troops had to make – one of the most drastic in British military annals – after their disastrous first encounter with the Germans at Mons, Belgium. He remained almost farcically upbeat in the face of disaster: ‘Perhaps the charm of war lies in its glorious uncertainty!’ By several months into the war both sides had dug in. Almost incredulously, in a report to George V, French concluded that now ‘the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle’.
The year ended with both armies in the positions they would occupy for several years to come but Sir John did not cease to dream of the great breakthrough. ‘I think we may get the Devils on the run’, he wrote in one letter. ‘How I should love to have a real good “go” at them in the open with lots of cavalry and horse artillery and run them to earth. Well! It may come.’ French’s correspondent, like almost every woman he was drawn to, was married to someone else. The tall, elegant Winifred ‘Wendy’ Bennett was the wife of Percy Bennett, a diplomat whom she referred to as ‘Pompous Percy’. Most unusually for French this affair would last more than half a decade. The two of them were, he told her, ‘shipwrecked souls who have found one another’. The best they could do at this point was to snatch an afternoon or evening together during his short trips to London to consult with the War Office. But they wrote almost daily and nearly a hundred of his letters survive in a hasty, forward-slanting, almost unreadable scrawl. With startling indiscretion he describes military operations and troop movements as well as his contempt for the French generals (‘you can’t trust them’) and for his superior (‘I devoutly wish we could get rid of Kitchener’).
In September 1915, desperate to salvage his faltering reputation, Sir John launched a massive attack near the French coal-mining village of Loos. This would be the biggest land offensive in British military history to date and he knew his job was on the line. ‘Whatever may happen I shall have to bear the brunt of it’, he wrote to Bennett, ‘and in cricket language they may “Change the bowler”. ’ Two months after the disastrous battle, which cost more than 61,000 British casualties, that is what happened. To save face French was given command of the Home Forces – all troops in Britain and Ireland, who were mainly in training – but it was a bitter come-down.
Charlotte Despard, meanwhile, had long since ceased holding her ardent pacifism in check. During the Battle of Loos she addressed an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square and after Britain introduced conscription in early 1916 she travelled the country speaking publicly. She and several other women formed a new organisation, the Women’s Peace Crusade. ‘I should like the words “alien” and “foreigner” to be banished from the language’, she said in one speech. ‘We are all members of the same family.’ One hundred thousand readers bought copies of a peace pamphlet she wrote.
Despard still treasured her meetings with her brother. ‘He is, I think, dearer to me than anyone else’, she wrote. Every time they met was ‘a day to be written in red letters’. As always money flowed through his hands too easily and so Despard gave him another loan. The field marshal remained bitter and frustrated that ‘I was driven out of France’. Instead he had to content himself with travelling up and down Britain inspecting troops, pinning medals on chests and visiting wounded soldiers. To Winifred Bennett he wrote plaintively: ‘I do so want to hear the guns again!’
In 1917 the Russian Revolution brought enormous hope to Despard and her fellow leftists. The Tsar was deposed and workers and soldiers formed ‘soviets’ or councils. The new Soviet government was clearly determined to take the country out of the war and by the end of the year it would do so. If the Russian people could set up soviets of workers and soldiers why could Britain not do the same? In her trademark black mantilla, black robe and sandals Despard gave a militant speech to a conference of several thousand British radicals and was elected to a ‘provisional committee’ charged with setting up ‘Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates’ throughout Britain in the summer of 1917; she herself undertook to organise one such soviet in Newcastle. But she had little luck; the only visible soldiers were rowdy off-duty ones who broke up the gathering with their fists. Government intelligence agents increased their surveillance of her and other peace activists. ‘The whole tone of Mrs Despard’s speech was that of resistance to authority’, reported an agent to his superiors about one of her appearances.
Just as Britain’s troops were being pressed hard by a vast German offensive in the spring of 1918 the country’s difficulties were compounded by an upsurge of nationalist unrest in Ireland. The cabinet thought that the situation required a military man with a strong hand, and in early May, John French – now officially Viscount of Ypres – became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Five days later the diminutive, bow-legged field marshal took the mail ship across the Irish Sea. Long convinced that his own Irish ancestry gave him special insight into the island, he saw himself as more Irish than the nationalists, regarding them as ‘people steeped to the neck in the violent forms of crime and infamy and with the smallest possible proportion of Irish blood in their veins’. Once this was widely understood, he believed ‘the Irish would cast them out like the swine they are’ and Ireland would remain happily a part of the United Kingdom.
The Irish, he told Prime Minister David Lloyd George, were ‘like nothing so much as a lot of frightened children who dread being thrashed’. French established a secret budget to reward informers, ordered police to close meeting halls and seize printing presses, demanded additional troops from London and sent out a stream of orders that in effect imposed different degrees of martial law on parts of the island. He dispatched special reports to the king who, evidently unable to read his handwriting, asked him to resend them typed.
The Irish Republican Army then began attacking British troops and police barracks and French’s forces fought back ruthlessly. In the bitter guerrilla war of ambushes, assassinations and torture that followed French saw everything in military terms, dismissing officials he considered too soft. He also proposed removing all civilians from certain areas where the IRA was active, bringing in warplanes and establishing what half a century later would be known in Vietnam as ‘free-fire’ zones. In December 1919, while he and his bodyguards were driving near Dublin’s Phoenix Park, he narrowly escaped death when IRA assailants opened fire from behind a hedge and threw grenades at his car.
Adding to French’s consternation, among the many supporters of the IRA was his sister. The two appear to have broken off all contact at this point and on her visits to Ireland he had her closely shadowed. ‘The pore lady was niver foive minutes widout somebody followin’ her about, though she doesn’t know ut,’ an Irishman in Cork told a visiting English activist. At one point Despard and the nationalist Maud Gonne (1866-1953) were speaking to a crowd of sympathisers when French roared past in his motorcade without stopping. ‘With her I was able to visit places I should never have been able to get to alone’, Gonne wrote to a friend. When they were stopped at roadblocks ‘it was amusing to see the puzzled expressions on the faces of the officers ... when Mrs Despard said she was the Viceroy’s sister’.
As the guerrilla war grew more intense the British cabinet came to understand that it could only be ended by some form of Irish independence and that the mercurial French was hardly the right person to conduct such talks. In April 1921 he was eased out of his job. He slipped away to the south of France for a holiday with Winifred Bennett. For a few years he kept busy unveiling war memorials and giving speeches to groups of veterans to thank them for their service to the British Empire. He died of cancer in 1925.
During her brother’s final months Charlotte Despard hoped for a reconciliation. Several times she wrote to ‘My dearest Jack’ and once went to the hospital where he was being treated but was not allowed see him – whether on his orders or the doctor’s we do not know. She remained on good terms with his long-neglected wife but neither Eleanora French nor her children could comprehend Despard’s politics or why, when she arrived for visits, she called her chauffeur ‘Comrade Tom’.
Despite their differences Despard shared one improbable faith with her brother: she too was convinced that her ancestry made her Irish. ‘I have to go to Ireland’, she told a group of supporters, ‘it is the call of the blood’. She settled there for good in 1921. The following year a fierce civil war broke out within the new Irish Free State. After the fratricidal fighting ended many of the most radical nationalists continued to belong to an underground faction of the IRA, determined to unite Northern Ireland with the south and create a socialist revolution. Despard, of course, supported the militants. She bought a large Victorian mansion north of Dublin where IRA men sometimes sought shelter or stashed their arms. The police raided the building from time to time but always took care to leave the venerable Despard alone.
Just as her brother could not shake off the certainties of the past, when glorious cavalry charges always carried the day for the British Empire, so Despard confused wish and reality when it came to the future. In 1930 she visited the country she was convinced embodied the socialist dream, the Soviet Union. Determined to find the Soviet experiment a total success, Despard was entranced with all she saw. In Russia, she wrote, the diet was good, education was splendid, courts were wise and generous, orphanages were first-rate. In Soviet prisons the worst punishment ‘inflicted by a court of the prisoners themselves was to be kept out of the club room for one month’.
Black mantilla fluttering in the breeze, she still spoke at political rallies in Ireland, England and on the Continent. One of Britain’s oddest political couples passed into history when she died in 1939, at the age of 95