The French Connection With North Bucks (9 January 1976)
When John French came a-courting Eleanor Selby-Lowndes at Bletchley in the 1870s, he could not have imagined that his name would be nationally prominent a hundred years later through 99 letters written to another woman.
John was an Irishman, born in Kent in 1852. He was short in stature, but what he lacked in inches he more than made up for in energy and ambition. As a teenager he was a midshipman in the Royal Navy. Then, perhaps because his limited physique was less noticeable on horseback, he decided to join the army instead, with his eye on the cavalry. He managed to do this via the Volunteers, became a dashing cavalryman, and was a subaltern in the 19th Hussars by the time he met Eleanor.
Eleanor was the second of the numerous daughters of Richard Selby-Lowndes who, at about that time, built “Elmers,” the large house opposite the Bletchley Rectory gates. John and Eleanor were an unusually-assorted pair. He was only in his early twenties. She was eight years older and already in her thirties.
I wonder what her father thought when he saw which way this wind was blowing. Though comfortably off by normal standards, he was not of the main stem of Selby-Lowndes inheritance. He could not provide much in the way of a dowry for every daughter. There were not such good catches. Rather, were they in need of them – like that made by his third daughter, Sophia, who had already been married to Edward Hanslope Watts, squire of Hanslope, for ten years of(sic) more.
This young fellow, French, who apparently had only his army pay to live on, was no catch at all. He would not be able to keep Eleanor in the style to which she had been accustomed. He could even be a climber, with his eye as much on the main chance as on Eleanor. On the other hand, Eleanor had already seemed well and truly on the shelf and this could be her last chance.
In the event, John and Eleanor waited until 1880. Then John was promoted captain, plus an extra 2s a day as regimental adjutant, and they married, with Richard’s blessing. John was then 28 and Eleanor 36.
Their first home appears to have been Bracknell House, at the corner of Aylesbury Street and Vicarage Road, Fenny Stratford, where the Selby-Lowndes family lived while “Elmers” was being built. A year later a son, John Richard Lowndes French, was born. Then, in about 1882, they moved to Yew Tree Farm. Hanslope, which was rented to them by their brother-in-law and which was to be their home for the next 20 years or so.
Thus settled, John devoted himself heart and soul to his military career. A fine cavalryman, he never lost an opportunity and his rise was meteoric for the army of those days. Promoted major in 1883, he went on to render distinguished service in the Sudan and in 1885, at the age of 33, he became Lieutenant-colonel of his regiment.
He was back in England from 1886 to 1891, but seems to have overspent – maybe in an effort to keep up with the family “Joneses.” Then the regiment went to India for two years, with himself as OC. On his return, however, real financial disaster struck. He was put on half pay at the age of 43. Local tradesmen had difficulty in getting bills settled. One firm even took him to court.
Salvation came in 1895, when he was promoted full colonel and made assistant adjutant at the Horse Guards. Here the little officer, so unimpressive on foot, but so totally commanding on horseback, did really well.
In 1899 he went off to the Boer War as a local major general in command of cavalry. Few British leaders enhanced their reputations in that war, but John reached his peak of military success. He was promoted lieutenant-general and also knighted. On his return to England in 1902, he was feted in the streets of London along with Kitchener, and he received a huge welcome at Hanslope.
The former impecunious subaltern now outshone his local peers and maybe Richard was preening himself that he had known he would from the start.
The same year John was made a KCMG on top of his KCB, took over the Aldershot Command and moved with Eleanor to Government House. During the following years he was involved in much-needed efforts to improve the army. He became a field marshal and North Bucks saw him again for a few weeks in 1913, when he commanded one of the two “armies” in large-scale manoeuvres here.
The acid test came in 1914 when he led the British Expeditionary Force into the carnage of Flanders. He soon found that this was no war for a cavalryman, especially one 62 years old. Logistics now counted for far more than dash and daring. By the end of 1915 he had had enough and was replaced by Douglas Haig.
And now, 60 years later, comes the revelation that after the start of that war up to shortly after his displacement he wrote so-called love letters to Winifred Bennett, wife of senior diplomat, Percival Bennett, letters which most indiscreetly included references to military matters. I have always been ultra-cautious. Actual quotations from the letters so far have been few and I am not yet entirely convinced that they imply all they have been made out to imply. I also question the assertion that the writer could not have had his mind on his job.
Sir John, though displaced, was not disgraced. In May, 1918, six months before the end of the war, he was appointed Viceroy of the land of his fathers, Ireland, and spent three troubled years there almost up to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. For his services he was awarded an earldom and chose the title Earl of Ypres. He spent his last three years mainly in Paris, and died in 1925.
Eleanor, however, survived to 1941, when she died aged 97. She is buried in St. Mary’s churchyard, Bletchley.
In 1958 a hearse carrying a coffin draped with the Union Jack – and accompanied by two cars at most – came slowly past the old Gazette office in Queensway on its way to the church. The funeral was that of the second earl, who is buried near his mother. That was first I heard of the French connection with North Bucks.