Grand Bank-born John French, 'the man they couldn't kill'

Paul Sparkes
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In a book written by a Canadian and printed in the United States just before the First World War ended, this enhanced photograph is captioned, "Time's up. Over you go! A Canadian battalion going over the top to new triumphs." The book explains that at the appointed hour, the attacking force climbs out of the trench in three or more lines, or "waves", and moves forward against the enemy's trenches across "No Man's Land."

It was on one of those blood-soaked days of "the First Great War" somewhere in the European theatre that a young man from the Burin Peninsula completely frustrated the intents of a group of advancing Germans.

He half-stood, half-crouched and he held a broken, but working machine gun upside down, activating the trigger from an awkward hand position.

From fairly close range, the man behind the machine gun kept the lead spitting into the group of Germans. Any one of those projectiles would be enough to bring down a thousand-pound moose. One after the other the men on the receiving side crumpled. Noise, smoke, blinding fear and agonizing cries characterized that short pocket of time wherein rational thinking stops.

John French was nearly immobilized even as he kept the machine gun kicking. As he explained later, his left leg had been "smashed" when the Germans exploded two mines in the midst of the clutch of Canadian machine gunners of which he had been a part.

When it was over, French, a son of Grand Bank, would be in line for a Distinguished Conduct Medal. That was the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross and it could go to all army ranks below commissioned officers.

But this particular DCM could never have gone to a more self-effacing hero. And because French was just such a person, his story was largely unknown after the First World War.

It was revived, however, by an enterprising English reporter during the next war when he came upon veteran John French in England where he frequently came to public notice.

It was not, however, that single DCM alone that attracted the curious. It was the fact that French carried 13 other medals and ribbons on his lapels when full military dress required.

Embarrassed by attention

It was all so very embarrassing to a man who grew up in an unassuming fishing town where, of course, the worst thing that could happen was that a man could drown in pursuit of his work.

But that was a risk that went with the trade. Facing other men in a desperate "kill or be killed" encounter was different. That was new. To survive that, no nanosecond could be spared in which to assess the situation and choose your response.

Perhaps you will agree that his pointless answers to those who asked him about his medals show that French truly felt awkward from the attention.

The dateline for his story in our local newspaper on Feb. 15, 1943 was terse and evasive, because it was, after all, wartime:

SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND - "It's all very embarrassing," says Gunner John French when you ask him how he came to acquire 14 military decorations, 11 of which appear above the left breast pocket of his battle dress.

French, whose army age is 47 won all 14 in the First Great War. Wherever he goes, he promptly becomes surrounded by people who want to know all about his string of ribbons. That's why he finds it so embarrassing and why he tells questioners that he won his honours "for bringing up the rations."

For the more curious he reserves the reply that he owes the display on his uniform to "cowardice in the face of the enemy." But on special occasions, French declares that he "hates all this damned attention."

French was born in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, and went to Canada shortly before the First Great War. When war came, he was studying to be a piano tuner. He had forgotten about piano tuning when the war was over and when the present war broke out he was doorman at the Whitney Block, Queen's Park, Toronto.

"I was in line for the job of confidential messenger for the Premier of Ontario," he says. That was in July 1940 when he enlisted and less than two months later found himself overseas. He's been in Britain ever since and during his stay took the opportunity to marry the English girl to whom he had become engaged when he was overseas during the First Great War.

French, though a King's Sergeant and a C.S.M. (Company Sergeant Major) at the end of the First Great War is perfectly happy with his present rank of Gunner. In the first place he never did want promotion in the first war. He wished just to be "with the boys," he says. When his fame as 'the man they couldn't kill' started to spread, they made him take 'stripes' and offered him the chance at which he balked, for a commission. Just now he's a batman and a good batman, he figures. (In the U.K., a batman is an officer's personal servant).

He has the patience a good batman needs on the one hand and on the other, he feels that his batting releases a younger man for fighting.

French, an original of the old 2nd Machine Gun Battalion served overseas through the First Great War with a total of only 28 days leave off the continent, though he spent other leaves in France.

When he made his way back to Canada, he had the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, the Military Medal and two Bars, the French Croix de Guerre and Palm, the Belgian Croix de Guerre and Palm, two mentions in dispatches, the Victory, Mentions, and General Service Medals; he doesn't wear the two Palms, nor the Mentions.

He won the first DCM in the Second Battle of Ypres when he sat in a house with five other machine gunners and held off attacking Germans until he was the only one left. By this time, a counterattack, in which he also took part, had been organized.

"Jerry hit everything in the house but me, that time" he says. He got the M.M. just about a year later but he doesn't say why, nor how he got two bars to the M.M. which is the equivalent of getting the decorations all over again, twice.

French got the bar to the DCM in that up close and personal attack on a group of Germans referenced at the start of this article. His machine gun, by the way, had its tripod blown away before he went on the one-man offensive and had to hold the heavy weapon upside down.

He was wounded four times during the First Great War. One of his wounds was a bullet in the back of the head.

"My leg is half an inch shorter from there to there," says French, pointing from the left hip to the left knee. Having told this much, French had little more to say except to express embarrassment: "I don't see that I did more than the other fellow. I always said after the war that any man who came back from overseas and said he was a hero is a damned liar. The fear of God was in all of us."

He does tell how one time he captured a German machine gun post after a dash across an area cut by railroad tracks.

"I never can remember crossing those tracks," he explains. "I was excited, though."

"A soldier was pretty tense going over the top. Really, he was more nervous awaiting the zero hour than when he got going." Anyway, on this occasion, French went over the top, reached the German position and put two machine guns out of action. An officer with him was killed.

The number of dead Germans found in that trench when the Canadians moved up behind French was 49. French had to hold his position for 12 hours until help reached him.

He accomplished that feat by turning the two machine guns on the German lines and holding off attacks by moving from one gun to the other.


It seems contradictory that despite his oft-expressed embarrassment at the bravery to which the show of medals called attention, that French was disappointed he did not receive a Victoria Cross. He had been recommended for the V.C. but, as the British journalist wrote, "it's one of his regrets that he didn't get it."

When the First World War ended in November 1918, French returned to Canada the next year as one of the most decorated members of the Canadian forces, the most decorated Newfoundlander and with the reputation of being unkillable.

John French should, perhaps, have also received some sort of citation for one of the longest engagements on record. If he became engaged to his wife-to-be at the time of his service in the FirstWorld War, and married her when he returned to England in 1940, then that engagement spanned more than two decades.

Organizations: Queen's

Geographic location: Grand Bank, England, Canada Newfoundland Toronto Ontario Britain France Ypres

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