John (Jack) French
Killed in action
John 'Jack' French served in Britain, Egypt, Libya and New Guinea. He was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for 'most conspicuous bravery' during fighting at Milne Bay, New Guinea.
John grew up in Crows Nest, a small Queensland town north of Toowoomba. His parents were Albert and Lucy French.
John had one sister and 2 brothers. His brothers, Eric and Gordon, also enlisted. Eric was in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and Gordon in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Gordon was killed in action in a bombing raid over Nuremberg, Germany, in 1943.
Known as 'Jack' or 'Digger' by his family. John enjoyed cricket, tennis and football and had a reputation for his speedy pace as a rugby league player. A conscientious student, John achieved his highest marks in English in his 1928 exams.
After leaving school, John joined his dad's hairdressing and tobacconist business.
John French was 25 when he enlisted at Toowoomba on 22 October 1939. He was one of the first from his hometown to join up and kept the news of his enlistment a secret from his mum for 2 months. Lucy only found out when her son was notified of his basic training start date.
John was posted to the 2/9th Australian Infantry Battalion. It was the first Queensland battalion of the AIF to be raised for service in the Second World War and it left Sydney for the Middle East in May 1940, along with the 18th Brigade of the 6th Australian Division. His unit arrived in England a month later and continued on to the Middle East in December 1940.
John served in Libya and Syria, including the Siege of Tobruk. Conditions at Tobruk were particularly draining, as recalled by fellow Rat of Tobruk, Bob Semple.
It was a bit tough. You had one water bottle a day for all purposes, and it would be 48 degrees, so we were euchred physically as much as anything else, and it’s very wearing on the mental factor... Sometimes you’d get three raids a day [and] 20 or 30 planes would come up, and they’d shoot you up, and you couldn’t move. You couldn’t up sticks and go somewhere else. You just had to take it. And the fleas and flies – the fleas were even worse than the flies, I think.
[Former Rat of Tobruk, Bob Semple, 2018, Australian War Memorial]
John returned to Australia in March 1942. In August, the 2/9th Battalion left Australia for Papua, arriving soon after at Milne Bay.
On 4 September 1942, John was part of heavy fighting at Milne Bay, action that would result in his death and posthumous awarding of a VC for outstanding bravery. His citation records:
The advance of the section of which Corporal French was in command was held up by the fire from three enemy machine-gun posts, whereupon Corporal French, ordering his section to take cover, advanced and silenced one of the posts with grenades. He returned to his section for more grenades and again advanced and silenced the second post.
Armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, he then attacked the third post, firing from the hip as he went forward. He was seen to be badly hit by the fire from this post, but he continued to advance. The enemy gun then ceased to fire and his section pushed on to find that all members of the three enemy gun crews had been killed and that Corporal French had died in front of the third gun pit.
By his cool courage and disregard of his own personal safety, this non-commissioned officer saved the members of his section from heavy casualties and was responsible for the successful conclusion of the attack.
[Victoria Cross citation, John Alexander French, London Gazette, 1943]
John French became engaged to Dulcie McCahon in March 1940. But the couple held off marrying until the end of the war.
After her fiancé died, Dulcie described John, in a newspaper interview:
John was a quiet, steady boy. He was modest and unassuming - the stuff that real heroes are made of... While I am proud to have been engaged to marry such a brave man, I am heart-broken that he is not alive to receive the reward for his courage. I know so well how he would have acted. He would have blushed a bit, given a shy grin and said, 'It was nothing; any other fellow would have done the same.
[Dulcie McCahon, Newcastle Sun, 1943]
Commemorating John French
John's home state of Queensland commemorates its VC hero with several memorials. They include:
- Corporal John French VC Memorial Bridge, Chermside
- John French Library, Toowoomba
- Plaque and seat in Brisbane's Anzac Square
John's love of learning was also remembered and honoured. The Queensland Government introduced the Corporal Jack French VC Memorial Prize in 1943. The scholarship fund, started with donations from fellow soldiers and former teachers, provided books and tuition fees for students excelling in English.
A rest area on the Hume Highway's Remembrance Driveway remembers the service of John French. It's located at Yarra, 20km south of Goulburn.
A memorial and plaque were erected at Milne Bay, as a tribute to French and the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade.
- 1943 'Soldiers Aid Memorial To French. V.C.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld: 1933 - 1954), 26 January, p 3, viewed 13 August 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42012705
- 1943 'SCHOLARSHIP PRIZE TO HONOUR FRENCH, V.C.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld: 1933 - 1954), 5 October, p 3, viewed 13 August 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42011763
- 1943 'SWEETHEART OF DEAD VC PROUD, HEARTBROKEN', The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), 15 January, p 3, viewed 13 August 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article167626057
- 1943 'V.C. TO CROW'S NEST MAN', Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld: 1909 - 1954), 15 January, p. 3. (DAILY), viewed 13 August 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113994757
- Australian War Memorial (2018) The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (QX1071) Corporal John Alexander French VC, 2/0th Battalion, AIF, Second World War, viewed 13 August 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2610817
- Australian War Memorial (undated), 2/9th Australian Infantry Battalion, viewed 7 December 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U56052
- Gordon Albert French, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, viewed 13 August 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/R1702898
- Hunter, Claire (2018), 'There was a bond of friendship and mateship money couldn’t buy', Australian War Memorial Blog, viewed 13 August 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/bob-semple-part-two
- Kokoda Historical (undated), JOHN FRENCH VC, viewed 13 August 2020, http://kokodahistorical.com.au/diggers-stories/john-french-vc
- National Archives of Australia: B883, QX1071
- Staunton, Anthony, 'French, John Alexander (Jack) (1914–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 26 August 2020, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/french-john-alexander-jack-10250/text18127
- The London Gazette, 12 January 1943, Supplement 35862, p 319, https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/35862/supplement/319