FRENCH, JOHN, soldier and NWMP officer; b. 1843 in Ireland, the youngest son of John French and Isabella Hamilton; m. Frances Mary Chapman, and they had four children; d. 12 May 1885 at Batoche (Sask. ).
John French, a militia captain in Ireland for 16 years, came to Canada and in 1874 joined the North-West Mounted Police, then being organized by his brother George Arthur French*, the force’s first commissioner. John French was given the rank of sub-inspector (the title was later changed to inspector), at a salary of $1,000 per annum, and attached to D division under Inspector James Morrow Walsh* for the NWMP march to western Canada. Assigned routine postings at Swan River Barracks (Livingstone, Sask. ), Fort Walsh (Sask.), and Battleford (Sask.), French does not seem to have had the opportunity to distinguish himself. Major-General Edward Selby Smyth described him in 1875 as simply “an Irish Militia Officer, with no conspicuous judgement, but active. . . .” In 1876 French received a sharp reprimand from his brother for borrowing money from a subordinate to move his family west, an action Commissioner French considered “subversive of proper discipline.” These reactions, however, say more about the extraordinarily strict standards of the NWMP than about the individuals involved. French remained on the force until 1883 when, with the rank of inspector, he retired, probably to take advantage of the government’s offer of a free quarter-section to NWMP officers with three years’ service. He took up farming near the Qu’Appelle River and was soon one of the area’s leading citizens, serving a term as churchwarden and as a municipal councillor of Qu’Appelle. He was described as a “tall, powerful soldierly looking man with jet black hair and beard.”
In 1885, with the outbreak of rebellion in the west, French was authorized by Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton* to raise a troop of mounted scouts. This corps, which became known as French’s Scouts, consisted of one other officer, Lieutenant W. Brittlebank, and 33 men. During the campaign Middleton had nothing but praise for French, describing him as “full of pluck and energy” and a “first-rate rider and scout.” Prior to the battle at Fish Creek (Sask.), French reportedly captured three Sioux Indians single-handed. In the battle of Batoche French again distinguished himself when he risked his life to rescue a wounded constable. Later, French and his scouts took part in the main attack on Batoche on 12 May 1885, an assault inspired by the pell-mell charge of Colonel Arthur Trefusis Heneage Williams and his Midland Battalion. French and his men reached the village and approached the house of Xavier Letendre, but while French was “standing in the door directing his men a bullet fired from the opposite side of the river entered his breast killing him instantly.” The shot was said to have been fired by Métis Alexander Ross, himself killed during the battle. Lieutenant Brittlebank assumed command of the scouts until they were disbanded in June.
French received much posthumous praise for his actions at Batoche, including a comparison in the Qu’Appelle Vidette to Charles George Gordon of Khartoum. Lord Melgund [Elliot*, later Lord Minto], Middleton’s chief of staff, reported “he had done so well and was such a fine leader.” Two of French’s sons were to serve in the NWMP.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arch. (Ottawa), Service files, John French. Telegrams of the North-West campaign, 1885, ed. Desmond Morton and R. H. Roy (Toronto, 1972). Qu’Appelle Vidette (Fort Qu’Appelle, [Sask.]), 14 May 1885. A. L. Haydon, The riders of the plains; a record of the Royal North-West Mounted Police of Canada, 1873–1910 (Toronto, 1910; repr. 1918; repr. Edmonton, 1971), 252. Nora and William Kelly, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police: a century of history, 1873–1973 (Edmonton, 1973).