The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Major General Sir George French, KCMG

Major General Sir George Arthur French, KCMG (1841–1921), Commandant of NSW during the Boer War

Sir George Arthur French (1841-1921), soldier and commissioner of police, was born on 19 June 1841 at Roscommon, Ireland, son of John French of Mornington Park, Dublin, and his wife Isabella, née Hamilton. The fact that he started his military education at Sandhurst, but transferred to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (London) and became a gunner, suggests that his family was not well-to-do. Commissions in the Royal Artillery were not purchased as were those in infantry and cavalry regiments. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery on 9 June 1860. He married Janet Clarke, née Innes, of Kingston, Canada, in 1862. In 1862-66 he was adjutant, Royal Artillery, at Kingston, and was appointed inspector of warlike stores in Quebec in 1869. In December 1870, shortly before the withdrawal of British troops from Canada, he was made available on loan to the Canadian Army and appointed inspector of artillery, and chief instructor of the school of gunnery at Kingston, with local rank of lieutenant-colonel. On 11 December 1872 he was promoted captain, RA. Conscious of the withdrawal of the imperial forces from Canada, French urged on the Department of Militia and Defence, in his report of 1 Jan. 1870, “the absolute necessity of raising, permanently, a few batteries of garrison artillery.” To his recommendation he appended estimates for two batteries. In response the department moved to establish permanent schools of artillery in Kingston and Quebec City for training the militia. While retaining his inspectorship, French was authorized on 20 Oct. 1871 to set up and command Kingston’s School of Gunnery (A Battery, Garrison Artillery).

In view of the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70, the problem of American whisky pedlars and the need to protect the building of a railway west to the Pacific Ocean, the Canadian prime minister, (Sir) John Macdonald, decided to establish a paramilitary mounted police force. French became the first permanently appointed commissioner of the North West Mounted Police (now Royal Canadian Mounted Police) on 1 December 1873. Macdonald’s reasons for choosing French are not on record, but as Kingston’s MP, he could hardly have avoided meeting this competent commander. As well, French had served briefly in the Royal Irish Constabulary before entering the army and since it was an important model for the NWMP, his experience may have influenced Macdonald’s decision.

In November Macdonald's government had fallen and in spite of little support from the new administration French set about raising his force. In July 1874 they set out on their famous march from the Red River (Fort Dufferin) in Manitoba over 650 kilometres west to the Rocky Mountains successfully covering 3200 kilometres in just three months over territory that was largely unmapped. The whiskey traders learning of the mounted police’s approach and went out of business. Under his command the mounted police established a reputation for honesty, justice and fair play but friction between French and the new government became acute and in July 1876 his appointment was terminated (he was essentially forced to resign). His officers and men showed a greater appreciation of his work: they gave him a gold watch worth $150 (a large sum for the time) and Mrs French a silver service. For his services in Canada he was appointed C.M.G. in 1877 (a slap in the face for the then Canadian Government). He returned to England for duty with the Royal Artillery and in July 1881 was promoted Major.

On 1 September 1883 French was appointed commandant of the Queensland Defence Force, with the local rank of colonel. Shortly after, he submitted a special report on the poor state of the colony's army, recommending the establishment of a permanent battery of artillery and a militia force, and the downgrading of the volunteer force to rifle club status. In 1885 the Queensland Defence Force was reorganized under the 1884 Defence Act, framed by French and based mainly on the Canadian system. He had a reputation in Queensland of not being able to get on with reservists and was said to be much disliked by the militia. He was also seen as somewhat intolerant of politicians. In October 1887 French was promoted lieutenant-colonel, R.A. He was also largely responsible for obtaining the agreement of the Australian colonies for the construction of fortifications on Thursday Island and King George Sound from 1891 to 1893. In 1891 he employed over 1400 troops to help break the shearers' strike, on one occasion personally controlling an advance with bayonets fixed against the strikers. His appointment in Queensland was twice renewed; in August 1891 he left for England.

In August 1891 was appointed commander, R.A., Dover. In June 1892 he was appointed chief instructor, school of gunnery, Shoeburyness, and in November was promoted colonel for 'distinguished services other than in the field'. He was appointed colonel, R.A., Bombay, in January 1894 and in April next year officiating brigadier general, R.A., Bombay Command.

French was appointed commandant of the New South Wales Military Forces with the local rank of major general in March 1896. Despite his attitude towards the volunteers in Queensland the strength of the volunteer movement in New South Wales almost quadrupled under his command. The Australian Horse, Australian Rifles, National Guard and the Railway Corps were formed and the existing regiments greatly increased in strength. Perhaps with an eye to his future he seems to have taken much greater care of his relationships with both politicians and reservists in NSW. George Reid, a former premier and future Australian Prime Minister was appointed to command the National Guard and J.A.K. McKay who was Vice President of the Executive Council commanded the Australian Horse. He was also extraordinarily progressive in approving William Williams’ proposal to establish the NSW Army Nursing Service Reserve established in 1899. As the months counted down to the commencement of the Boer War French realized that it would be no small Colonial affair and began preparing for NSW involvement. A meeting of the state commandants assessed that in the event of hostilities that the Australian colonies could supply an all arms brigade of 2000 commanded by one of the commandants. George French believed that he would be ideal for the job. The War Office however was appalled and bluntly refused it. The colonial involvement would be restricted to just eight companies the most senior rank being major. Despite an increased contribution, the War Office refused his pleas to be sent to South Africa.

Although bitterly disappointed that he was not released for service in the South African War, French's energetic training programme was largely responsible for the high regard held for the New South Wales contingents serving in South Africa. Throughout the war George French seems to have been determined to provide the maximum number of units possible regardless of the War Office or local politicians. The Governor of NSW, the Earl Beauchamp was deeply suspicious of him and regarded him as a rogue. He believed (probably correctly) that he was misleading the Premier, Sir William Lyne, who the Governor regarded as one of the few intelligent and civilised Australian politicians. He saw Lyne as the only possible first Prime Minister of the Australian Commonwealth and worked to achieve that end. People like French threatened this end and Beauchamp criticised him in England. French certainly seems to have manipulated the contingents to achieve his ends albeit with the support of local military and political interests.

In May 1900 French was promoted major general, RA, and in 1901 Sir John Forrest, minister for defence, appointed him president of the Federal military committee to draft a defence act for the Commonwealth.

He was an active president of the United Service Institution of New South Wales in 1896-1901. In January 1902 he handed over command to Brigadier General H. Finn and next month sailed for England where he retired on 3 September; that year he was appointed K.C.M.G. French died on 7 July 1921 at Kensington, London, and after a service at St Luke's Church, was buried with full military honours in Brompton cemetery.

Sutton, R., 'French, Sir George Arthur (1841–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, with editing and additions by David Deasey


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