John French

(1893-1929) – Sapper with general’s name

John French was a patriotic emigrant Cornish miner who came back to fight. As a sapper, building tunnels, he had to work ‘up past the knees in water and water down on your back like a shower bath’. His three surviving diaries outline his experiences in the war.

Credit: Redruth Old Cornwall Society Museum

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John French was born in Redruth in 1893, one of eleven children and a keen athlete.  In 1909, aged sixteen, he won the half-marathon race from Redruth town clock to Porthleven.  Recession drove him and his brother Harold to Arizona to work for the Cornish Copper Company in 1913; both joined in the male voice choir there.  As patriotic migrant Cornish miners, both brothers returned to fight. They joined the Royal Engineers: unusually, both survived. 

John’s three surviving pocket book diaries outline his wartime experiences:

‘January 8th 1916: Saw several hundred German prisoners including a good many of the Prussian Guard’.

‘January 12th 1916: Been working at the Remount Depot today, thousands of horses there of all descriptions’.

‘April 24th 1916: Working in the wet sap again last night, working up past the knees in water and water down on your back like a shower bath.  After working about three hours air got so bad that we had to come out – candles would not burn’.

‘November 12th 1917: Had a nasty day of it today … and a bad one for our company.  One of the chaps was wounded for the sixth time’. 

French progressed from tunneller’s mate to tunneller then Lance Corporal, Sergeant and finally 2nd Lieutenant, winning the Military Medal and Military Cross along the way.

With Cornwall still in recession he returned to America after the war and worked for the Detroit Bus Company but tuberculosis, a result of his wartime conditions, saw him return to Redruth.  He spent two years in Tehidy sanatorium, which had been acquired as Cornwall’s war memorial, and died there in 1929. 

Sapper John French had the same name as the first Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.  Haig took over from Major-General John French in December 1915. 

Key words: trenches, mining

Credit: Redruth Old Cornwall Society Museum