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French, Sir George Arthur (1841–1921)

by R. Sutton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

George Arthur French (1841-1921), by unknown artist, c1875

George Arthur French (1841-1921), by unknown artist, c1875

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21192037

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. Educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, 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, R.A.

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 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. 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 in Manitoba over 400 miles (650 km) west to the Rocky Mountains. 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. For his services in Canada he was appointed C.M.G. in 1877. 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 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 October 1887 French had been promoted lieutenant-colonel, R.A., and 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. 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. In May 1900 he was promoted major general, R.A., 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. He was survived by two sons and three daughters.

French played a significant part in organizing the mounted police in Canada, in reorganizing the military forces of Queensland and New South Wales and in drafting the legislation for the establishment of the Australian defence forces. Somewhat intolerant of politicians, he was a vigorous professional army officer who, despite his not having had active service in the field, served with distinction in whatever appointment he held.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Chambers, The Royal North-West Mounted Police (Montreal, 1906)
  • D. H. Johnson, Volunteers at Heart (Brisb, 1974)
  • L. M. Field, The Forgotten War (Melb, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1900, 4, 37
  • London Gazette, 30 May 1877, 9 Nov 1902
  • Brisbane Courier, 23, 27 Jan, 3, 6 Feb, 14, 15 Apr, 1 Oct 1885, 18, 19 May 1888, 27, 28 Mar, 23 July 1891
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 11 July 1921, p 15
  • North-West Mounted Police, Canada, Commissioner's report 1874 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Privy Council committees reports, 22 July, 7 Oct 1876 (Royal Canadian Mounted Police Headquarters, Ottawa)
  • correspondence with R.C.M.P., 11 July 1979 (privately held)
  • letter to author from D. J. French, Newbay, Wexford, Ireland, 11 Nov 1979.

Citation details

R. Sutton, 'French, Sir George Arthur (1841–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/french-sir-george-arthur-6247/text10755, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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