Private John Benjamin French

This is one of two essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Kentucky.

The grave of Private John Benjamin French - note the second, original gravestone behind
The grave of Private John Benjamin French – note the original gravestone behind

John Benjamin French was an African-American born on 22 July 1896 in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of Ash and Lula French of 325 Race Street.[1] Little is known of his family but John French was working as a ‘shoe shiner and jockey ’ when he enlisted in 1918.

He enlisted in Montreal on 14 May 1918 and joined the 1st Depot Battalion, Quebec Regiment, where he was allocated the regimental number 3084572 and undertook his basic training.[2] He embarked for the United Kingdom on the SS Oxfordshire, arriving in England on 15 July.

He was taken on strength of the 23rd Reserve Battalion and immediately dispatched to the segregation camp at Frensham. These camps were established to ensure that troops arriving from Canada were quarantined for 28 days on arrival to prevent the spread of disease to soldiers undergoing training in the reserve battalions. In August, Private French was posted to the Canadian Forestry Corps Base Depot at Smith’s Lawn on the edge of Windsor Great Park—now the site of the Guards Polo Club.

Private French was subsequently posted on 16 September to 142 Company at East Sheen, part of the newly created 56th District, Canadian Forestry Corps. Its four companies—123, 124, 141 and 142—were responsible for the construction of Royal Air Force aerodromes across England.

He did not stay there for long, however, returning to the Base Depot at the end of the month. He embarked for France on 10 October 1918 and joined No. 8 Company in 11 District. This District did not have a geographical area of responsibility—it had been formed in June 1918 to administer the companies engaged in aerodrome construction in France.

In the spring of 1918, Major General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the newly-formed Independent Air Force, had requested the support of Canadian Forestry Companies in the construction of new aerodromes. The first two companies were sent from England in July 1918 and work began immediately, although it was inhibited by the need to wait for the harvest of crops covering some of the planned sites. These Companies were assisted by prisoners of war and, later, by Chinese labourers. Nos. 9, 10 and 11 Companies came under command of 11 District early September and Nos. 7 and 8 Companies later in the month.

Private French saw little of this work immediately after his arrival—he fell ill with mumps on 15 October and was treated at the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Wisques near St Omer until 14 November, when he rejoined No. 8 Company.

The Armistice brought little respite for the men of the Company. For some time it had been working on airfields in the area of Leers, Herseaux and Pecq, north-east of Lille. That work continued after Private French rejoined the Company until 21 November when it began a journey over the next three days that took it to La Louvière north-east of Charleroi in Belgium. For five days No. 8 Company worked on an airfield there before moving farther east to Belgrade, near Namur, where the same work was undertaken for three days. The company then set off for Bickendorf, on the outskirts of Cologne, where it arrived to join the Army of Occupation on 13 December.

The remains of a German bomber at Bickendorf with a zeppelin shed in the background
The remains of a German bomber at air station Butzweilerhof  

There were two airfields (the larger known as Fliegerstation Cöln Butzweilerhof) that had been home to German bombers and Zeppelins and the Company worked on these airfields for the rest of the month. A typical entry in the war diary reads: ‘Levelling and draining on drome, removing debris of Boche Gotha machines, making roads to Zeppelin shed and aeroplane hangars on the two dromes’.[3] The larger field was the home of 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, the highest scoring Australian squadron of the war. At the end of the month the Company was working on the airfield at Spich, south of Cologne, and at Hangelar near Bonn. January was spent working on the airfield at Ludendorf, west of Bonn, before moving in early February back to the Cologne area, to Longerich, to work on the airfields at Bickendorf and Methein.

No. 8 Company returned to England in March 1919 but Private French seems to have preceded his comrades—he reported to the Base Depot at Sunningdale, sick, on 4 March 1919. He soon joined 13th Reserve Battalion and on 4 April  reported to the demobilisation centre at Rhyl. He sailed for Canada on SS Cassandra on 2 May and was demobilised on 14 May 1919 in Montreal.

His record indicates that he intended to remain in Montreal but nothing is known of his life over the next year. John Benjamin French died of tuberculosis on 10 May 1920 in Montreal General Hospital and his remains were repatriated to Lexington. He was buried in Cove Haven Cemetery.[4]

This was a segregated African-American cemetery (it remains open), established in September 1907 as Greenwood Cemetery, abutting the north-east side of Lexington Cemetery. In 2003, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contracted for the erection of a new headstone; the older headstone appears to have been left in the cemetery by the contractor.

He is commemorated on page 549 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 22 November.

The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private John Benjamin French
The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private John Benjamin French

His medals group comprised the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal. The medals, memorial plaque, parchment scroll and Memorial Cross were dispatched to his mother.

Barbara Elliott for the photographs of Private French’s gravestones.
Werner Müller for his clarification about the use of the airfields at Butzweilerhof.

1. (Back) George Ash French (c1867-24 April 1925) and Lula (or Loula) A. Burns (c1878-NK).
2. (Back) The depot battalions were created in the Military Districts to conduct the most basic of military training for conscripts and volunteers prior to the completion of their training at reserve battalions in England.
3. (Back) No. 8 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps (December 1918). War diary. Library and Archives Canada.
4. (Back) Section C. Grave 320.

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