John William French was a bricklayer who married in Chelmsford and went on to have three sons. He joined the army in December 1915 and went to France the following August. He was killed in action in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His home was in Haycock’s Row, off Broomfield Road.


Sapper, 156th Field Company, Royal Engineers

His attestation papers show that John was five feet ten inches tall, and had a 43-inch expanded chest and good physical development. He served initially in A Depot Company, Royal Engineers at Chatham.

On 9th January 1916 following an accident John reported to Oaklands Hospital in Chelmsford (run by 2/1st South Midlands Field Ambulance) suffering from a badly cut face and head, His wounds were dressed and he spent a night in the surgical ward. the next day, having recovered from shock, he was discharged and went home and subsequently attended as an out-patient. Oaklands Hospital was taken over 2/2nd Lowland Field Ambulance when the 2/1st South Midlands Field Ambulance left Chelmsford on 23rd February 1916 for Salisbury Plain.

John embarked for France on 12th August 1916 and arrived there the following day. He joined his unit, the 156th Field Company of the Royal Engineers, on 21st August 1916. The unit served as part of the army’s 16th (Irish) Division.

John was killed in action on 9th September 1916 while serving as Sapper 113696. He was aged 38, and had served in the army for just 275 days.

John was born in Sible Hedingham in 1878, the son of Henry French and Sarah French (nee Poulter). His father had been born 1843; his mother in 1847, both at Wethersfield. The couple had married in 1865 and in 1871 they and three of their daughters had been living at Curtiss’ in Toppesfield.

John’s siblings included Susan French (born c1866 at Wethersfield), Harriett French (born in 1868 at Toppesfield), Emily French (born c1870 at Toppesfield), Ellen Mary A. French (born in 1872 at Toppesfield), Thomas French (born c1875 at Sible Hedingham), Harry French (born c1882 at Sible Hedingham), Annie French (born in 1884 in Witham), Arthur French (born in 1887 in Witham) and Minnie French (born in 1890 in Witham).

The 1881 census recorded two year-old John living with his parents and four elder siblings at Bloom’s Cottages in Sible Hedingham. John’s father was an agricultural labourer. A decade later the subsequent census found 12 year-old John with his parents and five siblings at Church Street in Witham. John was a house boy; his father a carpenter’s labourer and his brother Thomas a general labourer.

John married Selina Elizabeth Willsher at Chelmsford on 29th October 1900. She had been born in Messing in 1875. The couple’s children were Harry John French (born 24th November 1900 in Witham, died 1939), Arthur French (born 28th November 1903 in Chelmsford, died 1989), and Thomas French (born 19th February 1916 in the Chelmsford District, died 1977).

The 1901 census found John, his wife and son, Harry John French, visiting her grandmother, Rhoda Willsher, at High Street, Kelvedon. John was described as a bricklayer. A decade later the 1911 census listed John’s wife and two sons living at 8 Haycock’s Row, off the western side of Broomfield Road, Chelmsford. His wife was a charwoman. Haycock’s Row was demolished around 1961.

On 10th December 1915 John attested to join the Royal Engineers for short service (the duration of the war) at Chelmsford,  At the time he was still resident at 8 Haycock’s Row, married and employed as a bricklayer superior (on one shilling and eight pence per day). He was 37 years and six months old.

John has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, near Albert, Somme, France, on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford and by the Chelmsford Parish Great War Memorial in Chelmsford Cathedral.

He was entitled to the Victory and British War medals whose receipt was acknowledged by Mr. L. E. French on 30th August 1921.

After her husband’s death the army contacted Selina regarding her husband’s pension. During that correspondence she disclaimed all knowledge of another son, Gerald. She was awarded a pension of 21 shillings a week for herself and two children from 2nd April 1917. She was recorded by the 1918 register of electors as still resident at 8 Haycock’s Row and she was still listed there in a 1929 street directory.