ffrench, Evelyn Alexander Wilson
Evelyn Alexander Wilson ffrench, known as "Daddy" by the airmen of the only combat squadron he served with was to die after the armistice in a flying accident; a tragic end to a man who had served during the Boer War of 1900 to 1902 and WW1.
The Long Journey
Evelyn "Daddy" ffrench was probably the oldest active pilot to serve and fly with 66 Squadron. Like his contemporary Thomas V. Hunter, he had lost a leg whilst serving in France with the Royal Field Artillery, and like Hunter he was to die in a flying accident. The only son and one of two children born to Acheson Evelyn and Marion Wilson ffrench, Evelyn Alexander Wilson ffrench was born in the vibrant gold mining town of Ballarat, Australia Victoria on 21 June 1878. Nothing is known about his early life, although not proved, I believe that ffrench senior was a pastoralist or farmer, and that Evelyn learnt to ride horses whilst helping his father.
At some point in his life Evelyn is thought to have published works on horses and poetry. He became a noted horseman and one source notes he was at one time called "The World's Greatest Horseman". He seems to have had a travelling horse show and possibly produced and appeared in a film called "A Texas Elopement", although this needs confirmation.
Sometime just before the second Boer War ffrench joined the Legion of Frontiersmen, and later 4th Victoria Imperial Bushmen in 1900. He was commissioned as an 2/Lt in the Royal Artillery on 20 November 1900. The 4th departed from Melbourne on 1 May 1900 in the troopship "Victoria" with a unit establishment of 629 officers and men, 778 horses and 11 wagons. Engagements included Ottoshoop, Malopo Oog, Wonderfontein, Hartebeestfontein, Uitral's Kop, Doornbult, Wolmaranstad, Harteb, Hoopstad, Zeerust, Matjesfontein, Philipstown and Read's Drift. He resigned his commission on 2 May 1903.
After the end of the Boer War he arrived in London, where he married Blanche Violet Wilson, who may have been a relative of St Kilda acquaintance Godfrey Watson. Blanche from Melbourne married Evelyn at Christ Church Chapel, Woburn Square, London on 17 December 1908. It is known that the couple lived at Holland Street, West Kensington in 1917 and later at 4 Perham Road, West Kensington. ffrench gave his occupation as "Gentleman residing at West Bland Plains, NSW". Prior to the First World War, he is thought to have owned a "School of Colonial Instruction" catering for rich immigrants to Australia, on the outskirts of London.
ffrench joined the Royal Field Artillery on the outbreak of World War One, serving in France with the 83 Battery. He lost his right leg during the 2nd battle of Ypres (22 April - 25 May 1915). This battle was notable as the first occasion that the Germans used gas against the Allies. After recovery, he applied and was accepted in the Royal Flying Corps.
The Royal Flying Corps
ffrench joined the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to 1 School of Instruction at Reading in February 1917. He was then posted back to France and the British flying school at Vendome in April of the same year. It was here that he learnt to fly and was awarded Royal Aero Club Certificate number 4722 on 23 May flying a Caudron Biplane. On 9 June he suffered engine failure whilst flying Caudron 3087, but this did not stop him continuing with his instruction. Advanced flying instruction was undertaken with 42 Training Squadron, based at Hounslow and equipped with the FK3 and BE types of various marks along with Avro 504s. After the award of his Central Flying School "A" pilots certificate he was sent to London Colney where he joined 56 Training Squadron for further training. 56TS using BE12s, SE5s, Sopwith Camels and other Scout types. He then underwent a short Bombing and Gunnery Course at Turnberry.
On 21 October 1917 he returned to France and the Pilots Pool at 1 Aircraft Depot at St Omer. On the 27th Airman Frederick L Burns of 66 Squadron collected him. The squadron Commander, Major Gregory appears to have been a friend and when he found out ffrench was waiting for a squadron he requested him from the depot. ffrench became a bit of a character with the squadron's enlisted men, he wore spurs on his walking out boots, and spoke about his aeroplanes as if they were horses! At the time, if you could ride a horse it was considered that you would make a good pilot. It would appear that ffrench did not have quite the control of his aeroplane as he did of his horses, and was noted on the squadron for his poor landings, many put it down to his wooden leg slipping off the rudder bar when landing! But he was affectionately known as "Daddy" by the men, and admired when he stood up to local peasants who abused their horses.
The squadron moved to Italy and eventually made it to Verona, where the aircraft were re-erected and test flown. It was here that ffrench made a poor landing on 5 December, the same day that flight commander Thomas "Sticky" Hunter died after colliding with Richard Ryan. "Daddy" did not fly many operational patrols with 66, partly due to the move from France and the winter weather must also have played a part as well. On 9 February he was admitted to 37 Casualty Clearing Station, then on 8 March he was embarked for 57 General Hospital (Western General, England), but disembarked on 17 June in France and sent to Headquarters R.A.F. at St Omer for administration duties.
He was Gazetted Temp. Capt. (Admin) on 17 June 1918. ffrench went before a medical board 3 August and graded "A" fit to resume flying. It was not long after this, on the 22 August 1918 when ffrench was elected as a member of the Savage Club in London. The Savage Club has a number of different categories of membership, ffrench was elected in the "literary" category, and he was proposed by Hughes Massie and seconded by Roger Pocock and Reginald Groom. Roger Pocock was the founder of the The Legion of Frontiersmen, and possibly met ffrench in Australia or South Africa. For more details see The Legion of Frontiersmen Web pages at www.frontiersmen.org.au.
He was posted back to Home Establishment for temporary duty on 2 September and joined 42 Training Depot Squadron at Hounslow. On 23 December he was flying Sopwith Snipe E8179 when he crashed onto the aerodrome and died. After his death the Savage Club was home to a memorial to ffrench in the form of a broken propeller, but the club have no knowledge of its fate. He was cremated at Golders Green, his estate being valued at £273/16/- .
Photographs: the copyright is acknowledged but unknown unless otherwise stated