George Jackson Churchward, on succeeding William Dean as Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR), planned the introduction of a series of locomotives designed to tackle the South Devon Banks. Churchward looked at the best practice from both Europe and America, and was impressed by the performance of the de Glehn compounds running on the Nord railway in France. A single locomotive, built specifically for the GWR by Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques on the de Glehn principles was delivered in October 1903. This locomotive was numbered 102 and named La France although the makers plates had to be moved from the cabside to the front splasher to allow the number to be fitted in the usual GWR position.
La France was visibly not a GWR engine, although fitted with a Swindon chimney and paired with a standard tender, as immediately recognisable from firebox and the cab. Initially the locomotive was painted black, looking more LNWR than GWR, but she was repainted in 1905 into the standard GWR green livery. In contrast to previous GWR practice, La France had two high pressure cylinders fitted between the frames, and two low pressure cylinders outside. The high pressure cylinders drove the front driving wheels while the low pressure cylinders drove the rear driving wheels. Also notable was the external steam pipe mounted just in front of the dome, and looking rather similar in appearance to a top feed.
La France was put to work on important expresses in order to fully evaluate it in operation, and worked turn and turn about with GWR 4-4-0 express locos such as the City class and Atbara class. No.102 hauled the inaugural down Cornish Riviera Express from Paddington on 1 July 1904, this becoming a regular turn which required a non-stop run to Plymouth. In 1913 a top feed and new steam pipes were fitted, and then in 1916 the boiler was replaced by a GWR standard No.1 boiler. In 1926, along with two other French locomotives 103 President and 104 Alliance, 102 was based at Oxford shed.La France was withdrawn in October 1926 having achieved 728,031 miles.
In practice, La France did not provide any significant improvement in either performance or economy compared to No 171 Albion, Churchwards prototype 4-6-0 which was converted to a 4-4-2 specifically for comparison with the French locomotive. Some other benefits were found, however, particularly a much smoother ride and also a reduction in the loads on the rods and axleboxes due to the drive being split between the two driving axles. Despite being remembered for not changing Churchward's views about using a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement for his locomotives, and failing to demonstrate the claimed significant benefits of compounding, La France did leave a lasting legacy on British steam locomotive design. Churchward adopted the de Glehn bogie design for his locomotives, and its success endured with its use by William Stanier on the LMS and subsequently by Robert Riddles on the BR standard designs. It also found its way onto Southern Railway locomotives.