I would like to tell you about one of the most extraordinary men I have ever researched. Back in May, I was selected to participate in the Canadian Battlefields Foundation Study Tour. Alongside 11 other students from across Canada, I was chosen to tour the Canadian battlefields in France and Belgium from both World Wars.
All of the students were expected to give a presentation on a significant battle or aspect of either war, and to present on a fallen soldier who lost his or her life fighting for Canada. We had free rein to choose any fallen Canadian soldier as our topic of research, as long as they lay within our tour route.
Once a soldier had been selected, his tombstone had to be found using the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database to ensure that a presentation on his life would be given at his final resting place. This helped make a personal connection to the sacrifices made by so many brave Canadians. Everyone felt an individual connection to their soldiers and many of the emotional presentations were able to break even the most hardened of the group.
It is at this point that I must make a confession. When selecting my soldier, I tried to find a Victoria Cross recipient because there was bound to be an abundance of information on them; at the very least his records would be easier to find than an undecorated soldier. That's not to say that anyone who made the ultimate sacrifice would not be worthy of a presentation, I was simply looking forward to giving a presentation that included a recorded story of unbelievable bravery.
It was at this point that I contacted our tour leader Dr. Andrew Iarrocci and proposed numerous Victoria Cross recipients. But every name I submitted was rejected because the proximity to the burial site was not conducive to the itinerary or battlefields being toured. It was at this point that I must make another confession: after countless rejections, I settled on my soldier. It shames me to admit that I knew nothing about him and the only reason that I chose him was because his final resting place was close to the Amiens battlefields.
It was only when I began to research the soldier that I realized just how remarkable a man he was. The story of his act of bravery that would lead to the eventual posthumous awarding of his Victoria Cross is sensational in its own right. What surprised me, however, was that when I read his personal records they tell a very different story, one that, had he not received the medal forged from the cannon taken out of the Crimean, you or I would be surprised that he was recognized for his service at all. Aside from the one award-winning day, all other aspects of this man's service record indicate a very poor soldier with a very serious drinking problem and issues obeying commands. That is why I want to tell you about Private John Bernard Croak.
John was born in Little Bay, Newfoundland on August 18, 1918 to Irish immigrants James Croak (1865-?) and Cecelia Croak (1869-1928). At two years old, the family moved to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A 1911 census lists Cecelia and James and six children: Margaret Croak (1890), Josephine Croak (1891), John, May Croak (1895), James Croak (1897), and Michael Croak (1905). He grew up on West Avenue, New Aberdeen and attended St. John's School. At age 14, Croak left school and started working at the No. 2 Mine in Dominion to help support his family. In 1911, at age 19, he left the mine to work out west in the wheat fields.
When he enlisted on August 7, 1915 in Sussex, New Brunswick, his mother was reportedly (and quite understandably), very upset at her oldest son joining the war. He would list his father as next of kin and his profession as "laborer." John was 22 years old, standing at a height of 5' 5", with a 37" chest, blue eyes, fair complexion, and light brown hair.
His service record lists him as a Roman Catholic. He arrived in England on November 9, 1915 and went through his basic training in Aldershot, England on the Sussex Plain. John was assigned to 13th Battalion, a French unit that was part of the Royal Highlanders of Canada, or more famously known as the Black Watch. He would deploy to France on May 16, 1916.
On August 8, 1918, the Battle of Amiens began at dawn with fog and drizzling rain hampering visibility, bringing the tanks in support of the advanced infantry to a halt for fear of running over friendlies. German positions not taken out by the Canadian artillery began firing on the advancing Canadians.
It was at this moment that John separated from his platoon and single-handedly charged a German machine gun nest. Throwing grenades and attacking with bayonet fixed he captured the weapon and took its crew prisoner, while sustaining a bullet wound to the right arm.
As he was leading his prisoners back to battalion headquarters, another machine gun nest opened up, this time directly on battalion headquarters. Although he was injured, John led another bayonet charge that disabled this second machinegun nest.
During this melee, John was fatally wounded and while the sun set that fateful August night, knowing he had little time to live, he uttered his last words, "Do you wish to show your gratitude? Kneel down and pray for my soul."
His actions led directly to the breeching of the German lines, only the second time since the Canadians had done it at Vimy Ridge the year before. German General Ludendorff described this day as "The Black Day". John was awarded the Victoria Cross -- the highest medal awarded while in His Majesty's service -- for his actions and the recommendation given reads as follows:
An extract from "The London Gazette," No. 30922, dated September 24, 1918:
For most conspicuous bravery in attack when having become separated from his section he encountered a machine gun nest, which he bombed and silenced, taking the gun and crew prisoners. Shortly afterwards he was severely wounded, but refused to desist. Having rejoined his platoon, a very strong point, containing several machine guns, was encountered. Private Croak, however, seeing an opportunity, dashed forward alone and was almost immediately followed by the remainder of the platoon in a brilliant charge. He was the first to arrive at the trench line, into which he led his men, capturing three machine guns and bayonetting or capturing the entire garrison. The perseverance and valor of this gallant soldier who was again severely wounded, and died of his wounds, were an inspiring example to all.
August 8, 1918 was to be the first of Canada's "100 days," a campaign in which the Canadian forces would be the spearhead of an unstoppable offensive. These one hundred days at the end of the war saw the Canadian forces at their finest, a formidable force to be reckoned with. British Prime Minister Lloyd George declared earlier in the war that "the Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops...Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst." Without John's sacrifice, the 13th Battalion headquarters could have been wiped out by the machine gun and Canada's 100 days could have gone very differently.
And yet, as amazing as his heroic actions were on that foggy August morning, that is not the most amazing part of Private John Croak. Not by a mile.
There is little written about Private Croak's earlier service. Books that discuss Canada's Victoria Cross recipients only contain short synopses on the life and bravery of this Private. But it was when I read his personal records that I got a better idea of the man that was John Bernard Croak. I saw the human side to this man. I was surprised to read that he was charged with so many infractions from 1915 to just before his death. Listed in his personal records are the following infractions:
• December 15, 1915 reprimanded for being drunk on duty
• December 30, 1915 sentenced to 6 days after being caught with unauthorized whiskey
• February 2, 1916 sentenced to 21 days after breaking camp while under quarantine
• March 13, 1916 sentenced to 28 days after leaving a range without authorization and being drunk
• April 15, 1916 fined for being drunk on duty
• June 10, 1916 Sentenced to 10 days for being drunk on duty
• February 3, 1917 Sentenced to 10 days for being in possession of liquor resisting arrest and improperly dressed
• June 28, 1917 Granted 10 days leave
• July 18, 1917 Quarantined for contracting syphilis and gonorrhea while on leave
• August 8, 1917 docked one day's pay for neglect
• January 4, 1918 sentenced to 5 days for willfully lying to a superior officer
• March 7, 1918 sentenced to 14 days for being AWOL for 56 hours
• June 6, 1918 sentenced to 24 days for being drunk on duty.
Twelve infractions on his personal records in the span of three years; a clear indication as to why this man, after three years of service, failed to rise above the rank of Private. AWOL, drunk on duty, neglect, conduct unbecoming, STIs.
He was far from a model soldier to be fair; perhaps the alcohol was a coping mechanism for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But despite all these misconducts, this soldier did the opposite of what was expected of his typical behaviour, leading to one of the most courageous days in Canadian history and his eventual posthumous awarding of the highest medal that can be bestowed upon a Canadian Soldier.
Just what caused such a role reversal? Did he lose a friend that day? Did he have a death wish by charging two separate machine gun nests? Was he drunk? Was he sober? Would he have received the medal if battalion headquarters were not present? Why did he disobey orders to get his already shot arm looked after? Were his last words indicative of how he had behaved the three years prior? All of the answers to these questions will never be truly known and are lost to the sands of time.
I also ask why all the books that write about Canadian Victoria Cross recipients, tales of Canadian Valor, not talk about this man's human side? His past digressions did not take away from what he did, if anything it added to his feats of bravery. The fact is, he had a poor record and was jailed on numerous occasions.
But on August 8, 1918 this 26-year-old private did the opposite of what was expected of him and put on one of the most heroic displays of the war. It is like a movie script: the bad soldier has a moment of clarity and does his duty only to die in the process.
Jimmy Cagney played a malingering soldier -- Private Jerry Plunkett -- in the movie the Fighting 69th, another Private Ernest (Smokey) Smith, Victoria Cross recipient who was reportedly jailed the day before he was to receive the Victoria Cross to keep him out of trouble.
Getting to know John was a pleasure and I hope you all enjoyed reading about him. As I presented on his life at his graveside I brought a bottle of Irish whiskey. Seeing as though he was Irish and most of his infractions involved whiskey or alcohol, I poured a shot for everyone on that trip and we toasted to the memory of Private John Bernard Croak VC.
After the war on June 20, 1920 his mother was awarded the Victoria Cross for her son's acts of bravery. Following her death in 1928, her son Michael received the medal in New York. His son inherited it in 1971 and sold it in 1976 for an undisclosed price to the Canadian War Museum to cover medical expenses. Glace Bay has named a Legion, school, and park after him.
When I called the Legion, a woman there said they used to have a picnic every year on the anniversary of his death in the park named after him, but they stopped a few years back. Just like that, the memory of one of our finest warriors is slowly slipping from time. So I ask that whenever you are having a drink this holiday season, raise your glass and toast the forgotten Victoria Cross recipient.