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Tommy Ricketts was the only member of the Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration the British government could bestow upon a member of the armed forces. He was not the only Newfoundlander to receive that decoration however. The other Newfoundland-born recipient was a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
John Bernard Croak was born at Little Bay, Green Bay, on May 18, 1892, the son of James and Cecelia Croak. On his birth certificate the family name is spelled Croke, a common Newfoundland spelling of this name, but on all other official documents related to John Bernard it is spelled Croak.
The family left Little Bay while John Bernard was still a small child and settled in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where his father had found work in the coal mines. He was educated at New Aberdeen public school in Glace Bay, and after leaving school followed his father into the coal pits.
Croak may have travelled or worked in other parts of Canada, as he was in Sussex, N.B., in the summer of 1915; it was there he enlisted on Aug. 7. He was assigned to the 13th Battalion of the Quebec Regiment, part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
He underwent training in Canada and Great Britain before being sent to France, where he saw action in a number of engagements with the enemy in the two years that followed.
Special honourAt the Battle of Amiens, Croak distinguished himself and was singled out for special honour. Amiens is a town in northern France, about 75 miles north of Paris, and had been in German hands for most of the war. It was a key objective for the Allied forces in their drive to liberate France and push the Germans back inside their own boundaries.
On Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadian Expeditionary Force attacked German positions near Amiens. They were successful in penetrating the German line and freeing the Amiens-Paris rail line.
During the assault, Croak became separated from his unit. Singlehandedly, he attacked a German machine gun emplacement, overpowered the enemy soldiers and took them and the machine gun prisoners.
The London Gazette of Sept. 27, 1918 reported his further exploits thus: " 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 orward 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 bayoneting or capturing the entire garrison."
Croak's initiative in charging alone into enemy fire, while severely wounded, was seen as a singular act of exemplary courage. His wounds were such that he would have had every right to ask for medical evacuation, but, instead, he acted like "a flash of fire to a powder-train," spearheading the attack, rather than depending on someone else to carry the charge.
Croak received additional, life-threatening wounds during this second attack. They were such that he died a short time later that same day. His heroic actions did not go unnoticed, however.
He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, which was eventually presented to his mother, and now resides, with other materials documenting his years as a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, at the National Archives in Ottawa.
That archival collection includes his "military will," in which he wrote "In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my mother Mrs. James Croak of New Aberdeen, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada."
He was buried, with full military honours, at Hangard Wood British Cemetery in France. That cemetery is located near the village of Hangard. He was not married.
The fight for Amiens lasted four days, during which time the allied forces overpowered 15 German divisions, putting them out of commission. It was one of the turning points that signalled the imminent defeat of the German forces and an end to the war.
John Bernard Croak is little remembered in Newfoundland today, which is perhaps not surprising, as he lived here for only a few years in childhood, and that was more than a hundred years ago. However, he is remembered in his adopted home on Cape Breton Island. In the town of Glace Bay, there is John Bernard Croak VC Memorial School and John Bernard Croak Memorial Park.
Co-incidentally, John Bernard Croak was born just a few miles away from Tommy Ricketts, who was born at Middle Arm, White Bay, but the Croaks had already left Newfoundland by the time of Ricketts' birth in 1901.
As they served in different armies, it is quite possible Newfoundland's two Victoria Cross winners never met.
Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University.
This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: 22 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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