b. 18/05/1892 Little Bay, Newfoundland, Canada. d. 08/08/1918 Amiens, France.
John Bernard Croak (1892-1918) was born in Little Bay, Newfoundland, Canada on May 18th, 1892 to James and Cecelia Croak. The family moved to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia when Croak was two years old. He attended school there and then began work as a coal miner.
In early 1914, Croak went out west and did some trapping but during a trip back home in August 1915, he joined the 55th Battalion in Saint John, New Brunswick. After basic training at nearby Camp Sussex, he sailed to England with his battalion in November for more training.
John struggled with military discipline, and had several brushes with authority. In November 1915, he was given detention for being drunk, followed by in December 1915, six days Field Punishment No 2 for being in possession of whiskey. On 20th January 1916, he was again given six days Field Punishment No 2, this time for resisting arrest. The indiscipline sadly continued, with 21 days Field Punishment No 2 in February 1916 for breaking camp whilst under quarantine, and then a month later, another 28 days Field Punishment No 2 for drunkenness, breaking camp, and going AWOL for three days.
Croak’s pattern of behaviour did not end with his transfer to a front-line unit in France in April 1916. From the time he joined the 13th (Royal Highlanders) Battalion his record contains several more disciplinary entries.
One of Croak’s comrades in the battalion was 19-year-old Charlie (Bubbles) Hughes, who had the greatest respect for him:
“Now this Johnny Croak was a remarkable man. There was not a phoney bone in his body. He was a roly-poly guy, feared nothing, and didn’t give a shit for anybody. He always carried a revolver on his hip and I don’t think he would have been afraid to use it on anyone who crossed him. It was a saying in our company that if you went out on a patrol or a working party with Johnny Croak you’d come back.”
Croak was the type of soldier who did much better in the field than in garrison. As it turned out, he accomplished the utmost that any soldier could — he earned the Victoria Cross. During the first half of 1918, the Canadians were kept out of major battles. Instead, they were built up and trained to spearhead what the Allies hoped would be the beginning of the last assault against the tough German enemy. The powerful and experienced Canadian Corps led the final advance of the war, known as Canada’s Hundred Days.
The Germans’ name for the initial attack, which began August 8th, 1918, was the Black Day of the German Army. This massive assault was like no other that the Allies had launched. Previously, uninspired tactics and strategy resulted in a war of attrition in which the body count and the number of metres of ground gained became the measures of success. Now mobility and technological innovations took over.
The Battle of Amiens opened the Allied offensive. By the end of the day, Croak’s efforts and those of his buddies had resulted in a Canadian advance of an unprecedented 13 kilometres and the capture of 8,000 prisoners, 161 artillery pieces and an unknown number of machine-guns — at the cost of 3,868 casualties.
Under a massive artillery barrage and supported by tanks, the Canadians advanced on a 7,775-metre front east of Amiens and soon engaged any Germans who survived the opening artillery fire. Within minutes the Highlanders were hit by their own artillery and lost 30 men. But the troops pressed on to their first obstacle — Hangard Wood — which was strongly defended by several machine-gun nests.
In the wood, Croak, now an experienced soldier with two years in the trenches, became separated from his platoon. When he encountered an enemy machine-gun post, he threw several grenades into it, attacked it at bayonet point, put the German weapon out of action and captured its crew. As he collected prisoners he was shot in the right arm but carried on and rejoined his unit.
Croak’s platoon soon ran into another enemy position of several machine-guns and was again held up. Although Croak should have been having his wound dressed, he immediately charged forward, inspiring the rest of the platoon to follow in a rush. Croak once more routed the enemy with his bayonet, captured three machine-guns, killed several Germans and took others prisoner. During the fight, Croak was wounded by machine-gun fire, this time fatally. A popular legend has it that he said to a comrade: “Do you wish to show your gratitude? Kneel down and pray for my soul.”
Croak was laid to rest in Hangard Wood Cemetery, France. Croak’s mother, Cecilia, received a letter from the 13th Battalion’s chaplain shortly after her son’s death.
“He was a splendid soldier, had done more than one brave deed in clearing out enemy machine-gun nests, he could not have done more gallantly, and I am stating the truth when I tell you that the Battalion could not honour his action more highly than is done,” he wrote. “Death came to him quite instantly, and he is buried with his comrades near the place where he fell.”
In June 1920, Cecilia Croak received her son’s Victoria Cross from Lt.-Gov. McCallum Grant at Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After remaining in the family for several years, it was purchased in 1976 for $10,000 from Croak’s grandson, named John Bernard after him. The medal is on display with the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
In Glace Bay, there are several tributes to Croak’s bravery, including a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and a school named after him. On May 18, 1992 — the anniversary of his 100th birthday — the John Bernard Croak VC Memorial Park was dedicated, near where he grew up. At the same time, a monument in his honour was unveiled in the park.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: HANGARD BRITISH CEMETERY, HANGARD, FRANCE.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT I, ROW A, GRAVE 9
Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Beaumont-Hamel Visitor Centre, The Somme