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Brave Private John


His young daughter’s persistent sickliness bothered John Loveless. Perhaps a nice, fresh orange would do her some good.

Likely the coastal boat had oranges on board — part of any day’s breakfast for crew and passengers. He could walk over to Hermitage and see if the boat was in and see if the steward would sell him an orange. It was only about 15 kilometres from Seal Cove to Hermitage.

It was the late 1920s. “Private John,” as he was known with respect in his home community, had served in the Great War. He had come home after that, married and begun to raise a family. But times were very hard in coastal Newfoundland at the time. The outports were rarely what you would call “flush” and now, on top of everything, you heard a lot about a depression.

Private John timed his visit to Hermitage just right. The boat was there and he went aboard and found the right man.

The steward studied him. “You been in the war?” he asked.

“Yes” John replied, for it was obvious he had been cruelly wounded in the face.

“You from Hermitage?” the steward asked.

“No, Seal Cove” John replied.

“How did you get here then?” asked the steward.

Loveless explained that he had walked, following what was no more than a track at the time. He traversed the arm of land which protrudes seaward from the Connaigre Peninsula. When he explained to the steward how he would very much like to buy an orange for his sick daughter, the steward disappeared into the galley without a word. He returned and handed John a bag of oranges. A whole bag! “Here!” he said. “No charge for anyone who walked so far, and who served in the war. Take them. They’re all yours.”

Earlier this month here in St. John’s, I met Private John’s great-grandson. Ray Price was born in Seal Cove 42 years ago but left that tiny community and settled in St. John’s in 1995. He told me several stories about what Private John was like and how he had lived a long life, enabling the generations to know each other. Ray, as a young schoolboy, knew his maternal great-grandfather. But it is the war record which Ray hopes is not lost.

 

For the record

“I don’t think great-grandfather’s war record is very well known,” Ray said. “I think it should come out, because what he did in the war earned him a medal … and it’s all part of Newfoundland’s war record.”

The story — even though supported by strong family memory and papers recording Private John’s wounds, his admission to hospital, his Military Medal and including even a letter from his surrogate father to the military brass inquiring of the young soldier’s whereabouts — is brief. We know precious little of the act of bravery that earned him his medal. Like the details behind so many medals won by so many selfless men, they are scant.

Born at Harbour Breton in 1894, John Loveless was a child when he lost his parents. He was raised by a branch of the family at Seal Cove, another John Loveless family. In July 1916, young John enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment and sailed for Europe from St. John’s.

In due course John Loveless found himself in France, by now torn, trenched and pock-marked after more than three years of war. A planned attack on a crucial part of the Germans’ Hindenburg Line near Cambrai drew the Newfoundlanders into perilously close contact with the enemy.

While infantry numbers were depleted by men being seconded to other theatres, those who fought at Cambrai were supported by an impressive pack of tanks — no fewer than 278 of them — with an additional 98 to carry supplies, drag away barbed wire and to move wireless and telephone communications forward (From G.W.L. Nicholson’s “The Fighting Newfoundlander,” 1964). It was the first use of tanks in the war.

 

Nov. 20, 1917

Critically important canals and railway lines near the French town of Cambrai became the focus of a battle which raged for more than two weeks. Death was an ever present likelihood. On the last day of the battle, Dec. 3, for example, Newfoundland lost 70 of its men — killed, wounded or taken prisoner. One officer, Lieut. George Langmead, was killed.

A brief military notation on honours and awards, dated Jan. 5, 1918 states: “2970. MM: Pte. J. Loveless, when his company was held up by a strong pocket of snipers, showed great courage and initiative in getting his L.G. into action on a flank under heavy fire, and thereby captured the sniping post. It was entirely due to his initiative that the advance was not further delayed.”

“L.G.” refers to the Lewis gun, a First World War era light machine gun of American design; it was widely used by British forces. (according to Wikipedia).

Richard Cramm wrote of Cambrai and the Newfoundlanders in his 1921 book “The First Five Hundred.” He lists John Loveless and the other medal winners in that campaign. After the ordeal, Cramm recorded, “the journey back to winter quarters was made over roads which, in many places were blocked with deep banks of snow. It was typical Newfoundland winter weather; but the thought of spending Christmas and enjoying a rest in a French town took the edge off all hardships.”

Fifteen Newfoundlanders who fought in the Marcoing-Masnieres region of Cambrai received the Military Medal. As Nicholson writes, “these and many other individuals worthily upheld the traditions of their Regiment in its struggle to seize and hold the bridgehead.”

Two weeks after Cambrai and because of “the splendid performance” of the men of Newfoundland at Ypres (in Belgium) and Cambrai, King George V granted the title “Royal” to the Newfoundland Regiment.

Private John was wounded three times. A leg wound was virtually ignored as he carried an injured fellow to safety. The second occurred when he took a bullet through the shoulder. His third, the most serious was sustained most likely at the Cambrai encounter.

Dec. 11, 1917, was the date he arrived in England from France and was admitted to King George Hospital, London. This wound was caused by a bullet through the jaw — it destroyed one side of his face and took out all of his teeth. The flesh was patched with the aid of skin from his back. One eye was lost.

He healed, albeit crudely, and in time returned home to Seal Cove, married, and raised a family of seven. For the Civil Re-establishment Committee (whose job it was to rehabilitate incapacitated ex-servicemen, with vocational training if desired) Loveless recorded his decision on future employment: “To work at Fishing.” The form was signed, J. Loveless: his mark “X.”  He also worked at logging, and likely in central Newfoundland.

Ray Price remembers his maternal great-grandfather as a kindly man.

“I would often drop in on him on my way home from school — he would take a small dish of coins from a cupboard and hand it to me to take what I wanted. If someone did him a kindness, such as giving him a ride home on their horse and cart, he would not let that friend travel on before finding something to give him — it might be simply an apple — it just had to be something.”

Here is the letter written by Pte. John’s “father” to a regimental officer seeking information on his “son’s” whereabouts:

“I received your letter today saying that private J. Loveless No. 2970 has won Honors & Awards for bravery. I’m glad to hear that he is brave hope that he will do good work. But I haven’t heard from himself since he was wounded last November 1917. Last news I heard he was admitted to King George’s Hospital London. Will you please find out for me if he is still alive. I heard that he was severily wounded in the (face) please inquire and let me know all particulars.”

In time, of course, a reply was received and the news, while sad and unfortunate, could have been so much worse.

Private John, a small man (his enlistment papers show he was 5 foot four), from a small place, and with an iron will, had a determination to survive. He lived to be 92, dying in 1986.

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com.

 

 

 

Likely the coastal boat had oranges on board — part of any day’s breakfast for crew and passengers. He could walk over to Hermitage and see if the boat was in and see if the steward would sell him an orange. It was only about 15 kilometres from Seal Cove to Hermitage.

It was the late 1920s. “Private John,” as he was known with respect in his home community, had served in the Great War. He had come home after that, married and begun to raise a family. But times were very hard in coastal Newfoundland at the time. The outports were rarely what you would call “flush” and now, on top of everything, you heard a lot about a depression.

Private John timed his visit to Hermitage just right. The boat was there and he went aboard and found the right man.

The steward studied him. “You been in the war?” he asked.

“Yes” John replied, for it was obvious he had been cruelly wounded in the face.

“You from Hermitage?” the steward asked.

“No, Seal Cove” John replied.

“How did you get here then?” asked the steward.

Loveless explained that he had walked, following what was no more than a track at the time. He traversed the arm of land which protrudes seaward from the Connaigre Peninsula. When he explained to the steward how he would very much like to buy an orange for his sick daughter, the steward disappeared into the galley without a word. He returned and handed John a bag of oranges. A whole bag! “Here!” he said. “No charge for anyone who walked so far, and who served in the war. Take them. They’re all yours.”

Earlier this month here in St. John’s, I met Private John’s great-grandson. Ray Price was born in Seal Cove 42 years ago but left that tiny community and settled in St. John’s in 1995. He told me several stories about what Private John was like and how he had lived a long life, enabling the generations to know each other. Ray, as a young schoolboy, knew his maternal great-grandfather. But it is the war record which Ray hopes is not lost.

 

For the record

“I don’t think great-grandfather’s war record is very well known,” Ray said. “I think it should come out, because what he did in the war earned him a medal … and it’s all part of Newfoundland’s war record.”

The story — even though supported by strong family memory and papers recording Private John’s wounds, his admission to hospital, his Military Medal and including even a letter from his surrogate father to the military brass inquiring of the young soldier’s whereabouts — is brief. We know precious little of the act of bravery that earned him his medal. Like the details behind so many medals won by so many selfless men, they are scant.

Born at Harbour Breton in 1894, John Loveless was a child when he lost his parents. He was raised by a branch of the family at Seal Cove, another John Loveless family. In July 1916, young John enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment and sailed for Europe from St. John’s.

In due course John Loveless found himself in France, by now torn, trenched and pock-marked after more than three years of war. A planned attack on a crucial part of the Germans’ Hindenburg Line near Cambrai drew the Newfoundlanders into perilously close contact with the enemy.

While infantry numbers were depleted by men being seconded to other theatres, those who fought at Cambrai were supported by an impressive pack of tanks — no fewer than 278 of them — with an additional 98 to carry supplies, drag away barbed wire and to move wireless and telephone communications forward (From G.W.L. Nicholson’s “The Fighting Newfoundlander,” 1964). It was the first use of tanks in the war.

 

Nov. 20, 1917

Critically important canals and railway lines near the French town of Cambrai became the focus of a battle which raged for more than two weeks. Death was an ever present likelihood. On the last day of the battle, Dec. 3, for example, Newfoundland lost 70 of its men — killed, wounded or taken prisoner. One officer, Lieut. George Langmead, was killed.

A brief military notation on honours and awards, dated Jan. 5, 1918 states: “2970. MM: Pte. J. Loveless, when his company was held up by a strong pocket of snipers, showed great courage and initiative in getting his L.G. into action on a flank under heavy fire, and thereby captured the sniping post. It was entirely due to his initiative that the advance was not further delayed.”

“L.G.” refers to the Lewis gun, a First World War era light machine gun of American design; it was widely used by British forces. (according to Wikipedia).

Richard Cramm wrote of Cambrai and the Newfoundlanders in his 1921 book “The First Five Hundred.” He lists John Loveless and the other medal winners in that campaign. After the ordeal, Cramm recorded, “the journey back to winter quarters was made over roads which, in many places were blocked with deep banks of snow. It was typical Newfoundland winter weather; but the thought of spending Christmas and enjoying a rest in a French town took the edge off all hardships.”

Fifteen Newfoundlanders who fought in the Marcoing-Masnieres region of Cambrai received the Military Medal. As Nicholson writes, “these and many other individuals worthily upheld the traditions of their Regiment in its struggle to seize and hold the bridgehead.”

Two weeks after Cambrai and because of “the splendid performance” of the men of Newfoundland at Ypres (in Belgium) and Cambrai, King George V granted the title “Royal” to the Newfoundland Regiment.

Private John was wounded three times. A leg wound was virtually ignored as he carried an injured fellow to safety. The second occurred when he took a bullet through the shoulder. His third, the most serious was sustained most likely at the Cambrai encounter.

Dec. 11, 1917, was the date he arrived in England from France and was admitted to King George Hospital, London. This wound was caused by a bullet through the jaw — it destroyed one side of his face and took out all of his teeth. The flesh was patched with the aid of skin from his back. One eye was lost.

He healed, albeit crudely, and in time returned home to Seal Cove, married, and raised a family of seven. For the Civil Re-establishment Committee (whose job it was to rehabilitate incapacitated ex-servicemen, with vocational training if desired) Loveless recorded his decision on future employment: “To work at Fishing.” The form was signed, J. Loveless: his mark “X.”  He also worked at logging, and likely in central Newfoundland.

Ray Price remembers his maternal great-grandfather as a kindly man.

“I would often drop in on him on my way home from school — he would take a small dish of coins from a cupboard and hand it to me to take what I wanted. If someone did him a kindness, such as giving him a ride home on their horse and cart, he would not let that friend travel on before finding something to give him — it might be simply an apple — it just had to be something.”

Here is the letter written by Pte. John’s “father” to a regimental officer seeking information on his “son’s” whereabouts:

“I received your letter today saying that private J. Loveless No. 2970 has won Honors & Awards for bravery. I’m glad to hear that he is brave hope that he will do good work. But I haven’t heard from himself since he was wounded last November 1917. Last news I heard he was admitted to King George’s Hospital London. Will you please find out for me if he is still alive. I heard that he was severily wounded in the (face) please inquire and let me know all particulars.”

In time, of course, a reply was received and the news, while sad and unfortunate, could have been so much worse.

Private John, a small man (his enlistment papers show he was 5 foot four), from a small place, and with an iron will, had a determination to survive. He lived to be 92, dying in 1986.

 

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com.

 

 

 

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