Guest blog: Who was ‘Yankee’ Jack?
My great-grandfather’s story – which has a family tree interest far beyond his amazing WWI adventure…
My mother’s grandfather had always been a bit of a mystery. He spoke with, what people referred to, as an American accent, yet he had no known family or close friends and he never spoke of his family or where he came from.
When I wanted to research my family history I quizzed my grandad and his brother (Stanley and Arthur Claude) and was told I might as well ‘give up now’.
All they knew about their father’s history was that he came from America or Canada, they even joked that “maybe he was a gangster or something”. I’d always been told he was called Jack Davies, and had been known at his place of work as ‘Yankee Jack’. However, when I obtained his marriage certificate I saw it said ‘Arthur Claude Davies’, when I asked my grandma she confirmed that everyone called him Jack. He recorded his father on the certificate as ‘Henry Davies, deceased’.
After over one year of trawling census reports I found a family in the Canadian census who stood out, although the father was Herbert (not Henry), there was an Arthur Claude with an age that matched, and his brother closest in age was named Stanley (like my grandad).
The parents of the family were both born in England but the majority of their 13 children had been born in Canada (although the family had moved to Canada, back to England, and back to Canada again where they eventually settled). I was sure I’d found the correct family – something just felt right. Then I found a grave for that very Arthur Claude Davies in Vancouver, which is when I realised there was more awry than met the eye. The same person can’t be buried both in Bolton, Lancashire and Vancouver. Slowly, but surely, everything began to unravel.
The name ‘Jack’ turned out to be a double-bluff, as this was his true identity, he had taken on the official identity of his brother Arthur Claude, to whom the Canadian grave belonged.
My great-grandad was born 1892 in Winnipeg, MB, ‘John Thomas Davies’, known always as ‘Jack’, he was one of 12 siblings, including Arthur Claude b1893 and Stanley b1896. He enlisted for service on the outbreak of the war (aged 21) signing his declaration on 23 August 1914 at CFB Valcartier, a military training camp built in August 1914 as part of the mobilisation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the onset of World War I. He embarked in Britain in September, then in France in February 1915 where he quickly saw trench warfare, including at the 2nd battle of Ypres. In fact, vast numbers of the battalion Jack was in lost their lives both to warfare and disease. On 22 April 1915 Jack was one of those ordered to counter-attack into the gap created by the gas attack on Gravenstafel at around 5pm. One thousand and six hundred men formed up at 11pm and left at 11.46pm with urine soaked cloths covering their faces (to neutralise the gas). Without prior reconnaissance, the battalions ran into obstacles half-way to the objective and drew heavy automatic weapons fire from the woods, prompting an impromptu bayonet charge into the darkness. Their attack cleared the former oak plantation of Germans at the cost of 75 percent casualties. Jack, again, was one of the lucky few survivors.
In May 1915 Jack was again at the front line, and there were many complaints from Canadian troops about their rifles which had a tendency to jam. On 20 May they had been trying to take land referred to as ‘the orchard’ and were suffering very heavy casualties. John was scheduled to go ‘over the top’ again at the orchard at 3pm, and he must have felt that this was the point where his immense survival luck had surely run out as this is the day he is reported missing and assumed dead. His family were informed.
However, Jack clearly wasn’t dead as he joined up with the British Forces in December 1915 in Lancashire using his brothers name, Arthur Davies. He returned to the front line, and must have been injured as he was returned to a training battalion around September 1916 before setting out to the front again, this time with the Kings Liverpool Regiment. He was eventually ‘poached’ by the Royal Engineers, with whom he saw out the rest of the war.
He always used his brother’s identity on official documents in the UK where he married and lived the rest of his life, but he was still known to everyone as ‘Jack’. He had two sons and a daughter, he named his two sons, Arthur Claude and Stanley after his two closest brothers he would never see nor hear of again.
I know for sure his family never knew of his survival as I managed to trace Davies cousins in Canada, who knew of Jack’s ‘death’, one had made him a memorial website. They were shocked, to say the least, when I contacted them. I sent them the one photograph I have of Jack in his military uniform and they confirmed that it was definitely him. They sent photos in return – including one of him with his brothers just before he left for war – and told me that the family were all very very close and how sorely missed he was by his parents and all his siblings.
Sadly, my grandfather Stanley had died by the time these discoveries were made. But my uncle Arthur Claude Davies, aged 90, is still living and the discoveries have amazed him and he says they have made things make sense to him. He said there always seemed to be a slight sadness to his dad, as if something was missing, and now he understands what. And that he had always wondered why he had no family or close old friends.
I can’t even begin to imagine what he must have gone through as such a young man, to have been in the small surviving per cent on a number of occasions; to desert and re-enlist and return to the front; be injured and return again; and be forced by his actions to never be able to make contact with his loved ones again for fear of his own life and their safety.
I feel so glad that we have been able to uncover his story and reconnect with his relatives in Canada so we can all can love, understand, and forgive him.
Thank you so much for letting me share his story.
also discovered she has a Canadian cousin
named Carol Davies, niece of Pauline Smith
nee Davies (also an avid family historian)
and Sheila Jones nee Davies & Alec Davies;
Grand-daughter of Stanley Davies.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 4th, 2014 at 2:19 pm and is filed under Blogs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a comment, or trackback from your own site.
Tags: Canadian, Canadian Expeditionary Force (BEF), centenary, CFB Valcartier, family history, Festubert, front line, genealogy, Gravenstafel, Inspirational, magazine, mystery, Real-life, Royal Engineers, World War I, world war one, ww1, Yankee Jack Davies, Your Family Tree