The View From Fogo Island -
All we have of freedom, all we use or know -
This our fathers bought for us long ago.
- Rudyard Kipling,
"The Old Issue", 1899
When I sat down to write this piece, these words of Kipling immediately came to mind, and they seemed most appropriate as we approach Remembrance Day.
It also seems more than appropriate that we reflect on the exploits of the fondly called "Fighting Newfoundlander", and in this case someone from Fogo Island.
Meanwhile, when many think of the province's military history they immediately think of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, originally formed in 1914. In World War I this Regiment earned no less than 280 separate decorations, 77 of which were awarded to original members of the "first 500" of which 170 were killed. But this column, acknowledging the bravery of all, especially those who paid the supreme sacrifice, and as well, recognizing the disproportionate number of Fogo Islanders (it seems) who served, it is specifically about one young man from Fogo who was awarded the medal, The Military Medal, for bravery, but also paid the supreme sacrifice.
His name was John Henry Simms, son of William and Emily Simms. He was 22 years of age, single, height 5ft 4in, and weighed 135 pounds, characteristics that might surprise some. It is not surprising that he was a fisherman, but it does seem a little surprising that according to his attestation paper he had earned $500 that previous summer, 1914, fishing. An incidental note here, but one the recruiting officer noted: he had a distinguishing mark scar on left calf from a dog bite. That might have been another story.
Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, and although Newfoundland was at this time a self governing dominion this meant that Newfoundland, being a member of the British Empire, was immediately in the war. Prior to this, Newfoundland did not have a military regiment. The formation of the Newfoundland Patriotic Association within a week proposed to raise 500 for a military contingent and the response was overwhelming. By Sept. 26 nearly 1,000 had signed up. Half passed the medical test, and moved to tent lines at nearby Pleasantville where they would have extensive training.
One of these was John Henry Simms, of Fogo, who enlisted at St. John's on Sept. 2, 1914. He was thus one of 'the first 500' to embark on the S.S. Florizel at St. John's for the United Kingdom on the 3rd of October, 1914. He was in good company on the ship because there were seven others from Fogo Island.
His military resume is rather cryptic, as I am sure that is the way it was, and I have deciphered some of it to the best of my ability. There doesn't seem to be any specific records for the first year if I am reading them right.
He embarked Plymouth for N.E.F. on the 20th August, 1915, and disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt, and entrained for Cairo, Egypt, on the 31st of that month. He embarked Alexandria, Egypt, for Gallipoli, Turkey the 13th of September and landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on the 19th of September. He was evacuated sick with acute gastritis and admitted to a hospital on the Mediterranean island of Lemno on the 22nd of December 1915, and was discharged from that hospital on the 5th of January, 1916, and rejoined his battalion. It is somewhat difficult to understand what action he was involved in the following year, except that he was engaged around the Suez Canal, or so it seems. He was wounded in action on the 16th August, 1917, and for his bravery was awarded the Military Medal 'for bravery in the field'. He died of wounds in the right leg and head the next day. A little about the Military Medal, (MM), here. It was established on the 25th of March, 1916, by King George the Fifth of England, and was awarded for individual or associated acts of bravery, with "For Bravery in the Field' inscribed on it. The names of all recipients were published in the London Gazette.
This is the extract that was printed on the eighteenth of October, 1917, regarding John Henry Simms of Fogo:
"In the attack on the enemy near Langemarck on the sixteenth of August, 1917, whilst in command of a Lewis Gun section he showed great initiative and leadership in getting his man across in a particularly bad piece of ground. He rescued one man under heavy shell fire who had sunk almost to his shoulders in mud. On reaching one objective he rushed forward in spite of heavy barrage and located an excellent position for his Lewis Gun from which good results were obtained."
One can not imagine the dread of families back home of receiving bad news, nor can one imagine the grief of John and Emily Simms when they received in due course this telegram:
"Regret to inform you Records Office London today reports No. 88 Private John Simms died at Fourth Clearing Station August 17th as a result of gunshot in the right leg and head. R.A. Squires, Colonial Secretary. There was a note to the telegraph operator appended: 'This message is not to be sent until receiving office notifies that message to Reverend J.O. Britnell has been delivered and acted upon."
The grieving parents were unaware for some time of the honour bestowed upon their son, nor would it at the time lessen their grief. However, On September 19th, 1917, William Henry Simms received this letter from the Minister of Militia, J.R. Bennett:
I have the honour received from Pay and Record Office, London, that indicates that your son has been awarded the Military Medal for bravery and distinguished service in the field.
I wish to congratulate you on the splendid part played by your son and the honour conferred on him by His Majesty the King in recognition of his valour."
Some time afterwards there was more correspondence between this Mr. Bennett and Mr. Simms as to how to have a suitable presentation of the medal to family, and in communication with the Justice of Peace and his priest in Fogo, it was decided to have it presented publicly at Fogo. This is the letter dated April 1st, 1918 and sent to Major W.F. Rendell;
April 1, 1918
Magistrate's Office, Fogo
I beg to acknowledge receipt of Military Badge won by Pte John H. Simms. Last Thursday at a Public (Tea) Meeting in the SUF Hall prepared by a band of young ladies, by way of reception to welcome two members of the RN reserve, home on furlough, I took advantage of the opportunity to present the medal to Mr. William Henry Simms, father of the gallant lad who won it.
After tea I read your letter and extract of record of 'deed' for which the medal was won and at the end of a short address I presented it to Mr. Simms amidst great applause. Rev. Britnell and H.J. Earle, Esq. gave eloquent addresses making special reference to the gallant conduct of the late Pte. Simms, and congratulated Mr. Simms on being the father of such a brave son, who had made the supreme sacrifice for King and Country.
The proceedings were brought to a close by the singing the National Anthem.
This research shows that there was other correspondence between Mr. Simms and the Department of Militia a few years later. Mr. Simms acknowledged receipt of the Memorial Plaque, the Memorial Scroll and the 1914-1915 Star. Undoubtedly the saddest receipt was that of his son's kit bag, and his bank book. It showed that he was depositing sixty cents a day to the Bank of Montreal, and he had $26.18 in his account.
Private John Henry Simms is resting in the Dozninghem British Cemetery, near Poeperinghe, Belgium. There are 19 Newfoundlanders resting there. Has Private Henry Simms' grave ever been visited, one wonders? It might be something someone visiting Belgium might do some day. I certainly will keep it in mind.
It goes without saying there are stories of bravery, imprisonment, illness, despair, or shell-shock, etc. about everyone that served, but unfortunately most of their stories were never told, and now most of them are at rest. In reading Eric Witcher's book, "English Roots" he mentioned, in particular, the number of men who served from Barr'd Islands. I have no reason to think that that number is unique to Barr'd Islands, but he gives the names of those who served overseas in World Wars I and II. There were 13 young men from that community who served in World War I. When one considers that the population of Barr'd Islands at that time was not more than 400, and assuming, obviously, that women did not serve then, and that half of those who volunteered were turned down for medical reasons, and considering all those under 18, and perhaps those over 30 and married who may have not been eligible, one begins to wonder if almost every available young man volunteered. (Incidentally, eight young men served in World War II, two of whom paid the supreme sacrifice.)
And so on November 11th, again, we have the opportunity to remember the brave deeds of those special young men and women now who served, and for some who made the supreme sacrifice. In remembering we pay homage to those who responded to their country's needs. On November 11th, we pause for two minutes of silent tribute and we attend commemorative ceremonies in honour of our war dead. Poppies are worn as a symbol of remembrance and a reminder of the blood-red flower that still grows on the former battlefields of France and Belgium.
I want to tell you about an incident that my wife and I had last Remembrance Day. We were shopping in a very busy mall in Peterborough, Ontario, at 11 a.m. An announcement was made over the public address system for everyone to recognize two minutes of silence at the sound of a bell. At that sound and for two minutes everyone was motionless wherever he or she had been standing. It was unforgettable. We were, as it were, motionless in time.
In Flanders Fields
the poppies blow
Between the crosses,
row on row,
They mark our place;
and in the sky
still bravely singing fly
amid the guns below.
I am indebted to Dr. David J. Clarke, historical researcher for the Town of Fogo, for some of the information in this column. BLH