Soldier Spotlight: Private John Kneafsey

Soldier Spotlight highlights veterans from the Archives’ online Soldiers’ Memorial. Each week, our volunteers select a remarkable individual to showcase in this new blog series. The Soldiers’ Memorial commemorates more than 1,100 WWI veterans and 2,300 WWII veterans from our region. Three dedicated volunteers have contributed over 1,200 hours to this project by researching and writing biographies. Our goal is to have all South Peace soldiers acknowledged for their service. If you know of someone who lived in the South Peace and should be listed on the Memorial, or would like to get involved by researching a local veteran, please contact the Archives.

Regimental Number: 155105
Rank: Private
Branch: 1st Canadian Pioneer Battalion; Canadian Forestry Corps

John was born in Glendale, Minnesota on May 5, 1878. In 1913, he filed on a homestead at NW4-74-8-W6.  A newspaper headline from October 5, 1915 reads that “For the Third Time this Pioneer Country Has Responded to the Call for Volunteers;” John was listed among these volunteers, having enlisted at Lake Saskatoon on September 20, 1915. On June 14, 1916, John received shrapnel wounds to his right side while in the trenches at Ypres. He notes in a letter sent to a friend back home that “I was lucky as I was able to walk as my wound did not bleed much.”  John was much impressed with the care he received while in hospital.  He also had several weeks’ leave in Ireland; John did not feel he needed so much leave, but “the officer said it would do me good, so I went.” Some time after this injury, John was transferred to the Canadian Forestry Corps. In February of 1918, John was thrown off a truck and suffered from a concussion and a fractured clavicle. After this injury, he became forgetful;. the medical notes in John’s service file note that he appeared and acted more like a man of 70 than of 40. John was later diagnosed with dementia and arteriosclerosis, and in October he was sent back to Canada on a hospital ship. He died “by apoplexy at Cobourg Military Hospital” in Ontario on May 15, 1919, and was buried in Credit River (St. Peter’s Cemetery), Minnesota.

John’s entire military service file has been digitized by Library & Archives Canada.

Read a letter John wrote to a friend back home just months before he was injured the second time.

Notes from John’s service file (Library & Archives Canada)

Notes from John’s service file (Library & Archives Canada)

After the War

The aftermath of the Great War was not nearly as well-documented as the war itself. Men gave up the practice of writing letters and keeping diaries, which have now become such a significant part of keeping their stories alive. But records were still kept, detailing medical issues, applications for pensions and land grants, and the like. And when returned soldiers were ready to open up about their war experiences, stories were told once again.

Some men had gone to serve in Siberia after the war, or stayed in France and Belgium to give their deceased comrades proper burials. Others waited to be repatriated from prison camps, or remained in England for an extended period of time before being well enough to travel home.

Sadly, as the soldiers came home, disease came with them. Up to 50,000 Canadians died of the Spanish Flu in the year following the war. The men who lived through this second wave of tragedy struggled to find their place in the regular world, which they did not find quite so normal after all. Physical and mental injuries plagued and debilitated them, and finding work and maintaining a steady income was an ongoing trial.

In his memoirs, Edward Heller (a South Peace soldier), stated that the memories remained “as though burned in so deeply as with a hot iron”, and that many wounds “though diminished in severity by the passing of years, never heal over, and most of the pain remains.”

We in the coming generations can take it upon ourselves to learn from these memories – which were indestructible to those who lived through them – and guard against such horrors taking hold of the world once again.

New: visit this map, showing where South Peace soldiers died and were buried during World War I

For more information on the final hundred days of the war, visit Veterans Affairs Canada: The Last Hundred Days

The Liberation of Mons

Canadian troops reached the outskirts of Mons, Belgium on November 10. It was common knowledge that an armistice was imminent, but there was no backing down until official word had come.

And so, the Canadian Corps fought their way into the city of Mons on November 11, where they were treated to a hero’s welcome by the civilians who had lived under German occupation since 1914. Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 at 11:00am.

The Battle of Valenciennes

Valenciennes was one of the last remaining cities the Germans had to hold on to. In the first two days of November, the Canadian Corps were able to capture approximately 1,800 enemy soldiers in the area. By nightfall on the 2nd, Canadian troops had left Valenciennes and were headed for Mons. The following day (November 3), Germany’s ally, Austria, signed an armistice to end their involvement in the war.

The Battle of Cambrai

The victories at the Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood cleared the way to Cambrai. Between October 8th and 10th, Canadian, British, and New Zealand troops fought in and around the city. Compared to the resistance they had experienced at the Canal du Nord and on the outskirts of Cambrai in the previous days, taking the city itself proved to be an easy task for the liberators, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions.

Battle of the Canal du Nord

Leading up to the Battle of the Canal du Nord, Canadian Engineers worked tirelessly to construct bridges across the Canal, ready for the assault that would take place on September 27th. On that day, the Corps advanced approximately four kilometres before being held up for a time near Bourlon Wood.

In the following days, Canadian troops cleared enemy trenches and liberated multiple French villages, before encountering extraordinarily harsh fighting on the outskirts of Cambrai. Between September 27th and October 2nd, Canada suffered more than 13,600 casualties – one of the most costly actions of the war.

Battle of the Drocourt-Queant Line

The Drocourt-Queant Line was a part of the Hindenburg Line, an extensive German defence system built in the winter of 1916/1917. On September 2, the first day of fighting at the Drocourt-Queant Line, a section more than six kilometres wide was captured. By the following evening, Canadian troops had reached Canal du Nord. This victory cost the Canadian Corps 5,622 casualties in a span of three days.

Battle of the Scarpe

The Battle of the Scarpe lasted from August 26th to August 30th. Bad weather delayed the attack, but despite the rain and heavy resistance from the enemy, nearly ten kilometres of ground were gained in the first three days of the battle. Important strongholds along the German’s Fresnes-Rouvroy line were also seized by Canadian troops.

Actions Around Damery

Between August 14th and 17th, Canadian troops fought their way into Parvillers and Damery (approximately 35 kilometres east of Amiens). Despite heavy shelling and counterattack, they were able to hold both villages and take prisoners.  Vincent Noskey, a South Peace soldier, was killed in action at Parvillers.  You can read his story on YouTube or our Soldiers’ Memorial.

The Battle of Amiens

The opening day of the Battle of Amiens (August 8, 1918) was labelled by General Ludendorff as “the black day of the German Army in the history of the war”. The Canadians pushed his troops back as much as twelve kilometres on the first day of the battle, and on the 11th of August, the battle ended in a decisive victory for the Allied troops. A total of 5,033 prisoners were taken at Amiens by the Canadian Corps.

Norman Johnston was a South Peace soldier who served at Amiens, and was awarded the Military Medal for his brave actions.  His story has been shared on YouTube and on our Soldiers’ Memorial.