A Bit of History, A Bit of Mystery

by cindy

How I loved my mother‘s stories. They weren’t the usual fairy tales and fables. These were stories based on actual events with actual people, stories about her family, whom she referred to as “my people”. These hardy souls, who emigrated from England to Newfoundland in the mid-1800s, were her beloved aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins. In spite of the many miles between them, their familial connection always remained strong.

My mother’s “people”. Photo taken in Carbonear, Newfoundland, 1913. Back row from left: Uncle Frank Hollands, Uncle Jack Hollands, Grandmother Emily Burles Hollands with Cousin Winifred Rusted, Grandfather Charles William Hollands with Cousin Nigel Rusted. Front row from left: Aunt Winifred Rusted, Uncle Ernest Rusted, Aunt Faith Hollands holding Cousin Sybil Rusted, Uncle Harry Hollands.

We sat spellbound, my siblings and I, hanging on to her every word. As children we considered this a ghost story and as such we later shared the tale with our own children. Rest assured, what is written here is true. The characters are real. The setting is real. The history is real. This is the story of one John Rupert Weigall Hollands, my Great-uncle Jack.

Jack taught school at Coombs Cove and Bishops Cove. At Coombs Cove he made friends with Arthur and Phil Jensen of Harbour Breton. In July, 1914, the three travelled to Montreal. I am not sure of their plans [but] World War I broke out on their arrival and Phil and Jack decided to enlist. There was some delay due to the army not being ready for recruits and Arthur told me he was amused over what the two would say to the official [about] the delay. (Jack was 6′ and Phil was 6’2″ or 4″). [Eventually] they joined the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, and were the first to go overseas in September 1914″.

So wrote my mother’s cousin, Dr. Nigel Rusted, as part of an address he gave years ago to the Newfoundland and Labrador Genealogical Society. At the time of enlistment, Jack, born on June 7, 1892, would have been twenty-two years old. His friend Phil, born in 1888, was twenty-six. The recruits were eventually dispatched to what became the Canadian Forces Base in Valcartier, Quebec, which, in August 1914, had hastily been erected for military training. Great-uncle Jack sent postcards to his sister, my grandmother, who was studying nursing in New York City. She too would answer the call during this war, serving as a nurse in France.

Front of card showing troops in training in Valcartier. I am still trying to identify Jack.
September 18, 1914, message to my grandmother, damaged from scrapbook glue
Front of second card
September 21, 1914, his note announces he is soon to be deployed.

Jack wrote on the above postcard that his deployment was imminent. Four days later, on September 25, 1914, they embarked on the long journey by sea to England. Once there, he and Phil, as part of the 13th Battalion Canadian Infantry (the Royal Highlanders of Canada), spent more months in training. It was not yet time for them to join the war. Cousin Nigel continues:

A letter [written by Phil] from England on February 5, 1915 , said that [they] would be sent to France at any minute and mail would be forwarded. He listed the articles they carried on a march, weighing about eighty pounds: rifle weighing 10 lbs., 150 rounds of ammunition, field glasses, trenching tools weighing 3 lbs., bayonet, water bottle, haversack, grub, great coat, fatigue pants, one shirt, helmet, two towels and soap, pair boots weighing over 3 lbs., mess tin, rubber sheet, oil coat.

In February, 1915, the battalion landed on the coast of Brittany. By April they had headed north into Belgium, taking up position in the Ypres Salient. The Second Battle of Ypres, one of the most lethal battles in the war, was about to begin. On April 22, while attacking an area to the left of Jack’s battalion, the German army used chlorine gas for the first time. The Allies were entirely unprepared for this and the result was devastating. They held their position, at least for that night.

Phil and Jack were relieved for rest and clean up. [They] had a shower and went to bunk. [Around midnight] Jack awoke Phil to say that “he would get it tomorrow” and wanted him to promise to visit his uncle [George Hollands] in London and to take some knickknacks back to his mother [in Newfoundland]. Phil told him, “You had a nightmare” but Jack insisted. He said that his late fiancé, Stella, who had died [around Christmas, 1913,] from tuberculosis, had visited him during the night. “She said”, replied Jack, “I will see you tomorrow.”

Early on the following morning, April 23, 1915, the two friends were among those called out as reinforcements. There were too many men for the small French trenches, so Jack joined others behind the trench, hunkering down in a hole left by the previous day’s shelling. At 8 am an enemy shell found its way to that site.

According to a letter from the officer commanding (OC 13th Bn), Pvt. Hollands was “killed in action by a shell exploding in a dug-out of which he was an occupant. It was impossible for us to bury him owing to the heavy operation at that time.

It is said that Great-uncle Jack was the first Newfoundlander to be killed in action during that war.

At the end of the war, Phil returned to Newfoundland. He brought with him this story and those knickknacks Jack had entrusted to his care. He later became a minister and moved to the United States, serving as rector of St. Thomas Parish (St. Thomas Episcopal Church) near Baltimore, Md. His son, Dr. Philip J. Jensen, Jr., was a physician who taught pediatrics (serving as Head of Outpatient Pediatrics) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine during the time my husband studied there. Small world, is it not?

To learn more about the contributions of Newfoundlanders during World War I, I suggest the following links: