John Croak’s Victoria Cross

Cape Breton coal miner John Croak received the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the First World War.

John Bernard Croak was born in Little Bay, Newfoundland, on May 18, 1892. His family moved to Glace Bay when he was a small child – at either two or four years of age, according to conflicting census records – so his father, James, could work in the coal mines.

As was so common in prior generations, John left school and followed his father into the mines as a teenager. He started working in the Dominion No. 2 mine at the age of 14 (

In 1915, at the age of 23, John enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and served with the 13th Infantry Battalion during WWI.

John’s career as a soldier got off to a rough start. Only three days after arriving in England in 1915 with the Battalion, now-Private Croak was given one week’s detention for drunkenness. In the next three years, he faced various charges on at least fifteen occasions that all seemed to stem from alcohol.

As was common with British and Allied soldiers, he also spent time in hospital being treated for venereal diseases.

While he may not have been a disciplined soldier, he was an extraordinarily brave one. He fought in places like Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Charlie “Bubbles” Hughes served alongside Croak and said of him: “Now this Johnny Croak was a remarkable man. There was not a phoney bone in his body. He was a roly-poly guy, feared nothing… He always carried a revolver on his hip and I don’t think he would have been afraid to use it on anyone who crossed him … if you went out on a patrol or a working party with Johnny Croak, you’d come back.”

On August 8, 1918, at the beginning of the Allied offensive around Amiens, France, Private Croak became separated from his platoon during the advance. When he encountered a German machine gun position, he attacked it and captured both the machine gun and its crew.

His arm was wounded in the action but he refused to get it looked at. Instead, he rejoined his platoon as it arrived at another enemy strongpoint. Dashing forward alone, Croak was the first in his platoon to reach the enemy trenches. He and men who had followed him entered the trenches and captured three machine guns and the entire enemy garrison.

Croak was wounded a second time during the action and died a few minutes later.

The September 24, 1918, London Gazette said, “The perseverance and valour of this gallant soldier, who was again severely wounded, and died of his wounds, were an inspiring example to all.”

Private Croak was awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for valour, posthumously for his actions at Amiens. His mother, Cecilia, received it from Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor at Government House after the war. It was held by the family for several years until it was purchased by the Canadian War Museum in 1976. Today it is on display in the Army Museum at Halifax’s Citadel.

In Glace Bay, a legion, school and park have all been named for John Croak. The pond in John Croak Memorial Park was the reservoir for the Dominion No. 2 mine.

Croak is buried in the Hangard Wood British Cemetery in Somme, France.

British military historian J.F.C. Fuller called the Battle of Amiens “the most decisive battle of the First World War.” The Germans called it “the Black Day of the German Army.” It played an important role in bringing WWI to an end just a few months later on November 11.

The Victoria Cross was established by Queen Victoria in 1856. The British Victoria Cross is reputed to have been manufactured with bronze from Russian cannons captured at Sevastopol during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. While there is no solid proof of this, the story is taken to be true, according to the Department of National Defence.

This original supply of metal was exhausted by the end of 1914. Since then, the majority of Crosses have been made from the cascabels of two Chinese cannons, the origins of which remain uncertain. Cascabels are the bulbous shaped metal protuberance at the breech end of a cannon, which is used to secure the recoil cables. The only remaining cascabel is held by 15 Regiment The Royal Logistics Corps at Donnington, Telford (UK). It must be under armed guard, in the presence of an officer, when it is taken out of its vault. The barrels of the Chinese cannons (with their cascabels missing) are outside the Officers' Mess at the Royal Artillery Barracks at Wollwich (UK).

Canada first manufactured its own Victoria Crosses in 2007, using a slice of metal from the last—remaining cascabel, material from the Confederation Medal which was commissioned in 1867, and metals mined in each region of Canada. The precise formula of the alloy (combination of metals) used to make Canadian Victoria Crosses is kept secret to prevent forgeries.

Our thanks to all veterans for their service.