JOHN LEWIS REYNOLDS (JACK)
(A Personal South African Tragedy)
A family story shared by Elesa Willies
John Lewis Reynolds (Jack to his family and friends) was the grandpa I never knew. He was born on 1 August, 1892 in the Peddie District of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. He was the first child and eldest son of parents who had a farm called Longford. A tall, serious man with fine features, his air of quiet strength and gentle humour had many a girl’s head turn his way.
Towards the end of 1912, he met my grandmother Catherine Helen Stewart (known as Kate) who was a dedicated teacher at Worthing, the farm school nearby. After a suitable period of courtship the happy couple were married on the 30 December, 1915. Meanwhile, world changing events had been moving quickly on the political front. World War One was declared on 4 August 1914 and in spite of the lingering animosity between the English and Afrikaans people due to the recent bitter Anglo-Boer war, the Prime Minister Louis Botha reassured England that South Africa would lend its support by securing British interests in the country against German invasion and by becoming a part of the Allied Forces.
In spite of the progressive turmoil happening around them, the newly wedded couple felt the war was far removed from their idyllic life, which was heightened when Kate fell pregnant in February, 1916. But as time passed and news reached South Africa of the decimation of the Infantry on the Western Front, the ugly reality intruded into everyone’s lives at home.
Jack became increasingly restless. He felt guilty that being able-bodied, he should contribute to the war effort by signing up. His feelings intensified after he found out that in the previous year on 12 May, 1915, his cousin Alkin had signed up with the 1st Rhodesian Regiment and with the South African forces, was fighting the Germans in South West Africa. A few months later, Alkin headed back north and as part of the British South African Police force (BSAP) had gone to protect the borders of Southern Rhodesia against Von Lettow Borteck’s forces who were trying to invade the country. Now, in 1916 he’d become even more deeply involved by penetrating the neighbouring country as part of the famous Murray’s Column, a tightly knit combat unit fighting in German East Africa.
Then on 15 July, 1916, South African soldiers made their debut during the Battle of Delville Wood in France. The heroic men distinguished themselves by fighting ferociously for six weeks, holding their position but at a terrible price. When the battle ended on the 3 September, the final cost in lost lives was horrific; out of 3,155 soldiers who entered the battle, only 619 remained.
There was a brief respite for Jack’s dilemma with the birth of his and Kate’s baby girl (my mother) on 28 October, 1916. They named her Mary Clare and for a while the joys of fatherhood took precedence. But eventually although there was no conscription, Jack did volunteer to join the South African Infantry in January, 1917. Whether he discussed this with his wife first or told her after the fact remains a mystery. Regardless, it is known that an intense argument erupted between them, which ended when a distraught Kate exclaimed the unforgivable; that she had made a mistake marrying him and might as well have chosen his cousin for all the difference it made.
On 26 January, 1917, Jack left his young family to go for training in Potchefstroom near Johannesburg in the Transvaal, returning for a short visit on the 8 February. A photographic portrait reveals a man standing smartly in army uniform next to his seated wife, who is holding on her lap their baby daughter Mary Clare, now 3 ½ months old.
On the 22 February, 1917, he sent her a telegram saying he was ‘on way to the Cape’. He entrained at Klerksdorp for Cape Town where two days later he boarded the ship ‘Walmer Castle’ and was gone. His diary reveals his enthusiasm and excitement at embarking on a ‘grand adventure’. His voyage to England was fairly uneventful apart from a brief stop at Freetown in West Africa. During World War 1, this port provided a base for operations by the British forces in the Atlantic. On the 27 March Jack arrived in Plymouth, Devon, and immediately entrained for the Inkerman Barracks in Woking, Surrey where he stayed for three days.
It then appears he had a bit of a holiday sight-seeing. During seven days in Glasgow, Scotland, a letter dated 3 April from the Ivanhoe hotel, reveals how he was missing his family, particularly his ‘little girlie.’ He then spent two days in London, during which he visited the Lyceum Theatre in the West End to enjoy a popular play called ‘Seven Days Leave’.
Alas, his time of leisure came to an end when he returned to Inkerman Barracks to train for a week in ‘hell’. It was bitterly cold and he recorded having to break ice off the top of the pail of water in order to wash himself. Being South African he was not used to such extreme conditions and had also just come from a summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The inevitable happened as he fell very ill and spent the next five weeks in Aldershot Hospital, suffering from laryngitis, measles and fever.
It was while he was lying there in bed that his thoughts turned to home as he wrote two poems to his mother and Kate. The sentiments expressed to both women, shows how he was homesick and had regrets about going against their wishes. But he appealed to them to understand why he had signed up. He admitted he had found it hard to say goodbye, but felt he was ‘honour bound to answer the call’. He suggested they pray for solace and that they must look to the future when he would return.
When he was released in mid-May, he had six days sick leave which he spent in London, before returning to the barracks for an ‘easy time of it’ for the next two weeks.
On the 9th June, he had five days ‘embarkation leave’ at Swanage before catching a boat to Southampton where he boarded another ship to cross the English Channel to Le Havre, France. He then took a steamship, sailing for eight hours up the River Seine to Rouen where he was stationed for two weeks, before entraining to ‘Savoy’ for two days.
Then the serious work really began when he marched 18 km to join his regiment at billets in Simencourt at the beginning of July. The next two months until the end of August were spent around Neuvelle and Yrtres, alternatively being in the trenches where he ‘saw a good bit of fighting’ and then retreating to ‘rest’ which really meant marching every night to the front line 6 km away to repair and dig trenches from 7 pm to 4 am in working parties.
By now, he was feeling quite demoralised as he wrote in his diary;
“Oh it’s rotten and we get so little food. We’re nearly always hungry. A couple of our chaps get knocked over every day. I wonder when my turn is coming. I’ve had a hit on the head but it was not enough to send me to Blighty. A few days before, I fell down the dug-out steps and a little later part of the wall fell on me owing to the concussion caused by a Minnie exploding near us.”
On the 31 July, the day before his 25th birthday he wrote to his ‘darling’ daughter, sending ‘love to mums and self, and lots of kisses and hugs from your loving Daddy.’
At the beginning of September his regiment travelled to a camp called ‘Henham’ near Aschet Petite where they had a ‘fairly easy time of it, doing a few hours drill every day’. The weather was ‘very wet and cold’, and they were sleeping on damp cots in muddy tents. He knew they would be ‘going to Belgium to go over the top in a couple of weeks’ time’.
As predicted, on the 12 September at midday, the soldiers marched 8 km to entrain at Bapaume for Godewaervelde arriving there at 3 am. They then marched another 8 km to their rest camp where they stayed ‘for a day and a night’ before moving on to billets where they ‘slept in a fine barn with plenty of straw’.
On the 16 September at 2 pm, they marched to Poperinghe, 8 miles west of Ypres for three days of preparations, before ‘going into the line where there is fierce fighting’. The night they arrived, he and ‘two pals’ went into town for supper. They had ‘fried eggs, a few drinks and finished off with cigars’ before returning home to camp. His last words in his diary were, ‘Will conclude this after the battle’.
On the 20 September, he fought in the Battle of Menin Road Ridge and was killed in action. A letter written to Kate on the 29 September, was from one of his pals who was with Jack when he died. Private F.A. Quin (Frank), service number 10965, wrote, ‘a bullet pierced his heart and he died peacefully’. He was hit after they had ‘taken the objective’.
Private John Lewis Reynolds, service number 10984 was lost forever in an unknown grave in the stinking, filthy quagmire of the Western Front. But, miraculously his wallet with letters and photos, his diary and small note book were returned to his grieving widow, and, in March 1918, a year after he had left home, his identification disk was also sent back to South Africa, along with his British War and Victory medals.
Back in Peddie, the homegrown boy along with fifteen other names, is recognised on a cenotaph in the central square. It reads, ‘This Monument is dedicated to the Memory of the Men of the Town District of Peddie who laid down their Lives in the Great War. Their Name Liveth Forever More’. ‘John L. Reynolds’ also appears on the Menin Arch as one of the 55,000 missing dead from the Ypres Salient, the last place he marched through on his way to meet his fate, never to return.
In a final poignant mention, his cousin Alkin survived the war. In 1917 he earned distinction by being awarded several medals and strangely enough, received a Mention in Despatches five days after Jack died.