Black History Month: Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Jones, a WWI hero

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Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones had two “handicaps” going against him when he decided to enlist in the Canadian Army to serve King and country at the height of the First World War.

He was black and old enough to be a grandfather to many of the young recruits, who were vying for a coveted spot on the enrollment list, swept up in the patriotic fervor that rolled over Canada at outset of the bloody war.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, First World War private taken by an unknown photographer, from the personal collection of the Jones family (Wikipedia)

He couldn’t do much about the colour of his skin, which because of prevailing racial prejudices made it very difficult for black Canadians to enlist. One Canadian recruitment officer wrote to his superiors at the time that white soldiers should not “have to mingle with Negroes.”

But his age was a different matter. The fit 58-year-old teamster born in East Mountain, Nova Scotia, easily passed for a man 20 years younger.

And so with a little lie about his age, Jones enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June 1916.

Pte Jones was sent overseas and he was among the 16 black soldiers assigned to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR).

As part of the famed RCR, Jones saw combat on the front lines in France, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April of 1917.

During the battle, with his unit pinned down by machine gun fire, Jones volunteered to attack the German gun emplacement, according to his biography presented by Library and Archives Canada.

He reached the machine gun nest and threw a grenade that killed several German soldiers. The survivors surrendered to Jones, who had them carry the machine gun back to the Canadian lines and present it to his commanding officer.

It is reported that for his bravery Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal, the second highest military award for valour after Victoria Cross, though no record exists to show that he ever received the medal.

He was wounded in action at Vimy Ridge and was eventually discharged from the army in early 1918 because of his age and health.

Jones died in 1950, leaving behind a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.His late grandson, Burnley Allan Jones, became a well-known Canadian civil rights activist, fighting for the rights black and Indigenous Canadians.

But it took over nine decades until his family received his posthumous Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service in 2010.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story said that Jones was wounded during the Battle of Passchendaele and was eventually discharged from the military because of his injuries. This information appears in his biography posted on Veterans Affairs Canada website and several other online sources.
However, on Feb. 8, Radio Canada International was contacted by Kathy Grant of the Black Canadians in Uniform project, who advised us that, based on Jones’s military records, he did not fight or get injured at Passchendaele.
RCI consulted with two historians, who examined Jones’s military records and confirmed that during the Battle of Passchendaele, Jones was recuperating in England from the wound he had sustained during the Battle at Vimy Ridge and other health issues. By the end of October 1917, when the Canadian Corps was fighting at Passchendaele, records show Jones was waiting to be invalided home to Canada after he was declared medically unfit to serve on the frontlines because of his age and a hernia. He boarded a ship for Canada in Liverpool, England, on Nov. 6 1917, while the Canadians were still fighting at Passchendaele.
“I don’t blame anyone in particular for errors like this, which are common,” said Jonathan Vance, professor of history at The University of Western Ontario. “Until quite recently, it wasn’t easy to get access to these records to verify claims or statements, and stories tended to be accepted at face value. It’s a great shame, though – the gallantry of men like Pte Jones is sufficiently impressive that it doesn’t need any exaggerating, intentional or not!”

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