Falling in Love During World War 1

Throughout 2014, we are honoring those who served during World War 1. Only our memories can ensure that the people we loved and lost are never forgotten. Lest we forget, many beautiful stories of love emerged from the ashes of this heinous war. This love story is about my grandparents, Louis Sparkes and Amy Richards, who would never have met under ordinary circumstances.

Louis Peter Sparkes was born on December 29, 1892 in the small fishing village of Lower Island Cove, Newfoundland. At that time, the island was an independent colony of the British Empire with a population of less than 240,000. Life was never easy – survival depended on a successful fishing season, a good crop of vegetables, ample feed for the chickens, and hay for the livestock.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, 7-year-old Amy Richards was playing hide-and-seek with her two younger sisters in a lilac-lined garden behind their large Victorian home. From her perch on a nearby wooden chair, a nanny kept a watchful eye on their antics.

Figure 1
The three Richards sisters in 1894, from left to right: Phyllis, Gladys, and Amy. A fourth sister (Marjorie) was born on June 25, 1897.

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Amy Richards was born on September 26, 1885 at 2 Ireson Villas in Wincanton, a small town in south Somerset, England. Her father, George Richards, was the Auctioneer and Estate Agent of Wincanton, as was his father before him (James Richards). Amy’s mother, Flora Ellen, tended to the children and managed the home.

Figure 2

Flora Ellen Richards with her four daughters in July, 1898: Amy and Gladys (standing), Phyllis (seated lower right), and baby Marjorie.

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After completing her studies at Lambrook House School in Wincanton, Amy moved to London to attend nursing school where she graduated with honours.

Figure 3

Amy “in training” to be a nurse in London (approximately 1905).

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Like his father before him (Jabez Sparkes), Louis became a fisherman. When war broke out in 1914, the Government of Newfoundland began recruiting young men to serve with the British Army. Along with 500 other volunteers, Louis began his training with a local group called the Church Lads’ Brigade. His regiment arrived in the United Kingdom for additional training, during which time their numbers increased to 1000 soldiers.

Figure 4

Soldiers of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. Private Louis Peter Sparkes, #1052, is seated on the far right.

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The British Army and their allies had been trying to seize control of the Dardanelles Strait from The Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) since April 25, 1915. Louis and his battalion-sized regiment arrived at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula on September 20. They were the only North American unit to fight in the Gallipoli campaign.

During the next three months, Louis and the Newfoundland Regiment confronted the indescribable horrors of battle – artillery fire, snipers, and brutally cold weather. 30 soldiers were killed in action, 10 died of diseases such as typhus, cholera, and dysentery, and over 150 were treated for severe frostbite and exposure.

The British Empire forces finally began evacuating Gallipoli in December. The Newfoundland Regiment was among the last to leave the area on January 9, 1916 – but the war was still far from over.

After a few weeks of recuperation, the regiment was transferred to the Western Front. As part of the 29th Division in France, the regiment regained battalion strength in preparation for the Battle of the Somme. In April 1916, they advanced to Beaumont-Hamel, situated near the northern end of the front line being held by joint French and British forces.

Ahead of them, the well-equipped German troops of the 119th Infantry Regiment of the 26th (Württemberg) Reserve Division waited patiently. In addition to training, they had spent the past 20 months heavily fortifying their position with a maze of deep dugouts and tunnels.

Shortly after dawn on July 1, 1916, the French and British forces detonated an 18,000 kilogram mine underneath the heavily-fortified Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, successfully destroying a major enemy strong point. However, the massive explosion also alerted the German forces of the imminent attack. The German troops immediately deployed from their dugouts into the firing line.

The Newfoundland Regiment was situated at St. John’s Road, a support trench 250 yards behind the British forward line and well hidden from the Germans. At 8:45 am, they received orders to move forward. Their planned route was under shell fire and blocked by the bodies of the wounded and dead. The alternative route, through the British barbed wire defenses in No Man’s Land, deposited them in plain view of the German Army.

Like lambs to the slaughter, the regiment moved forward. Fifteen minutes later, most of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were wounded, dying, or dead. Of the approximately 800 brave men who went forward that morning, only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

When Private Louis Sparkes woke, his senses were assaulted by the distant sounds of sporadic artillery file, the occasional faint cry of a comrade, and the stench of death. He had no idea how long he had lain there in No Man’s Land. Each time he attempted to move, his body was stabbed by the barbed wire in which he was tangled. The fresh blood on his jacket and pants informed him of his wounds.

Hours became days, and days became nights as Louis drifted in and out of consciousness, awaiting death. His thoughts turned to his family back home, and that he would never see them again. On the fourth day, he was found by The British Red Cross Society, barely alive.

(Louis would not speak of No Man’s Land again for over 50 years, until one Sunday afternoon in 1969 while I was visiting my grandparents. Grandpa was lying in his usual place on his settee; he became uncomfortable sitting or standing for long periods of time. Grandma and I were seated at a table beside the window on the other side of their sitting room quietly looking at pictures in an Ideals magazine. Out of the silence, Grandpa began to speak. My grandmother was visibly shaken as she sat beside me. She reached out and held my hand.)

Louis was triaged, and then stabilized for a bullet wound in his upper femur (hip area) and a shrapnel wound on his shoulder. He was eventually brought to the Military Orthopaedic Hospital in London, England, where Amy Richards worked as a sister (nurse).

Figure 5

The hospital ward where Louis and Amy first met (this photo was taken in January, 1917).

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(Almost forty years later, the “shrapnel wound” on Louis’s shoulder was discovered to be something quite different. After a lengthy cold, Louis had a routine chest x-ray at the Old Perlican Hospital. Dr. Wilkinson couldn’t believe his eyes as he stared at the small spot on the x-ray a quarter inch from Louis’s heart – a perfectly-shaped bullet! Surgical removal was deemed too dangerous at that time.)

Throughout his lengthy recovery, Louis always kept an eye out for Amy and she always smiled when their eyes met. As the seasons changed from fall to winter, their patient/nurse relationship became a friendship. By the time Louis was released from hospital, he could walk, albeit with a cane. Their friendship soon became a romance, and on April 9, 1917, Louis and Amy married in a private ceremony in Richmond, Surrey.

Louis and Amy decided to settle in Newfoundland. As a war bride, Amy left her family and friends in England, never to return or see them again. Amy’s passport was stamped by the Foreign Office on September 13, 1917. On October 24, 1917, Louis received an honorable discharge and was officially classified as permanently disabled.

Shortly after arriving in St John’s, they moved into a home at 153 Casey Street. Together, they ran a successful business that featured homemade ice cream. Their first child, Gladys, was born on January 25, 1920 and almost two years later their second daughter, Daphne was born (December 29, 1921).

On April 26, 1924, a son, Peter was born and shortly thereafter diagnosed as a blue baby (congenital heart disease). At that time, there was no treatment; Amy and Louis were advised to take their newborn son home to die.

Peter lived to celebrate the arrival of a third sister, Pamela (December 5, 1926) and a little brother, John (July 11, 1929). Always under the watchful eye of his mother, Peter defied all odds and celebrated his sixth birthday with his parents and four siblings. He passed on November 17, 1930.

Figure 6

Peter in the summer of 1930, age 6 years and 7 months.

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Louis and Amy decided to move their family away from the city to the rural community of Lower Island Cove where they built a new home with a special garden for Amy. The little garden was lined with lilac trees and had a large wooden seat.

The four children grew up in Lower Island Cove and received their education in its tiny one-room school.

Figure 7

The Sparkes family in 1934, from left to right:  Daphne, Louis, Gladys, John, Amy, and Pamela (my mother).

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Grandpa never fully recovered from his wounds. Almost every day, Grandma patiently changed his dressings.

(On September 28, 1917, King George V bestowed the prefix “Royal” on the regiment, renaming them the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.)

As a small child, I remember spending a lot of time with my grandparents during Easter and summer vacations. On his “good days”, my Grandpa would collect his cane and together we would walk hand-in-hand to a little shop down the road where he bought me candy.

Figure 8
From left to right (1954): Great Uncle Phil (Grandpa’s brother, a school teacher), Grandpa with his hand placed gently on Grandma’s shoulder, Uncle John, and my mother Pamela, holding the arm of mischievous me so I didn’t run away.

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My Grandma always made me my favorite red jelly and a special treat of buttered toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and cut into thin, finger-sized pieces. During our “afternoon tea”, she poured the milky beverage into our saucers from which we drank. While I thought this to be great fun, in hindsight the ritual was most likely her way to protect me from being burned by the hot tea.

By the time I was 17, I was working as a commercial artist in St. John’s and drove a little red Gremlin. I went “around the bay” almost every weekend to visit my grandparents and cousins. On Sunday afternoons, my Aunt Daphne and I would take Grandma for a drive. In the summertime, we drove to the beach at Northern Bay Sands where we all enjoyed an ice cream cone. I vividly remember Grandma sitting beside me in the front seat with vanilla ice cream slowly dripping onto her dress, laughing and feigning shock when bikini-clad teenagers walked by.

When we arrived back home, Grandpa was always waiting for us. He loved to tease Grandma with comments such as “Your Grandmother was up before the sun this morning getting ready: choosing a dress and a brooch to match, fixing her hair, picking out a hat, shining her shoes….”

Grandma would laugh as she shook her finger and pretended to scold him. Even though a recent stroke had taken away Grandma’s ability to speak, she could always make her thoughts known with gestures, sounds, and her backup: paper and pencil.

The person I am today was greatly influenced by my Grandmother – a beautiful, gentle soul for whom life’s challenges were always conquered by her quest for happiness.

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