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Monchy-le-Preux: The day they saved a French town

Elijah Skiffington was an unsung hero following the First World War. Only after his death in 1951 did his wife and children learn how he saved the life of another soldier.
Elijah Skiffington was an unsung hero following the First World War. Only after his death in 1951 did his wife and children learn how he saved the life of another soldier.

Elijah Skiffington never talked much about his war years after he returned from the First World War battlefields of France to the quiet of his hometown of Amherst Cove.

His wife Phoebe Jane Benger, sons Rance and Gordon and daughters Edna and Marjorie only knew he had been injured and couldn't work much after the war.
He raised his family on his earnings as a carpenter and had just barely reached middle age when he died March 28, 1951, at the age of 54.
It was only after his death that the family got any hint of his wartime experiences, and realized that in the eyes of at least one man, he was a hero.
Pte. Skiffington signed up for duty in 1914 just after the war broke out. For the first three years of duty, he was relatively unscathed.
The spring of 1917 was a different story.
In April that year, he found himself in the midst of madness at Monchy-le-Preux.
By the time the gunfire ceased at Monchy on the eve of April 14, Pte. Skiffington was surrounded by the dead and wounded, his left thigh throbbing from the pain of a bullet wound.
Then he heard someone crying for help.
He crawled toward the cries, which were coming from underneath a pile of bodies.
As the story goes, says his granddaughter Marjorie Alexander, he moved several dead bodies to find someone still alive, lying underneath.
Pte. Skiffingotn reached down to grasp the hand of the soldier, and pulled out fellow Newfoundland Don Elliott of Bonavista.
When Skiffington died in 1951, Elliott wrote to his widow, Phoebe. His letter states, "Words cannot expressed how deeply I was shocked when I heard of the passing of my old comrade and friend.
"To me, he meant more than just a casual acquaintance. To him I owe even my life. For a Sunday morning long ago, when the light of the world was growing very dim in far off Flanders, it was him who brought me, regardless of his own safety, to a field dressing station where medical aid was available.
"Little I knew of his great sacrifice at the time, but it was through his efforts that I was saved."

22 months in prison

One quarter of the Newfoundland officers and men who went into battle at Monchy fell into enemy hands as prisoners.
Among them was William Quinton, Regiment number 2738.
The teenager form Princeton, Bonavista Bay, had taken two bullets - one in his right foot, and another in the left leg - during the battle. He was picked up by the Germans on April 16 and taken to prison camp.
His daughter, Barbara Oates, of Clarenville, says her father didn't say a whole lot about the war, or the 22 months he spent as a POW, but did offer up bits and pieces of his story from time to time.
"I can remember him saying they would have to crawl to the dressing station at the camp to have bandages applied to their wounds, then crawl back to their sleeping area."
As a POW he got shuffled around from camp to camp. For most of his captivity, however, he was at camp Gefargeueulager in Doeberitz, Germany where he worked in an open pt coal mine.
Meanwhile, back in Princeton, it was weeks after his capture before his family found out where he was.
As the family story goes, one morning his older sister, Frances, came downstairs and announced, "Will is alive. He's in a place that starts with 'D'."
Her mother, Ann Helena, shushed her, telling her she must have been dreaming, yet when the post arrived later that day, Frances' premonition proved to be correct.
A telegram informed the family that William was indeed a prisoner of war.
Mrs. Oates' family album contains many photos her grandfather brought back form the prison camp as well as a couple of post cards his mother received from him during his internment.
One of the postcards, written in December, 1918, indicates that word of an allied victory was reaching the camp.
"Some chaps say they are sure…but I am not…" he notes a few days before Christmas.
On Dec. 25, 1918 he writes, "Plenty of rumours."
The next day, he writes, "Going for sure…dead cert."
On Dec. 27, 1918, Pte. Quinton finds out for sure he will soon be a free man again.
"Leaving here 2 o'clock tomorrow. Don't believe it!" he penned to his mother on the back of the postcard.
Pte. Quinton soon found himself in Holland, being taken care of by Albert Albertsen and his family. As soon as she knew where he was, his mother, Anne Helena, began sending care packages of food to her son.
Eventually, Pte. Quinton was repatriated to England and from there he
returned home.
In Holland, Quinton got his first good meal in a long time and had the coal dust, which had practically become part of his skin, gradually scrubbed away.
During the battle, Pte. Quinton was exposed to mustard gas. It scarred his lungs, causing him health problems for the rest of his life. He constantly suffered from Bronchitis.
Back in Princeton, Pte. Quinton went to work with his father Joliffe who owned a dry goods store in Princeton and a squid drying and canning factory in nearby Southern Bay.
In 1926, he married Elma Carberry of Burgoyne's Cove.

Family connection

Following the first world war, Ann Helena continued to send packages to the Albertson family in gratitude for the care for her son. In the 1970s, Barbara Oates visited Hollond, and met Albertsen's family. The Dutch man had died during the Second World War during the German Occupation, but his family recalled the care packages, and said those packages from Pte. Quinton's mother helped get their family through some very tough times.
Following the second world war the Albertson family built a factor. In gratitude to the Newfoundland mother who helped them survive the Second World War, they named the building The Quinton Factory.

April 14, 1917

While the people of Clarenville and Shaol Harour were safe at home, the battlefield at Monchy-le-Preux in the spring of 1917 claimed a handful of young men from this area.
Alonzo Adey, son of Jon and Bertha Adey of Clarenville, died April 4, 1917, at Monchy-le-Preux. Although his last name was Adey, his war records show he was listed as Alonzo Eddy. He was 20 years old when he died.
Hector Pearce, son of Edmund and Eliza Pearce of Clarenville South, was reported missing in action after the battle. He was a member of the first 500 of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
James T. Butler of Shoal Harbour, the son of Zachariah and Eliza Butler, also met his end at Monchy on April 14, 1917.

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