Private Harry Brown, VC
A Centenary Action

16 August 1917

Private Harry Brown, VC.
Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence, 2017.

Private Harry Brown, of Gananoque, Ontario, was serving with the 10th Battalion (Canadians) during the attack on Hill 70. On 16 August 1917, while a meagre outpost was being reinforced by a small party of the battalion, the enemy was seen to be massing together. In order to save the outpost, artillery was desperately needed to break up the pending enemy counterattack.  By this stage of the battle, all wires to headquarters had been cut by shellfire. Private Harry Brown and a second runner were sent back with the urgent request for artillery support when they were caught in the open by a hostile barrage. Brown’s companion was killed, while Brown himself had his arm shattered. Still carrying the message, Brown carried on through shell holes and shattered trenches, slowly making his way toward an dugout with a working telephone.  

Looking out from one such dugout was an officer who “was peering out at the devastation” when suddenly “a dark form crawled out of the ruin and stumbled towards the dug-out. It was a soldier – hatless, pale, dirty, haggard, one arm hanging limp and bloody by his side”. (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 46). Reaching relative safety, Brown fell down the dug-out steps utterly exhausted, remaining conscious only ‘long enough to hand over his message, saying, “Important message.” ‘ (The London Gazette, Publication date: 16 October 1917, Supplement: 30338, Page: 10678). With his message passed along and artillery support on the way, Brown slipped into unconsciousness, dying from his wounds a few hours later at a dressing station in the early hours of 17 August 1917. Private Harry Brown, VC, is buried in Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery.  

The official medal citation for Private Harry Brown, VC (first entry in the right-hand column).
The London Gazette, Publication date: 16 October 1917, Supplement: 30338, Page: 10678.

Victoria Cross

For most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The medal was instituted on February 5, 1856 with awards retroactive to 1854. The first award to a Canadian was in February 1857, to Lt. Alexander DUNN (Charge of the Light Brigade). There have been 1,351 Victoria Crosses and 3 Bars awarded worldwide, 94 to Canadians (Canadian-born or serving in the Canadian Army or with a close connection to Canada).

Description: A cross pattee, 1.375 inches across, with a dark brown finish. Made from cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War.

Obverse: The obverse displays the Royal Crown surmounted by a lion guardant. Below the crown, a scroll bearing the inscription: FOR VALOUR.

Reverse: Raised edges with the date of the act engraved within a raised circle.

Mounting: A straight bar (ornamented with laurels), slotted for the ribbon, has a V-lug below. A small link joins the V-lug to a semi-circular lug on the top of the cross.

Ribbon: The crimson ribbon is 1.5 inches wide and a miniature cross is worn on the ribbon in undress. The ribbon was dark blue for naval recipients until 1918 with Able Seaman William HALL, RN, being the only Canadian VC winner to wear the blue ribbon.

Naming: The recipient’s rank, name and regiment are engraved on the reverse of the mounting bar.

Victoria Cross Recipients

COURAGE AND VALOUR AT VIMY RIDGE: CANADIANS EARN THE VICTORIA CROSS, THE EMPIRE’S HIGHEST HONOUR

In the first of a new historical series on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Foundation looks at some of the soldiers present at the battle, and the heroism they showed in this landmark victory by Canadian forces.

It is truly difficult to comprehend the chaos of battle, especially one as intense as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. April 9, 1917 was not the first time that Allied soldiers had dared to cross no man’s land at Vimy, but each previous attempt had only resulted in significant losses, as the Germans repelled the onslaught. Their defences were considered almost impenetrable. The Allied troops thrown against them unfortunately suffered the fate of cannon fodder.

That swiftly changed beginning on April 9, when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, made the charge at Vimy. Their determination was palpable, and with a new strategy and newfound drive, they saw success by taking Vimy Ridge.

While each Canadian soldier undoubtedly showed his courage during the fierce battle, there were four examples of conspicuous bravery that merited the awarding of the coveted Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration within the British Empire. Of these, three were earned on the opening day of the battle:

William_Johnstone_MilnePrivate William Milne of the 16th Battalion: On April 9 near Thelus, the 24-year-old Milne saw an enemy machine-gun firing upon fellow troops. Crawling on hands and knees he managed to reach the gun, kill the crew, and capture the gun. Milne later repeated this action against a second enemy machine-gun crew, but was killed shortly afterwards. Milne’s body was not recovered from the battlefield. He is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, France.

lanceLance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton of the 18th Battalion: During the attack in enemy trenches Sgt. Sifton’s company was held up by machine gun fire. Having located the gun he charged it single-handed, killing all the crew. A small enemy party advanced down the trench, but he succeeded keeping these off till our men had gained the position. In carrying out this gallant act he was killed, but his conspicuous valour undoubtedly saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation. Sifton is buried in the Lichfield Crater Cemetery near Neuville-Saint-Vaast, France.

John_George_PattisonPrivate John Pattison of the 50th Battalion: On April 10, when the advance of Canadian troops was held up by an enemy machine gun, Private Pattison, with utter disregard of his own safety, sprang forward and jumping from shell-hole to shell-hole, reached cover within thirty yards of the enemy gun. From this point, in the face of heavy fire he hurled bombs killing and wounding some of the crew, and then rushed forward overcoming and bayoneting the surviving five gunners. Pattison was killed on June 3, 1917 making an attack on a power station near Lens, France. He is buried in the La Chaudière Military Cemetery, France, approximately 3 kilometres south of Lens on the north-western outskirts of Vimy.

220px-Thain_Wendell_MacDowellCaptain Thain MacDowell of the 38th Battalion: On April 9, Captain MacDowell, with the assistance of two runners (company orderlies, Privates James T. Kobus and Arthur James Hay, both of whom were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their part) reached the German position ahead of his company. After destroying one machine-gun nest he chased the crew from another. MacDowell then spotted one German going into a tunnel. At the base of the tunnel, MacDowell was able to bluff the Germans to think he was part of a much larger force, resulting in the surrendering of two German officers and 75 German soldiers. He sent the prisoners up out the tunnel in groups of 12 so that Kobus and Hay could take them back to the Canadian line. Although wounded in the hand, MacDowell continued for five days to hold the position gained, in spite of heavy shellfire, until eventually relieved by his battalion. He was the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive the battle. He died on March 29, 1960 and is buried in the Oakland Cemetery in Brockville, ON.

 

Learn about other Victoria Cross recipients of the First World War.