15-17 August 1917
Born in the 1870’s (dates vary), Michael James O’Rourke immigrated from Limerick, Ireland to Victoria, British Columbia. Before enlisting in 1915, O’Rourke worked as a tunneller and miner on major infrastructure projects for Canadian Pacific Railway. On 8 December 1916, O’Rourke was awarded the Military Medal for bravery while serving with the 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia) on the Somme. Despite being an unarmed stretcher-bearer, O’Rourke launched a personal offensive against an advancing German counter-attack, holding off the enemy for a number of hours.
When the 7th Battalion took part in the attack on Hill 70 in August 1917, sixteen stretcher-bearers, including O’Rourke, entered into the fray; two were killed and eleven were wounded; “for the Germans sniped at them as they worked to carry the wounded from the field. During those three days and nights O’Rourke worked unceasingly rescuing the wounded, dressing their injuries under fire and bringing food and water to them… Several times he was knocked down and partially buried by shell-bursts. Once, seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling along in full view of the enemy who were sniping at him, O’Rourke jumped out of the trench and brought him in…” (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 54-55).
O’Rourke’s bravery and unceasing medical assistance over three days and nights (15 August – 17 August 1917) of unceasing battle was recognized with the awarding of the Victoria Cross.
Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM, managed to survive the war, but life afterwards was not easy. Physical and emotional trauma resulted in what would likely be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. O’Rourke was unable to obtain steady work, moving about on the western coast from job to job, in and out of poverty on a meager disability pension. Most notably, in 1935 he was placed at the head of a Vancouver longshoreman’s strike that ended with the Battle of Ballantyne Pier.
O’Rourke’s life is a sad example of the post-war treatment of veterans, though his funeral provided one last honour for a broken, impoverished man. Newspaper articles state that the procession included at least seven fellow Victoria Cross recipients, city officials, military officers and O’Rourke’s fellow 7th Battalion veterans, as well as former co-workers from the docks and “homeless old-timers”. Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM, is buried with a plain grave marker in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Burnaby, British Columbia.