George Pearkes was born in Watford, England. Immigrating to Canada, he served 5 years with the North-West Mounted Police before enlisting in Victoria, B.C. on 2 March 1915 with the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR). Pearkes’ service is a remarkable example of progression through the ranks, with both the medals and wounds to show for it.
Before embarking for England, Pearkes had already been promoted to Lance-Corporal. In September 1915, the 2nd CMR landed in France, where Pearkes soon attended a course at Grenade School, becoming a bomb thrower. By the early spring of 1916 he was an Acting Lieutenant and attached to the 8th Brigade’s Headquarters as Brigade Bombing Officer. In May 1916, Pearkes was hospitalized with severe gunshot wounds to the head and arm. In September 1916 he was transferred to the 5th CMR, quickly becoming Acting Captain, then Acting Major. By October 1916 he had been wounded again.
In December 1916 Pearkes received the first of many awards – the Military Cross, for his actions on 21 November 1916. (See Image Below).
On 30 October 1917, the 5th CMR’s went into the attack on the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s left flank, bordering with the 18th British Corps. Fighting along a unit boundary line tends to create awkward, disjointed advances, and this proved true again as the 5th CMR’s British counterparts were unable to keep pace, creating a dangerous open flank.
Although wounded by shrapnel in the buttocks, Pearkes had led the 5th CMR’s through hard fighting to their objectives. With reinforcement hampered by the swampy low grounds of the Lekkerboterbeek (literally “Yummy-butter-brook”) tributaries, the men were on their own against increasing enemy counter-attacks. Locating enfilading fire coming from a strong point called Source Farm, Pearkes rallied his men and charged over the unit boundary line, taking the place by storm. Now greatly reduced in strength (some sources say only 20 fighting men – see Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 69), Pearkes established a defensive line from Source Farm to Vapour Farm, and they continued to beat back enemy counter attacks. All this while, Pearkes had kept battalion headquarters appraised of the situation via carrier pigeons (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 322).
Realizing the importance of Pearkes’ gains, General Currie issued orders “at 7:00 p.m. that every effort should be made to hold the line.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 323). When reinforcements of the 2nd CMR’s advanced over the swampy ground to join them, many were seen to fall from heavy enemy machine gun fire. But those that could carried on, reinforcing Pearkes’ tenuous position and saving the situation.
For his actions and leadership over 30 – 31 October 1917, Pearkes received the Victoria Cross. Pearkes survived the war, despite being wounded on five separate occasions, and ultimately received a Mention in Despatches, the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Victoria Cross. He would end the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, and remained a career soldier, serving again in the Second World War. He then retired and entered politics, ultimately serving as the Minister of National Defence from 1957 – 1960.
George Randolph Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG passed away in Victoria, B.C. in 1984.
On this day in 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force renews its assault at Passchendaele. The plan is to gain what remains of the uncaptured Red Line, and then carry the advance a further 600-700 yards east to the Blue Line. On paper, the Canadians face positions with misleadingly peaceful names such as “Vienna Cottage”, “Crest Farm”, and “Duck Lodge”. But by nightfall, three Canadians have earned the Victoria Cross, while 884 have been killed and 1429 wounded (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, p.323).
Cecil John Kinross, VC
Cecil John Kinross of Uxbridge, England, emmigrated to Lougheed, Alberta where he worked on the family farm before enlisting with the 51st (Edmonton) Battalion in 1915. Once in France, he was transferred to the 49th (Edmonton Regiment) Battalion. In October 1916 he was wounded for the first time, taking shrapnel in his arm and neck.
On 30 October 1917, as the 49th Bn. advanced through the Red Line and on to the Blue Line, Kinross’ company was checked by a machine gun position. Surveying the situation, Kinross ducked into cover and stripped off all of his equipment. Now lightened of his load, carrying only his rifle and bandoliers of ammunition, Kinross stole across the pock-marked battlefield, creeping up on the machine gun. Having closed the distance, Kinross rose up and charged the position head on, killing the six-man crew and destroying the gun. Relieved and inspired by his actions, Kinross’ company then advanced another 300 yards, storming two more strongpoints.
Later in the day, Kinross was caught in a shell explosion and suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his right arm and left temporal region of his head. These wounds ultimately left him medically unfit for service, leading to his discharge in February 1919.
Cecil John Kinross, VC passed away in Lougheed, Alberta in 1957. Mount Kinross in the Canadian Rockies’ Victoria Cross Ranges is named in his honour.
Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM
Born in Inverness, Scotland, Hugh McKenzie immigrated to Verdun, Quebec in 1911. With six years of service in various artillery units, Hugh enlisted almost immediately, on 12 August 1914.
By 22 May 1915, McKenzie had landed at Rouen, France. On 11 March 1916, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (see citation from service file). He later received the French Croix de Guerre and a Lieutenant’s commission. Having initially enlisted with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), he was later transferred to the 7th Canadian Machine Gun Company in the field.
On 30 October 1917, while the PPCLI attacked the crossroads at Meetcheele, McKenzie and his section of 7th CMGC guns advanced alongside them in close support. When German machine gun pillboxes beside the road cut into the PPCLI, McKenzie saw the leading officers of his old unit fall and the entire company begin to falter. Acting quickly, McKenzie left command of his gun section to a Corporal and assumed control of the infantry. Rallying the PPCLI, McKenzie reconnoitered the positions and sent out flanking parties, one of which included Sergeant G.H. Mullin, who would receive a Victoria Cross for his actions as well. With the men in position, McKenzie placed himself at the head of the frontal assault and charged. With McKenzie drawing the attention of the enemy, the flanking parties made quick work of the position, but not before McKenzie was shot and killed.
For his actions that day, Hugh McKenzie was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was lost during the subsequent fighting in the quagmire of the Passchendaele battlefield. He is commemorated on Panel 31 of the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
George Harry Mullin, VC, MM
George Harry Mullin was born in Portland, Oregon. His family moved to Moosomin, Saskatchewan when George was two years old, where he later worked as a farmer before enlisting. On 14 December 1914, George enlisted in Winnipeg with the 32nd Battalion, later joining the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).
In June 1916, Mullin suffered gunshot wounds to the forehead, ear and groin. Evacuated to England, he recovered over two months, convalescing at Dartford and Epsom. Rejoining the PPCLI, Mullin received the Military Medal for bravery in the field in late 1916. He was soon promoted from Private to Corporal. By August 1917 he had reached the rank of Sergeant.
On 30 October 1917, Mullin was with the company of PPCLI held up by the machine guns in pillboxes at the Meetcheele crossroads, as described in the above account of Lt. McKenzie. When Lt. McKenzie left his machine guns to come take charge of the faltering PPCLI, Sgt. Mullin was tasked to one of the flanking parties. While McKenzie prepared his charge from the front, Mullin crawled out to the flank on his own reconnoiter. As the attack went in, with McKenzie charging head on, Mullin ambushed and destroyed a sniper’s post before crawling up on top of the concrete pillbox itself. In full view of the other Canadians rushing the post, Mullin used his revolver to eliminate the two German machine gunners, before jumping down from the pillbox roof and taking the surrender of the remaining ten defenders. The troublesome pillbox had been eliminated, but not before Lt. McKenzie was shot and killed in his courageous charge.
For his actions that day, Sergeant Mullin was awarded the Victoria Cross. He survived the war, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant, and returned to Saskatchewan, passing away in 1963.
On this day in 1917, three Canadians receive the Victoria Cross during the opening attacks on Passchendaele.
Thomas William Holmes, VC
Born in Montreal, Thomas William Holmes was working as a chicken picker in Owen Sound, Ontario when he enlisted with the 147th (Grey) Battalion in 1915. Having joined the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) as a reinforcement on 7 April 1917, he was shot through the arm at Vimy Ridge just a few days later. He would rejoin the 4th C.M.R.’s on 13 October 1917, in time for the Battle of Passchendaele.
Private Holmes received the Victoria Cross for his actions on 26October 1917, when he single-handedly stormed a concrete pillbox with only his rifle and a few grenades. Killing and wounding some of the two machine gun crews within, he retreated to his comrades for a third grenade and then charged the pillbox again, after which the 19 remaining occupants surrendered.
Holmes survived the war, ending with the rank of Sergeant. He embarked for Canada from Kinmel Park Camp on 30 March 1919, interestingly just 25 days after the massive Canadian riots there. In 1935 his Victoria Cross was stolen from his home in Owen Sound. Thomas William Holmes, VC, died on 4 January 1950. His Victoria Cross remains unrecovered.
Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly enlisted with the 144th (Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion in 1916. As a member of the Active Militia’s 90th Regiment, Winnipeg Rifles, O’Kelly enlisted with the pre-existing rank of Lieutenant. On 2 March 1917, he joined the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion overseas.
On 26 September 1917, he led a bombing party against a machine gun, bombing the crew and capturing the gun, ending a threat to their flanks. For this, O’Kelly received the Military Cross. A few days later, he was temporarily promoted to Acting Captain.
Then on 26October 1917, after his Battalion’s opening attack had failed, O’Kelly rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes. O’Kelly’s company captured six of the pillboxes, tallying 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. A later counter-attack was repelled, with more prisoners taken, and then, during the night, an enemy raiding party was thwarted, with the capture of one officer, ten men and a machine gun.
Later in the war, on 28 September 1918, Captain O’Kelly was hit by machine gun fire in the groin, and then again by shrapnel in the leg while laying wounded. Evacuated to hospital, the machine gun bullet was removed from his left buttock and O’Kelly was also found to have fractured his foot. Despite all of this, he recovered.
O’Kelly survived the war and returned to Canada. Sadly, he is believed to have drowned during a storm on Lac Seul, Kenora District, Ontario in November 1922. His body was never recovered.
Robert Shankland, VC, DCM
Robert Shankland, VC, DCM
Born in Ayr, Scotland, Robert Shankland immigrated to Canada in 1911, settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Pine Street. Prior to the war, he worked as a clerk at Crescent Creamery Company (he would later assign a portion of his service pay to be sent directly to the company cashier).
On 18 December 1914, Shankland enlisted. At 27 years old, with prior service in the Active Militia’s 79th Regiment, Shankland was given the rank of Company Sergeant-Major in the 43rd (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) Battalion upon arrival in England.
One month after arriving in France, Shankland’s actions on 22 July 1916 resulted in his receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal; “For conspicuous gallantry in volunteering to lead a party of stretcher-bearers, under very heavy shell fire, and bringing in some wounded and partially buried men. His courage and devotion were most marked.” (The London Gazette, Publication date: 18 August 1916, Supplement: 29713, Page: 8248).
Then on 26October 1917, the 43rd Battalion took part in the opening attacks of the Battle of Passchendaele. Despite initial success, as the 43rd and 58th Battalions reached the Dotted Red Line objective, the Germans brought down heavy artillery fire on their old positions (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 319). Now a Lieutenant, Shankland quickly acted as the entire brigade began to falter and retreat. Cobbling together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon, Shankland established a small hold on the Bellevue spur. Shankland’s force held firm, enabling the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion to come forward and re-establish the line while other companies went around to the south and flanked enemy pillboxes being engaged by Shankland’s group with diversionary rifle grenades and Lews guns (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 320).
For his actions that day, Shankland received the Victoria Cross. In the heat of battle, despite suffering a gunshot wound in the back, Shankland remained in the line. Similar injuries of gunshot wounds to the head and neck from November 1917, were not reported until after the war, during his medical exam before demobilization.
Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba would later be renamed Valour Road, as the home address of Shankland and two more Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War (Leo Clarke and Frederick Willian Hall). Shankland would serve again during the Second World War before retiring to Vancouver. He died on 20 January 1968.
“Would some thoughtful hand in this distant land please scatter some flowers for me”
Epitaph of Private Edwin Grant, Service Number 703562, B Coy., 47th (British Columbia) Battalion, 26-28 October 1917 (age 33).
A steel worker from Aberdeen, Scotland, Edwin Grant enlisted in Vancouver in 1916. His medical examination details his identifying marks, which included tattoos of a butterfly and bird on his left arm and a butterfly and Geisha girl on his right. Edwin was killed during the opening attack on Passchendaele, with his date of death only determined to have taken place at some time between 26 and 28 October 1917. He left behind his wife, Bella, who after the war had moved from Vancouver to live with Edwin’s parents in Duluth, Minnesota.
As the Canadian Expeditionary Force moved towards Passchendaele in October, a clear victory was becoming increasingly paramount. In mid-September 1917, riots had broken out in the reinforcement depots along the French coast, signalling a growing discontent in the ranks of the Commonwealth forces. These of course followed the massive French mutinies that had taken place over the summer of 1917.
At Etaples, the largest infantry reinforcement depot abroad, raw recruits, recovering wounded, and grizzled veterans were thrust together through training meant to prepare them for a return to the front (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 64). The training grounds, coined the “Bull Ring”, were simply considered hell (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 64-66). In fact, men were known to report back to the front still nursing wounds, just so that they could get away from the “Bull Ring” (Dallas, Gill, The Unknown Army, p. 65).
On 9 September 1917, tensions in the Etaples camp overflowed. Pushed to their limits by heavy-handed discipline, horrific training regimens, and poor food, an altercation between troops and the “Red Caps” (Military Police) was the spark that lit the fire. When shots were fired by the Red Caps, the camp exploded and the bridges and picquets leading into Etaples were rushed by crowds in their hundreds.
Victor Wheeler, a signaller in the 50th (Calgary) Battalion, was in Etaples recovering from wounds when he was placed on riot patrol. He described the scene:
“I drew a rifle and ammunition and at 7:00 P.M., with several other front line men, I was rushed into Etaples… Wearing special white Military Force Police brassards, we patrolled the streets, in close groups, until midnight. Like a sudden flood, hundreds of soldiers broke into the town and joined in the melee. The rioters made an awful mess of the place… a Red Cap was shot and three draftees were wounded: a draftee was shot dead when he attacked several Red Caps… The explosive atmosphere was immediately sensed when one began to patrol. Keeping one’s eyes open for infringements and ears turned to any strange noises – and restraining oneself from the savage reaction of the front toward the enemy against a fellow Canuck – left me feeling as if I had been stretched on the rack.”
(Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 151).
Episodes of rioting and outbreaks from camp would continue throughout the week at Etaples. The September 1917 Etaples Riots would not be the last of their kind. “Events”, (as they were classified by the military authorities), would continue to take place in the later stages of the war, and especially after the Armistice during the drawn-out periods of demobilization. Canadians especially would be involved in a number of high-profile cases that threatened to tarnish the reputation of the CEF.
Future posts will detail these “events” on their respective centenaries.
Today is Niobe Day in Canada, marking the arrival of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Niobe in Halifax on 21October 1910, as the first warship of the new Naval Service of Canada.
Acquired from the Royal Navy, the HMCS Niobe was an armoured cruiser that had launched in 1897, serving around the world, in particular during the Second Boer War. The ship’s arrival in Halifax on 21October 1910 marked the 105th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (thus considered “Trafalgar Day” in the Royal Navy).
During the early years of the First World War, HMCS Niobe patrolled the St. Lawrence approaches and eastern coast of America, chasing and intercepting German ships. In July 1915 the old and worn out Niobe returned to Halifax and served as a docked depot ship, hosting enlisted sailors, trainees and the Canadian naval headquarters.
During the Halifax Explosion on 6 December 1917, the Niobe was heavily damaged as metal debris swept across its decks, killing 19 men. Aboard the Niobe’s pinnace (a smaller steamboat used as a tender), six men had rushed towards the Mont Blanc, hoping to regain control of the ship; all six were killed instantly and the pinnace destroyed when the Mont Blanc exploded.
Repaired after the Halifax Explosion, the Niobe continued its role as a depot ship, until being sold off as surplus in 1920 and eventually scrapped. In recent years, a number of artifacts from the storied Niobe have re-surfaced, including the ship’s wheel, and a massive anchor, found in the Halifax Harbour. Read more about the discoveries here:
“I genitori inconsolabili villa S-Lucia, Caserta”
(The inconsolable parents Villa S-Lucia, Caserta)
Epitaph of Sapper Glorio Mita, Service Number: 2497765, 9th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops, 19 October 1917 (age 20).
Glorio Mita enlisted in July 1917 as a reinforcement with a Railway Construction and Forestry draft. On 3 October 1917, he joined the 9th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops in France. Only 16 days later, he died of severe wounds, suffering shrapnel injuries to his head and right shoulder, as well as a compound fracture of his femur. A young, single immigrant from Italy, Glorio had worked as a labourer in Toronto, Ontario before enlisting, making his will out to his parents, who still lived in Santa Lucia, Caserta, Italy.
Sapper Glorio Mita is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.
It’s Friday the 13th! In honour of any superstitions you might have about the 13th, we’re sharing a slang term that stemmed from a superstition in the trenches : the dreaded “third man”.
Did you know it was considered frightfully unlucky, even fatal, to light three cigarettes with the same match during the First World War? While odd to us today, there is some truth in this fear, as a lit match in the dark of night was sure to draw enemy fire. The longer it stayed lit, the greater the chances a sniper or machine gun would find its mark, aiming at this tell-tale sign of human activity. Thus, to be the “third man” on a lit match was indeed a potentially fatal omen. (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 182-183).
On 9 October 1917, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of Poelcappelle, in Flanders, Belgium.
True to form, the mud of Flanders wreaked havoc with the preparations for battle; “Gun teams were struggling to bring the field artillery forward; and when the sweating horses became bogged belly-deep in the mire, manpower took over and dragged the guns into position.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 392).
The mud slowed the Newfoundlanders to such extent that while forming up the night before the attack, it took them five hours to march only five miles along washed out roads and mud-slicked duckboards, invariably skirting one shell crater before falling into the next (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 393).
As positions were taken up in support of the 4th Worcesters, the Newfoundlanders saw a Very light suddenly soar into the sky from the opposing lines at 5:10 AM. Though wracked with suspense, no response came as the light fizzled out. “A few minutes later a solitary shell was heard whining far overhead, followed a minute later by the sharp bark of a French 75. Then promptly at 5.30 came pandemonium as the barrage crashed down.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
Wading across the Broembeek, the 4th Worcesters and Newfoundland Regiment became disorganized and entangled, to the extent that the Newfoundlanders now formed part of the leading wave in the attack. Fortunately, this left more men on-hand to mop up the enemy dugouts found along the Ypres-Staden railway embankment (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 395). By 7 AM, the Green Dotted Line was gained, and the combined units continued the push to the Blue Dotted Line against mounting resistance.
At Pascal Farm, concrete ruins bristled with machine guns but thorough tactics of fire and movement carried the day. Additional buildings along the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road were to be shelled by four tanks, but the mud had prevented them from getting past the start line. On the left flank, the Newfoundlanders watched as Lewis Gun teams from the Irish Guards stood upright, resting the Lewis barrels on their shoulders while their comrades fired continuously during an attack on Cairo House. (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
By noon, the Newfoundlanders were consolidating their thinly held positions along the Green Line, the third and final objective. Enemy counterattacks were successfully thrown back, but trouble on the flanks forced an orderly retirement to stronger positions just north of the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road. The Newfoundlanders were relieved by the 2nd Hampshires at nightfall, signalling the end of another hard-won victory.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered 67 killed and 127 wounded on 9 October 1917. For their bravery, thirty-three decorations were awarded to the Newfoundlanders; seven received the Military Cross or Bar, five the Distinguished Conduct Medal, while the Military Medal or Bar went to twenty others. The fighting at Poelcappelle produced “the only appreciable gains on the northern flank, in the Fourteenth Corps’ sector.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 397).
In his annual report of 1926, Sir Fabian Ware, the founder and Vice-Chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, explained the reason behind maintaining the numerous, small, isolated Commonwealth cemeteries that are found across the battlefields of the First World War:
“During the war certain authorized sites were selected, some close to the trenches, where the dead could be buried, and the soldiers were promised that, if they brought back their dead comrades to these, which they not infrequently did at the risk of their lives, they would rest there permanently undisturbed. This promise has been kept in all cases, except a few where the site originally selected has been found altogether unsuitable.” (Ward, Gibson, Courage Remembered, p. 49-50).
During our Vimy Pilgrimage Award program, great distances are covered in the effort to allow each student to visit the grave of a soldier they have researched.
If you know a student aged 14 – 17 years old, encourage them to apply today for our 2018 Vimy Pilgrimage Award and be part of the commemoration. Apply here: http://bit.ly/2f1ur7m
The 2018 Vimy Pilgrimage Award is made possible by the sponsorship of Scotiabank, and by the continued support of Canada’s History.