20 November 1917 – Awards At Cambrai
Centenary Actions

© IWM Q 6300

On this day in 1917, members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade distinguish themselves in the attack on Cambrai. Amongst the Newfoundlanders, two earn Distinguished Conduct Medals, another a Military Medal, a fourth the Bar to his Military Cross, and the fifth, a Distinguished Service Order. From the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan of the Fort Garry Horse earns Canada another Victoria Cross.

The Newfoundlanders joined the British Third Army’s attack on Cambrai two and a half hours after the initial start, forming the left flank of the 88th Brigade’s diamond formation, which was led by four tanks. At first the advance took place “in an almost leisurely manner over unspoiled fields” with knee high grass, thistles and nettles replacing the usual mud and shell-holes (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 411). The few enemy positions that had survived the first wave of attack were quickly overcome.

However, the horrors of war would soon re-appear. When B Company was halted by machine gun fire, it was eventually found to be coming from a disabled British tank. Inside, the tank sergeant had suffered half his face being shot away and was in a state of madness from the horrific death of his comrades and the terrible heat within the tank. In his miserable state, he “was firing indiscriminately at any living target he could see” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 412). As the Newfoundlanders attempted to speak to him through the open tank door, the sergeant was struck by an enemy bullet and killed.

With little choice but to carry on through such horrors, the Newfoundlanders pressed steadily forward, helping their flanking units capture a battery of field guns, but at the loss of all four supporting tanks. Reaching Marcoing Copse they launched their assault on the St. Quentin Canal lock, at the western outskirts of Masnières.

Captain Grant Paterson, MC & Bar
Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes, DCM
Sergeant Albert Davis, DCM
Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, MM

Defending the lock were numerous machine gun posts and snipers in the houses along the canal bank. When a British tank ventured over from the direction of Masnières, the six-pounder guns in its sponsons were quickly put to work against the German defenders. As the enemy broke into retreat, Captain Grant Paterson led a small party charging across a footbridge beside the lock, gaining the far bank and securing both the footbridge and lock. For his actions, Captain Grant Paterson earned a Bar to his Military Cross.

Three other men received honours for their actions during the fighting at the footbridge and lock. Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes was one of the first to cross to the far side of the canal, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Sergeant Albert Davis received the Distinguished Conduct Medal after he “had kept his company moving by running forward alone and killing two snipers” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Lastly, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, received the Military Medal for courageous leadership amidst the fighting for the footbridge.

Captain Bertram Butler, DSO, MC

Now on the far side of the canal, the Newfoundlanders prepared to dash from the shelter of a building to the railway tracks, sixty yards away. Several attempts to cover this ground were halted by heavy machine gun fire and severe casualties before Captain Butler, M.C., rallied his men and charged forward, “followed by cheering Newfoundlanders” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 413). The enemy position was eliminated and the now-wounded Butler received the Distinguished Service Order for his actions.

End of the Day – 20 November

Now entirely across the canal and with their left flank secured, the Newfoundlanders turned to their right to help capture Masnières. However, enemy fire from positions in old gun pits north of the railway tracks soon drew the Newfoundlanders’ attention for the remainder of the afternoon, with fighting by rifle, bomb and bayonet carrying on until daylight ran out (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Overnight, mopping-up parties moved through Masnières, clearing out all resistance except for in the north of the town and a small party still in the catacombs at its centre (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 415).

“Some of the 43 of the Fort Garry Horse who charged the Boche guns at Cambrai.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002283.

Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC

“Lt. Harcus Strachan, V.C”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006699.

East of Masnières, the 88th Brigade’s Hampshire Regiment and Worcestershire Regiment had gained the far bank of the St. Quentin Canal, and the Worcesters were now advancing on the town from the east, while the Newfoundlanders closed in from the west. The outcome of the attack on Masnières was still uncertain when the Canadian Cavalry Brigade received erroneous reports that the 88th Brigade had captured all its objectives on the far side of the canal. Sensing the opportunity for a cavalry breakout, Brigadier General J. E. B. Seely ordered the Fort Garry Horse (FGH) across the canal.

With the road bridge in Masnières having collapsed under a British tank, a temporary foot bridge was expanded with the resources and labour assistance of German prisoners and local civilians (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 336). “B” Squadron of the FGH quickly crossed the canal and galloped to the north-east. However, when it became clear that no more cavalry could cross before dark, orders were issued to recall those already on the far bank.

Having sped off towards a ridge overlooking Masnières, “B” Squadron was beyond reach of the orders to turn back and would now face the enemy alone. Their initial orders had been to capture an enemy headquarters and scout ahead for crossings of a further canal. Captain Campbell was soon killed whilst leading a charge through a gap in the enemy wire and command fell to Lieutenant Harcus Strachan. Quickly encountering an enemy artillery battery, “B” Squadron charged the guns, eliminating the entire battery by saber and hoof. Spotting enemy infantry in the open beyond, Strachan turned his men and charged these as well, eliminating many but also losing many of his own men from heavy machine gun fire.

By now “B” Squadron was over three kilometres behind enemy lines and taking shelter in a sunken road awaiting the rest of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which unbeknownst to them was no longer coming. While taking shelter, the Squadron located and cut three enemy telephone lines. As darkness set in, with only 43 men left and the enemy pressing in from three sides, Strachan stampeded the remaining horses to draw the enemy’s attention, while the men slipped off on foot towards friendly lines. Still not satisfied with the day’s work, they charged and engaged numerous enemy parties with the bayonet, eventually crossing back into the lines of the Newfoundland Regiment in the early hours of 21 November with no less than 15 prisoners.

For his actions and leadership that day at Cambrai, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan received the Victoria Cross. He already held a Military Cross for his actions at St. Quentin in May 1917.

Harcus Strachan was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada in 1908. He enlisted in 1915. Strachan returned to Canada after the war, and passed away in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1982.
“38 N.C.O.s and Men of Fort Garry Horse who took part in famous charge. December, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002517.

6 November 1917 – Victoria Cross Recipients
A Centenary Action

On 6 November 1917, the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions entered the attack on Passchendaele, having relieved the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions on the Blue Line during the night of 4-5 November. The objectives for 6 November now included the village of Passchendaele itself and the smaller hamlets of Mosselmarkt and Goudberg, encompassed within the boundaries of the Green Line. Once again, the mud made its presence felt, with Canadians having to advance through the knee or waist deep morass (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324). All the while, in the skies above, pilots from either side strafed each other’s infantry. (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324).

Despite all this, the Canadians advanced with great speed. At Mosselmarkt, surprise gained the surrender of four officers and 50 other ranks from a threatening pillbox and the Green Line was secured in only two hours (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 324). To the south, within three hours Passchendaele village was captured, aided by Private James Robertson, who received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions. By day’s end, Canadian casualties numbered 2238, of which 734 were killed in action or died of wounds (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 325). Two more Canadians earned the Victoria Cross for their actions, bringing the Canadian total to nine from the Battle of Passchendaele.

Colin Fraser Barron, VC
Sgt. Barron (right) with fellow-Canadian Cecil Kinross, in England to receive their Victoria Cross medals.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006672.

Colin Fraser Barron was born in Mill of Boyndie, Banffshire, Scotland, emigrating to Canada in 1910. He worked in Toronto as a teamster before enlisting on 11 January 1915 with the 35th Battalion.

On 31 July 1915 he joined the 3rd (Toronto Regiment) Battalion as a reinforcement in France. His first year in France was littered with illness, being hospitalized with bronchitis, a foot infection, gastroenteritis (infectious diarrhea), and then gonorrhea. On 24 April 1917 he finally rejoined his unit with an extended period of good health and by 22 August 1917 was promoted to Corporal.

The official Victoria Cross citation of Cpl. Collin Fraser Barron, VC. (entry is second last from bottom in right-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication Date: 8 January 1918, Supplement: 30471, Page: 723.

On 6 November 1917, the 3rd Battalion was tasked with protecting the Canadian Corps’ left flank in the north. Three-hundred and fifty yards south-east of Vapour Farm, where George Randolph Pearke’s little band of fighters had held firm on 30 October 1917, the Germans had another strongpoint at the Vine Cottages. Before the 3rd Battalion could reach the Goudberg Spur, the Vine Cottages would have to be captured.

Just as they had on 30 October, the swamp lands of the Lekkerboterbeek tributaries created an isolated, bitter struggle, as Barron’s company went in against the Vine Cottages alone. When the Canadians came under tremendous fire from no less than six machine guns, Corporal Barron worked his way around to a flank. Assuming a position out in the open, Barron set his Lewis gun down and let loose a stream of accurate fire, methodically knocking out one enemy crew after the other. With two crews eliminated, Barron charged forward with his bayonet, eliminating four more of the enemy and setting the rest off in retreat before his platoon could catch up with him. Seizing one of the enemy machine guns, Barron turned it around and caught the retreating enemy in the open with devastating fire. The Vine Cottages strongpoint was now in Canadian hands, and Goudberg Spur would soon follow.

For his actions that day, Colin Fraser Barron was awarded the Victoria Cross. He would survive the war, ending the war with the rank of Sergeant. Barron later re-enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving with the Royal Regiment of Canada. He would survive that war as well, passing away in Toronto in 1958.

 

James Peter Robertson, VC
Pte. James Peter Robertson, VC.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-0026832.

James Peter Robertson was born in Picton County, Nova Scotia in 1883. He was nearly 32 years old and working as a railroad engineer in Alberta when he enlisted on 14 June 1915. In England by the summer of 1916, he was taken on strength by Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), but within two months had been sent to the 11th Reserve Infantry Battalion. Within two weeks he was sent as a reinforcement to the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion, joining the unit in France in November 1916.

Robertson would prove to be a difficult soldier, with his service file recording some of his more eventful moments overseas. Shortly after his arrival in France, he was hospitalized with suspected influenza, which soon developed to ulceration of the tongue. When these ailments failed to heal by the second week of December, it was quickly identified as syphilis, and Robertson was punished, forfeiting his field allowance of 50 cents per day for the duration of his hospitalization (54 days). Robertson’s troubles didn’t end there. In July 1917 he was docked three days pay for disobeying the order of a senior officer by being in an estaminet during prohibited hours. Then in September 1917 he received 10 days field punishment for drunkenness.

On 6 November 1917, Robertson was free of disciplinary action and back with his Battalion, taking part in the attack on the village of Passchendaele. When his platoon’s advance was checked by uncut wire and enemy machine gun fire, Robertson slipped through an opening to the flank. Charging the gun alone, he eliminated four of the crew in a desperate melee. Taking hold of the machine gun he had just captured, Robertson turned it around and fired on the now retreating enemy. He then led his platoon’s advance against the final objective with the captured machine gun in his arms, using it again to eliminate retreating groups of the enemy. Later in the day, two Canadian snipers were wounded while out in front of the trench. Disregarding the danger, Robertson climbed out and carried the first wounded man to safety. Returning for the second, Robertson was seen to fall, presumably wounded, but regained his feet and hoisted the wounded sniper. Just as he was reaching relative safety with the second man, a shell exploded nearby and Robertson was killed instantly.

For his actions that day, James Peter Robertson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Provided a field burial, his body was later exhumed and re-buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery.

The official Victoria Cross citation of Pte. James Peter Robertson, VC. (entry is last in right-hand column and carries on to top of Page 725).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication Date: 8 January 1918, Supplement: 30471, Page: 724.
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication Date: 8 January 1918, Supplement: 30471, Page: 725.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

30-31 October 1917 – George Randolph Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG
A Centenary Action

George Randolph Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG

Then-Major George Pearkes, VC, MC in December 1917 displaying his MC ribbon (the VC ribbon had not yet been received) and four wound stripes.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002310.

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).

The official citation for Pearkes’ Military Cross.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7681 – 35, Item Number: 567692, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 101.

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.

The official Victoria Cross citation of then-Captain (Acting Major) George Pearkes, MC (second entry in left-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 8 January 1918, Supplement: 30471, Page: 722.
The official Distinguished Service Order citation of then-Lieutenant-Colonel George Pearkes, VC, MC copied into his service file.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7681 – 35, Item Number: 567692, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 102.

30 October 1917 – Victoria Cross Recipients
Centenary Actions

Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914-1919, p. 322.

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
Private Cecil John Kinross, VC.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006734.

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.
The official Victoria Cross citation of Private Cecil John Kinross (last entry at bottom of left-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 8 January 1918, Supplement: 30471, Page: 724.
The “Medical History Of An Invalid” form in Kinross’ service file indicates his injuries had long-lasting effects on his body.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5190 – 38, Item Number: 500752, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 11.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM

Lt. Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM.
Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence, 2017.

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.

The official London Gazette citation for Hugh McKenzie’s Distinguished Conduct Medal, copied into his service file.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6960 – 28, Item Number: 165108, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 11.

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.

The telegram to Hugh’s wife, Marjorie, detailing that he has been reported missing and believed killed.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6960 – 28, Item Number: 165108, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 26.
The official Victoria Cross citation of Lt. Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM (entry begins in right-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 12 February 1918, Supplement: 30523, Page: 2003.
The official Victoria Cross citation of Lt. Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM (entry begins in right-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 12 February 1918, Supplement: 30523, Page: 2004.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Harry Mullin, VC, MM

Sergeant George Mullin photographed in the field, displaying the Victoria Cross ribbon and one wound stripe on his uniform. January 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002361.

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.

The official London Gazette citation for George Mullin’s Victoria Cross, copied into his service file.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6474 – 21, Item Number: 206507, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 3.

26 October 1917 – Victoria Cross Recipients
Centenary Actions

On this day in 1917, three Canadians receive the Victoria Cross during the opening attacks on Passchendaele.

Thomas William Holmes, VC

Thomas Holmes, VC.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002352.

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 26 October 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.

Thomas Holmes, VC, (middle) and comrades near the front.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002353.

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.

The citation for Holmes’ Victoria Cross, copied into his service file from the official London Gazette citation.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 4464 – 25, Notes: Victoria Cross, Item Number: 457701, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 53.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC

“Capt. Christopher Patrick John O`Kelly, V.C., M.C”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002298.

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 26 October 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.
The citations for O’Kelly’s Military Cross, copied into his service file from the official London Gazette citation.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7440 – 32, Item Number: 551723, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 76.
The citation for O’Kelly’s Victoria Cross, copied into his service file from the official London Gazette citation.
Credit: Library And Archives Canada. Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7440 – 32, Item Number: 551723, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 77.

Robert Shankland, VC, DCM

Robert Shankland, VC, DCM

Robert Shankland, VC, DCM.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence 2017.

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 26 October 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.

The official citation for Robert Shankland’s Victoria Cross (last entry, bottom of left hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 14 December 1917, Supplement: 30433, Page: 13222.

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). In February 1993, Queen Elizabeth II granted approval for the creation of a Canadian Victoria Cross (VC). The Canadian VC maintains the resemblance of the original British VC, except for the insertion of the Latin inscription, “PRO VALORE”, replacing the original English inscription, “FOR VALOUR”. No Canadian has been awarded the Victoria Cross since the inception of the Canadian version in 1993. Consequently, the following describes the original British Victoria Cross, as has been awarded to all Canadians since the Crimean War.

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.