The Etaples Riot of September 1917

“Troops going through bayonet practice and a physical exercise session in the famous “Bull Ring” training camp on the dunes between Etaples and Camiers.”
© IWM (Q 33326)

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).

The massive expanse of the “Bull Ring” is clearly demonstrated here.
© IWM (Q 33328)

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.

The Battle of Passchendaele
A Centenary Action

“Passchendaele, now a field of mud. November, 1917.”
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-040139.

On this day in 1917 (26 October), the Canadians launch their attack on Passchendaele. The Canadian Corps entered the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917 after a largely successful spring and summer of victories at Vimy and Hill 70. They were confident, well-trained, and most importantly, rested. Passchendaele had been dragging on since the end of July, and had consumed thousands of British troops in the slog to take the ridge from which the battle took its name. Plagued by bad weather, Haig’s battle had not gone well. By October, it became clear that he would need more men to reinforce the British Fifth Army.  

The original plan had been for the Canadian Corps to re-attack Lens, the town they had failed to take at the end of the Hill 70 campaign in August; however, Haig met with Currie to explain the need for the Corps at Passchendaele instead. Here, Currie played the position of the Corps within the political structure of the Allies to its fullest advantage. The Corps would not be subordinated to Gough and the Fifth Army, Haig would provide extra artillery, and Currie would plan the attack himself. Even so, Currie predicted that the Corps would likely lose around 16 000 much-needed men at Passchendaele.  

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

The Canadian attack began on 26 October at 5:40 am with a creeping barrage as the 3rd and 4th Divisions began their advance. Communication was problematic and the mud, sometimes waist high, hampered those going forward. It took two days, but the first objectives, including Bellevue Spur were captured by 27 October. The next phase of the four part battle began on 30 October, once again using the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Advances on the 30th were smaller, and the creeping barrage was less successful, particularly on the 3rd Division front. 

The third and fourth part of the advance took place after the divisions were relieved, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved in to begin their work on 6 November. It was easy to get lost on the Passchendaele front, even with a map, and a member of the Canadian Corps wandered into German lines accidentally and revealed the date of the next attack – 6 November. Even with the warning, the Canadian barrage was heavy enough that the divisions could advance relatively safely and by the end of the day the village of Passchendaele had been captured. By 10 November, the last remaining German forces had been pushed from the ridge entirely and the offensive was called off – Haig declared it a victory.  

Currie’s prediction was correct. Passchendaele cost the Canadian Corps 16 404 casualties. Many of the wounded left on the battlefield drowned in the mud and water before they could be rescued. In total, Passchendaele cost 275 000 British and Dominion lives, compared to 220 000 German casualties. A high price for victory.  

Technological Advancements|  

-Currie and his commanders planned Passchendaele in 14 days; in comparison, planning at Vimy took 3 months, at Hill 70, 1 month. In 1918, Currie would plan his Hundred Days assaults in even less time. The Corps had become a well trained, professional army, and needed less and less time to train  

-Currie understood that artillery and its use were critical to the success of the soldiers on the front lines. Without a working creeping barrage and strong support, the men were trapped in their own lines and easy targets for German machine guns.  

-As at Vimy, transport in and out of the Passchendaele lines was critical and the Canadian Army Service Corps and Engineers spent the 14 days before the battle laying hundreds of metres of road and duckboard in a desperate bid to create walkable paths in the mud. In many cases, the duckboards saved lives, as wandering off them meant drowning. The artillery transport crews worked at night to move up the guns needed for the battle, and thousands of horses and mules were killed in service.  

Notables| 

Major Talbot Mercer Papineau, MC, was killed on 30 October, 1917, while serving with the PPCLI. Papineau, a grandson of the famous Patriote, Louis-Joseph Papineau, is most famous for his series of public letters written to his cousin Henri Bourassa that make a case for support of the war effort. Papineau was hit by a shell and his body never found.

No less than nine Canadians received the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions at Passchendaele. On the centennials of their actions, full accounts of the VC recipients will be available by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.

Thomas William Holmes, VC, of Owen Sound, ON, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his lonesome attacks on a series of machine gun nests on 26 October, 1917. Holmes survived the war and died in 1950. His VC was stolen in a home robbery in the 1930s.

Christopher O’Kelly, VC, MC, of Winnipeg, MB, rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes. 

Robert Shankland, VC, DCM, of Winnipeg, MB, (born in Ayr, Scotland), cobbled together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon and 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. 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).

Cecil Kinross, VC, of Lougheed, AB, (born in Uxbridge, England) charged a machine gun nest alone, with nothing but his rifle, enabling his company to advance 300 yards. Kinross was wounded at Passchendaele, but survived the war.

Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM, of Verdun, PQ (born in Inverness, Scotland), left his machine gun section to take charge of a faltering infantry attack.  He placed himself at the head of the frontal assault and charged an enemy pillbox. 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.

George Mullin, VC, of Moosomin, SK, (born in Portland, Oregon), ambushed and destroyed a sniper’s post before crawling up on top of a 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 taking the surrender of the remaining ten defenders.

George Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG, of Victoria, BC (born in Watford, England), led the 5th CMR’s through hard fighting to their objectives and beyond. With only 20 men left, Pearkes established a defensive line from Source Farm to Vapour Farm, and they continued to beat back enemy counter attacks. The advantageous position gained by Pearkes’ band of fighters was appreciated by General Currie, who  issued orders “that every effort should be made to hold the line.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 323).

Colin Fraser Barron, VC, of Toronto, ON, (born in  Mill of Boyndie, Banffshire, Scotland), attacked a machine gun nest that was holding up his unit, killing the crew, and turning the gun around to use on the enemy. He survived the war and served in the Second World War with the Royal Regiment of Canada.  

James Robertson, VC, of Picton County, NS, charged a machine gun alone, eliminated the crew in a desperate melee, and then turned the weapon on the retreating enemy. Later in the day he went out to bring in two wounded snipers lying in front of the trenches. He carried in the first man but was killed by an enemy shell upon returning to relative safety with the second.

Epitaphs of the First World War
Part I

For our upcoming Wednesday posts, we will begin sharing epitaphs from Canadian First World War headstones. Many of them come from the new book “Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them”

“Spirit in heaven, body in France, memory in Canada.”
Private Earl Orington MacKinnon, 10th (Canadians) Battalion, 9 April 1917 – St. Catherine British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Credit: McGeer, Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them, p. 26.

Earl MacKinnon, of Scotch Settlement, New Brunswick was with the 10th (Canadians) Battalion just 16 days before he was killed in action at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Personnel Records of the First World War – CEF 531398a, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7001 – 20, Item Number: 166537, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Earl MacKinnon’s epitaph was requested by his father. (See Row 1202/1D in this Headstone Schedule from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).
Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2017.

 

Canada’s Dream Shall be of Them
Epitaphs of the First World War

“Not now but in the coming years, sometime, someday, we’ll understand”

Following the re-burial of four fallen Canadians this week by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, we thought it fitting to reflect on a recently published book titled “Canada’s Dream Shall be of Them”. A touching and important work from author Eric McGeer, with photographs from Steve Douglas, it is an anthology of epitaphs drawn from the tombstones of Canadian soldiers buried inFrance.

The epitaph of Private Edron Anderson of Calgary, included in Canada’s Dream, reads “Not now but in the coming years, sometime, someday, we’ll understand”. While we may be incapable of understanding the grief Edron’s parents faced when composing his epitaph, Canada’s Dream connects the twenty-first century reader with the Canadian soldiers lost during the First World War and the families that were left behind.

Private Edron Anderson.
Courtesy: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017.

Private Edron Anderson was born 16 May 1893 and emmigrated from Liverpool, England to Calgary, Alberta. A farmer by trade, Anderson was called up for the draft under the Military Service Act in November 1917 and joined the 10th (Canadians) Battalion in the field on 31 August 1918. He was killed less than a month later during the Hundred Days Offensive on 28 September 1918. Private Edron Anderson is buried in Naves Communal Cemetery Extension, Nord, France. He was 26 years old.

This moving book can be purchased here https://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Books/C/Canada-s-Dream-Shall-Be-of-Them

The Battle of Hill 70 Ends
A Centenary Action

“Canadian Scots resting in village near Lens. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the Boche. September, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001853

25 August – On this day in 1917, the Battle of Hill 70 comes to a close. By the end of 24 August, the survivors of the 44th (Manitoba) Battalion were forced to retire from the Green Crassier, having been attacked on all sides and suffering 257 casualties (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 296). In a final move, the 50th (Calgary) Battalion attacked and secured Aloof Trench on 25 August. By nightfall of 25 August, the relief of Canadian units at Hill 70 and Lens was complete, signalling the end of the Canadian Corps’ Battle of Hill 70.

While the attack on Hill 70 was a resounding success, the town of Lens would remain in enemy hands until their retreat in 1918. For their successes, the Canadians were awarded numerous accolades, including six Victoria Crosses, and the HILL 70 Battle Honour. From 15 – 25 August 1917, the Canadians suffered 9,198 casualties killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

“German concrete reinforced houses on outskirts of Lens. September, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003890.

Corporal Filip Konowal, VC
A Centenary Action

Corporal Filip Konowal, in London prior to receiving his Victoria Cross.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006732.

22-24 August 1917 

Corporal Filip Konowal, photographed in London after receiving the Victoria Cross.
© IWM (Q 69170)

Filip Konowal emmigrated to Canada from Siberia in 1913. Born in present-day Ukraine, Konowal had served as hand-to-hand and bayonet combat instructor in the Imperial Russian Army before working as a feller for a logging company in Siberia. In 1916, he enlisted with the 77th (Ottawa) Battalion but once overseas was transferred to the 47th (British Columbia) Battalion.  

During the fighting at Hill 70 and LensKonowal served on a mopping-up party, moving forward behind the first wave, cleaning out trouble spots of enemy resistance. On numerous occasions Konowal dropped down alone into dark basements and cellars that had been converted into machine-gun posts, taking on entire enemy crews with club and bayonet, each time emerging unscathed. At one point he charged a crew of seven moving out in the open, dispatching them all (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 60). In one of his last actions, he entered a tunnel near Fosse 4, tossing two charges of ammonal in on a garrison, before charging in with the bayonet and eliminating the entire post (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 60). Corporal Konowal was soon after severely wounded by a gunshot wound to the neck and face. He was evacuated, recovered, and even went on to serve with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force late in the war. 

However, like fellow Victoria Cross recipient Private Michael O’Rourke, VC, MM, Corporal Konowal’s life after the war was marred by tragedy. The day after leading the Peace Parade of Veterans through downtown Ottawa on 19 July 1919, Konowal would be charged with the stabbing murder of William (VasylArtich in Hull, Quebec.  Konowal’s friend, Leonti Diedek, had been attacked by Artich and Konowal came to Diedek’s rescue. In a resulting struggle, during which Artich struck Konowal on the head and then slashed and stabbed his arm, Konowal gained control of the knife, stabbing Artich just once, directly in the heart. When the police arrived, Konowal stood calmly at the scene and stated as a matter-of-fact: “I’ve killed 52 of them [in the war], that makes it the 53rd.” (Sorobey “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 6). 

An older Filip Konowal, photographed after the war. The scars and trauma of his wounds became more evident as he aged.
Credit: Vladimir J. Kaye/Library and Archives Canada/C-010023.

Put on trial, Konowal was provided unwavering support by the Great War Veterans Association (a pre-cursor to the Royal Canadian Legion), and money was raised for his defense. It was determined that the wounds and trauma suffered by Konowal during the war had led to brain damage that resulted in hallucinations and dramatic mood swings. (At times he believed he was at Hill 70, and strangers were the enemy, attacking his men). Found not criminally responsible for the murder, Konowal was admitted intMontreal’s Saint Jean de Dieu Hospital (now the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal) on 27 April 1921

Approximately seven years later, after progressive treatment and an astounding recovery, Konowal was released. Gaining employment just as the world slipped into the Great Depression was most difficult, but through a chance encounter Konowal received a position on the cleaning staff at the Parliament Buildings. In yet another chance encounter, then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King spotted the medal ribbons pinned to Konowal’s caretakers tunic, including the crimson ribbon of the Victoria Cross. From that day forward, Konowal was employed as the personal caretaker and messenger of Room No. 16, the Prime Minister’s own office on Parliament Hill. 

In later years, veterans groups and Royal Canadian Legion branches would be named after Filip Konowal and a host of plaques erected across the country. They would also fundraise to help send him to England to meet the Royal family on the centennial of the Victoria Cross’ inception. More recently, Konowal’s hometown of Kutkivtsi (Kudkiv), Ukraine unveiled a large stone and bronze memorial in his name, the city of Lens, France unveiled a plaque and bas relief, and lastly, the new Hill 70 Memorial, unveiled in April 2017, includes a pathway named the “Konowal Walk”. It also appears that, having believed them to have died in Stalin’s purges, Konowal’s wife and daughter in fact survived, and grandchildren remain in Kutkivtsi (Kudkiv), Ukraine. 

Filip Konowal died on 3 June 1959 and is buried in Notre Dame de Lourdes Cemetery, Ottawa, Ontario.  

The official medal citation for then-Corporal Filip Konowal, VC (second to last at bottom of left-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 23 November 1917, Supplement: 30400, Page: 12329.

For a more complete story of the life of Corporal Filip Konowal, VC, read Sorobey, Ron (1996) “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 6.  
Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss2/6 

Editor’s Note – There is some discrepancy over the dates upon which Konowal’s actions for the Victoria Cross took place. Numerous sources state it was over a two-day period, from 22 – 24 August 1917. However his Service File records Konowal as having been seriously wounded on 21 August 1917 and admitted to hospital. It is clear that Konowal was gravely wounded at some point during the battle, however if his actions took place during the attack on Lens, then 22 – 24 August 1917 is a more likely time period. The attack on Lens did not begin until the early morning of 21 August 1917. Nonetheless, in the fog of trench warfare, it is possible that Konowal was engaged in fighting around Hill 70, the day prior to the Lens attack officially starting and this may have been taken into consideration as the “two-day period”.

Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hanna, VC
A Centenary Action

CSM Robert Hanna, VC, and Pte Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM, in London after receiving their Victoria Crosses (O’Rourke’s can be seen pinned to his chest).
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006656.

21 August 1917

CSM Robert Hanna, VC.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence, 2017.

Robert Hanna emmigrated to Canada from Kilkeel, Ireland in 1905. When war broke out he enlisted with the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion on 7 November 1914. By 21 August 1917, he had risen to the position of Company Sergeant-Major (CSM), when during an attempt to gain a number of trenches atop Hill 70, all the officers of “B” Company became casualties. Leadership of the beleaguered force thus fell to CSM Hanna. In a precarious position, neighbouring “C” Company, and now Hanna’s “B” Company, was taking mounting casualties from an enemy defensive live that centered on machine-gun post. Already having seen the previous three attacks fail, CSM Hanna nonetheless calmly gathered up a small band of men, leading them on a dash through heavy barbed wire entanglements and enemy fire. Reaching the machine-gun post, Hanna carried the charge through to its end, engaging three of the crew with his bayonet and the fourth with his rifle butt (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 49). In a momentary lapse, Hanna and his few surviving men created a blocking position in the trench system, before the Germans launched a series of counter-attacks. Each renewed attack was turned back by the small band of Canadians led by CSM Hanna, and they held out until relief arrived later that day (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 49).

For his immediate actions, leadership and fighting efficiency that day, Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hanna received the Victoria Cross. He would survive the war, returning to British Columbia, Canada. He passed away 15 June 1967 and is buried in the Masonic Cemetery, Burnaby, British Columbia. His grave has since received a traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission tombstone.

The official medal citation for CSM Robert Hanna, VC (right-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication Date: 6 November 1917, Supplement: 30372, Page: 11568.

The Attack On Lens
A Centenary Action

The destruction in Lens was immense, yet gutted houses like these could be fortified and turned into nests of resistance.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001862.

21-25 August 1917

With the success of the Canadian Corps at Hill 70, Currie now turned his eyes to the town behind the hill – Lens. Despite drawing out the Germans into a costly attack, and causing some 20 000 casualties, the capture of Hill 70 had not forced a German withdrawal from the city. Currie had originally planned Hill 70 to avoid having to make the Corps attack a fortified city, which they had no previous experience doing, but with no German withdrawal and increasing pressure from his high command Currie was forced to consider going into Lens.

With input from his divisional commanders, Currie ordered the 2nd and 4th Divisions into the city in a narrow fronted, probing attack. The first attack took place at 4:35 am on 21 August with battalions from both divisions advancing from their lines to the outskirts of the city. They were met with extremely strong resistance, and in the maze of fortified cellars, ruined houses and block streets were continually harassed by the Germans. By the end of the day, the Canadians were forced to withdraw; they lost 1 154 soldiers in only one day.

Currie now knew what was waiting for him in Lens – a strong German force – but made an uncharacteristic miscalculation. Rather than bombard Lens from above and avoid any inner city combat, he decided to send the 4th Division back in to try and capture Green Crassier, a large slag heap to the south of the city. The 44th (Manitoba) Battalion was ordered into Lens on 23 August to try to take the Crassier, and while they managed to capture it initially, were left to hold it cut off from communications and without reinforcements. The 44th held out until the end of the day on 24 August but were forced to retreat and Curried called off the operation in Lens on 25 August 1917, ending the Battle of Hill 70. The city remained in German hands until the general German retreat of 1918. Total casualties for the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the period of 15 – 25 August 1917 were 9 198 killed, wounded, or missing.

 

Technological Advancements|

“Canadians wounded at Lens on way to Blighty via Light Railway, September 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001823.

The fighting at Lens demonstrated a form of warfare that would take precedence in the Second World War; urban warfare. Capturing the city required the Canadian Corps to go through Lens street by street to clear out all remaining enemy forces, something which they just did not have the resources or the training to do. Lens was the last time the Corps fought in a city until Valenciennes in 1918.

Characters|

Full accounts of their lives and VC actions can be read by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.

Corporal Filip Konowal (47th (British Columbia) Battalion) – An immigrant from modern-day Ukraine, over two days of fighting, Konowal was involved in clearing cellars in the city. He attacked two machine gun nests single-handedly, killing their crews and destroying their guns. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, the only Ukrainian-Canadian to receive one. Konowal’s post-war life was tragic; his family in Ukraine was believed killed during Stalin’s collectivization plan in the 1930s Konowal himself was convicted of murder after coming to the aid of a friend in 1919. He was institutionalized and treated for physical and mental traumas of the First World War. Later released, he worked as a janitor in the House of Commons.

Company Sergeant Major Robert Hill Hanna (29th (Vancouver) Battalion) –  The second Canadian to receive a Victoria Cross during the attack on Lens. Both Hanna’s and Konowal’s VCs are counted as Battle of Hill 70 awards.

“A Canadian Doctor checking wounded Canadians before leaving an aid post near Lens. September, 1917.” (Note the large “cross hair” that has been marked on the house in the middle background).
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003816.

 

Private Michael O’Rourke, VC, MM
A Centenary Action

15-17 August 1917 

Private Michael James O’Rourke, V.C., M.M., pictured here in November 1917 with the ribbons for both medals displayed on his tunic.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002250.

Born in the 1870’s (dates vary), Michael James O’Rourke immigrated from Limerick, Ireland to Victoria, British ColumbiaBefore 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 was already displaying signs of traumatic stress in April 1918, as noted here in his medical form (See Section 9).
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7484 – 42, Item Number: 544552.

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. 

The official medal citation for Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM (last entry in the right-hand column).
Credit: The London Gazette, Publication date: 6 November 1917, Supplement: 30372, Page:11569.

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.