The Victoria Cross is awarded 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).
The following list (though not complete) is of Canadian soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
A Centennial Action
The Battle of Fresnoy – May 3, 1917
During the Battle of Fresnoy, Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe led his company of the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg) in attacking the left flank of the Fresnoy Switch. Passing through a heavy barrage that stopped much of his company 500 yards short of the objective, Lt. Combe reached the enemy trench with only five men. Disregarding their inferior numbers, Lt. Combe immediately led his little band bombing through the German positions. When their own supply of grenades ran out, they made use of the many German stick grenades lying about. Capturing 250 yards of trench and approximately 100 prisoners, Lt. Combe’s five-man battle group single-handedly linked up with the 1st Battalion’s (Western Ontario) left flank. As reinforcements finally caught up, Lt. Combe continued to lead his men forward with bomb and bayonet, before he was killed by a sniper. For his leadership and courage that day, Lt. Robert Grierson Combe was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Lt. Combe, VC was buried in a field cemetery at Acheville, France, but that cemetery was destroyed in subsequent fighting and Combe’s grave lost. He is consequently commemorated on the Vimy Memorial.
A Centennial Action
The Battle of Fresnoy – 3-8 May 1917
The village of Fresnoy-en-Gohelle was the next objective of the Canadian Corps after their victory at Arleux in April. Fresnoy was the retreating point for the German forces from the village of Arleux-en-Gohelle, and an important part of the Oppy-Méricourt Line, one of Haig’s objectives for what was known to the British as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, or the Battle of Bullecourt.
Like Arleux, Fresnoy was heavily fortified, and the area for manoeuvring very small. Haig decided that all operations along the line would take place at night, which worked to the advantage of the Canadians since they had a very small advance area. The plan of attack at Fresnoy was very similar to Arleux, with practice runs beforehand and extended slit trenches dug into No Mans Land to allow for a quicker advance into the village. The 1st and 6th Brigades went over the top on 3 May at 3:45 AM under cover of darkness.
Fresnoy was taken within several hours, but the Canadian brigades were now in the typical problem facing armies on the Western Front – holding their position. Counter attacks began almost immediately and the village was shelled for the next seven days, absorbing some 100 000 German artillery and gas shells. For the soldiers of the 1st and 6th Brigades in the village, the time between 3 May and the final German counter-attack on 8 May must have seemed endless.
Beginning at 4:00 AM, the Germans advanced into the village, even reaching Canadian trenches before they were fought off. The day ended with a German retreat and the Canadians were relieved the next day; however, disaster struck during the relief in the form of another German attack against the British troops relieving the village. Fresnoy was lost on 9 May, 1917. Canadian losses for the battle were 1 259 casualties, 1 080 of which were from the 1st Brigade, Canadian Corps.
In addition to the use of preparatory practice attacks and slit trenches, Fresnoy was initially fought in the dark. The Canadian Corps would frequently use night attacks, one of the most famous being the Canal-du-Nord in 1918, and if successful they could be extremely effective. For the initial attack, Currie was also lucky enough to have the use of artillery from three of the four Canadian Division, in addition to British units, allowing for a very heavy concentration of fire in such a small area.
Signaller Wilfred Kerr: A student at the University of Toronto, Kerr enlisted in 1916 with the Canadian Field Artillery. His memoir of 1917, Shrieks and Crashes was published for the first time in 1929. Kerr survived Fresnoy and the war, returning to university where he received his PhD. He worked at the University of Buffalo and died in Kenmore, New York in 1950.
Lieutenant Ernst Junger: Junger is now known as the author of the German war memoir Storm of Steel, but in 1917 at Fresnoy he was a company leader with one of the regiments stationed at Fresnoy. Of the battle, Junger wrote Fresnoy was one towering fountain of the earth after another. […] Eyes and ears were utterly compelled by this devastation. After his demobilisation, Junger became an entomologist and a prominent public critic of the Weimar Republic; he had a complicated relationship with the Nazi Party and was never a member, though he served with the army in Paris before being dismissed in 1944 after being implicated in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.
April 9, 2017, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Over 25,000 people gathered together at the Vimy Memorial in France to remember the 100,000 men who fought during the battle of Vimy Ridge and the 3,598 who gave their lives.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked a turning point in our history; since this fateful battle, historians have said that Canada emerged from a colony to become a nation at Vimy Ridge. It was not simply a battle – it was Canada’s coming of age.
The Arras offensive, of which Vimy Ridge was just one part, continued well after the capture of the ridge until 16 May, 1917. Following Vimy, the Canadians pushed their way forward, mopping up scattered outposts and advancing for two weeks in mid-April before stacking up against serious German resistance. In the midst of the floundering Nivelle offensive, British General Haig hoped to achieve a redeeming victory by ordering a four-battalion attack by the Canadians on the troublesome “Arleux Loop” at Arleux-en-Gohelle.
Assigned to the attack, the 5th (Western Cavalry), 8th (90th Winnipeg Rifles), 10th (Canadians), and 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalions refused to be hampered by supply problems, with the 8th Battalion alone hauling 40,000 rounds of ammunition into forward dumps. The Canadians advanced at 04:25 A.M., pushing their way into the village despite a weak barrage. Desperate, chaotic battles of hand-to-hand fighting broke out, favouring the Canadians who were actually outnumbered. Swarming through Arleux’s devastated streets, the German forces were simply overwhelmed; no sooner had they started to check one skirmish before another running firefight would break out elsewhere. By 06:00 A.M., a disjointed retreat from the village was underway.
Admitting the village lost, the German commander of the 111th Division ended all counter-attacks on 29 April. The two-day battle had cost the Canadians 1,255 casualties. As they consolidated their positions they looked out at the next objective a mere two kilometres away – the village of Fresnoy and its accompanying Fresnoy Wood.
On 14 April 1917, two days after the Canadian Expeditionary Force had secured its positions atop Vimy Ridge, an attack was launched by the Newfoundland Regiment (NFLD R) and a battalion of the 1st Essex Regiment from the village of Monchy-le-Preux with the objective of Infantry Hill, along with Bois du Vert and a smaller stand of trees known as Machine Gun Woods.
As a separate dominion of the British Empire, Newfoundland’s military contribution operated independently of Canada’s forces. Consequently, the men known as The Blue Puttees had just entered the line after a lengthy period of recuperation and refitting, following their devastating losses at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, and the larger Somme campaign.
Striking east of Arras from the village of Monchy-le-Preux at 05:30, the men were fighting with a hurried and inadequate tactical plan, the attack stuttered and stalled under withering fire from German machine gun and artillery positions. By 09:00, the attacking forces were surrounded and pressed from three sides by German counter-attacks.
It soon became apparent to Lieutenant-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson that he and his Battalion HQ staff were all that stood between the counter-attacking Germans and a major breakthrough, west towards Arras. Gathering up his staff, along with weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded they passed, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson led the tiny force of no more than 20 men through the deserted streets of Monchy, toward the battlefield. At the edge of the village, they dashed across 100 yards of open ground to a small embankment and hedge. By the time they reached it, machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire had reduced their force to just ten men.
From the diminutive safety of the embankment, armed only with rifles, the ten men then held off the approaching Germans for eleven hours under Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s leadership. By alternating between both rapid and sniping fire, while dashing along and firing from various spots of the embankment, they were able to confuse the Germans as to their actual defence and number. Sniping of German scouts sent forward also nullified attempts to gauge the size of the Newfoundlanders’ defence. During a lull in the shelling, Private Rose escaped back to Brigade HQ with the message of Monchy-le-Preux’s endangerment. Against orders, Private Rose returned to his fellow Newfoundlanders’, guiding the first platoon of reinforcements. Finally, at 22:00, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s little band of fighters was relieved. Another dark day in the history of the Newfoundland Regiment was over.
In the initial morning attack the NFLD R’s total casualties numbered 460; 166 killed in action, 141 wounded, and 153 Prisoners of War. One of the dead included Lt. Robert Holloway, whom we discussed in our 100 Days of Vimy post on 15 March 2017 (read it here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-march-15th-2017/ ). Lt. Holloway was killed by artillery near Bois du Vert while carrying a message back to Battalion HQ. In a cruel twist of fate, British artillery fire called into later defend the ten men at the embankment fell into the fields east of the village, killing many of the wounded Newfoundlanders who had laid there since the morning attack. After the battle, all ten men of the defence of Monchy-le-Preux were cited for gallantry:
Lt.-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, Commanding Officer – Distinguished Service Order
Lieut. Kevin J. Keegan, Signalling Officer – Military Cross
Sgt. J. Ross Waterfield, Provost Sergeant – Military Medal
Cpl. John Hillier, Battalion Orderly Room Corporal – Military Medal
Cpl. Charles Parsons, Signalling Corporal – Military Medal
Lance-Cpl. Walter Pitcher, Provost Corporal – Military Medal
Pte. Frederick Curran, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Japheth Hounsell, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Albert S. Rose, Battalion Runner – Military Medal
Pte. V. M. Parsons, 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment – Military Medal
In detailing the attack, planners chose to extend a thin salient even deeper into the German lines, which only increased its chances of being surrounded. A shortage of shells led to inadequate fire support in the initial stages of the attack. Planners also appear to have forgotten to send an occupying force into Monchy-le-Preux, leaving the village-wide open to a counter-attack succeeded through the remnants of the destroyed Newfoundland and 1st Essex Regiments. Re-occupying the village would have provided the Germans with an elevated vantage point just a few kilometres east of Arras, making its defence by “The Monchy Ten” all the more important.
For a detailed account of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s attack and defence of Monchy-le-Preux, we suggest reading “The Greatest Gallantry” by Anthony McAllister, CD.