On this day in 1917, having massed their forces, the Germans counter-attack the Cambrai offensive. At one point on the line, four British divisions face nine German divisions. Striking hard from the east, the Germans intend to drive in the British flank and then turn north, sweeping the entire salient clear. Caught off-guard, the Newfoundland Regiment is rushed forward as desperate fighting breaks out all along the line.
With only one night of rest, on the morning of 30 November the Newfoundland Regiment is sent to relieve a unit in front of Masnières. Caught in the opening barrage before the German counter-attack, the Newfoundland companies are sent forward individually, entrusted to make their own way to the assembly point.
Coming upon Marcoing Copse, expecting to meet fellow 88th Brigade units, the Newfoundlanders instead stumble upon advancing Germans. Breaking into a charge, a wild melee takes place at bayonet point and the Newfoundlanders steadily roll back the German advance, in concert with the other 88th Brigade units to the south. In the midst of this, Brigade Major, Captain J. K. McConnell gallops up and down the line, riding bareback on a horse, directing the defense (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 420). By the end of 30 November, the 88th Brigade had pushed back the enemy almost a mile. But the Newfoundlanders suffer heavily, losing one officer and 130 other ranks.
The next day was marked by enemy machine gunning and sniper fire as the Commonwealth forces desperately dug in to their precarious positions along the St. Quentin Canal. For now the situation was saved, but within twenty-four hours, another German counter-attack would re-ignite the crisis.
One of the many casualties suffered by the Newfoundland Regiment during the Cambrai offensive was their leading sniper, Lance-Corporal John Shiwak. An Inuk from Labrador, Shiwak was killed along with nine other Newfoundlanders by a lone shell as the regiment moved into reserve at the end of 20 November 1917.
Prior to the war, Shiwak had met and befriended a writer, Lacey Amy, who convinced Shiwak to keep a diary. In a last letter to Lacey before his death, Shiwak longed for home, his family and hunting community : “There will be no more letters from them until the ice breaks,” he wrote (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 416).
In a tribute to Shiwak following his death, Lacey wrote:
“He had earned his long rest… Out there in lonesome Snipers’ Land he lay, day after day; and the cunning that made him a hunter of fox, and marten, and otter, and bear, and wolf brought to him better game. And all he ever asked was: “When will the war be over?” Only then would he return to his huskies and traps where few men dare a life of ice for a living almost as cold. John Shiwak – Eskimo – patriot.”
(Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 416-417).
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 – 20November
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).
Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC
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.
On this day in 1917 (20 November), the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade take part in the launch of the massive Commonwealth attack on Cambrai. Labelled “The Great Experiment”, the attack foregoes the typical artillery bombardment, and instead relies on advanced surveying and range-finding to launch a sudden furious barrage at the hour of attack. Trundling into this are nearly 300 tanks, followed by infantry deploying aggressive fire and movement tactics. The next major offensive on the Western Front was now underway.
“The Great Experiment”
Like the Canadian Corps, the Newfoundland Regiment had fought at Passchendaele in the fall of 1917. After only a short rest period the Regiment was sent back to France near the town of Cambrai. An important supply point on the German Hindenburg Line, Cambrai was the site of the next British attack after the end of Haig’s long and draining Passchendaele Offensive.
The attack by the British Third Army, organised by General Julian Byng of Vimy fame, would make use of combined infantry and artillery, with the second major deployment of Haig’s mystery weapon of 1916 – the tank – alongside the Cavalry Corps. Now in sufficient numbers to be massed together, over 200 tanks were to be used to break the Hindenberg Line.
Launched early in the morning, the massed artillery, machine guns, and tanks quickly overwhelmed the German frontline positions. Placed in a follow-up wave, the Newfoundland Regiment pressed forward with the other units of the 88th Brigade. Meanwhile the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB) waited for the opportunity to attack across the open ground that was to be cleared by the infantry.
Initially, Cambrai was a great success. The British Army advanced further in one day than the entire Passchendaele campaign, and everything seemed to be going well until the first German counter-attack. Unfortunately, the CCB was stuck until mid-afternoon on 20 November waiting for an improvised bridge to be constructed for their horses, and the Third Army had almost no reserves. This weakness began to show as the battle dragged on, and on 29 November the expected German counter-attack pushed the exhausted Third Army back towards their starting position. On 4 December, Byng carried out a fighting retreat to a position along the Hindenburg Line, where the army was to wait out the winter.
Losses were heavy for both the Newfoundland Regiment and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade; total Third Army losses were over 40 000 killed, wounded and missing. By the night of November 29, the Newfoundland Regiment had only 8 officers and 230 other ranks left. The Battle of Cambrai lasts from 20 November – 7 December 1917.
-General Byng attempted the combination of artillery, infantry, tanks, and mobile cavalry that would be so successful during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918. There were a lot of moving parts, and not all of them worked as they should, particularly the tanks and cavalry; however, Byng realised that combined attacks were what would win the war.
-The initial attack marked the first use of tanks en masse, with over 200 from the newly formed Tank Corps functioning as an independent unit in coordination with the infantry, rather than suborned to it.
-The artillery approach at Cambrai was reconfigured, with no preliminary registering of the guns other than survey calculations. As a result, the creeping barrage opened up with no prior warning, gaining surprise, but at the loss of accuracy. The infantry was to advance behind the tanks, which was supposed to protect them from accidental friendly fire.
The courage and sacrifice displayed by the Newfoundlanders during the Cambrai offensive resulted in a number of medals and awards being awarded to individual members of the Regiment. A member of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade also received the Victoria Cross.
Please click on the hyperlinks in the men’s names for further reading about their lives and actions at Cambrai in 1917.
Lance Corporal John Shiwak,was an Inuk from Rigolet, Labrador and one of the Newfoundland Regiment’s snipers. He was killed on 20 November 1917, by a direct hit from a German shell that killed nine other men. Shiwak corresponded with the journalist William Lacey Amy, who had encouraged him to keep a diary while at the front.
Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC, served with the Fort Garry Horse, and received a Victoria Cross after leading “B” Squadron through the enemy lines when their Captain was killed, eliminating an enemy field gun battery and numerous infantry parties along the way. Strachan survived the war and returned to Alberta where he lived until his death in 1982.
On this day in 1917, the Canadian Corps’ launches the final phase of the Battle of Passchendaele. With the subsequent capture of the high ground at Vindictive Crossroads and Hill 52, the Passchendaele offensive comes to an end. On the final day, another 1094 Canadians become casualties, including 420 dead. In total, Canada suffers 15,654 casualties in the Battle of Passchendaele (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 327).
One hundred years later, such mud, misery and destruction still endures as the world’s collective memory of that horrific patch of land.
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
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.
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
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.
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 William Hall). Shankland would serve again during the Second World War before retiring to Vancouver. He died on 20 January 1968.
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).