Canadians and the Victoria Cross
Being the final chapter in the heroic record of deeds by which Canadians won the award “For Valor”
W. W. MURRAY
FIFTY-SIX of the sixty-one recipients of the Victoria Cross received the distinction in eleven of the seventeen “battles”—as distinct from “local actions” —in which the Canadian Corps participated. The remaining five earned the decoration in less extensive operations, or during engagements in which Canadians took part in small units and not as a corps. Additional to these, remembering the thousands of Canadians who served in the Imperial Army and the Royal Navy, it is not inappropriate to recall that, so far as can be ascertained, six were awarded the Victoria Cross.
Before the Canadian Corps was organized, five members of the old 1st Division had earned the award. Four of these have already been dealt with in the story of Ypres, 1915; the fifth was the late Lieutenant F. W. Campbell, 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion. The exploit of this deceased officer was one of the outstanding incidents that occurred at Givenchy, in a day when warfare had degenerated to what appeared nothing more than purposeless trench-snatching.
To the survivors of the original 1st Division Givenchy conjures up memories of the “Duck’s Bill,” of two 18pounder guns of the Canadian Field Artillery emplaced immediately behind the parados of the front-line trench, of the springing of a mine with disastrous effect upon the attacking Canadians themselves, and of the devoted heroism of the assaulting troops. The “Duck’s Bill” was a sharp salient protruding from the line of main trenches toward the enemy position about seventy yards away.
‘‘A Very Gallant Officer”
SHARPLY at 3 o’clock in the afternoon of June 15, 1915, the 1st Battalion moved into their position. At 5.45 p.m. the field-guns in the front line opened fire, adding their quota to the bombardment which had been in progress all afternoon. The crew of one was put quickly out of action; but the second continued until the mine was sprung thirteen minutes later. Scarcely had all the debris alighted than the assaulting units were “over the top” and making swiftly for the German front line. Lieutenant Campbell was with the second wave of the attack, and with him were his two Colt guns. In the maze of trenches beyond, bomb fighting was taking place; and despite the artillery preparation the enemy thronged their positions, bringing a devastating fire to bear on the Canadians. Before reaching the captured trench, one of Campbell’s gun-crews was annihilated, and of the other, few unwounded remained. Then was enacted a drama of heroism that has few parallels in Canada’s war record.
Moving to the left in an effort to establish his gun in a favorable position, Campbell found that only one man, a Private Vincent, was left. Together the two sought to mount the gun, but no suitable base could be found. Here, Vincent himself provided the necessary emplacement. Bending his back, he allowed Campbell to straddle the tripod across his shoulders, and in this fashion fire was opened on the enemy. The Germans were strongly counter-attacking; foot by foot, the battalion, their bombs exhausted and their personnel almost wiped out, were stubbornly yielding the position. Into the mass Campbell directed a stream of fire that temporarily dispersed the attackers. Again the Germans advanced, bombing their way steadily, and paying heavy toll to Campbell’s coolness and marksmanship. But the inevitable happened: the officer was seriously wounded. Slowly and painfully he strove to return over “No Man’s Land,” with Vincent dragging the gun behind. Campbell had reached the old front-line and was being carried into the trench when his life flickered out.
His citation is terse, encompassing only 108 words. It recounts the story and refers to Campbell as “this very gallant officer,” a characterization that was nobly earned during the episode recorded.
A Desperate Ride
THERE remain two more members of the Canadian Corps, No. 889,958 Corporal Joseph Kaeble, M.M., of the 22nd French Canadian Battalion, a native of St. Moice, Quebec, and Lieutenant G. B. McKean, M.C., M.M., 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment, who was born at Bishop Auckland, England. To be included also are two members of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade: Lieutenant G. M. Flowerdew, of Gillingford, England, who served in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, and Lieutenant H. Strachan, born at Linlithgow, Scotland, of the Fort Garry Horse. Strachan is the only survivor of this quartette. Corporal Kaeble and Lieutenant Flowerdew gave their lives in performing the deed under review and which brought them the honor, while McKean was accidentally killed some three years ago.
The series of incidents out of which Lieutenant Strachan emerged with the coveted decoration is one of the epics of the war. The wild ride of “B” Squadron of the Fort Garrys on November 20, 1917, was one of the absorbing features of the great attack planned by Sir Julian Byng. The “plot” envisaged a break-through toward Cambrai and a general roundup by cavalry in the exploitation of the success. At 1.30 p.m. that day, the Fort Garrys got on the move. Infantry objectives had for the most part been reached, and “B” Squadron’s task was to push on from where the infantry had left off, to ride to Escadoeuvres, northeast of Cambrai, and effect the capture of the German Corps headquarters there. This means a ride of nine or ten miles into enemy territory.
Lieutenant Strachan was second-in-command of the squadron, whose strength was four officers, 129 men, and 140 horses. The first check came at Masnières where it was found that the bridge over the Canal fie St. Quentin had collapsed under the weight of a tank and was impassable. Another crossing was located about 1,000 yards southeast, however, and under heavy fire which brought not a few casualties, including Captain Campbell, the squadron commander, the party attained the opposite bank. Leadership now devolved upon Strachan.
Passing through the lines of victorious infantry, the Canadians galloped due north to the Masnières-Crevecoeur road. There they were obliged to cut through a camouflage screen, whereupon they came face to face with a German battery of four guns, in action 300 yards away. Without more ado the Fort Garrys charged. A brisk fight ensued in which the gunners were cut down almost to a man; but the squadron sustained severe casualties in the operation. The advance continued. German infantry were retiring in disorder toward Rumilly, discarding their equipment as they fled. The cavalrymen rode over them. Many surrendered, but, intent upon their special mission, the Fort Garrys could not wait to pick them up. They were totally unaware of the fact that the cavalry feature of the operations had by this time been practically cancelled, due to the collapse of the Masnières bridge. They rode on in the belief that many regiments were galloping in their wake.
Here and there, isolated groups of the enemy held out, and bey’ond Rumilly the squadron came urrder heavy fire from all sides. Only three officers, forty-three men and horses were left; a large number of the men were wounded, and all but seven of the horses had sustained injury. A halt was called in a sunken road beyond Rumilly, and there several animals dropped dead from wounds and exhaustion.
It was now dusk. The first shock over, the enemy were gathering themselves. A company of German infantry arrived on the scene as the squadron stood dismounted. A fierce encounter ensued in which the enemy were beaten off.
The remnants of the squadron, still with their minds on the duty of capturing the Corps Headquarters at Escadoeuvres, looked around for their supports. None were in sight. They were alone. They were miles in rear of the German line, surrounded, and in a totally unfamiliar country. Enemy battalions were observed marching in their rear; motor trucks filled with German infantry rumbled along the roads from Cambrai. In the midst of it all and in the gathering darkness were these three officers and forty-three men of the Fort Garry Horse.
It was patent that “something” had happened; something had gone wrong. A council of war was held. It was decided that under the circumstances to continue toward Escadoeuvres was out of the question. The decision was reached to attempt a return to the British lines. The horses were stampeded in the darkness in order to confuse the surrounding enemy, and on foot the intrepid survivors of the squadron now essayed to make their way back.
Their progress was beset with great hazards. On several occasions parties of Germans were encountered; but, more to deceive them than in any hope of a successful issue, the Fort Garrys charged furiously with the bayonet. From each affray they emerged victorious. Moving stealthily through the night, dodging Germans here, fighting others there, the Canadians eventually reached the camouflage screen on the Masnières-Crevecoeur Road, near where they had cut through. It was then raining. Totally exhausted, the party posted sentries and rested there in a large crater. The men fell asleep.
Throughout the night German working parties moved along the lip of the crater, unconscious of the Canadian soldiers slumbering below. Several times an officer of the squadron, Lieutenant Cowan, who spoke fluent German, engaged them in conversation. Each time he satisfied their curiosity. Finally, in the early hours of November 21, the men, refreshed by sleep, again took the road. At once they clashed with a large body of Germans, whom they immediately charged. A number of prisoners were taken; but in the fight the Canadians became divided. Lieutenant Cowan and most of the survivors, taking their prisoners with them, got through the screen and made for the bridge over which they had crossed the previous afternoon. Strachan and the third officer, Lieutenant Fleming, with their few remaining men, traversed the entire southeasterly length. At Mont Plaisir farm this party became mixed up in another fight, but they finally made their way to the canal, moved back to the broken bridge at Masnières and recrossed. Eighteen prisoners were brought back.
“The operation,” says Strachan’s citation, “was only rendered possible by the outstanding gallantry and fearless leading of this officer.”
A Comic Interlude
THE work of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in the spring of 1918 stands out in cheerful relief against a depressing background of disaster, and o*f the many heroic achievements during those spacious days, that which earned for Lieutenant G. M. Flowerdew the Victoria Cross greatly embellishes the record. For a clearer understanding of the situation generally, a word on conditions as they developed at that time is in order.
Strung out in a long, thin line over a length of front which their numbers were utterly inadequate to defend, the warshattered and exhausted divisions of the Fifth Army were too weak to cope with the avalanche that descended upon them when the Germans launched their colossal offensive at St. Quentin on March 21. Against overwhelming odds, the Fifth Army fought with all the bitter courage born of despair, realizing too well from the outset that there was no other issue but defeat. And thus it was. The enemy hammered their way through and in a wide sweep made rapid progress in the general direction of Paris. On the front of the advance was Amiens. Into the maelstrom were drawn the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, comprising the Lord Strathcona’s Horse, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Fort Garrys. When the threat against Amiens was developing, the mounted troops were in the vicinity of Compiègne. In accordance with orders they took the road north.
Their progress was not unchallenged; and an interesting episode was enacted en route. In command of “C” Squadron of the Strathcona s, Lieutenant Flowerdew had as one of his troop-leaders Lieutenant F. M. W. Harvey, V.C., an account of whose bi a^eiy was published in MacLean’s on December 15 last. Approaching the vfilage of Fontaine on March 28, Harvey found it occupied by the enemy. Taking ten troopers he attacked the place, routed the Germans and took possession. Meanwhile, the French at Cantigny had arranged a “fulldress” assault on Fontaine. Half an hour after Harvey’s exploit the poilus advanced to battle, but to their amazement found this little Canadian group comfortably installed. That they were Canadians was impossible, incredible. The Canadians? Were they not somewhere near Lens? They must be Germans—and in disguise! Harvey was summarily arrested. Protestations availed him not. Not until he was “paraded” before the French divisional commander at Broyés was his identity established. Then the apologies were lavishly tendered, congratulations on the heroism of the Strathconas were generously expressed, and Harvey rejoined his regiment in an atmosphere of cheer and felicitation.
The Fight at Moreuil Wood
apprised of the following message:
“The Germans have captured Mezières, and are rapidly advancing on Amiens. The brigade is to cross the Noye and Avre rivers as quickly as possible, and engage and delay the enemy.”
The whole cavalry brigade moved off across country from the neighborhood of Guyencourt, pursuing the route via Remiencourt, north of the Bois de Seneat to Castel. The Avre was crossed without incident, and the advance continued to the northern fringe of Moreuil Wood. Headquarters were set up in a small wood adjoining. Heavy machine-gun and rifle fire issuing from Moreuil Wood disclosed strong forces of the enemy to be in possession. An attack was decided on, one in which all three regiments became embroiled. It was in the northern phase that Flowerdew acquired the Victoria Cross. One squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons were ordered at the full gallop to clear the northeast corner of the wood, a duty that was well and truly performed in spite of the destructive fire. Many Germans were killed with the sword, but a large party, estimated at 300, retired eastward out of the brush. It was this group with which Flowerdew joined issue.
“C” Squadron of the Strathcona’s were now ordered to support the Dragoons. Led by Flowerdew, the cavalrymen thundered along the northern face of the wood, swung south and set their horses at a steep bank, up which they clambered with difficulty. Their troubles began there. No sooner had he struggled over the crown of the bank than Flowerdew noted directly in front several of the party who had been ejected from the brush by the Dragoons. They were drawn up in two lines, one about 200 yards in rear of the other, and each bristling with machine guns.
Everything depended on leadership; but Flowerdew possessed this valuable element to the full. Quickly ordering Lieutenant Harvey, V.C., to dismount his troop, and instructing him to execute a special movement, Flowerdew, riding at the head of the three remaining troops, galloped headlong at the enemy. The blasts of enemy fire tore wide swaths through the squadron, emptying many saddles. But the Strathconas were full of fight. They crashed into the German infantry who, be it said, not only stood their ground but actually advanced to engage the horsemen with the bayonet. Cutting and hacking their way through,
the Canadians crumpled the first line and spurred on to the second. The same scene was enacted. Wheeling about, the cavalrymen charged again, completely annihilating the enemy. The Germans were brave men ; they would not surrender, and were consequently eliminated to a man. But “C” Squadron’s losses were heavy; about seventy per cent of their personnel were casualties. Notwithstanding this, Flowerdew, pursuant to his orders, galloped with his remnant into the wood, still supporting the Dragoons. They ran into more fighting, but they established the line. The other regiments were engaged in as equally severe a conflict. However, Moreuil Wood was captured and held. The enemy advance on Amiens was delayed— a fulfillment of the cavalrymen’s orders—nor did the Germans reach Amiens. Just as Canadians checked them in this, so also did Canadians finally remote the menace on Amiens when five months later the Canadian Corps fought and routed the enemy near this same terrain.
Flowerdew paid the price of his gallantry with his life. In the charge he was wounded in both thighs, but continued to battle furiously. “There can be no doubt,” says his citation, “that this officer’s great valor was the prime faefor in the capture of the position.”
A French-Canadian Hero
' I 'HEY shall not pass” was the slogan L of Verdun, and one can well imagine this to have inspired Corporal Kaeble, the French-Canadian Lewis-gunner of the 22nd Battalion, when on the night of June 8, 1918, the enemy sought to raid his post at Neuville Vitasse. Following an intense artillery and minenwerfer barrage, about fifty Germans rushed across No Man’s Land. The corporal saw them converging upon him. His whole section were casualties; but Kaeble remained whole. Standing on the parapet and firing from his hip, he sprayed the advancing enemy, emptying drum after drum into them. Shells and bombs burst all around him; he was riddled with fragments, but he continued to fire. Finally, still in action, he fell backward into the trench, mortally wounded. Lying on his back, he fired his last cartridge over the parapet. “The complete repulse of the enemy attack,” his citation records, “was due to the remarkable personal bravery and self-sacrifice of this gallant noncommissioned officer' who died of his wounds shortly afterwards.”
It was during a raid on the German trenches at Gavrelle, north of the Scarpe, by the 14th Battalion on the night of April 27, 1918, that Lieutenant McKean won the Victoria Cross. Entering the enemy’s position, McKean’s party were checked by a trench barricade whose capture was essential to the success of the operation. Realizing this, McKean took a “flier” over the block, diving headfirst into the Germans on the other side. As he was scrambling around, with one of the enemy underneath, another rushed to bayonet him. McKean promptly shot this man, and the same disposition was made of the German struggling below. Later, McKean rushed a second block, killed two Germans, captured four more and destroyed a dug-out in which others had sought refuge with a machine gun. “This officer’s splendid bravery and dash undoubtedly saved many lives,” says his citation.
By Sea and on Land
TF THERE were more than six Canadians awarded the Victoria Cross while serving in the Imperial forces, their identity is not known. At all events, it is established that the late LieutenantColonel P. E. Bent, D.S.O., who lost his life, but was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for bravery at Polygon Wood, near Ypres, in January, 1918, was a native of Halifax, N.S. Colonel Bent commanded the 9th Leicesters. During an enemy attack and under intense artillery fire on his battalion’s position, Bent collected a platoon that was in reserve, and together with men from other companies and various regimental details, he organized and led them forward to the counter-attack. This was successful, and the enemy checked.
“This very gallant officer,” says his citation, “was killed whilst leading a charge which he inspired with the call of ‘Come on, Tigers’ !”
Captain W. N. Stone, of Toronto, distinguished himself as a subaltern officer of the 17th Royal Fusiliers during Byng’s Cambrai operations in 1917; LieutenantColonel B. W. Vann, a Canadian, commanded the l/8th Notts and Derbys at Bellenglise in September, 1918, and was awarded the coveted distinction during those operations in which his compatriots stormed the Canal du Nord.
Not only in France and Belgium, but in Palestine did Canadian courage manifest itself. No. 511,828 Private R. E. Cruickshank, of Winnipeg, fought east of the Jordan with the London Scottish and was honored for his bravery there.
But the list is not exhausted. It is not generally known that among the first to receive the Victoria Cross after it was instituted in 1856 was a Canadian— Ensign (later Lieutenant-Colonel) A. R. Dunn. He rode with the 11th Hussars in the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, and cut down several Russian lancers in rescuing a trooper of his regiment. A Canadian figured as recipient of the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny when Surgeon H. T. Reade, of the Gloucestershire Regiment, a native of Perth, Ontario, turned combatant and routed a body of mutinous sepoys at Delhi, in September, 1857. On May 7, 1867, Surgeon C. M. Douglas, who was born in Quebec, rescued several men of his regiment, the Old Green Howards (South Wales Borderers), from infuriated natives on the island of Little Andaman in the Bay of Bengal, and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
During the South African War four Canadians, Lieutenant (now Sir Richard; E. W. Turner, Lieutenant H. Z. C. Cockburn, Sergeant “Eddie” Holland, and Sergeant A. H. L. Richardson had the decoration conferred on them, the first three at the Koomati River, and the last at Wolvc Spruit.
Of the naval men, Lieutenant Burke, D.S.O., of Nelson, B.C., saved the lives of several survivors of H.M.S. Vindictive on the morning of May 10, 1918, at Ostend; while Lieutenant Commander R. N. Stuart, D.S.O., a Canadian, was elected by the ship’s company of the Pargust, one of Commander Gordon Campbell’s “hush” ships, to receive the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the sinking of the UC 29 off the Irish coast in June, 1917.
And not without interest is it to recall that only one Victoria Cross was ever granted for a deed of bravery performed “not in the presence of the enemy.” That deed of bravery was enacted in Canada: the recipient was Private Timothy O’Hea, of the Rifle Brigade, who extinguished a fire in an ammunition van at Danville Station, Quebec, during the Fenian Raid of 1866.
Editor’s Note—This is the concluding article of Mr. Murray’s series on Cano,dians o,warded the Victoria Cross.