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 26 October 1917, when he single-handedly stormed a concrete pillbox with only his rifle and a few grenades. Killing and wounding some of the two machine gun crews within, he retreated to his comrades for a third grenade and then charged the pillbox again, after which the 19 remaining occupants surrendered.
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 26 October 1917, after his Battalion’s opening attack had failed, O’Kelly rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes. O’Kelly’s company captured six of the pillboxes, tallying 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. A later counter-attack was repelled, with more prisoners taken, and then, during the night, an enemy raiding party was thwarted, with the capture of one officer, ten men and a machine gun.
Later in the war, on 28 September 1918, Captain O’Kelly was hit by machine gun fire in the groin, and then again by shrapnel in the leg while laying wounded. Evacuated to hospital, the machine gun bullet was removed from his left buttock and O’Kelly was also found to have fractured his foot. Despite all of this, he recovered.
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 26 October 1917, the 43rd Battalion took part in the opening attacks of the Battle of Passchendaele. Despite initial success, as the 43rd and 58th Battalions reached the Dotted Red Line objective, the Germans brought down heavy artillery fire on their old positions (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 319). Now a Lieutenant, Shankland quickly acted as the entire brigade began to falter and retreat. Cobbling together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon, Shankland established a small hold on the Bellevue spur. Shankland’s force held firm, enabling the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion to come forward and re-establish the line while other companies went around to the south and flanked enemy pillboxes being engaged by Shankland’s group with diversionary rifle grenades and Lews guns (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 320).
For his actions that day, Shankland received the Victoria Cross. In the heat of battle, despite suffering a gunshot wound in the back, Shankland remained in the line. Similar injuries of gunshot wounds to the head and neck from November 1917, were not reported until after the war, during his medical exam before demobilization.
Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba would later be renamed Valour Road, as the home address of Shankland and two more Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War (Leo Clarke and Frederick William Hall). Shankland would serve again during the Second World War before retiring to Vancouver. He died on 20 January 1968.