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The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

To celebrate our Canadian launch, this week we are sharing the stories of nine Canadians who won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, is one of the most famous battles of the First World War, raging from 31st July to 10th November and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.

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.”

Second Lieutenant Hugh McDonald McKenzie

Hugh was originally from Liverpool, spending a large portion of his childhood and early youth in Scotland before moving to Canada at 26.

He signed up in 1914 and by January 1917 had been made a second lieutenant. Towards the end of the battle, on 30th October, Hugh was put in charge of four machine guns accompanying the infantry in an attack. Many officers and NCOs had already fallen in the attack, leaving the men without leadership.

Hugh noticed the men hesitating before a nest of enemy machine-guns and decided to hand his command over to an NCO so he was free to rally the infantry. He knew that it was important to do so, to prevent any further loss of life.

Hugh conducted a quick recce of the position, before organising the attack. He led the attack himself, having placed the men in supporting positions. The position was captured, but Hugh, leading from the front, was killed. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for this exceptional act of bravery, his leadership ensuring that the position was captured, saving many lives.

Major George Pearkes

George was born in Watford, England in 1888 before he moved to Red Deer, Canada in 1906. By the time he was 21, George owned his own homestead, where he and his brother built a log cabin for their family.

George joined the North West Mounted Police in 1911 before enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force 2nd Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles in 1915.

He was 29 when he had command of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles and on 30th October 1917, he was injured in the thigh. Despite this wound, he continued to lead his men and he captured a German strong point, holding the position with a few men. 

It was considered by his superiors that George’s fierce determination and strong personality is what invigorated the small number of men he had, so they were able to see off repeated attacks, despite their flanks being unprotected. Later, he was also able to make invaluable reports to his commanding officer.

After the war, George became a career soldier, fighting in World War Two, notably as part of the team planning planning for Operation Greenlight, which was designed to retake the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese.

George later became a Progressive Conservative politician and was Minister of National Defence, from 1957 to 1960.

Private James Robertson

James was born in Nova Scotia in 1883. He was 32 when he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915, becoming a Private. Two years later, James was on the Western Front and fighting in the Battle of Passchendaele. 

On 6th November, James and his platoon were caught up in the final assault on Passchendaele, many of the platoon were caught in barbed wire. James found an opening on a German flank and rushed the gun, killing four crew members as he struggled to take control of the gun. His platoon was then able to advance, as James used the captured gun and led the men to their final objective.

The platoon managed to hold the position, as James turned the gun on the enemy. Two of the platoon’s snipers were badly injured and James went out to rescue them, despite coming under severe fire. He got the first man back to safety, but was killed as he returned with the second.

James was buried in Passchendaele and his medal presented to his family.

Posted in: "Today We Remember"
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