Today We Remember: The Canadian Heroes of Passchendaele (Part 1)
The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917
Passchendaele is one of the most famous battles of the First World War, due to the sheer length of it and the loss of life.
Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele raged from 31st July to 10th November 1917. Exact casualty numbers are disputed to this day, but losses were in the hundreds of thousands.
Canada had been fighting in the Great War since 1914, as part of the British Commonwealth, and had been involved in some of the most famous battles of the war, including the Battleof the Somme and the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
During the Battle of Passchendaele, nine Canadians won the Victoria Cross, which 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.”
Over the course of this week, we’ll be sharing the stories of these Canadian heroes and how they won their commendations.
Private Thomas Holmes
Thomas was one of six children, born in Montreal in 1898. The Holmes family eventually moved to Owen Sound in Ontario.
When Thomas was 17, he lied about his age and left his job as a poulterer in order to sign up in 1915.
Thomas was only 19 in 1917 when he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele and it was on 26th October 1917 that Thomas committed the act of bravery that won him the Victoria Cross.
The Canadian attack was held back on the right side by heavy machine-gun fire from a pill-box that was still holding strong. The Canadians were suffering heavy casualties and the attack was under the extreme possibility of failure. Thomas ran forward, single-handedly, and threw two bombs.
The machine gun crews were killed or wounded by this initial attack, when Thomas threw a third bomb into the pillbox. The nineteen occupants surrendered.
When asked about what he did, Thomas said he thought ‘everybody did that sort of thing’.
Thomas confessed to King George V that he had lied about his age to join up when he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his Victoria Cross, making him the youngest Canadian to win the VC.
Thomas survived the war and returned home a hero, becoming a pilot for the Harbour Commission for fifteen years. He died in 1950, after a battle with cancer.
Captain Christopher O’Kelly
Christopher was the only son of three children, born in 1895. He grew up to become a skilled young leader, becoming acting Captain and winning his VC at just 21.
On 26th October 1917, Christopher led his men 1km into enemy territory where they captured six pill-boxes, 100 prisoners and 10 machine-guns.
Christopher and his company dug in and repelled a counterattack, even managing to take more prisoners in this attack. During the night, they captured a hostile raiding party, adding an officer, 10 men and a machine gun to their achievements.
Christopher was awarded the rank of Major, as well as winning the VC. Nearly 16,000 Canadians died in the Battle of Passchendaele, but Christopher was one and was one of the lucky men to survive the war.
After the war, Christopher became a prospector in Ontario. He died in 1922, when caught in a freak storm on Lac Seul in Ontario.
Sergeant George Mullin
George was an American-Canadian soldier, having been born in Portland, Oregon in 1892. When he was two years old, his family moved to Moosomin, Saskatchewan in Canada. He enlisted in 1914 at the outset of war, when he was 22.
George was 25 when he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele. On 30th October, a German pill-box had been withstanding heavy bombardment and was holding up the attack, causing many casualties. George single-handedly captured the pill-box, rushing at it despite the danger posed by the snipers. George rushed the pill-box, throwing bombs to destroy the garrison. He shot two of the gunners and accepted the surrender of the ten remaining men.
During this act of astonishing bravery, George was under non-stop rapid fire, leaving his clothes riddled with bullets. George forcing the surrender of the pill-box would have saved many lives.
George was promoted to a lieutenant by the end of the war and served as a captain in the Veterans Guard during WWII. After the war, George returned to the wife he had married in April 1918, taking up farming again and coaching baseball.