Illustration: Sharif Tarabay
More than 70 Canadian Victoria Crosses were awarded during World War I, an incredible achievement for a country with less than nine million people. The first of those awards went to Michael O’Leary. Born in 1888 at Inchigeela in County Cork, Ireland, “Mick”—as he was known—joined the Royal Navy at an early age, but was invalided out with rheumatism. After making a full recovery, he joined the Irish Guards before moving to Canada in 1913 where he joined the North West Mounted Police.After war broke out in 1914, O’Leary returned to Great Britain and rejoined the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards. The unit was immediately sent to France, where the lance-corporal quickly showed his mettle. By November he had been mentioned in dispatches.By January 1915, the Irish and Coldstream Guards regiments were at Cuinchy, a village in northern France. On the last day of the month, the Germans attacked and took possession of trenches adjacent to the Irish Guards. It was of critical importance for the British to retake these positions in order to re-establish the line and prevent the Germans from advancing to Calais on the English Channel.
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On the morning of Feb. 1, the British opened an assault with an artillery barrage. The Coldstream Guards swarmed over and attacked with fixed bayonets. Many men were mowed down by enemy machine-gun fire. When it came time for the Irish Guards to attack, O’Leary ignored the danger and singled out a position where he thought the enemy was relocating a machine-gun. His objective was to seize the gun before it could be remounted.O’Leary charged forward ahead of the section he was leading and soon found himself in a trench facing a barricade with five Germans standing in his way. He killed them with five rifle shots. A second barricade stood a mere 80 yards away, but swampy ground forced him to detour around some railway tracks. When he arrived at the position he found an officer and a four-man gun crew frantically trying to remount the machine-gun.O’Leary fired three rounds that killed the officer and two of the crew. The remaining pair surrendered, and he marched them back to the Guards’ trenches. His company quartermaster-sergeant was flabbergasted by O’Leary’s composure. He said he was “as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park.”
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In the citation, the London Gazette applauded the action: “Thus Lance-Corporal O’Leary captured the enemy position by himself.” O’Leary’s own description was more modest. “I took some men to a very important post of theirs (the Germans) and took it from them, capturing their machine-gun and killing some of their gunners.”O’Leary was promoted to sergeant and that same year was mentioned in dispatches for a second time. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Connaught Rangers and awarded the Russian Cross of St. George. He received his VC from King George on Dec. 15, 1917, at Buckingham Palace.Following the war, O’Leary lived in Canada as well as in England. During WW II, he served with the Middlesex Regiment and Pioneer Corps. He was 72 when he died Aug. 2, 1961.* * *Following the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, in which the Germans unleashed poison gas in an effort to break through the salient and open the way to the Channel ports, the Bishop of London said: “The mankind of Canada shone out like gold….” The battle, which brought home to Canada the cruelty and horror of war, yielded four Canadian VCs, two posthumously and two of them on the first day.
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The gas attack should have come as no surprise. British intelligence had been warned of the probability by spies in their employ. As late as April 20, an important enemy document fell into Allied hands, a memorandum issued to the German Second Army that among the weapons available were “flame and asphyxiating gas projectors.”The Canadian VC recipients formed an interesting profile. Both Frederick “Bud” Fisher and Edward Donald Bellew were graduate engineers and both were outstanding athletes, Fisher at football and Bellew as a boxer. Francis Alexander Scrimger was a doctor and the first medical officer to earn the VC in the Canadian Army. Unfortunately, little is known of Frederick William Hall’s background, except that when he moved to Canada before the war he worked for a Winnipeg firm.Fisher was born Aug. 3, 1894 in St. Catharine’s, Ont. In 1907, the family moved to Montreal and after graduating from Westmount Academy he entered McGill University. When war broke out, he enlisted in the Royal Highlanders of Canada, and by December 1914 was a lance-corporal.
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Bellew was born Oct. 28, 1882 in Bombay, India. He was educated in England at Blundell’s School in Twerton, Clifton College at Bristol, and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. In 1901, he joined the 18th Royal Irish Regt., but later resigned and moved to British Columbia, where he worked as a harbour construction engineer in New Westminster. In 1914, he enlisted in the 7th Bn., British Columbia Regt.Scrimger was born Feb. 10, 1880 in Montreal. He was educated at Montreal High School and received his M.D. at McGill University in 1905. Prior to the war he was a medical officer for the Montreal Heavy Brigade. At the start of the war he served with the 14th Bn., Royal Montreal Regt. to become its first medical officer. He was quickly promoted to the rank of captain.Hall was born in February 1885 at Kilkenny, Ireland. He emigrated to Winnipeg, where he found employment. In 1914, he enlisted in the 10th Bn. before transferring to the 8th Battalion with which he went to France as a sergeant-major.At 5 p.m. on April 22, 1915, the Germans opened the valves on 5,730 cylinders, allowing 150,000 kilograms of hissing chlorine gas to escape in less than eight minutes. The Germans had changed the face of war. As the greenish, yellow vapour drifted into the Allied front lines, the French defences on that left flank collapsed, but the Canadians stood their ground.
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When the gas reached the Canadian lines, Scrimger evolved his own homespun antidote. “Urinate into your handkerchief and hold it over your mouth,” he instructed the men in his battalion.
That morning, Fisher had been released from hospital after recuperating from shrapnel wounds some days earlier. His regiment was positioned at St-Julien and his commanding officer advised him to take it easy, but that was hardly the style of one who had excelled at athletics.
By 8 p.m., the situation had become one of chaos, confusion and desperation. The road to St-Julien lay wide open except for four 18-pounder guns manned by the 10th Field Battery. However, these guns could not last long against persistent German attacks and were finally forced to withdraw.
A party of Highlanders was ordered to cover the withdrawal. On April 23, with six other men, Fisher set up a Colt machine-gun in front of the battery until the guns were withdrawn. However, in the process all his men were cut down. He then returned to St-Julien where he recruited four members of the Royal Montreal Regt. and started for the front. While en route, all four men were killed or wounded and Fisher reached the front alone. He set up his machine-gun and began spraying the attackers until—with his finger still on the trigger—a bullet struck him in the chest, instantly killing him.
That night, Fred Hall’s 8th Bn., Winnipeg Rifles, relieved the 15th in the front line. On reaching the trenches, he found that two of his men were missing. He climbed over the top to look for them. In the dark—despite heavy machine-gun and rifle fire—he twice crawled out to rescue the two men who were wounded and carried them to safety.
Next morning, April 24, at 9 a.m., groaning sounds could be heard in no man’s land. Hall headed out again, this time with two others. However, they were no sooner over the top when both of his comrades were wounded and Hall had to help both of them back to the trench.
Hall decided to attempt the rescue alone. Despite accurate German fire he reached the slope of a hillock where the wounded man lay. The casualty was so badly wounded, he couldn’t move. However, Hall managed to hoist him onto his back. While raising his head to check his direction, he took a bullet straight between the eyes. Seconds later, the man for whom he had given his life to save was also killed.
That same morning, the Germans launched a second gas attack. Bellew, the British Columbia Regt.’s 7th Bn. machine-gun officer, had two guns operating on the high ground overlooking Keerselaere. Besieged on the front and right flanks, exposed by a gap in the line, the gun on the right flank was soon put out of action. Bellew was able to fend off the assault until reinforcements arrived. But they were no sooner in place than all of them were surrounded and killed. With the Germans no farther than 100 yards away, Bellew and a gunner fought on keeping up a steady fire.
Bellew’s comrade was killed and he himself was wounded, but he kept on fighting until he had no more ammunition. With the Germans on top of him, he grabbed his rifle and smashed his machine-gun and kept on battling until he was taken prisoner.
By the afternoon of April 25, the Canadian Army Medical Corps was very busy tending to the casualties. A farmhouse at Wielje, two miles north of Ypres, which served as a dressing station, came under so much enemy fire that it caught fire and had to be evacuated. The road leading from it had been rendered impassable and so the wounded had to swim across the moat surrounding the building. For one soldier, Harold McDonald, this was an impossibility. He had been so badly wounded he couldn’t move.
“Captain Scrimger,” McDonald recalled, “carried me down to a moat 50 feet in front where we lay half in the water. Scrimger curled himself round my wounded head and shoulder to protect me from the heavy shell fire, at obvious peril to his own life. He stayed with me all the time and by good luck was not hit. At length when the fire slackened he went after some stretcher-bearers and had me carried to the dressing station. This, however, was only one of many incidents of Captain Scrimger’s heroism in those awful three (sic) days. No man better deserves the soldier’s highest honour.” Ergo: Scrimger became the fourth Canadian to be awarded the VC during the Second Battle of Ypres.
Fisher and Hall have no known graves, but their names are etched in the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. A Royal Highlander officer wrote Fisher’s parents that he was buried near the village of Poelcappelle close to Ypres. He also told them he would have been commissioned a second lieutenant had he lived.
On May 1, 1917, a memorial tablet in Fisher’s honour was unveiled at the Royal Highlanders of Canada armouries in Montreal and later a memorial service was held at the Church of St. James the Apostle on June 12. On June 18, 1970, an Ontario memorial plaque was unveiled at Memorial Park in St. Catharines.Edward Bellew only learned he’d been awarded the VC when he read about it in a Vancouver newspaper shortly after his release as a prisoner of war in 1919. Returning to B.C., he became a dredging inspector for the Department of Works on the Fraser River before retiring to Monte Creek near Kamloops. He died on Feb.1, 1961 in a Vancouver hospital. Thirteen years later his VC went on auction at Sotheby’s in London. No government funds were available for the opening price of $5,000, but Stephen Roman, the mining magnate, bought it and presented it to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.
After Ypres, Scrimger was wounded and invalided back to England where he later joined the staff of the Canadian Army Hospital at Ramsgate. On July 21, 1915, he received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. Following the war, he returned to Montreal as assistant surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital and in 1936 became surgeon-in-chief. He died Feb. 13, 1937.
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Victoria Cross recipient Frederick William Campbell had a lot of military inheritance to live up to. His great-grandfather had served with distinction under General Isaac Brock in the War of 1812.
Campbell was born June 15, 1867 in Mount Forest, Ont. A year later his family moved to a farm at Glendale where he attended school. He developed a keen interest in the military and when he turned 18 joined the 30th Bn., Wellington Rifles, the local militia.
When the Boer War broke out in 1899, he joined the 2nd Bn., Royal Canadian Regt. of Infantry. As a member of a machine-gun squad he took part in four major battles and was awarded the Queen’s Medal with clasps for Johannesburg, Paardeberg, Driefontein and Cape Colony. A particular feat during one of those actions earned him special mention. When the spokes of one of the wheels of his gun carriage were shot off, Campbell showed exceptional ingenuity by replacing the spokes with legs from a table he found in an abandoned house.
He returned home after the war—with the rank of sergeant—and bought a farm next to his parents, where he raised horses. He rejoined his old militia unit and became a school trustee and a director of the Mount Forest Agricultural Society. At the outbreak of WW I, Campbell, who by that time held the rank of captain, was ready.
He was assigned to the 1st Bn. of the Western Ontario Regt. and by the time the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed for England on Sept. 24, he had been appointed officer-in-command of the machine-gun section.
The battalion went into action for the first time during the Second Battle of Ypres, but in a reserve capacity. On June 15, 1915, the brigade took part in the Battle of Givenchy. It was an isolated but bloody engagement. In one day there were 400 casualties.
At 6:10 p.m. that evening, the brigade attacked in support of the British 7th Div. During the encounter, Campbell led two gun crews over the top in a wild dash through enemy fire across no-man’s land in which one crew was wiped out. Only Campbell and a gunner, Harold Vincent, reached the trench that the wave ahead of them had captured.
When a German counterattack developed the survivors of the charge ran out of grenades. Campbell ordered them to retire and decided to set up the Colt to cover their retreat. However, the gun’s tripod had been shot away and no substitute was available so Vincent volunteered to support the machine-gun on his back.
In this way they were able to ward off the enemy in which Campbell fired off 1,000 rounds. Then a bullet struck him in the right thigh near the joint and he was unable to continue. Badly burned by the machine-gun, Vincent was able to carry the gun back to their own lines. Campbell managed to crawl back and was rescued.
Two days later he was taken to the No. 7 Stationary Hospital at Boulogne. On June 19, he fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He died three hours later.
In July 1965, a commemorative plaque was unveiled by Frederick Campbell’s daughter on the grounds of Capt. Fred Campbell VC Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion in Mount Forest.
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