Hand-to-hand On Hill 70: Part 8 of 18

March 1, 2005 by Arthur Bishop

ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY

ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY

Clockwise from top left: Victoria Cross recipients Michael James O’Rourke, Harry Brown, Frederick Hobson, Filip Konowal, Robert Hanna and Okill Massey Learmonth.

During a bitter 10-day struggle—from Aug. 15-25, 1917—the Canadian Corps overran Hill 70, a treeless hillock on the north side of the French mining centre of Lens. The corps suffered nearly 9,200 casualties, among them four of the six Victoria Crosses awarded in that gory battle. The ages of the six recipients ranged from 19 to 41.

Michael James O’Rourke, 39, had already earned the Military Medal for bravery at Monquet Farm on the Somme in 1916. From Aug. 15-17—during the first phase of the fighting around Hill 70—the former British Columbia lumberjack, serving as a stretcher-bearer with the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion, went without sleep to tend the wounded. He continually left the trenches to venture into no man’s land to bring food and water to injured comrades. And while doing that, O’Rourke exposed himself to severe shelling, machine-gun and rifle fire. Several times he was knocked down and partially buried by mud when shells exploded near him.

When O’Rourke noticed a blinded soldier staggering about in clear view of the enemy, he leapt from the trench and guided the wounded man back through heavy rifle fire. On another occasion he ran forward in the face of machine-gun and sniper fire to rescue a wounded man. And later—when the battalion line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated—O’Rourke went out to save a wounded soldier who had been left behind.

In order to break up counter-attacks it was vital to get messages back to the gun line. With the wires cut between the 10th Cdn. Inf. Bn. and its headquarters, Harry Brown, a 19-year-old farm boy from Gananoque, Ont., and a fellow ground runner volunteered for the hazardous job. As the two started out on Aug. 16, they were subjected to intense shelling. Brown’s left arm was shattered while his companion was killed.

Although aching and weak from blood loss, Brown pressed on alternately staggering and crawling, occasionally lying down to gather his strength. Pale, dirty, haggard and bloodied, he finally reached the dugout and stumbled into the arms of an officer. Before losing consciousness, Brown handed over the message he had carried. He died the next day at a dressing station, but his sacrifice saved three battalions.

A veteran of the Boer War where he had been mentioned-in-dispatches, Frederick Hobson, 41, and his men were holding down a position called Nabob Valley, a part of the German trenches the 20th Cdn. Inf. Bn. had captured three days earlier. At 20 minutes to two on Aug. 18, the Germans laid down an artillery barrage in an attempt to recapture the trenches they had lost.

Most of the battalion’s forward positions were wiped out, all communications were cut and only one Lewis gun was left in the vicinity. While the gunners were attempting to put the gun into action, a shell exploded and all but one gunner was killed. The survivor was left half buried in mud.

Hobson took a shovel and dug the man out and then helped him get the weapon into position. And even though Hobson had been hit by an enemy bullet, he continued to operate the gun until it jammed. By this time the Germans were almost on top of the pair.

Hobson sprang to his feet and warded them off with his rifle. When he was out of ammunition he attacked with his bayonet and also clubbed the enemy with his rifle butt. He killed 14 in very short order. The gunner had his Lewis gun working, but Hobson was dead by the time reinforcements arrived. A stick-bomb had struck him in the stomach, tearing his guts out.

Simultaneously, the 2nd Cdn. Inf. Bn. was holding out against a fierce German counter-attack. By daybreak of that same day the unit had been reduced to 614 men. At 4 a.m., it was besieged by a barrage that lasted almost an hour. After that, the Germans attacked with flame-throwers and stick-bombs.

During this siege, Okill Massey Learmonth, 23, a native of Quebec City who earlier in the war had earned the Military Cross, showed himself to be very much the man of the hour. A major in charge of 3 Company, he walked up and down the trench rallying his men from the parapets. When the grenades started falling he picked them up and threw them back and in the process was wounded more than once. But even with a broken leg, Learmonth refused to be taken from the field. Instead, he directed the fight from the floor of his dugout until the enemy backed off.

Learmonth finally turned his command over to a subaltern and was carried by stretcher to a field hospital, but not before stopping at headquarters to deliver a comprehensive first-hand report of the situation. Later in the day, “the man who would not give in” died in hospital.

On Aug. 21, during the start of the second phase of the fighting for Hill 70, Sergeant-Major Robert Hanna, 30, who had left his logging job in Vancouver to enlist, found himself in charge of B Co. of the 29th Cdn. Inf. Bn. This was after a stubborn German machine-gun post had repelled three attacks that killed all of the unit’s officers.

Hanna coolly collected a party of men and then led them against the position amid a hail of rifle and machine-gun fire. He forced his way through barbed wire and then killed three of the German gun crew with his bayonet and brained a fourth with the butt of his rifle.

The group consolidated its position by hastily building a fortification block, but the Germans were quick to attack in force. However, Hanna and his party bravely held on against repeated assaults until they were relieved later in the day.

From Aug. 22-24, during two different days of hand-to-hand fighting, Filip Konowal, a corporal with the 47th Cdn. Inf. Bn., killed 16 German soldiers all by himself. The objective was the Green Crassier near Lens, an immense expanse of coal slag-heaps thrown up by bursting land mines and infested with machine-gun nests. To silence them, the German gunners had to be cleared from tunnels, craters, dugouts and cellars. This dangerous job called for intense house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting at which no one was more adept than the 28-year-old Konowal, a veteran of five years in the Russian army as a bayonet instructor.

On his first foray, while approaching a machine-gun nest, he entered a cottage and finding no Germans on the main floor dropped into the cellar where three Germans fired at him. Konowal killed all three during a fierce bayonet and gun fight. While continuing his advance on the machine-gun nest, which was located in a large crater, he noticed the bodies of Canadian soldiers in and around the crater’s perimeter. He halted his men and while proceeding alone caught seven Germans trying to evacuate. He opened fire and killed three. He then charged and killed the others with his bayonet.

On Aug. 22, another battalion requested help to subdue a machine-gun nest in a tunnel. This time, while approaching the position alone, Konowal was captured by enemy soldiers. However, he managed to kill his captors and then escape. Undaunted, he approached the machine-gun nest and threw in two explosive charges to demoralize the gunners. He then charged down the dust-filled, darkened tunnel and killed all the Germans with his bayonet. Later that evening, while standing in a Canadian trench, he was hit in the head by sniper fire, and was later evacuated to England.

Brown, who was born in May 1898, is buried four miles south of Bethune, France, in Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery. At age 12 he left school in Peterborough, Ont., to work on his widowed mother’s farm in East Emily Township. In 1916 he took a job in a London, Ont., munitions factory before joining the Cdn. Mounted Rifles.

Hobson has no known grave but his name is etched on the Vimy Memorial. Born in England in the fall of 1875, he emigrated to Galt (now Cambridge), Ont., after the Boer War. He worked for Canadian Canners and then ran a store before moving to Simcoe, Ont. In November 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Learmonth was born in Quebec City on Feb. 22, 1894. Educated at St. George’s School and Quebec High School, he went to work for the Union Bank and was later employed by a private estate on Anticosti Island, Que. At the outbreak of war he worked for the Quebec treasurer’s department. After enlisting as a private in the Canadian Army, he was commissioned in June 1916. He, too, is buried in the Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery in France. His name is commemorated at Quebec City by Learmonth Avenue and the Okill Learmonth Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

Hanna, who died June 15, 1967, is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Burbank, B.C. Born Aug. 6, 1887, in Kilkeel County, Ireland, he received his education and then took a job as a lumberjack before emigrating to Canada in 1905. On Aug. 21, 1917, he received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. After the war he ran a logging camp and later took up his original vocation of farming.

Konowal was born near the village of Kudkiv, Ukraine, which at the time was then under Imperial Russian control. Military records indicate he was born March 25, 1887, while some more recent publications, including The Register of the Victoria Cross, state he was born Sept. 15, 1888. He worked on the family farm and helped his father with his stone-cutting business until he was conscripted into the Russian army for five years. In 1913, he moved to Canada and worked as a lumberjack.

In July 1915, Konowal joined the 77th Bn. in Ottawa. After 10 months of training, his unit left Halifax and arrived in Liverpool, England, on or about June 29, 1916. He was later transferred to the 47th Bn., which sailed to France on Aug. 10 as part of the 4th Cdn. Div.

Following the war, Konowal was honourably discharged. He returned to Canada in 1919 a hero. However, his life took a tragic twist on the evening of July 20, 1919, when he killed a man who had punched and kicked a fellow veteran. He was formally charged with murder, but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. Specialists—called by the prosecution and the defence—held the unanimous view that Konowal’s head wound had rendered him mentally unstable and not responsible for his actions.

He remained in jail until late April 1921 when he was escorted to the Saint Jean de Dieu Hospital in Montreal. An article in the autumn 1996 edition of the Canadian Military History journal notes that when he was freed from the institution sometime between 1928 and 1931, he had “possession of all his faculties.” He returned to Ottawa and through contact with another VC recipient, Milton Gregg, landed a job as a junior caretaker in the Parliament Buildings. Both Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Hull, Que., Branch of the Legion have been credited with Konowal’s promotion to messenger and special custodian of the prime ministers office.

Konowal died June 3, 1959, and is buried in Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa. His VC, which was acquired by the Canadian War Museum in the 1960s, went missing in 1973. The medal’s disappearance remained a mystery until it appeared last year at an auction house in London, Ont. The medal has since been returned to the museum where plans are under way to include it in an exhibit in the new war museum scheduled to open in May (Missing Victoria Cross Returned To War Museum, November/December 2004).

O’Rourke died Dec. 6, 1957, in Vancouver and is buried in the Veterans Field of Honour at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Born in Limerick, Ireland, March 19, 1878, he moved to Vancouver before the war and joined the army as soon as hostilities began. On Dec. 5, 1917, he received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace.

O’Rourke returned to Vancouver after the war and became a longshoreman. Known as the King of the Waterfront, his escapades became almost as legendary as the actions that earned him the VC. During the Depression, he led a parade of striking dockworkers in a fierce battle with the mounted police. At the height of the fracas, while marching with a flag in one hand and a brick in the other, he ran into an old army acquaintance, William Foster, the Vancouver chief of police.

In 1956, O’Rourke refused, but was later persuaded to attend the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the VC. He decided to go to London, England, after an anonymous doctor, who had lost a leg at Dieppe, France, in World War II, volunteered to pay all expenses. O’Rourke arrived just in time for the ceremonies and a welcome at Buckingham Palace.

On his return to Vancouver, he told reporters: “I have met the Queen. I have met the Princess Royal and I’ve met Sir Anthony Eden. But not once did I get a glass of Canadian beer.”

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