ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY
Das Blutbad the blood bath. The consummate German designation for those murderous battles of the Somme. During the last six months of 1916, over that part of the French countryside aptly named Santerre, a contraction of the French words sang (blood) and terre (land), the Allies suffered more than 620,000 casualties, including 24,029 Canadians. And all for a paltry gain of 10 kilometres.
But the heroism of the Dominion troops moved British Prime Minister Lloyd George to write: “The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked as storm troops…. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line, they prepared for the worst.”
Add to that accolade the fact that those titanic clashes produced four Canadian Victoria Crosses, awarded to Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson, Lionel Beaumaurice Clarke, John Chipman Kerr and James Cleland Richardson.
Wilkinson was the first of the four to earn it. Ironically, his action took place a month before the Canadian Corps—three divisions strong—was entrenched on the Somme having left the muddy fields of Flanders.
Born June 29, 1894 in Bridgnorth, Salop, England, Wilkinson was educated at Wellington College where he shone both academically and athletically—as prefect of the school and captain of the gymnasium. Prior to World War I, the Wilkinson family moved to Canada and when the conflict broke out he joined the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish. After his arrival in England, he transferred to the 7th Bn., the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with the rank of lieutenant as a gunnery officer.
On the morning of July 5, 1916, during an attack on the German trenches in front of the village of La Boisselle, France, one gun crew, which was under heavy fire, was forced to retreat and leave its machine-gun behind. Wilkinson and two of his gunners dashed forward and used the abandoned weapon to hold the enemy at bay until they were relieved.
Later that day—when the British advance stalled during a bombing attack—Wilkinson pushed his way forward to find five men halted by a solid block of earth over which the Germans were lobbing grenades. Wilkinson mounted a machine-gun on top of the parapet and quickly dispersed the enemy bombers. Afterwards, during the second of two attempts to bring in a wounded man from no man’s land, Wilkinson was killed from a shot through the heart.
The citation to his VC reads in part: “For conspicuous bravery…. Throughout the day he set a magnificent example of courage and self-sacrifice.”
Wilkinson has no known grave, but his name is inscribed in the Thiepval War Memorial near La Boisselle.
Two more VCs were added to the Somme roster during the Battle for Courcelette. The objective was to occupy a chain of trenches between Martinpuich and Courcelette itself. The actual assault was scheduled for Sept. 15, 1916, but in the meantime an operation to pave the way for the attack went into effect. On the first day of the month, Leo Clarke’s 2nd Bn. of the 1st Cdn. Div. was charged with capturing a 50-yard-long salient between the Canadian position at Mouquet Farm and Courcelette to the north.
On the afternoon of Sept. 9, the first three companies of the battalion went over the top leaving the fourth in reserve. Clarke was detailed to take a section to clear the enemy on the left flank to allow his company sergeant to build a fortified dugout that would secure the Canadian position once the salient was overrun. When his section reached the trench it was so heavily defended they had to battle their way through with hand grenades, bayonets and their rifles as clubs. In this fierce hand-to-hand combat, Clarke was the only man left standing; the rest had either been killed or wounded.
Alone, Clarke fended off the Germans with his revolver, his only weapon. Suddenly he faced a force of 20 Germans against whom he emptied his revolver, then picked up a discarded German rifle, expended its contents, then picked up another one and continued to fire. One of two officers in the group grabbed a rifle from one of his men and stabbed Clarke in the right leg below the knee. By this time there were only five Germans left and they became so unnerved that they started to run. But Clarke deftly dropped four of them with his captured rifle. The fifth man screamed surrender in perfect English.
Clarke had singlehandedly killed 19 Germans. Still more significant was the fact that it allowed the company sergeant to build the fortified dugout that prepared the way for the attack on Courcelette a week later.
Born in Waterdown, Ont., Clarke spent his early years in England, home of his parents, but later returned to Canada to live in Winnipeg. At the outbreak of WW I, he was working as a surveyor in the Canadian north. He returned to Winnipeg to enlist in the 27th Bn. and after arriving in England in June 1915, transferred to the 2nd Bn. to be with his brother.
Clarke did not survive the war. On Oct. 11, 1916 his battalion was ordered forward to secure the newly captured Regina Trench which was still under heavy enemy artillery fire. Later that morning, he was crouching in a hole at the rear of a trench when a shell exploded and the back of the trench caved in, burying him. His brother managed to dig him out, but he could not be saved. He was paralysed; the weight of the earth had crushed his back and injured his spine. Clarke was taken to hospital, but died on Oct. 19. He is buried in Etretat Churchyard, 16 miles north of Le Havre, France.
In the spring of 1917, Clarke’s VC was presented to his father by the Duke of Devonshire—the first time the VC had been presented in Canada and by the governor general—before a crowd of 30,000. In 1925, Winnipeg’s Pine Street was renamed Valour Road, in honour of the city’s three VCs, Leo Clarke among them. The other two were Frederick William Hall and Robert Shankland. In Clarke’s memory also, a memorial plaque was erected by the Ontario Heritage Foundation at Waterdown on the grounds of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch on Hamilton Street.
John Kerr earned his VC Sept. 16, 1916, while serving with the Edmonton 49th Bn. He was acting as chief bayonet man in a 12-man hand grenade assault on a German redoubt. Charging well ahead of his men, he jumped into the far end of the trench and began inching his way forward. He had advanced about 30 yards when a German sentry hurled a grenade at him. Kerr threw up his right hand to shield himself from the blast. The move saved his sight, but the explosion blew the upper part of his forefinger off and wounded him slightly in the side.
By this time the rest of the section had joined him and a grenade throwing contest erupted between the Canadians and the Germans who were around the corner of the trench. But it soon petered out into a standoff with both sides exhausting their bomb supply. Kerr decided to try and break the stalemate.
Climbing out of the trench he moved along the man-made embankment until he reached a spot where he could see the enemy below him. But they could see him, too. Although he was highly vulnerable he still had two grenades left and his rifle. He tossed the bombs into the middle of the swarm of Germans then opened fire with his carbine. Suddenly the bolt jammed. Fortunately, his number two bayonet man had joined him by this time so he borrowed his comrade’s rifle and continued firing. By the time the rest of the squad arrived they threw the rest of their bombs into the melee so effectively that the Germans retreated into one of the trench bays.
Kerr and his squad closed in and cornered the Germans who thought they were surrounded. In fact, 62 Germans raised their hands in surrender to a party of only 12 Canadians.
Born Jan. 11, 1887 in Fox River, N.S., Kerr took a job as a lumberjack near Kootenay, B.C. In 1912, he bought a homestead in Spirit River, Alta., where he and his brother farmed until war broke out. Both enlisted in the 66th Inf. Bn. In June 1917, he was drafted as a reinforcement for the Edmonton 49th Bn. which was sent to France and bloodied at Ypres before moving to the Somme.
On Feb. 5, 1917, Kerr received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace. On Aug. 6, 1918, he was given a hero’s welcome at Edmonton where he and his British bride were greeted by the lieutenant-governor, the premier, cabinet ministers and city politicians and presented with $700 in gold.
The Kerrs first resided at the Spirit River homestead, but soon tired of farming. Kerr sold the property to work in the Turner Valley oil fields. Later, the couple moved back to Spirit River where Kerr worked in the Peace River as a forest ranger.
During WW II, Kerr re-enlisted in the army, but transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force with the hope of getting overseas. Instead, he was posted to Sea Island, B.C., where he served as a service policeman and sergeant-of-the guard. After the war, he retired to Port Moody, B.C. On Feb. 19, 1963, he died at age 76 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver.
A mountain in Jasper Park, Alta., has been named after him and in 1975 his widow donated his VC to the Canadian War Museum. Later it was loaned to the Museum of Alberta in Edmonton.
The action in which the fourth Canadian VC was won in the Somme battles took place during an attack on the Regina Trench, Oct. 8, 1916. That was when piper Jimmy Richardson of the 16th Cdn. Inf. Bn., Canadian Scottish, distinguished himself so well that he ensured the tradition of bagpipes and bagpipers in the Canadian military forever.
Originally, Richardson was not among the pipers scheduled to go over the top that morning, but he was so insistent that his company commander finally gave in. The attack began at 4:50 a.m., to the thunder of the field guns. Richardson, his company commander and the company sergeant-major all went over the top together. Halfway to the enemy’s barbed wire, the Company Sergeant Major asked Richardson why he wasn’t playing his pipes. The piper replied that he had been told not to do so until he received an order from the company commander.
When the trio reached the barbed wire they were shocked, frustrated, devastated and angry with despair. Their artillery had failed to cut any of the wire. Worse still, when the rest of the company arrived the Germans opened up with rifle fire and hand grenades. The CSM found a shell hole in which he advised the company commander to take shelter while he went looking for some wire cutters. But it was too late. The company commander died after he was shot in the chest.
Sizing up how desperate the situation had become, Richardson surmised that a marching air or two from his pipes might just help turn things around and give morale a boost. “Will I gie them wund?” he asked the CSM. “Aye mon,” the CSM replied enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, “gie them wund!”
Richardson began coolly playing his pipes, marching slowly and deliberately back and forth along a route 400 yards long that ran in front of the barbed wire. All the while he ignored the gunfire bursting all around him. The high shrill skirl of the pipes had a tonic effect on the troops hitherto trapped and grovelling in the mud and taking shelter in the shell holes.
It did the trick. Inspired by his selfless, dauntless example and the tunes he played, Richardson’s comrades sprang to their feet and charged forward with renewed venom and vigour, slashing their way through the barbed wire with their bayonets, and into the German trenches where they quickly overcame all enemy resistance.
After participating in the assault on the trenches, Richardson was detailed to take a wounded countryman as well as some enemy prisoners back to the Canadian lines. He had gone about halfway when he realized he had left his bagpipes behind. Against strong advice he insisted on returning to retrieve them. He was never seen or heard from again. But, for his gallantry and inspired example he was awarded the VC, although it was not gazetted until Oct. 22, 1918.
Jimmy Richardson was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on Nov. 25, 1895 and was educated at Bellshill Academy, Auchinwraith public school and John Street School in Glasgow. Prior to WW I, his family moved to Chilliwack, B.C., where his father became police chief. Jimmy worked as an electrician in Vancouver where he became well known for his pipe playing, winning many contests. Before joining the 16th Bn., he was a member of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.
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