ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY
Sept. 2, 1918, stands out as a red-letter day for Canada and the Victoria Cross. On that date, seven men earned the VC while fighting with Canadian units east of Arras, France. The day also goes down on record as the one in which Canadians captured the vaunted German Drocourt-Quéant Line, the backbone of the enemy’s resistance which included a sophisticated network of interlocking trenches, tunnels, concrete shelters, machine-gun posts and dense masses of barbed wire. It also included a light rail system used for transporting soldiers, ammunition and other supplies.
On that morning, Canadian soldiers advanced towards the heavily defended area. Tanks rumbled through the dense barbed wire, cutting wide swaths for the infantry to charge through. The Germans, however, had anticipated the attack. The day before–on Sept. 1–it had laid down a heavy barrage and counter-attacked in the vicinity of Vis-en-Artois.
During that counter-attack, Private Claude Nunney of the 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, left his post at company headquarters and scrambled through the bombardment to lead and encourage his comrades by example. His brave actions no doubt saved a critical situation. On the following day, during the Canadian assault, Nunney was badly wounded but refused to leave the field. Instead, he positioned himself at the forefront of the advancing infantry, often 50 to 75 yards ahead where he inflicted heavy casualties on enemy gunners. In fact, he accounted for 25 German gunners killed.
Nunney was wounded a second time, but again refused to leave the battle. He soon became so weak that he had to be carried on a stretcher to a casualty clearing station where he died from his injuries 16 days later.
When the 16th Cdn. Inf. Bn. was held up by German machine-gun fire, a tank was summoned to break up the enemy resistance. When the tank finally arrived it failed to see the infantrymen. William Metcalf, an American serving with the 16th, jumped out of a shell hole and pointed his signal flag at the enemy trench. He then led the tank forward and along the trench in spite of heavy German machine-gun fire. When the battalion finally occupied the trench, it found that 17 machine-guns had been trained on the tank. The battalion historian later wrote in amazement: “How Metcalf escaped being shot to pieces has always been a wonder to me.”
Metcalf was wounded, but he continued to advance with his battalion until he was ordered into a shell hole to have his injuries dressed.
Early that morning, when the entire 16th Bn. ran into stiff German resistance, the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck, personally reconnoitred the area ahead of his men. The enemy’s machine-gun and sniper fire was relentless, but Peck got the job done. He then returned to his headquarters to reorganize the battalion. After making sure both flanks were properly protected, he charged forward at the head of his men. Then, while under intense artillery shelling, Peck sought out the locations of supporting tanks and with his knowledge of the situation directed them towards fresh objectives. This action made it possible to overcome enemy resistance, thus paving the way for another regiment to move forward with the support of Peck’s own battalion. The unit historian wrote: “I do not know how the colonel escaped being riddled with bullets.”
The 10th Cdn. Inf. Bn., meanwhile, was embroiled in the fighting around Villers-lez-Cagnicourt, located approximately three miles southeast of Vis-en-Artois. After an unsuccessful attack on a German trench, Sergeant Arthur Knight led his men forward under heavy fire in a bombing attack and then engaged the enemy at close quarters. When this failed to dislodge the enemy, Knight charged forward alone and then bayoneted several German machine-gunners and mortar crews, forcing the remainder to retreat. He then brought up a Lewis machine-gun and opened fire on the fleeing enemy.
During a subsequent advance by his men, Knight saw a party of approximately 30 German infantrymen trying to escape into a deep tunnel. He dashed forward and after killing the officer in charge and two non-commissioned officers, he took 20 soldiers prisoner. Later, while acting alone, he routed another party of Germans that was trying to hold up his platoon’s advance. During these encounters, Knight was so severely wounded that he had to be taken off the battlefield on a stretcher. He died of his wounds about a day later.
As the medical officer attached to the 75th Cdn. Inf. Bn. during the Drocourt-Quéant Line fighting, Bellenden Hutcheson coolly stayed on the battlefield to administer to the wounded. Hutcheson did this while under fierce artillery, machine-gun and mortar fire. He dressed the wounds of a seriously wounded officer and with the assistance of prisoners and of his own men, succeeded in evacuating the officer to safety, despite the fact that the bearer party suffered heavy casualties. Immediately after, Hutcheson rushed back under a hail of rifle fire and shelling to help a non-commissioned officer who had been seriously wounded.
The objective of the 87th Cdn. Inf. Bn. on Sept. 2 was a German-held ridge at Dury, just beyond the Drocourt-Quéant Line. With no cover whatsoever and while operating on the open, fire-swept ground, stretcher-bearer John Young ignored the danger and tended to the wounded. When he ran out of bandages and dressings he braved a storm of bullets to replenish his supplies. It took him an hour to apply his ministrations, but Young remained with the wounded despite continuous exposure to enemy fire. Then, with the capture of Dury, he organized rescue parties to bring in the wounded to a field dressing station.
Shortly after the battle began, Private Walter Rayfield of the 7th Cdn. Inf. Bn. rushed a heavily occupied German trench, bayoneted two enemy soldiers and then took 10 prisoners. Later, amid a rain of rifle fire, he pinpointed a German sniper who was inflicting heavy casualties on his company. Rayfield charged the section of the German trench where the sniper was positioned and he so demoralized the enemy that 30 of them surrendered. Later, Rayfield left his cover to rescue a badly wounded comrade from no man’s land.
Those are the stories of how the Magnificent Seven earned their VCs on that memorable day. It is quite a line up. Although all seven have one thing in common, namely valour and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, their backgrounds represent a mélange of origins.
Claude Nunney was described by his compatriots as ‘a real crackerjack.’ Born in Hastings, Sussex, in 1892 of poor parents, he and some siblings were shipped to Canada as Home Children in 1905. St. George’s distribution home in Ottawa placed Nunney with a Mrs. Donald Roy McDonald of Pine Hill in Ontario’s South Glengarry County. She adopted him and sent him to separate school No. 9. He joined the militia and worked out west before enlisting with some buddies in the Canadian Army in 1915.
At Vimy Ridge in April 1917 he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal for stopping an attack by 20 Germans even though he was wounded. In June he was awarded the Military Medal for his part in an attack on enemy trenches at Avion. Nunney’s grave is in the Communal Cemetery at Aubigny-en-Artois, France.
When William Henry Metcalf’s mother learned that her son, who was born in Waite Township, Maine, on Jan. 29, 1885, had run off to enlist in Canada she contacted Canadian and United States officials to have him sent home. When he arrived in England, Walter Page, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, asked him if he was the Metcalf whose mother had interceded on his behalf. Metcalf denied it. “The colonel backed me up,” he said, “and there was nothing he (the ambassador) could do about it.”
Metcalf received his VC from King George V on Jan. 26, 1919. He died Aug. 8, 1968.
Cyrus Wesley Peck was 47 when he earned the VC. Born at Hopewell Hill, N.B., on April 26, 1871, he moved with his parents to New Westminster, B.C., and then on to Skeena, B.C., where he became a broker representing sawmill, canning and towing interests.
He was also elected Unionist Member of Parliament for Skeena. As a member of the militia, he was given a captain’s commission and attached to the 30th Bn. with which he sailed to England. In April 1915, he was promoted to major and later transferred to the 16th Bn. He was wounded in both legs at Festubert, France, on May 21. In January 1916, Peck was given command of the regiment. Before he earned the VC he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar and was Mentioned in Dispatches five times.
Following the war he took his seat representing the Skeena riding where he became active in veterans rights issues. He later represented Saanich and the Islands in the British Columbia legislature. Between 1936 and 1941 he sat on the Canadian Pension Commission and was aide-de-camp to two governors general.
Peck died Sept. 27, 1956. He was cremated and interred at the family plot in New Westminster Cemetery.
Sergeant Arthur George Knight was born at Haywards Heath, Sussex, June 26, 1886, and later moved to Redhill, Surrey, with his parents where he attended St. John’s school and Redhill technical school. He moved to Canada in 1911, and worked as a carpenter in Regina. In December 1914, Knight joined the 10th Cdn. Inf. Bn. At Passchendaele in November 1917, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Knight is buried in the Dominion Cemetery at Hendecourt-lez-Cagnicourt, France. On Dec. 19, 1918, his VC was presented to his parents by King George V at Buckingham Palace. In Regina, two streets are named in his honour.
Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson was born at Mount Carmel, Ill., Dec. 16, 1883. He was educated at Mount City High School and graduated from North Western Medical School as a physician and surgeon. In 1915, he joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps and went overseas as medical officer of the 97th Bn. with the rank of captain. He transferred to the 75th Bn. and became medical officer of that regiment. In July 1918, Hutcheson was awarded the Military Medal for dressing the wounds of 100 men on the battlefield while under heavy fire.
Hutcheson received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on May 27, 1919. After the war he joined the staff of St. Mary’s Hospital in Cairo, Ill. In 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Washington, they invited Hutcheson to join them on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery to place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Hutcheson died after a lengthy illness on April 9, 1954, at age 70. He was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery.
John Francis Young was born in Kidderminster, England, Jan. 14, 1893. He emigrated to Canada prior to WW I and worked as a packer for a Montreal tobacco company. He joined the 87th Bn. with which he went overseas. He received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on April 30, 1919.
After the war, Young returned to his old job in Montreal, but some years later developed tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium in Ste-Agathe, Que., where he died Nov. 7, 1929. He was buried in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal.
Walter Leigh Rayfield was born at Richmond, Surrey, on Oct. 7, 1881, and attended school in London. Prior to WW I, he moved to Canada where he went into the real estate business in Vancouver. In 1914, he was twice rejected for military service, but was finally accepted by the British recruiting office in Los Angeles, Calif., and later became a member of the 7th Cdn. Inf. Bn. Besides earning the VC, he was awarded the Royal Order of the Crown of Belgium. After the war, he returned to Canada and spent some time in hospital before taking up farming. Eventually, he moved to Toronto where he served as sergeant-at-arms at Queen’s Park. He later became governor of the Toronto Don Jail. He was also an officer of the Queen’s Own Rangers.
Rayfield died in Toronto on Feb. 19, 1949, and was buried in the Soldiers Plot at Prospect Cemetery, Toronto.
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