ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY
Following the capture of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the Allies launched a knock-out blow to end the war with a massive breakthrough on a front stretching 180 miles from Bruges, Belgium, in the north to Saint-Mihiel, France, in the south. The major tasks facing the Canadian Corps involved crossing the Canal du Nord, occupying Bourlon Wood and then capturing the city of Cambrai. From there the Canadians were expected to advance through Mont Houy and Valenciennes to Mons, Belgium.The first phase began at dawn Sept. 27, 1918, when a barrage fell on enemy positions. Four battalions dashed across a dry portion of the canal and quickly established a bridgehead. Other units followed and took the lead. By the end of the day, a number of villages had been overrun and the Bourlon Wood was in Canadian hands. That same day, the Canadians came up against the well-defended Marcoing Line, the last remaining trench line in the area. On the 28th, the line was overrun.
From Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, six Canadian VCs were earned. The recipients were Lieutenant George Fraser Kerr of Deseronto, Ont.; Lieut. Graham Thomson Lyall, a Canadian transplant from Manchester, England; Lieut. Samuel Lewis Honey of Conn, Ont.; Lieut. Milton Gregg of Mountain Dale, N.B.; Captain John MacGregor of Powell River, B.C.; Sergeant William Merrifield of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
By all rights, George Kerr should have been in sick bay on the morning of Sept. 27. Nursing an injured arm, the cheery lieutenant with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion was in no condition to take part in the assault. But Kerr, who had already earned the Military Medal and the Military Cross, was not one to let a bullet wound stand in the way of battle.
During the Bourlon Wood operations, he “handled his company with great skill and gave timely support by outflanking a machine-gun…impeding the advance,” reads the citation for his VC. Later, near the Arras-Cambrai road, the Canadians were held up by a German strongpoint. Kerr, well ahead of his company, attacked and captured four machine-guns and 31 prisoners. The Toronto Globe and Mail wrote: “This was heroism of the highest order.”
Born in Deseronto, Ont., on June 8, 1894, Kerr managed a metal supply firm in Toronto after the war. He died in a freak accident Dec. 8, 1929, when he was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while waiting for his car to warm up. His funeral in Toronto was attended by five other VC recipients. In 1973, a plaque commemorating the hero was unveiled in Deseronto by his grandchildren.
During the Battle for Bourlon Wood and its aftermath, Graham Lyall and his men used a flanking movement to overrun a German strongpoint. Together they captured 13 prisoners, four machine-guns and a field gun. Later, while in the south end of Bourlon Wood, and with his platoon weakened by heavy casualties, Lyall led his men to an enemy strongpoint where he single-handedly killed the officer in charge, took another 45 prisoners and captured five more machine-guns.
On Oct. 1, he overwhelmed another German defence post near Blécourt that yielded 80 prisoners and 17 machine-guns.
Born in Manchester, England, on March 8, 1892, Lyall moved to Welland, Ont., where he worked for Canadian Steel Foundries and the Niagara Power Company before enlisting in the Canadian Army in 1914. After the war, Lyall returned to England. When WW II began, he joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and was, according to the book The Register of the Victoria Cross, killed at Mersa Matruh, Egypt, on Nov. 28, 1941. He is buried at Halfaya Sollum War Cemetery, Egypt.
During the early stages of the attack on Bourlon Wood, the company commander as well as all the other officers in a unit of the 78th Cdn. Inf. Bn. were either killed or wounded except for Samuel Honey. He unhesitatingly took charge and when a German machine-gun began cutting down his men, he attacked the post by himself, captured the guns and took 10 prisoners. He later fought off four successive counter-attacks. After dark he ventured out alone and found a German position. Gathering a squad of his men he led an attack, captured the post and seized three machine-guns. Two days later, while again leading his men against another enemy stronghold, Honey was severely wounded and had to be taken to hospital. He died Sept. 30 and is buried at Quéant Communal Cemetery, France.
Born on Feb. 9, 1894, in Conn, Ont., Honey began a career as a schoolteacher before joining the Canadian Army in 1915. In January 1917, he was awarded the Military Medal for his part in raids on a German trench. In April, he was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Vimy Ridge, recommended for a commission and sent to England to attend officers’ training school.
On July 26, 1964, a provincial plaque, dedicated to his memory, was erected on the grounds of Westcott United Church in Conn.
On Sept. 28, near Cambrai, the Royal Canadian Regiment was held up shortly after reaching the Marcoing Line. Standing in its way was heavy, uncut barbed wire and strong German machine-gun fire from both flanks. Milton Gregg crawled forward and explored the wire until he found a small gap, through which he forced an entry into the enemy trench. “The enemy counter-attacked in force, and, through lack of bombs, the situation became critical,” reads the citation for his VC. “Although wounded, Lieut. Gregg returned alone under terrific fire and collected a further supply (of bombs). Then rejoining his party, which by this time was much reduced in numbers, and, in spite of a second wound, he reorganized his men and led them…against the enemy trenches, which he finally cleared.”
Gregg personally killed or wounded 11 of the enemy and took 25 prisoners. He also captured 12 machine-guns in the trench. On Sept. 30, in spite of his wounds, he led his men again in an attack until he was so severely wounded he had to be evacuated from the field.
Born at Mountain Dale, N.B., on April 10, 1892, Gregg was educated at the Provincial Normal School in Fredericton and graduated from Nova Scotia’s Acadia and Dalhousie universities. In 1914, he enlisted in the 13th Cdn. Inf. Bn. and in 1916 attended the Imperial Officers’ Training School, received his commission and joined the RCRs. In 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross and the following year received a bar to his MC.
Following the war Gregg worked for the Soldiers Settlement Board and as an advertising salesman for the Halifax Herald newspaper. From 1934-39 he was sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons in Ottawa. During WW II, he served overseas as second-in-command of the RCRs. He became commandant of the officers’ training schools at Brockville, Ont., and Sussex, N.B. He was also commandant, in 1943, of the Canadian School of Infantry at Vernon, B.C.
In 1944, he was appointed chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, a position he held until 1947 when he was elected to Parliament. He served as minister of Fisheries from 1947-48, minister of Veterans Affairs, 1948-50, and minister of Labour, 1950-57. Defeated in the 1957 election, Gregg went on to become a United Nations representative in Iraq, the United Nations Children’s Fund administrator in Indonesia, and the Canadian high commissioner to Guyana. He retired in 1968.
Gregg died March 13, 1978, at age 85. He is buried at Snider Mountain Baptist Cemetery in Fredericton. Participating in the funeral were 200 members from his old unit along with many members of The Royal Canadian Legion.
Between Sept. 29 and Oct. 3, 1918, when the Canadian advance became bogged down by German machine-gun nests, John MacGregor of the 2nd Cdn. Mounted Rifles dashed forward ahead of his men, located the machine-guns and put them out of action. MacGregor killed four of the enemy with his rifle and bayonet. He also took eight prisoners, but was wounded in the action.
When the enemy began putting up a stubborn resistance, MacGregor–despite his wound–took charge of the leading wave of assault troops and continued the advance. He eventually established his company in the village of Neuville Saint-Rémy, a move that allowed other Canadian troops to capture Tilloy, a village near Cambrai.
MacGregor was born in Cawdor, near Nairn, Scotland, in February 1889. After moving to Canada in 1909, he went into the contracting business at Powell River, B.C. In March 1915, he enlisted as a private. That September he was promoted to sergeant and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for single-handedly killing eight Germans and taking one prisoner. Sometime later he received a bar to his DCM.
MacGregor received his VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on Feb. 26, 1919. He returned to Powell River, but little is known about his activities between the wars. When WW II began, MacGregor enlisted with the Canadian Scottish and was soon placed in command of the Canadian Army Training Centre at Wainwright, Alta., with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
When that war ended, he returned to Powell River where he established a concrete plant at Cranberry Lake. MacGregor died June 9, 1952, in Powell River Hospital after a lengthy illness. He is buried at Cranberry Lake Cemetery. Attending his funeral were three VC holders: Major General George R. Pearkes, Lt.-Col. C.W. Peck and Sgt. Charles Train, a British Army officer.
On Oct. 1, when the 4th Cdn. Inf. Bn. was pinned down by two German machine-gun emplacements, William Merrifield attacked them both. Dashing from shell hole to shell hole, he killed the occupants of the first emplacement but was wounded in the process. However, that didn’t stop him from attacking the second position. Lobbing a Mills bomb into it, he killed the crew. Though bleeding profusely, he refused to be carried from the battlefield until he was so weak he had to be carried to hospital.
Merrifield’s early life is sketchy, but it has been established that he was born in Brentwood, England, on Oct. 9, 1890. He is believed to have moved with an uncle to Aylmer, Que. He may have gone back to England before ending up in Sudbury, Ont., where he worked as a fireman for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He joined the Canadian Army in 1914, and at Passchendaele in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.
Following the war, Merrifield settled in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where he worked for the Algoma Central Railway. In 1939, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died in Christie Street Hospital, Toronto, on Aug. 8, 1943, and is buried in Sault Ste. Marie’s West Korah Cemetery.
The fighting to clear the textile town of Cambrai began on the inky night of Oct. 8-9. The Germans were in the process of evacuating the city and putting it to the torch, and so they were caught completely by surprise.
Capt. Coulson Norman Mitchell was assigned to a party of four that had the task of preventing the demolition of a bridge over the Canal de L’Escaut, northeast of Cambrai. He, along with a sergeant and a pair of sappers, crossed quietly and quickly, two on either side. German stick-grenades alerted them to danger. The bridge could blow at any moment, and so the electrical leads had to be located and cut without a minute to lose.
Mitchell placed the two sappers as sentries on either side of the bridge while he and the sergeant located a large boxed charge in the nearest girder, an indication that the other girders would be similarly mined. Fortunately, the Germans in their haste hadn’t removed the scaffolding and the ladder. As Mitchell and his sergeant were cutting the wires, the enemy attempted to rush the bridge in order to blow up the charges. Mitchell dashed to the assistance of a sentry who had been wounded, “killed three of the enemy, captured 12, and maintained the bridgehead until reinforced,” reads the citation for his VC.
After that, Mitchell continued the dangerous task of cutting wires and removing charges. His brave and decisive action helped save the bridge from destruction.
Born in Winnipeg on Dec. 11, 1889, Mitchell was a graduate of the University of Manitoba in engineering. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1914 and went overseas with a railway construction unit. As an officer with the 1st Tunnelling Company of the 4th Cdn. Engineers he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917.
After the war, Mitchell returned to Winnipeg to practice civil engineering. Early in WW II, he was assigned to the Royal Cdn. Engineers, RCE, at Camp Borden, Ont. In 1940, he went overseas and was put in charge of replacement training. Transferred back to Canada in 1943, he was attached to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa before joining the staff of the RCE Training Centre at Petawawa, Ont. In 1944, he took command of the Royal School of Military Engineering in Chilliwack, B.C.
In 1946, Mitchell moved to Montreal where he joined an engineering firm in an executive capacity. In 1965, a Montreal branch of The Royal Canadian Legion was named after him. He died Nov. 17, 1978, and a street in the town of Mount Royal is named after him.
By 8:30 on the morning of Oct. 9, 1918, Cambrai was secured. This left the Canadians free to consolidate the area to the north. Two days later that job had been completed and the Sensée River had been reached.
The final two months of WW I saw three army awards of VCs to Canadians, two of them posthumously. The first went to Lieut. Wallace Lloyd Algie, born June 10, 1891, in Alton, Ont. He had left his job at a Toronto bank to join the army. Serving with the 20th Cdn. Inf. Bn., Algie led the capture of the village of Iwuy, northeast of Cambrai, on Oct. 11, 1918.
The Germans had fortified themselves behind a solid barricade of lumber and barbed wire at the entrance to the village. They were also laying down a relentless rain of steady fire that caused heavy casualties to the Canadian battalion. Worse still, the Germans were in the process of bringing up extra machine-guns that, once in position, would pose a serious threat to the Canadians.
Algie took a small party of volunteers to the left, skirting the battalion’s boundary to deny the east end of the town to the Germans. In their first attack, the Canadians captured two machine-guns and killed the gun crews. By using the tombstones in the village cemetery as mounts, the Canadians turned the captured guns as well as their own Lewis gun on the defenders. This brief skirmish cleared the east end of Iwuy, a move that made it possible to take the rest of the village.
Algie went back for reinforcements, but was killed while leading his men forward. He is buried in the Niagara Cemetery, five miles north of Cambrai.
By lying about his age, Private Thomas Ricketts, who was born on April 15, 1901, at Middle Arm, White Bay, Nfld., was 15 1/2 when he enlisted in the army on Sept. 2, 1916. He became the youngest Canadian to earn the VC.
Ricketts went overseas in January 1917 with the 1st Bn., Royal Newfoundland Regt. He proceeded to France in June of that year and after being wounded near Cambrai in November returned to action in April 1918.
On Oct. 14, 1918, at Ledeghem, Belgium, the regiment had successfully beaten back the Germans, but not without heavy losses. Rickett’s B Company was pinned down by German field gun shelling. The solution was a counter-barrage, but the Newfoundlanders had outrun their own artillery. And so the enemy guns had to be taken out.
Armed with a Lewis gun, Ricketts volunteered to join his section commander to try and outflank the enemy position. Advancing in stages under heavy fire, the men came within 300 yards of the German battery when they ran out of ammunition. Realizing this, the Germans brought up extra guns. Ricketts dashed back to get fresh drums for the Lewis gun all the while dodging and weaving to avoid being hit by enemy gunfire and shelling.
Ricketts and his section leader were able to return to the attack and were successful at driving the Germans into farm buildings. As a result, the section was able to advance without further casualties, capture four machine-guns, four field guns and take eight Germans prisoner.
In addition to earning the VC, Ricketts was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. After the war he settled in St. John’s and became a druggist. He died Feb. 10, 1967, and was given a state funeral and buried in the Anglican Cemetery, Forest Road, St. John’s.
Ten days before the end of WW I, Sgt. Hugh Cairns became the last Canadian to earn the VC in the four-year-long war. Born in Ashington, Northumberland, England, on Dec. 4, 1896, he moved with his parents to Saskatoon in 1911, where he apprenticed as a plumber. He went overseas with the 65th Bn., later transferring to the 46th Bn. Though wounded at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Cairns repelled three German counter-attacks and was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
On Nov. 1, 1918, the battalion found itself in the thick of the fighting around Valenciennes, 20 miles from Mons, Belgium, where the Canadian advance would end the war. A German machine-gun opened up, and without hesitation, Cairns picked up a Lewis gun and, in the face of withering enemy fire, charged the position, killing all five of the crew and capturing the gun.
Sometime later, when his unit was bogged down by another enemy machine-gun, Cairns rushed forward, killed 12 Germans, took 18 prisoners and captured two guns. Though wounded in the shoulder, Cairns ignored the pain and when the advance was stopped by an enemy field gun, he led his party in a flanking movement that helped eliminate many enemy soldiers, and force the surrender of 50 others.
After consolidating its position, the party, consisting of an officer in charge, Cairns, who was armed with a Lewis gun, and two other infantrymen, moved forward to reconnoitre the hamlet of Marly. To their surprise, they came upon a yard filled with 60 German soldiers. Breaking down the barnyard door, they forced all of them to lay down their arms and raise their arms in surrender. When the German officer in charge walked past Cairns, he shot the Canadian in the stomach. With his knees buckling, Cairns managed to shoot back with a burst from his Lewis gun.
A melee broke out; the Germans picked up their rifles and Cairns got wounded again, this time in the wrist. A moment later he collapsed from lack of blood. While the Canadian officer and a soldier held the Germans at bay, others carried Cairns from the yard using a door as a stretcher. The Germans killed one of the bearers and wounded Cairns again. Cairns died the next day from his wounds, and is buried in Auberchicourt British Cemetery east of Douai, France.
On the afternoon of July 25, 1936, the day before the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in France, a street in Valenciennes was named after Cairns. A special medallion struck in his honour, inscribed with the arms of the town, was presented to his parents who attended the ceremony. It is believed to be the first time a French town paid such a tribute to anyone under officer rank. At the same time, the French Republic announced it had conferred the Legion of Honour upon him.
In Saskatoon, a statue was erected in his memory by his comrades and by the city’s citizens.
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