4 November 2009

A Week of Remembrance: Introduction, and The Pine Street Gang

Note: I had originally intended to write a new series of posts leading up to Remembrance Day, but I ran out of time, and will instead reprint the posts from last year.

It is made of bronze and weighs less than an ounce. In some ways, it is impossible to put a price on it, though on the open market it is worth more than one hundred times its weight in gold. The reason for its existence is inscribed in two simple words on its face: "For Valour". It is the Victoria Cross, our highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy.

Canadians or men serving with the Canadian forces have been awarded the Cross 94 times, often posthumously.

I have read the stories of many of the winners of the Cross and I find that there tend to be three ways to win the medal. I call these ways the way of the soldier, the way of the officer, and the way of Charity. Those who win the medal the soldier's way are the grunts. Their stories are stories of incredible and often harebrained bravery under fire and in returning fire. It is as if these men woke up one morning, ate their Wheaties, and decided they were going to win the war all by themselves. The feats which earn them the award are often a rampage and a brave refusal to be daunted by the odds or danger.

The way of the officer belongs to the men who hold positions of leadership. The men who win this way all lead from the front, and through their courage, leadership and example under fire and their example, they all turned a dire situation around and brought victory measurably closer.

Though the winners of the first two ways deserve tremendous honour and respect, those who win through the way of charity is the greater way. These are the men who put their own lives in extreme hazard to save the life of another. Unlike the other two ways, it goes across the ranks. An private may do such deeds as easily as an officer. The men who win the award this way do not win battles or bring victory nearer, but they give us hope, and show us a brief glimpse of humanity amidst the hideous brutality that is war. This way hearkens back to the ancient Romans, who gave their greatest individual award- a laurel made from oak leaves, the tree sacred to Jupiter- not to the man who killed the most enemies, but to the man who saved the life of a Roman citizen. James Doolittle, the leader of the famous Doolittle raid on Japan, attempted to refuse the Congressional Medal of Honour he was to be awarded for that raid because he felt the Medal of Honour should be reserved for those who risk their lives to save others. He only accepted the award upon the order of General Marshall.

So, generally, those awarded the Cross fall into these three categories. To start off this little series, I will briefly tell the story of three men who exemplify the three ways. Their names are Corporal Leo Clarke, Lieutenant Robert Shankland, and Serjeant-Major Frederick William Hall.

Clarke was fighting in the Somme on September 9, 1916. As an acting corporal, his section was sent sent to clear out a German trench while the company sergeant constructed a fortified defense position. Clarke and his men reached the trench to find it heavily defended. The fighting descended into hand to hand chaos, as the men fought with guns, grenades and bayonets and bare hands. When it was over, Clarke was the only man of his section still standing. He was tending to the wounded when 20 Germans counterattacked. Clarke responded by attacking the 20 Germans with a pistol, then with a German rifle he picked from the ground, and when that ran out of bullets, he picked another, and continued fighting. A German officer charged him with bayonet and wounded Clarke in the knee before Clarke shot him. The Germans retreated but Clarke chased them, killing all but one, whom he took prisoner. Single handedly he had defeated twenty Germans. For this action, Clarke was awarded the Victoria Cross.

But he did not live long enough to receive it personally. A little over a month later a shell exploded near a trench in which he was crouching. The concussion caved the trench in and buried Clarke. His brother dug him out, but the weight of the trench collapsing on him crushed his spine. He died eight days later, on October 19, 1916. His grave is marked with the tombstone unique to those who won the Cross, with a large Cross carved into the surface. His family chose a quotation from Thessalonians to be written on the stone: And So Shall We Ever Be With The Lord.

Shankland began in the ranks, won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his work leading stretcher bearers in 1916. He was promoted in field and earned a commission, and was thus a lieutenant at Passchendaele on October 26, 1917. He and his men were holding part of Bellevue Spur, a critical point from which to launch the attack on Passchendaele, and were under heavy German artillery fire. On his right a Canadian attack failed to reach its objective, and that battalion withdrew, leaving Shankland's right flank exposed. For four hours they withstood a terrifying artillery attack. And then, the eighth brigade on his left flank was forced to withdraw, leaving Shankland exposed on both flanks.

In danger of being cut off and destroyed, Shankland either had to find reinforcements or withdraw from a prized objective achieved at a terrible cost. Shankland turned command over to another officer and began winding his way through the shelling back to battalion headquarters. There he gave a detailed account of the situation and outlined a plan for the best method of counterattack. He returned through the shelling to his men and lead the counterattack with reinforcements from other battalions. The position was consolidated and secured and the situation was saved. For his leadership through this crisis, Shankland was awarded the Victoria Cross.

William Hall was with the Winnipeg rifles and a witnessed the new terror of gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres. It was here the First Canadian Division saved the situation by holding the line after French troops had fled from the gas. On the night of April 23 1915, the moans of the wounded reached the men in the trenches. Hall, looking for some of his men who had gone missing during the battle, travelled into No Man's Land under the cover of darkness, and twice returned with wounded men.

By nine o'clock on the morning of the 24th he was still missing some of his men. In broad daylight under heavy fire, he and two other men sought to reach the wounded men. Hall's two companions were themselves wounded but managed to reach the trench. Then a wounded man some fifteen yards from the trench cried out for help. Hall tried to reach the man, but gunfire forced him back. Again the man cried out, and Hall went forward a second time. Hall reached the man and was lifting the man up to carry him to safety when Hall took a bullet to the head. He fell to the ground, dead. The wounded man was also shot and killed. This piece of humanity which cost Hall his life also earned him the Victoria Cross. He has no known grave. His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate of Ypres, with thousands of other soldiers who died in the Ypres
Salient and have no known grave.

I have not chosen these three men at random. Though each excellently exemplifies the three ways to win the Cross, I have another reason for choosing these men. They were united in a strange and unique coincidence. Prior to the war, they all lived on the same street in Winnipeg. It is believed their street, named Pine Street, is the only street in the world to be home to three Victoria Cross Winners. The people of Winnipeg decided to honour these men and memorialize their home, to give their street a name more fitting for the heroes who called it home, and for that reason in 1925 they changed the name of Pine Street to Valour Road. Shankland, alone of the three, lived to see the honour.

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