Canadian Victoria Cross Winners
01 min 04 s
Canadian War Records Office, Topical Film Company
This clip includes close-ups of Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck, Sergeant William Merrifield and Corporal William Henry Metcalf — all recipients of the Victoria Cross. We then see the three men in the gardens at Buckingham Palace.
Established in 1856 during the Crimean War and named in honour of Queen Victoria, the Victoria Cross is the highest military honour that can be bestowed upon members of Commonwealth armies. Seventy-one Canadians earned the Victoria Cross during the First World War, more per capita than any other army in the British Empire. About 16,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force would be decorated, and 6,679 would receive the Military Cross.
Lt-Colonel Peck enlisted in the 16th Battalion in 1914, going on to fight in the Second Battle of Ypres. He assumed command of the battalion in November 1916. The portly Peck was an unlikely looking officer but reputed for his fearlessness. He earned the Victoria Cross in recognition of leadership and valour displayed on September 2, 1918, during the assault on the Drocourt-Queant line. Having braved heavy fire to reconnoitre enemy positions, Peck proceeded to regroup men who had suffered very heavy casualties and lead them in a successful operation.
Corporal William Henry Metcalfe, an American serving with the 16th Battalion under Peck’s command, earned his Victoria Cross on the same day. Metcalfe calmly guided a tank over exposed bullet-swept ground, directing its fire onto German strongpoints. It’s one of the rare instances of two men from the same battalion earning a Victoria Cross on the same day. In all, seven Canadians were awarded for their actions on September 2, 1918, setting a record among Commonwealth forces for honours granted for actions carried out on a single day.
Sergeant William Merrifield, serving with the 4th Battalion, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the fight to capture Abancourt, near Cambrai, on October 1, 1918. During this battle, Merrifield single-handedly eliminated two German machine-gun emplacements.
Pieces of History
The Incomparable Seventy-one : Canada's Victoria Cross Winners
A former Irish-born constable with the North West Mounted Police, Michael O'Leary became the first of 71 Canadians in the Great War to be awarded the VC, that highly prized decoration for valour. Out of a nation of less than nine million, this represented more per capita than in any other Commonwealth country.
On February 1, 1915 at Cuinchy in northern France, O’Leary single-handedly put an enemy machine gun out of action, killing eight Germans and taking two prisoners. “Mick” also became famous as the only VC honoured with a wax effigy at Madame Tussaud's.
In April that year, during the Ypres poison gas attacks, the first two posthumous Canadian VCs—of 29 such in 1914–1918—were awarded. Machine-gunner Fred Fisher lost his life fending off German attacks while alone. Rifleman William Hall was killed by a bullet to the head rescuing a wounded comrade under fire. Two other VCs awarded for valour in that battle were infantryman Edward Bellew and medical officer Francis Scrimger.
At the Battle of Givenchy on June 15—his 47th birthday—machine-gunner Frederick Campbell was awarded the third posthumous VC for dispersing an enemy counterattack all by himself.
In 1916, during the bitter battles of the Somme, four more Canadians were added to the VC roster. Leo Clarke, armed only with a revolver, killed 19 Germans; John “Chip” Kerr led an attack that forced 62 Germans to surrender. Thomas Wilkinson was killed rescuing a wounded comrade. Jimmy Richardson gave his life to rally his comrades by piping Highland airs while on the march under enemy rifle and machine-gun fire at the height of battle.
Altogether, the capture of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 yielded six Canadian VCs. Frederick Harvey led a cavalry charge to capture Guyencourt stronghold two weeks before the assault. On the morning of the attack, Thain MacDowell single-handedly took 75 Germans prisoner. Willie Milne, Ellis Sifton and John Pattison were killed silencing machine-gun nests. On May 3 in the wake of the battle, Robert Combe led an assault on Acheville, capturing 80 prisoners before being killed by a sniper's bullet.
The following month a new dimension to the VC scenario was added when, at dawn on June 2, Billy Bishop became the first of three Canadian airmen to be awarded the medal—in Bishop’s case, for a solo raid on an enemy aerodrome in which he destroyed three German planes.
Between August 15–25, 1917, six Canadians were rewarded with the VC for their bravery during the battle of Hill 70, three posthumously: to Harry Brown, a 19-year-old messenger; Frederick “Hobbie” Hobson, a Boer War veteran; and company commander Okill Learmonth. Two Irish emigrants, platoon leader Robert Hanna and stretcher bearer Mickey O'Rourke, also won the decoration. The most flamboyant of the six was Filip Konowal, a Russian army veteran who employed his skills as a bayonet instructor to flush out 16 Germans from machine-gun nests concealed in tunnels, craters, dugouts and cellars.
During the murderous Battle of Passchendaele (October 30–November 10) in which Canadians suffered 1,600 casualties, nine VCs were awarded. Collectively six of them, Tommy Holmes, Colin Barron, Robert Shankland, Christopher Kelly, George Mullin and Hugh McKenzie, who was killed, captured nine enemy pillboxes and took 303 Germans prisoner.
Others cited for the VC were Cecil “Hoodoo” Kinross, who subdued a machine-gun nest head-on; future Minister of National Defence George Pearkes, who directed the capture of a stronghold while severely wounded; and James Robertson, killed while destroying an enemy machine-gun.
Two other VCs were linked to Passchendaele—one two weeks prior, the other three weeks afterwards: Philip Bent was killed directing the defence of Polygon Wood and Harcus Strachan led a cavalry charge to capture Bourlon Wood.
During the “Great Retreat” between March 21–June 10, 1918, four VCs were awarded to Canadians holding the line against the German breakthrough. Three were killed: Edmund De Wind on the first day at Grougie; cavalryman Gordon Flowerdew at the Bois de Moreuil on March 30; and Joseph Kaeble on the night of June 7/8 at Neuville-Vitasse. For his action at Gravelle, fending off a German night attack April 27/28, George McKean's citation read: “His leadership has at all times been above praise.”
Meanwhile on March 27, for gallantry in the air, Alan “Bus” McLeod became the second Canadian airman to be awarded the VC. In a furious fight with the von Richthofen Flying Circus over Douai, though wounded, he struggled to bring his burning bomber to earth, while he and his observer shot down two enemy fighters.
Elsewhere, in the Middle East on May 1, during the capture of Jericho in Jerusalem from the Turks, Edward Cruickshank received the VC for running a message to headquarters asking for reinforcements, despite being wounded eight times by five explosive bullets to his legs and three to his arms and wrist.
And on May 9, during the operation to block the entrance to the U-boat base at Bruges, while serving with the Royal Navy, Rowland Bourke became the only Canadian sailor to be awarded the VC in World War I. Captaining a rescue launch, he saved over 40 survivors from a British cruiser loaded with ammunition that had run aground and exploded.
At the outset of the 100 Days (August 8–November 11, 1918) assault spearheaded by the Canadian Corps that ended the war, four VCs were awarded, three posthumously—to Jean Brillant, John Croak and Harry Miner. The lone VC survivor, Herman Good, was cited for capturing three enemy gun emplacements by overwhelming their crews in hand-to-hand combat.
Over the next five days, other Canadian VC recipients were Ralph Zengel, Alexander Brereton, Frederick Coppins, Denison Thomas, James Thomas and Robert Small, the last two posthumously. The citation to Zengel's award: “For his utter disregard for personal safety, and the confidence he inspired...” was applicable to all six.
At the end of August, Charlie Rutherford and William “C.K” Kennedy added the VC to their laurels, making them by war's end the most decorated officers in the Canadian army, by virtually winning the Battle of the Scarpe themselves. Rutherford captured 40 Germans; and Kennedy, though badly wounded, continued to direct his company under intense enemy shelling.
The capture of the Drocourt-Queant Line on September 2 earned seven Canadians the coveted medal, a record for a single day unequalled by any other Commonwealth nation: Cy Peck, Walter Rayfield, Bill Metcalf, Bellenden Hutcheson, John Young and two others, posthumously; Claude Nunney, who killed 20 Germans and Arthur Knight, who took an equal number of enemy prisoners.
Six Canadians won the VC during the last major battle of the war, culminating in the capture of Cambrai on October 9, 1918: George Kerr; Milton Gregg, a future cabinet minister; John McGregor; William Merrifield; Samuel Honey, posthumously; and explosive-expert, engineer Norman Mitchell, who was responsible for its capitulation by preventing the Germans from blowing up the main Pont d'Air bridge over the Canal de l'Escaudoeuvres, a crucial point for control of the city.
Before the war ended, four more Canadians were added to the list of VCs. On October 11, after leading the capture of Iwuy, Wallace Algie was killed returning to his battalion for reinforcements. Three days later, while leading an attack on a German stronghold, Thomas Ricketts, at 17, became the youngest man in the Commonwealth to win the medal. On October 27, Billy Barker—the third Canadian airman to win the VC—staged “the greatest combat in the annals of the war in the air,” battling 60 German fighters alone. Wounded in both legs, his left elbow fractured, he shot down five of them before losing consciousness and crashing into a shell-hole.
Hugh Cairns was the last Canadian of World War I to win the Victoria Cross and the last to whom it was awarded posthumously. In a firefight at Valenciennes on November 1, 1918, he killed 17 Germans and forced another 78 to surrender before being mortally wounded by an enemy bullet to his stomach.
Bishop, Arthur. Our Bravest and Our Best: The Stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross Winners. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1995.
Cave, Joy B. Two Newfoundland V.C.s. St. John's, NF: Creative Printers & Publishers, 1984.
Sorobey, Ron. “Filip Konowal, VC: The Rebirth of a Canadian Hero.” Canadian Military History 5, 2 (Autumn 1996): 44-56.
Swettenham, John. Valiant Men: Canada’s Victoria Cross and George Cross Winners. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973.
The Lone Hawk: Ace Billy Bishop
The “Lone Hawk” became a living legend whose exploits brought excitement and glamour to a conflict bogged down by the appalling massacre in the trenches during the Great War, a legend that would later inspire thousands of others to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II.
He quickly proved his skill as the ultimate aerial duellist soon after joining a Royal Flying Corps fighter squadron on March 17, 1917. Eight days later, he brought down his first enemy plane. On April 7, he scored a second time, then a week later brought his tally to three. Next day, Easter Sunday, Bishop brought down three enemy planes to qualify him as an ace plus one. During the encounter, he experienced his closest brush with death when a bullet grazed his flying helmet and put a hole in his windscreen1. By this time, he had been awarded the first of his decorations, the Military Cross.
On the last day of that month, by which time his tally had climbed to fourteen victories, he clashed with the notorious Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” at 15,000 feet over Vitry. The dog-fight between the greatest aces of each side ended in a quick draw, the Lone Hawk getting off a short, exasperated shot at the scarlet Albatross, plunging to earth as if hit, the old ruse, then flattening out and away.
On May 2, a date in which Bishop engaged a total of 23 enemy aircraft, he destroyed a pair of enemy two-seater observation planes and over the next four days brought down three more, to boost his victories to nineteen. Before going on leave to England the next day, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On his return to France, he shot down three planes in two days, then on June 2 made his historic lone attack on Esnes aerodrome that won him the Victoria Cross. He described it to me in these laconic words:
I'd forgotten that the 'drome would be guarded by machine guns when I planned the raid, and they shredded my wings. Anyway, I managed to shoot down an Albatross trying to take off. I took a shot at a second one but missed. It didn't matter; the pilot turned around in the cockpit and crashed into a tree. Two more tried to take off. I got one of them. The other one fled and I decided to get the hell out of there. On my way home, there were four Huns well above me. I was lucky. They never saw me.
But then nausea set in, he said—he hadn't eaten any breakfast and was afraid he'd pass out. However, he made it safely back to his field.
Before his first tour ended, he ran his score up to 47 and was awarded a bar to his DSO.
On May 27, 1918, Bishop returned to the Western Front as head of his own squadron and in twelve days of flying, shot down an incredible 25 planes, a record never equalled and for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
During the Second World War, Billy Bishop was head of recruiting for the RCAF as Air Marshal. He died in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1956 at age 62.
1On display at the Canadian War Museum
Bishop, Arthur. The Courage of the Early Morning: The Story of Billy Bishop. Paperback ed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989 (1967).
Trois qui ont reçu la Croix de Victoria
When Bill Metcalf's mother learned that her son, who was born in Waite Township in the state of Maine on January 29, 1885, had run off to enlist in Canada, she appealed to Canadian and U.S. government officials to have him sent home. When he arrived in England with the 18th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, he was met by U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Page, who asked if he was the Metcalf all the letters had been written about. "I told him," Metcalf said many years later, "I wasn't the man and that I was from St David Ridge, a little mining town outside of St. Stephen. The colonel backed me up and there was nothing he could do about it."
On the morning of the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the right flank of Lance Corporal Metcalf's battalion was held up by German machine-gun fire. It was decided to wait for a tank before trying to advance any further. When one finally came along, several men waved their helmets but the tank crew failed to see them. What happened next was recorded by the battalion historian:
When the tank came within 300 feet of the German wire, a heavy fire was opened upon it. Corporal (sic) Metcalf jumped up from the shell hole where he was, and with his flags pointing towards the enemy's trench, led the tank towards it and then along it. The enemy kept heavy machine-gun fire on the tank and as it got close to the trench commenced to throw at it clusters of bombs tied together. When we afterwards got into the trench, we found seventeen German machine guns, and all of them well used. How Metcalf escaped being shot to pieces has always been a wonder to me.
Later, although wounded, Metcalf continued to advance with his platoon until ordered to get into a shell hole and have the injury dressed. The London Gazette praised his action with these words: "His valour throughout was of the highest standard."
"CY" Peck was Metcalf's commanding officer. Peck, who won the VC at almost the same time, was born on April 26, 1871 in Hopewell Hill, N.B., where he took his education. In 1887, the same year the national railway link was completed at Port Moody, he moved with his parents to New Westminster, B.C. He joined the militia and in 1900 volunteered for the Boer War but was refused. Before the First World War, he was elected Unionist Member of Parliament for Skeena. When the war started, he was living in Prince Rupert where he and his wife Katherine were raising their three sons. On November 1, 1914, he was given a captain's commission in the 30th Battalion and sailed for England in February 1915.
In April, he was promoted to the rank of major and transferred to the 16th Battalion
and proceeded to France. On May 21, at Festubert, he was wounded in both legs. In
January 1916, he was given command of the regiment with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
In April 1917, during the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, he won the DSO. He was erroneously reported as having been gassed in the epic encounter, but no gas, other than gas shells, was used at Vimy. The truth is that Peck was invalided back to England with a severe attack of gastritis, an internal stomach inflammatory disorder. He was soon back in action, however, by June of the same year. In the Canadian "Kahki" election of 1917, he was re-elected in absentia as MP for Skeena, the first time a member had been elected while overseas. It was at about this time that he resurrected the ancient tradition of piping the Highlanders into battle to the skirl of bagpipes.
Early on in the Drocourt-Quéant struggle of September 2, 1918, his regiment's advance was blocked by the Germans at Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. Peck personally reconnoitred the area ahead of his troops in the face of relentless machine-gun and sniper fire. Having assessed the situation, he returned to his headquarters, reorganized the battalion so that both flanks were properly covered, and charged forward at the head of his men. Then, under intense artillery shelling, he sought out the tanks. From his own knowledge of the German positions, he was able to direct the tanks to fresh objectives to overcome the enemy resistance and pave the way for another regiment, an infantry battalion, to move forward, with the support of his own battalion.
A month later, Peck was wounded by a gas shell on October 4 and invalided back to England, bringing a distinguished four-year combat career to an end.
An aura of mystery surrounds the early life of William Merrifield, but it has been established that he was born on October 9, in Brent-wood, Sussex, England. His son Verne, one of three children, said that he seldom talked about himself so that little is known of his youth. But Verne believes that his father emigrated to Aylmer, Que. with an uncle when he was ten years old. He then apparently went back to England only to later return to Sudbury, Ont. where he took a job as a fireman for the Canadian Pacific Railway before enlisting in the Canadian army in 1914.
If Merrifield's childhood presents a bit of an enigma, his military record is real enough, and an admirable and gallant one it is. As a member of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion, on November 6 and 7, 1911 he was decorated with the Military Medal for bravery at Passchendaele. On October 1, 1918, by which time he had reached the rank of sergeant, his regiment was being pinned down by two German machine-gun emplacements near Abancourt. Merrifield attacked them both. Dashing from shell hole to shell hole, he killed the occupants of the first post but was wounded in the process. However, that didn't stop him from attacking the second position. Lobbying a Mills bomb into it, lie killed the gun crew. Though bleeding profusely, he refused to be taken from the battlefield and continued to lead his men until he was so severely weakened he had to be carried to hospital.
Following the war, Merrifield settled in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. where he took a job with the Algoma Central Railroad. In 1921, he married Maude Bovington of the Soo. In 1939, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. Merrifield died in Christie Street Military Hospital in Toronto on August 8, 1943 and was buried in West Korah Cemetery in Sault Ste. Marie. His Victoria Cross is held by his son.
Extracted and used with permission from:
Bishop, Arthur. Our Bravest and Our Best : The Stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross Winners. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1995.