By Emily Monks-Leeson
On the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 in France during the First World War, we are profiling Victoria Cross (VC) recipient Private Michael James O’Rourke.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, and a resident of British Columbia, Michael O’Rourke was a 39-year-old private serving as a stretcher-bearer with the 7th (1st British Columbia) Battalion. Over a three-day period, from August 15 to 17, 1917, Private O’Rourke worked without rest to bring wounded men to safety as the Canadian Corps fought to capture and hold Hill 70. Through heavy German shelling and gunfire, Private O’Rourke repeatedly reached wounded soldiers, treated their injuries, and ensured they had food and water until they could be brought to safety.
His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that:
During the whole of his period the area in which he worked was subjected to very severe shelling and swept by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. On several occasions he was knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. Seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling around ahead of our trench, in full view of the enemy who were sniping him, Pte. O’Rourke jumped out of his trench and brought the man back, being himself heavily sniped at while doing so. Again he went forward about 50 yards in front of our barrage under very heavy and accurate fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, and brought in a comrade. On a subsequent occasion, when the line of advanced posts was retired to the line to be consolidated, he went forward under very heavy enemy fire of every description and brought back a wounded man who had been left behind. ()
The citation notes that O’Rourke’s actions “undoubtedly saved many lives.”
Michael James O’Rourke survived the war and returned to Canada, where he spent years working odd jobs in Vancouver and surviving on a disability pension of $10 per month. He led a protest march during a dockworkers’ strike in 1935 and was attacked by police in the Battle of Ballentyne Pier.
Private Michael James O’Rourke died in Vancouver on December 6, 1957, and is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Library and Archives Canada holds the Canadian Expeditionary Forces service file for Private Michael James O’Rourke.
- Personnel records of the First World War database
- Battle for Hill 70 on The Canadian Encyclopedia website
- War diaries of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion
Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.