By Emily Monks-Leeson
Two Canadian soldiers who fought at the Battle for Hill 70 in France are the subject of today’s blog series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients.
Sergeant Frederick Hobson, V.C., a veteran of the South African War (1899–1902), was living in Galt, Ontario, when recruitment started for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Born in 1873, Hobson claimed his birth year to be 1875 in order to be eligible to serve.
On August 18, 1917, Sergeant Hobson’s company of the 20th Battalion was repelling a strong German counterattack at Hill 70. When an artillery shell buried a Lewis gun in a forward post and killed most of its crew, Hobson left his trench, dug out the gun, and turned it against the German infantry advancing towards his position. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that when a jam caused the gun to stop firing, a wounded Hobson “left the gunner to correct the stoppage, rushed forward at the advancing enemy and, with bayonet and clubbed rifle, single handed, held them back until he himself was killed by a rifle shot. By this time however, the Lewis gun was again in action and reinforcements shortly afterwards arriving.” (London Gazette, no. 30338, October 17, 1917)
Private Frederick Hobson’s body was never recovered. He is honoured alongside 11,000 other Canadian soldiers at the Vimy Memorial in France.
Major Okill Massey Learmonth, V.C., was born in Quebec City in 1894. On August 18, 1917, he was an acting Major with the 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion at Hill 70 near Lens, France. When a German counter-attack on their newly consolidated positions surprised Learmonth’s company, he charged and, according to his citation in the London Gazette, “personally disposed” of the attackers. Though under heavy bombardment and seriously wounded, Major Learmonth stood at the parapet of his trench and threw bombs at advancing Germans while directing his men’s defence of their position. His citation for the Victoria Cross tells that Learmonth actually caught several bombs thrown at him by the enemy and threw them back, and refused to be evacuated after being wounded. He died later that day in a field hospital.
Major Okill Massey Learmonth is buried at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery in France. Learmonth Street in his hometown of Quebec City is named in his honour.
Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.