By Emily Monks-Leeson
Sergeant Thomas William Holmes is Canada’s youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC). Born in Montreal on October 14, 1898, Holmes gave his date of birth as August 17, 1897, when he enlisted with the 147th Grey Overseas Battalion, making himself out to be older than he was. He served with the Canadian Mounted Rifles and was part of the first assault against the German defences at Passchendaele 100 years ago. When the right flank of the Canadian force was halted and heavy casualties inflicted by machine-gun and rifle fire from a German pillbox, Holmes repeatedly ran forward alone and bombed the machine gun crew, eventually taking the pillbox’s 19 occupants prisoner. Sergeant Holmes survived the war and returned to Canada. He died on January 4, 1950, and is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, Ontario.
Major Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, born on November 18, 1895, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). At the age of 21 he was an acting captain in the 52nd Battalion (96th Lake Superior Regiment), leading his men against the German defences at Bellevue Spur near the Passchendaele Ridge. Captain O’Kelly led his unit almost a kilometer into German-held territory without artillery support and successfully captured the German positions. He then organized and led attacks against German pillboxes, capturing 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. For his leadership, Captain Christopher O’Kelly was awarded the Victoria Cross. He later achieved the rank of major. O’Kelly survived the war, but died a few years after in a boating accident near Red Lake, Ontario, on November 15, 1922.Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Shankland, born in Ayr, Scotland in 1887, immigrated to Canada in 1910 and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He enlisted as a private with the 43rd Battalion and earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Sanctuary Wood in June 1916, after which he received a battlefield commission. On October 26, 1917, Shankland and a platoon of 40 men captured and held the crest of Bellevue Spur in the face of heavy fire and the collapse of the Allied line. With both flanks exposed, Shankland turned over command to another officer and set out alone to reach battalion headquarters, where he gave a plan for counter-attack. He then returned with reinforcements to carry out the attack. His citation in the London Gazette from December 14, 1917, reads:
Having gained a position he rallied the remnants of his own platoon and men of other companies, disposed them to the command the ground in front, and inflicted heavy casualties upon the retreating enemy. Later, he dispersed a counter-attack, thus enabling supporting troops to come up unmolested.
Lieutenant–Colonel Shankland survived the war and served overseas during the Second World War as camp commandant of the Canadian Army Headquarters in England. He lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, along with two other Victoria Cross recipients: Leo Clarke and Frederick William Hall. Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925 to honour the three men.
Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.