By Ashley Dunk
In Library and Archives Canada’s blog series on Canadian Victoria Cross recipients, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that the actions took place for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today we commemorate two Canadian soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions on September 27, 1918, during the campaign for the Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood, France.
The Canadians Corps opened their initial attacks during the Battle of Scarpe on August 26, 1918, to ultimately crash through the heavily fortified Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2nd. The over eight kilometres gained by the Corps resulted in high casualties amongst officers and soldiers alike. Following this offensive, it was strategized for the Canadians, with assistance of other battalions from the Allied forces, to capture the Canal du Nord and open the roads to Cambrai. The retreating Germans destroyed several bridges along the canal, leaving a few well defended for their own use, and no possibility for the Canadian arm to establish outposts on the other side of the canal.
After a month of planning and rebuilding bridges, the Canadian Corps were ready to conquer their next objective: Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood.
It is during the Battle of Canal du Nord that two Canadian soldiers would perform heroic feats and earn one of the highest military commendations.
Lieutenant George Fraser Kerr
Born on June 8, 1894, in Deseronto, Ontario, George Fraser Kerr was a chemist before the outbreak of war. On September 22, 1914, at 20 years of age, he enlisted at Valcartier, Quebec, joining the 3rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) as a private. After proving himself repeatedly in battle, he was commissioned as an officer on July 1, 1917, eventually rising to the rank of captain.
He was a decorated soldier, earning a number of commendations: the Military Medal on August 23, 1916, for his courageous actions on Mount Sorrel; the Military Cross on December 2, 1918; and a bar for the Military Cross on January 2, 1919, for his gallantry and initiative during the Drocourt-Quéant attack from September 2 to 3, 1918.
On September 27, 1918, at 5:20 a.m., Canadian artillery pounded German positions in preparation for attack on Canal du Nord, with an objective to push through the German line. At 6:00 a.m., Kerr, serving with the 3rd Battalion, was in command of the left support company. While on the campaign to take Bourlon Wood and under heavy machine-gun fire, he showed great skill by outflanking a machine gun that was hindering the advance.
After advancing past Canal du Nord and pushing ahead, the advance was held up by a strong point near the Arras-Cambrai road. Kerr was ahead of his company and rushed to the German strong point. He single-handedly captured four machine guns and thirty-one prisoners, allowing the advance to continue until the company was held up just beyond Bourlon Wood.
After being wounded twice in action, as well as in an incident in which he fell from his horse after the Armistice, Kerr was discharged as medically unfit on July 16, 1919.
Kerr died on December 8, 1929. Today his Victoria Cross is on display at the Canadian War Museum.
Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant George Fraser Kerr.
Lieutenant Graham Thomson Lyall
Born in Manchester, England on March 8, 1892, Lyall immigrated to Canada and settled in the Niagara Region where he worked as a mechanical engineer. He joined the 19th Regiment of the British militia before enlisting on September 24, 1915, at St. Catharines, Ontario with the 81st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Later, he would transfer to the 102nd Battalion, Canadian Infantry.
On the same day that George Fraser Kerr was leading his company toward Bourlon Wood, Lyall was serving in the 102nd Battalion, leading his platoon. The leading company was held up at a strong point, battling rapid machine-gun fire from the German position. With the support of Kerr and his platoon, Lyall and his company captured the point with a flank movement, staying back to weaken the enemy forces at the point with less offensive power. Because of this maneuver, he detained thirteen prisoners, one field gun, and four machine guns.
Later, his platoon, weakened by casualties, was held up by machine guns at the southern end of Bourlon Wood. With the available men, Lyall moved toward the strong point. Rushing the position single-handedly ahead of his platoon, Lyall killed the officer in charge. His bravery awarded them forty-five prisoners and five machine guns.
Lyall, achieving his objective and capturing an additional forty-seven prisoners, re-established his position, protecting the remainder of the company. Later, on October 1, 1918, in the neighbourhood of Belcourt and commanding a diminished company, he captured a strongly defended position, producing eighty prisoners and seventeen machine guns.
As summarized in the London Gazette two months later:
During two days of operations Lieutenant Lyall captured in all 3 officers, 182 other ranks, 26 machine guns, and one field gun, exclusive of heavy casualties inflicted. He showed throughout, the utmost valour and high powers of command.
The Canadian Corps achieved and exceeded their objectives on September 2, 1918, advancing further than expected under heavy machine-gun fire and terrible casualties. By the end of the day, they took Bourlon Wood, capturing the Red, Blue, and Green Lines.
After the Armistice, Lyall sailed for England in 1919, where he would enlist in the British Army.
He died on November 28, 1941, during the Second World War on a campaign in Egypt.
A plaque commemorates his acts of valour in the Lincoln and Welland Regiment memorial garden in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant Graham Thomson Lyall.
Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.