By Ashley Dunk
In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Captain John MacGregor and his bravery during the Battle of Canal du Nord near Cambrai, France, between September 29 and October 3, 1918.
Born near Nairn, Scotland, on February 11, 1888, John MacGregor moved to Canada in 1909. He was a carpenter before he enlisted with the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on March 26, 1915. MacGregor had served for three years with the Garrison Artillery in Nairn. During the First World War, he was a decorated soldier, earning several military awards including the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Military Cross and the Bar to Military Cross.
MacGregor rose quickly through the ranks in the CEF, starting with a promotion to sergeant in 1916, then to lieutenant in 1917, and finally to captain in 1918. He was wounded twice in the line of duty and invalided for a period with influenza; his resilience helped him through the war and served him well in combat. By September 1918, he was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion in France, fighting as part of Canadian Corps operations to break across the Canal du Nord and capture the roads leading into Cambrai.
During the Battle of Canal du Nord, MacGregor led the battalion’s “C” Company under intense pressure from the German defences. With the company’s advance hampered by debilitating machine-gun fire, he pushed on and located the enemy guns, despite being wounded during the fight. In broad daylight, he ran forward, armed with a rifle and bayonet, coming under heavy fire from all directions, and single-handedly put the enemy crew out of action. His bravery resulted in the deaths of four German soldiers and eight taken prisoner. MacGregor’s quick thinking and initiative saved his men from danger and allowed the advance to continue.
Afterward, he reorganized his command while facing continued heavy fire, and he offered support to neighbouring troops. As the German lines continued to resist, he defiantly moved along the front lines. Many other officers were wounded or killed in action, so MacGregor took command of platoons, organized waves of soldiers and pushed the advance forward.
During daytime reconnaissance under suppressive fire, MacGregor established his company in Neuville-St.-Remy, which greatly assisted the advance into Tilloy. Throughout the operation across the Canal du Nord and leading toward Cambrai, MacGregor showed strong leadership and bravery in the face of danger.
MacGregor survived the remainder of the war and was “struck off strength,” or released from service, in general demobilization on April 9, 1919. He went on to serve in the Second World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel; he commanded the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s), a reservist infantry regiment based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He died on June 9, 1952, and was buried at Cranberry Lake cemetery in Powell River, British Columbia.
MacGregor’s Victoria Cross and other medals are on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Captain John MacGregor.
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Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.