Sergeant Frederick Hobson and Major Okill Massey Learmonth, VCs

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)

A typewritten description of the events of the day, including a description of Sergeant Frederick Hobson’s actions.

War diary of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion, dated August 18, 1917, Page 20 (MIKAN 205918)

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.

A black-and-white photograph of two young men sitting down in a camp, looking at maps. Behind them can be seen several tents.

Major Okill Massey Learmonth (right) with unidentified soldier (MIKAN 3628686)

A typewritten description of the events of the day. It mentions that Learmonth and another officer died of their wounds.

War diaries of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion, dated August 18, 1917, Page 7 (MIKAN 2005884)

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.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service files for Sergeant Frederick Hobson and Major Okill Massey Learmonth.


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Private Harry W. Brown, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

In today’s profile for Library and Archives Canada’s blog series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Private Harry Brown, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle for Hill 70 on August 16, 1917, in France.

Private Brown, born May 10, 1898, was a farmer from Gananoque, Ontario. On August 18, 1916, he enlisted with the Depot Regiment of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), at London, Ontario. Private Brown transferred to the 10th Battalion upon arrival in England, and was serving with the battalion on August 16, 1917, when, having advanced to a position near Hill 70 at Lens, France, his unit was struggling to repel repeated German counterattacks on their position. All communications with the rear had been cut, and the company’s right flank was exposed. Brown and a fellow soldier were tasked with breaking through the surrounding enemy lines to reach battalion headquarters with a desperate message for reinforcements. Under an intense artillery barrage and gunfire, Brown’s arm was hit and shattered, and his companion was killed. Nevertheless, as his citation in the London Gazette reads, Brown:

…continued on through an intense barrage until he arrived at the close support lines and found an officer. He was so spent that he fell down the dugout steps, but retained consciousness long enough to hand over his message, saying, ‘Important message.’ He then became unconscious, and died in the dressing station a few hours later.

(London Gazette, No.30338, October 17, 1917)

A typed list of men who played significant roles in the Battle for Hill 70.

A page from the war diaries of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion describing the men who “rendered valuable and exceptional service”, including Private Harry W. Brown; from Appendix 29, Page 5 (MIKAN 2005896)

Due to Brown’s courage and determination, his message was delivered and reinforcements were sent. He is credited as saving both the unit’s position on Hill 70 and the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. Private Harry Brown was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. He is buried at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery, near the towns of Lens and Béthune, France.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Private Harry Brown.

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Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC

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.”

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier with a bandaged hand smiling at the photographer.

Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, November 1917 (MIKAN 3219606)

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.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people gathered around two soldiers.

Private Michael James O`Rourke, VC, 7th Battalion, with Cadet Robert Hanna, VC, to his right (MIKAN 3219607)

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.

Related resources


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

The Canadian Corps and the Battle of Hill 70

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Today marks a significant anniversary in Canada’s First World War history. Though overshadowed in popular memory by the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917 was planned, fought and won almost exclusively by the Canadian Corps.

Following the victory at Vimy, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, long-time commander of the Canadian Divisions, took command of the British Third Army, and Canadian-born Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie became the new battlefield commander. In July 1917, Sir Douglas Haig ordered Currie to launch an attack on the German-held town of Lens. Currie insisted, instead, on capturing Hill 70 to the north, giving the Allies the advantage of higher ground and forcing German troops to counterattack from their heavily fortified and well-hidden urban defences.

Preparations for the assault were extensive. On the evening of August 14, Canadian artillery began an intense bombardment of the hill. The following morning, ten Canadian Expeditionary Force assault battalions drawn from the four Canadian divisions attacked. Canadian soldiers took their first objectives within twenty minutes, while low-flying aircraft helped to direct artillery against concentrated points of German resistance.

Thrown off the hill, the German army immediately counterattacked. Both sides used chemical gas and soldiers fought nearly blind through fogged-up respirators. Over four days, the Germans counterattacked 21 times, but, in the end, the Canadians held the hill overlooking Lens. Haig characterized the battle as “one of the finest minor operations of the war,” while Currie described it as among the hardest battles fought and won by the Canadian Corps.

The attack on Hill 70 left an estimated 9,000 Canadians dead or wounded and 41 taken prisoner. The Germans, who had committed five divisions to defend Hill 70, suffered an estimated 25,000 casualties, with 970 taken prisoner.

A black-and-white photograph of two men on stretchers. A group of medical personnel is attending to one of the men, while the other man lies on his side. Several soldiers are standing to the left of the stretchers, while others are sitting in the background. The scene is a bombed-out building with only the chimney still standing.

Dressing the wounds of Canadian soldiers during advance to Hill 70. August 1917 (MIKAN 3395845)

A black-and-white photograph of a convoy of carts moving down the road. A group of Scottish soldiers in full kilt pulls the last cart.

13th Battalion Machine Gunners going out to rest after Hill 70. August 1917 (MIKAN 3406033)

A black-and-white photograph of a column of soldiers marching through a town. Onlookers include some officers as well as children and other civilians.

General Sir Arthur Currie watching his men who took Hill 70 marching to camp after being relieved. August 1917 (MIKAN 3404812)

Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers of the Canadian Corps for their actions during and immediately following the Battle of Hill 70. Over the next week, Library and Archives Canada’s blog series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, will profile each of the winners, one hundred years to the day that their actions took place.


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Grist for the Mill – Poems on war, labour and progress

By Kelly Anne Griffin

Alex Gibson was an immigrant, a veteran of the First World War, a mill worker and a poet. His experiences are reflected in Grist for the Mill, a book of poetry that he self-published in 1959. A copy of this book was discovered during the processing of the archival records of the Canadian Paperworkers Union.

Gibson was born in 1893 in Scotland, and he immigrated to Canada around 1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the 10th Field Ambulance Battalion. Many of the poems in his book deal with the challenges of adjusting to the often routine life of working in a paper mill after surviving the horrors of war. Many young Canadian men faced similar challenges when they returned from the war in Europe.

He contemplates the struggles of returning soldiers in “What Shall It Be”:

What shall it be when victory’s won
And our men come marching home;

Shall it mean the same as it always means –
The broken lives and the shattered dreams

And a desolate land to roam?

[…]

Answer ye men of the shop and rail –
The mill and the mine – the sea and the mail,

For answer it ye shall?
(pp. 90–92)

A black-and-white photograph showing a crowded war scene: wounded soldiers are on stretchers while soldiers mill around, with destroyed buildings in the background.

The 10th Field Ambulance Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Gibson served in the field, caring for the wounded after battle. This devastating experience underlies his poetry. (MIKAN 3397051)

Gibson worked in the pulp and paper industry for over 38 years and was passionate about labour issues. He served in several important roles within the Canadian Paperworkers Union during his career. He even ran for federal office in the riding of Port Arthur in 1935 and 1940 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. This party, a predecessor of the New Democratic Party, was dedicated to progressive social and labour issues. Gibson’s socialist stance is clear in nearly all of the poems in the book, which provides an informative first-hand account of working-class struggles. The plight of the worker and the need for workers to come together in a strong brotherhood are recurring themes. In “Hoboes and Heroes,” he writes about the class of society that could be called the working poor:

He said that every place he went
He found that there were thousands such as he;
Who, with the last of all their money spent
Were forced to beg for charity.

[…]

And as he spoke I sensed the bitter note.
Of dark despair, the utter lack of hope.
(pp. 77–80)

Working for over three decades in a factory, and being active in union activities, Gibson was acutely aware of the hardships and struggles in a production mill. These come up frequently in his writings. Days were long, pay was poor and conditions were not as regulated as they are today. He continually tried to improve this situation through his work with the union. The vivid picture he paints of what life was like for these men shows his empathy for his fellow workers. In the book’s dedication, he writes:

To ye who toil in the murk;
To ye who swine in the drift

Making an epic of work,
Single or double shift.

Knowing you as I do;
Living the life you live,

This is my gift to you,
All that I have to give.
(p. 3)

A black-and-white photograph of a man leaning over a grinder machine holding a plank of wood in his hands.

Worker in a pulp and paper mill operating a grinder machine. Gibson’s poetry often describes the monotonous and dangerous conditions in mills and the effects on workers. Photo taken by Harry Foster (MIKAN 3196845)

Most of Gibson’s poems cover issues relating to labour and social injustices in Canada, but some provide glimpses into important moments in history. “A Constitutional Crisis” relates the abdication of Edward VIII to wed twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, a huge scandal at the time. “A Note to the Hon. Minister of Justice” is about the jailing of Tim Buck, a leader in the labour movement. Buck’s imprisonment at Kingston Penitentiary caused much public outcry, especially among labourers like Gibson.

This collection of poems, though written primarily about personal conflicts and workers’ struggles, has an underlying tone of hope. Many of Gibson’s poems are still relevant for Canadian readers today. This is one reason why Grist for the Mill is a true treasure in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.

Private John George Pattison, VC

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.To mark the second day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 10, 1917, the Discover Blog returns to the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, in which we profile each of 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 present the story of Private John George Pattison, who became the fourth Canadian soldier at Vimy Ridge to earn the Victoria Cross, joining Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne, and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier holding a baton and looking directly at the viewer.

Private John George Pattison, VC. (MIKAN 3219808)

Pattison was born on September 8, 1875 in Woolwich, England. He immigrated to Canada in 1906, and at the age of 40, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Calgary, Alberta on March 6, 1916.

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers standing side by side in front of an automobile.

Private John George Pattison, VC and Bugler, undated (MIKAN 3219809)

One hundred years ago today, on the second day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Pattison and the 50th Battalion were under heavy fire from a German machine gun that was inflicting multiple causalities. Seizing his chance, Pattison went forward alone, moving from shell hole to shell hole, until he came within 30 yards of the gun. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads: “From this point, in the face of heavy fire, he hurled bombs, killing and wounding some of the crew, then rushed forward, overcoming and bayonetting the surviving five gunners. His valour and initiative undoubtedly saved the situation and made possible the further advance to the objective.” (London Gazette, no. 30215, August 2, 1917)

Pattison was killed in action seven weeks later on June 3, 1917, during an attack on a German-held generating station near Lens, France. He is buried at La Chaudière Military Cemetery nearby. The Pattison Bridge in Calgary, Alberta, and a mountain peak in Jasper National Park are named in his honour.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Private John George Pattison.

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Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, VC

The Discover Blog returns to the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, in which we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that the actions for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross took place. Today we present the story of Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, an Irish-born Canadian VC recipient from Medicine Hat, Alberta.

A black-and-white portrait of an officer wearing a Sam Brown belt and looking directly at the viewer.

Captain Frederick M. Harvey, V.C., undated (MIKAN 3216613)

Harvey, born in Athboy, County Meath, Ireland, was one of three Irish rugby union internationals to have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and the only one to have been awarded the medal during the First World War. He settled in Medicine Hat, Alberta, in 1908 and enlisted on May 18, 1916 with the 13th Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles, transferring to Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) after arriving in France.

On March 27, 1917, Harvey’s troops advanced on the village of Guyencourt, France. As German machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties, Harvey’s Victoria Cross citation recounts what occurred next:

At this critical moment, when the enemy showed no intention whatever of retiring and fire was still intense, Lt. Harvey, who was in command of the leading troop, ran forward well ahead of his men and dashed at the trench, still fully manned, jumped the wire, shot the machine gunner and captured the gun. His most courageous act undoubtedly had a decisive effect on the success of the operation (London Gazette, no.30122, June 8, 1917).

A black and white reproduction of a war diary entry showing the place, date, hour and a summary of events and information.

Extract from the Lord Strathcona’s Horse war diaries for March 27, 1917 (MIKAN 2004721)

Lieutenant Harvey was initially granted the Distinguished Service Order but was later awarded the Victoria Cross. He received the Military Cross for his role in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse advance on Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918 and was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Harvey remained with Lord Strathcona’s Horse and was promoted to Captain in 1923. He instructed in physical training at the Royal Military College of Canada from 1923 to 1927, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1938, and, in 1939, was made Brigadier General. Harvey served as Honorary Colonel in Lord Strathcona’s Horse from 1958 to 1966. He died in August 1980 at age 91.

A black and white photograph of a man pining an award on another man’s pocket. Another man is reading the citation while a third man is carrying a case. In the background, rows of soldiers are standing at ease.

H.M. The King decorating Lieutenant Harvey L.S.H. with the Victoria Cross (MIKAN 3362384)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey.

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Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Today’s blog post for the series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross Recipients tells the story of Piper James Cleland Richardson, awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for gallantry during the Battle of the Ancre Heights on October 8, 1916 at Regina Trench, Somme, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing a kilt and sporran, holding a baton in his left hand and leaning on a sculptural shelf.

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC, 16th Battalion, CEF. (MIKAN 3192331)

Born in Bellshill, Scotland, on November 25, 1895, Richardson immigrated to British Columbia where he served as a piper in the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. In September 1914, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and went overseas as part of a large Seaforth contingent of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish).

On October 8, 1916, Richardson’s company was held up by uncut barbed wire and intense fire as they attacked German positions at Regina Trench. Richardson’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck, later wrote of Richardson’s extraordinary courage. As the unit lay trapped in the shell holes of “no man’s land,” Richardson, a teenager who had played the company “over the top,” sought the commander’s permission to play his pipes again. In full view of the Germans, he marched up and down the wire entanglements playing his pipes where his fellow soldiers lay. His citation for the Victoria Cross states, “The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured” (London Gazette, no. 30967, October 22, 1918).

Amazingly, Richardson survived the attack and was detailed to take a wounded comrade and several prisoners of war to the rear. Realizing that he had left his bagpipes behind, he returned to recover them. Richardson was never again seen alive.

A black-and-white handwritten page describing the daily events leading up to the day of the action for which Piper James Cleland Richardson received the Victoria Cross.

War diary of the 16th Battalion for October 1–8, which describes the days leading up to the attack on Regina Ridge. (MIKAN 2034171)

The remains of James Cleland Richardson were located in 1920 and he is now buried in Adanac Military Cemetery near Albert, France. His bagpipes, long believed lost to the Somme mud, were identified in 2002 as being in the possession of Ardvreck Preparatory School in Scotland, part of a 1917 donation by British Army Chaplain Major Edward Yeld Bate. They are now on display at the British Columbia Legislature.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man in military uniform holding his bagpipes.

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC, and bagpipes, 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF. (MIKAN 4922009)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Piper James Cleland Richardson. The James Richardson fonds contains his Victoria Cross certificate as well as an exercise book from his early schooling.


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones

This Black History Month, Library and Archives Canada highlights the service of black Canadians during the First World War. While all Canadians were equally caught up in the patriotism of the early part of the war and the opportunities offered by military service, black Canadians had difficulty enlisting due to the racism of the era. Although there was no official or explicitly stated policy of exclusion, the Canadian military left recruitment decisions to the discretion of individual commanding officers. Black Canadian volunteers along with those from other minority groups were left to enlist in whichever regiments would accept them. A special unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, was formed by members of the black community in Nova Scotia. The battalion, whose members weren’t allowed to fight, dug trenches, repaired roads, and attracted hundreds of recruits from across Canada and even the United States.

A sepia-coloured photograph of a man in uniform wearing an officer’s belt and cap holding a baton in both hands across his upper thighs.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, First World War private taken by an unknown photographer, from the personal collection of the Jones family (Wikipedia)

Among those black Canadians who volunteered and served was Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, a Nova Scotian soldier who enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June 1916. Born in East Mountain, Nova Scotia on March 30, 1858, Jones was over 50 years old when he enlisted and lied about his age in order to join the army. Jones was sent overseas, where he transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment and saw combat on the front lines in France, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. During the battle, with his unit pinned down by machine gun fire, Jones moved forward alone to attack the German gun emplacement. He reached the machine gun nest and threw a grenade that killed several German soldiers. The survivors surrendered to Jones, who had them carry the machine gun back to the Canadian lines and present it to his commanding officer. It is reported that Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, though no record exists to show that he ever received the medal. In the decades following the war, the Truro Daily News and Senator Calvin Ruck highlighted Jones’ bravery and lobbied to have the Canadian government formally recognize his actions. Ruck in particular argued that the racist sentiment of the time had prevented Jones and other black soldiers from being properly recognized for their heroism.

A nominal list showing the regimental number, rank, name, former corps, name of next of kin, address of next of kin, country of birth, and the place and date on which they were taken on strength.

Entry for Jeremiah Jones in the “Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men” of the 106th Battalion (MIKAN 2006098)

Jones was injured at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and again at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was formally discharged in Halifax in early 1918 after being found medically unfit. He died in November 1950. Jeremiah Jones was posthumously awarded the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service on February 22, 2010.