Private Walter Leigh Rayfield, VC

By Ashley Dunk

Library and Archives Canada’s blog series on Canadian Victoria Cross recipients remembers soldiers on the 100th anniversary of the day they acted bravely in battle and for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today we commemorate the courageous actions of Private Walter Leigh Rayfield.

A black-and-white photographic portrait of a soldier.

Walter Leigh Rayfield, VC, undated (a006711)

Born on October 7, 1881 in Richmond, England, Rayfield immigrated to Canada before the war. He worked as a lumberjack before enlisting on July 10, 1917 at Victoria, British Columbia, joining the 7th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

At the beginning of September 1918, the Canadian Corps was making efforts to break through the six-kilometer front known as the Drocourt-Quéant Line, east of Arras, France. Having taken the enemy strong point, the Crow’s Nest, on September 1, 1918, the Corps needed an intense assault to break through the German lines and head toward the Canal du Nord.

A black-and-white image of a textual document summarizing the activities of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion on September 2, 1918.

7th Canadian Infantry Battalion’s war diary with a description of the start of the attack on September 2, 1918, Page 4 (e001084295)

A black-and-white image of a textual document summarizing the activities of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion on September 2, 1918, continued onto a second page.

7th Canadian Infantry Battalion’s war diaries with a description of the conclusion of the attack on September 2, 1918, Page 5 (e001084296)

At 5:00 a.m. on September 2, 1918, Canadian artillery fire rained down in a barrage over enemy positions, enabling the Canadians to advance. Tanks provided supporting offensive fire, and by 7:30 a.m., troops reached the Red Line and the village of Dury. During this advance, Rayfield found himself ahead of his company. He rushed a trench occupied by a party of enemy soldiers, killed two soldiers with his bayonet, and took ten men prisoner.

Later, through heavy and consistent rifle fire, he located and engaged an enemy sniper who had been causing many casualties. As reported in the London Gazette two months later:

He then rushed the section of trench from which the sniper had been operating, and so demoralised the enemy by his coolness and daring that thirty others surrendered to him.

London Gazette, no. 31067, December 14, 1918

A black-and-white photograph of hundreds of guns, rifles, and machine guns of varying sizes laying on the ground. A soldier stands examining the guns, and a second soldier bends over examining the strap of a gun.

Guns captured by Canadians on the Arras front, September 1918. (a003291)

He acted again without regard for his personal safety when he left cover under heavy machine gun fire and carried a badly wounded comrade to safety. Rayfield was lauded for his courage, bravery, and initiative during these assaults. Through gas attacks, rapid machine gun fire, and direct attacks from enemy rifles, Rayfield performed gallantly in battle, and heroically for the benefit his comrades.

Rayfield was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions from September 2 to 4, 1918, in Arras.

He survived the war and was discharged on April 25, 1919.

Rayfield died on February 20, 1949. Today his Victoria Cross is on display at the Canadian War Museum.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Private Walter Leigh Rayfield.


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Hutcheson, Knight, Metcalf, Peck and Young, VCs

By Andrew Horrall

Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson

Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson was born at Mount Carmel, Illinois, on December 16, 1883. He studied medicine at Northwestern University near Chicago and worked as a doctor. Hutcheson was physically striking—he had white hair and piercing blue eyes. Like many Americans, Hutcheson decided to fight for Canada. On November 6, 1915, he joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps at Hamilton, Ontario, and was assigned to the 75th Battalion.

A black-and-white portrait photograph of a soldier with very light hair and looking directly at the viewer.

Captain B.S. Hutcheson, VC, Canadian Army Medical Corps. Source: Directorate of History and Heritage

On September 2, 1918, near Cagnicourt, France, Hutcheson advanced into open ground with his battalion and “without hesitation and with utter disregard of personal safety he remained on the field until every wounded man had been attended to. He dressed the wounds of a seriously wounded officer under terrific machine-gun and shellfire, and, with the assistance of prisoners and of his own men, succeeded in evacuating him to safety, despite the fact that the bearer party suffered heavy casualties. Immediately afterwards he rushed forward, in full view of the enemy, under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to tend a wounded sergeant, and, having placed him in a shell-hole, dressed his wounds.” (London Gazette, no. 31067, December 14, 1918)

For his bravery in another action, Hutcheson received the Military Cross.

Dr. Hutcheson married a woman from Nova Scotia at the end of the war and returned to his medical practice in Illinois. He visited Canada regularly over the years, and took part in battalion reunions, but he rarely spoke about his wartime experiences. He died in Cairo, Illinois, on April 9, 1954. His Victoria Cross is held by the Toronto Scottish Regiment Museum.

Sources

“VC from Illinois modestly declines to details exploits,” The Globe and Mail, March 6, 1930, p. 13.

“‘Six-bits’ reunion is first since war,” The Globe and Mail, April 13, 1931, p. 14.

 

Arthur George Knight

Arthur George Knight was born at Haywards Heath, England, on June 26, 1886. In 1911, he immigrated to Canada and worked as a carpenter. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in December 1914 and served with the 10th Battalion. He was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre in November 1917.

A black-and-white studio photograph of a soldier standing with his hands behind his back.

Sergeant A.G. Knight, VC, undated (a006724)

On September 2, 1918, near Cagnicourt, France, Knight “led a bombing section forward under heavy fire and engaged the enemy at close quarters. Seeing that his party continued to be held up, he dashed forward alone, bayoneting several of the enemy machine-gunners and trench mortar crews, and forcing the remainder to retire in confusion.” As Knight’s platoon chased the retreating Germans, he “saw a party of about thirty of the enemy go into a deep tunnel which led off the trench. He again dashed forward alone, and, having killed one officer and two NCOs, captured twenty other ranks. Subsequently he routed, single-handed, another enemy party which was opposing the advance of his platoon.” (London Gazette, no.31012, November 15, 1918)

Knight was badly wounded in this fighting and died the following day. His Victoria Cross is held by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

 

William Henry Metcalf

A black-and-white photograph of a standing soldier wearing a kilt.

Lieutenant-Corporal W. H. Metcalf, VC, undated photograph (a006727)

William Henry Metcalf was born in Waite Township, Maine, on January 29, 1885. He worked as a barber before travelling to Fredericton, New Brunswick, to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force on August 15, 1914. He served as a signaler with the 16th Battalion. Metcalf was awarded the Military Medal for his actions in September 1916 at the Battle of the Somme when he volunteered to provide medical assistance to a severely wounded comrade in no man’s land. Having saved the man’s life, Metcalf then repeatedly exposed himself to heavy shelling in order to repair telephone wires. His medal citation notes that “during twenty months of service in the field his conduct has been one of uniform bravery and cheerful devotion to duty.” (London Gazette, no. 29893, January 6, 1917)

Metcalf was awarded the Military Medal for a second time for his actions on August 8, 1918, during the Battle of Amiens. He laid telephone wire across no man’s land during the initial attacks and remained all day under intense shell fire, ensuring that the wire was not damaged. (London Gazette no. 31142, January 24, 1919)

Metcalf was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on September 2, 1918, near Cagnicourt, France. When his battalion’s advance began to falter, Metcalf “rushed forward under intense machine-gun fire to a passing tank on the left. With his signal flag he walked in front of the tank, directing it along the [German] trench in a perfect hail of bullets and bombs. The machine-gun strong points were overcome, very heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy, and a very critical situation was relieved.” (London Gazette, no. 31012, November 15, 1918)

Metcalf died at Lewiston, Maine, on August 8, 1968. His Victoria Cross is held by the Canadian Scottish Museum, Victoria, BC.

 

Cyrus Wesley Peck

Cyrus Wesley Peck was born at Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, on April 26, 1871. He trained to be a soldier, but was unsuccessful in taking part in the South African War. At the start of the First World War, Peck was managing a salmon cannery in British Columbia and serving in the militia. He enlisted in the 30th Battalion on November 8, 1914, at the rank of Major. In late 1916, Peck was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of the 16th Battalion, the Canadian Scottish Regiment.

A black-and-white photograph of a mustachioed man wearing tartan pants, a Sam Brown belt and a cap walking with a walking stick through ornate gates. A crowd on the right is looking toward the gates.

Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus W. Peck, VC, DSO, 16th Battalion, leaving Buckingham Palace (a006720)

Peck received the Distinguished Service Order, was mentioned in dispatches five times, and was wounded twice. He was also elected to the House of Commons for the riding of Skeena, British Columbia, in the federal election of December 1917. This so-called “Khaki Election” was the first one in which soldiers on active service were allowed to vote. Though Peck was now a Member of Parliament, he continued to carry out his military duties in France.

Peck is Canada’s unlikeliest Victoria Cross hero. Though his walrus moustache gave him a military look, he was 47 years old, 5 feet and 9 inches tall, and a portly 250 pounds. Nonetheless, on September 2, 1918, near Cagnicourt, France, Peck saw that his battalion’s advance had stalled. So he “made a personal reconnaissance under heavy machine-gun and sniping fire, across a stretch of ground which was heavily swept by fire. Having reconnoitered the position he returned, reorganised his battalion, and, acting upon the knowledge personally gained, pushed them forward and arranged to protect his flanks. He then went out under the most intense artillery and machine-gun fire, intercepted the tanks, gave them the necessary directions, pointing out where they were to make for, and thus pave[d] the way for a Canadian Infantry battalion to push forward. To this battalion he subsequently gave requisite support. His magnificent display of courage and fine qualities of leadership enabled the advance to be continued, although always under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, and contributed largely to the success of the brigade attack.” (London Gazette no. 31012, November 15, 1918)

Peck lost his seat in the House of Commons in the 1921 federal election. He sat in British Columbia’s provincial legislature from 1924 to 1933, and died at Sydney, British Columbia, on September 27, 1956. His Victoria Cross is held by the Canadian War Museum.

Sources

“Won VC in 1918 while a member of parliament,” The Globe and Mail, September 28, 1956, p. 7.

 

John Francis Young

John Francis Young was born in Kidderminster, England, on January 14, 1893, and immigrated to Canada sometime before the war. He enlisted in the 87th Battalion at Montreal on October 20, 1915, and served as a stretcher bearer. Young was wounded at the Somme in November 1916.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling soldier standing with his arms behind his back.

Private J. F. Young, VC, undated. Source: Directorate of History and Heritage

Young was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on September 2, 1918, near Dury, France. When German artillery and machine guns cut down Young’s company, he spent over an hour treating wounded comrades in full view of the enemy. He repeatedly travelled back to the Canadian lines for more medical supplies, but always returned to the wounded men. Young then organized the stretcher bearers who carried the wounded men to safety. (London Gazette no. 31067, December 14, 1918)

Young was gassed in a subsequent battle and suffered permanent and debilitating lung damage. He died at Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, on November 7, 1929. His Victoria Cross is held by the Canadian War Museum.

Sources

“John F. Young, VC, is dead in Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, November 8, 1929, p. 1.

 

Library and Archives Canada holds the service files for Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson, Arthur George Knight, William Henry Metcalf, Cyrus Wesley Peck and John Francis Young.


Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Claude Nunney, VC

By Andrew Horrall

When Claude Joseph Patrick Nunney joined the 38th Battalion on March 8, 1915, he stated that he was born in Dublin, Ireland, on December 24, 1892. This appears not to have been strictly true, though it is unclear why Nunney obscured his origins. Archival records point to Nunney having been born on that day in Hastings, England, and given the name Stephen Sargent Claude Nunney. It is certain that he was orphaned as a child and sent across the Atlantic to Ottawa, where he was adopted at first by Mrs. D. J. MacDonald, of North Lancaster, Ontario. By the time he enlisted, he was living with the Calder family of Glengarry County, Ontario, whom he identified as his next of kin and to whom he remitted money each month.

Nunney was an outstanding soldier who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, when “although wounded in two places and his section wiped out he continued to advance carrying his gun and ammunition and alone stopped an attack by over 200 enemy. He continued on duty for three days showing exceptional fearlessness and doing magnificent work.” (London Gazette, no. 30234, 16 August 1917) Soon afterwards, he was awarded the Military Medal for another act of bravery.

A black-and-white portrait photograph of a seated soldier who holds his cap and swagger stick on his lap.

Private Claude Nunney, VC, of the 38th Battalion (a006859)

Nunney’s promotion to sergeant in June 1917 testified to his battlefield leadership and courage. But the following April, he was court-martialed for striking a superior officer. The incident is detailed in the records of Nunney’s court-martial, which are held by LAC. The facts of the case were clear, though two officers testified in Nunney’s defence, with one calling him “one of the best front line fighting men in the Battalion.” Nunney was convicted and demoted back to private, though his sentence of one year’s hard labour was soon commuted “on account of [Nunney’s] previous good service.”

Private Nunney was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his actions on September 1 and 2, 1918, during the fighting at the Drocourt-Quéant Line in France. During a German attack “Nunney, who was at this time at company headquarters, immediately on his own initiative proceeded through the barrage to the company outpost lines, going from post to post and encouraging the men by his own fearless example. The enemy were repulsed and a critical situation was saved. During the attack on 2nd September his dash continually placed him in advance of his companions, and his fearless example undoubtedly helped greatly to carry the company forward to its objectives.” (London Gazette, no. 31067, December 14, 1918)

Nunney was severely wounded while carrying out these courageous acts and died on September 18, 1918. He left all his effects, including his medals, to the Calders. When Canadian Victoria Cross recipients assembled at Toronto in 1938, the widowed Mrs. Calder was too old to attend. So she asked a female friend in Alexandria, who was an advocate for veterans’ welfare, to wear Nunney’s medals at the gathering. The orphaned Irish boy had been adopted by an entire community. His Victoria Cross is held by the Cornwall Armoury. Library and Archives Canada holds his service file.

Sources

“Spirit of war hero marches on in VC,” The Globe and Mail, August 2, 1938, p. 5.


Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

William Hew Clark-Kennedy, VC

By Andrew Horrall

William Hew Clark-Kennedy was born in Dunskey, Scotland, on March 3, 1880, and began working for the Standard Life Assurance Company at age 16. He served with a British cavalry regiment in the South African War before moving to Canada in 1902 to work in Standard Life’s Montreal office. There he met and married Katherine “Kate” Reford.

Clark-Kennedy joined the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, at Valcartier, Quebec, on September 23, 1914, and arrived in France the following February. On April 24, 1915, an artillery shell landed near where he and two other men were standing. Clark-Kennedy’s companions were killed instantly, while he was buried by earth and mud. Clark-Kennedy’s comrades believed that he also had died and that his body had been either obliterated or buried. They reported that he had been killed in action. But Clark-Kennedy had suffered only minor injuries, and without anyone noticing, he dug himself out and resumed fighting. It took a couple of days to sort out the error and for Clark-Kennedy to cable his family and tell them he was fine.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer standing in front of a building wearing his officer’s cap and carrying a walking stick in his right hand.

Lieutenant-Colonel Clark-Kennedy, VC, OC, 24th Battalion. Photograph taken January 1919 (a003909)

Clark-Kennedy was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions while commanding the 24th Battalion on August 27 and 28, 1918, during the Battle of Arras. An excerpt from the London Gazette shows his exceptional bravery: “from the outset the brigade, of which the 24th Battalion was a central unit, came under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire, suffering many casualties, especially amongst leaders. Units became partially disorganised and the advance was checked. Appreciating the vital importance to the brigade front of a lead by the centre and undismayed by annihilating fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Clark-Kennedy, by sheer personality and initiative, inspired his men and led them forward. On several occasions, he set an outstanding example by leading parties straight at the machine-gun nests which were holding up the advance and overcame these obstacles. By controlling the direction of neighbouring units and collecting men who had lost their leaders, he rendered valuable services in strengthening the line, and enabled the whole brigade front to move forward.”

Clark-Kennedy showed equal courage the following day, despite a very serious gunshot wound to his right knee. The citation for his Victoria Cross ends with the declaration that “it is impossible to overestimate the results achieved by the valour and leadership of this officer.” (London Gazette, no. 31067, December 14, 1918)

In addition to the Victoria Cross, Clark-Kennedy was mentioned in despatches four times, received the Distinguished Service Order twice, was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

A black-and-white photograph of two officers standing in front of a car in which a driver is seated. They both wear officers’ caps and greatcoats.

Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Clark-Kennedy (right), VC, CMG, DSO and Bar, and Brigadier-General J.H. MacBrien, DSO and Bar, CB (a006743)

After the war, Clark-Kennedy returned to Canada and his job at Standard Life, and eventually became the firm’s director. He died in Montreal on October 25, 1961. Clark-Kennedy’s Victoria Cross is held by his family. Library and Archives Canada holds his service file.

Sources

“Officer, feared dead, continued to fight,” The Globe and Mail, October 27, 1961, p. 31.

“Lt.-Col. Clark-Kennedy VC, dies here in 83rd year,” Montreal Gazette, October 27, 1961, p. 4.


Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Charles Smith Rutherford, VC

By Ashley Dunk

Today in Library and Archives Canada’s blog series on Canadian Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Charles Smith Rutherford, who earned his Victoria Cross one hundred years ago today for his heroic actions on the battlefield.

A black-and-white photograph of a military officer standing with a cane.

Lieutenant Charles S. Rutherford, VC, ca. 1914–1919 (a006703)

Born on January 9, 1892, in Colborne, Ontario, Rutherford was a farmer before the war. On March 2, 1916, he enlisted in Toronto, Ontario, joining the 83rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a private. He arrived in France on June 10, 1916. Rutherford was a decorated soldier, earning the Military Medal on February 23, 1918, and the Military Cross on January 11, 1919. He was promoted to Lieutenant on April 28, 1918.

On August 26, 1918, while serving in the 5th Battle of the Scarpe, near Monchy, France, Rutherford was in command of an assault party. Finding himself noticeably ahead of his men, he observed an enemy party standing outside a pillbox. With his revolver, Rutherford beckoned them to come to him. Instead, they waved for him to approach. Through skillful bluffing, he convinced the enemy soldiers that they were surrounded. The party of 45 men, which included two officers and three machine guns, surrendered to him.

A black-and-white photograph of three people standing and posing for a photograph: a woman in a fur coat, a military officer with a cane, and a soldier with a cane and beret.

Lt. C.S. Rutherford, VC (centre), ca. 1914–1919 (a006705)

After capturing the party, he persuaded one of the enemy officers to stop a nearby machine gun from firing, which then allowed Rutherford’s men to advance to his position.

Beyond the pillbox, Rutherford saw that some of his assault party was held up by heavy machine-gun fire from another pillbox. With the support of the rest of his party, he attacked the pillbox with a Lewis gun section, successfully capturing an additional 35 prisoners and their machine guns. His leadership enabled his assault party to continue its advance.

As reported in the London Gazette two months later:

The bold and gallant action of this officer contributed very materially to the capture of the main objective and was a wonderful inspiration to all ranks in pressing home the attack on a very strong position.

London Gazette, No. 31012, November 12, 1918

On March 20, 1919, Rutherford was discharged through general demobilization.

He died in Ottawa, Ontario, on June 11, 1989, at the age of 97.

A black-and-white photograph of a military officer in a ceremonial uniform.

Captain Charles S. Rutherford, VC, Sergeant-at-Arms, Ontario Legislature, 1937 (a053785)

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant Charles Smith Rutherford.


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force digitization project is complete!

How does a cultural institution like Library and Archives Canada (LAC) complete a groundbreaking digital imaging project? By bringing together a great set of ingredients, of course! Blend a team of professionals. Add a dose of technological equipment and know-how. Mix dedication and hard work for five years. The satisfying result: a comprehensive research tool for Canadians and people around the world to use.

Before the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) document scanning could begin, over 260 kilograms of brass fasteners had to be carefully removed from the files. Then another team prepared the documents for scanning based on size and condition. This was followed by the actual digital imaging using various types of scanners. The CEF project was LAC’s largest digitization endeavour to date. At its peak, this project brought together more than 50 trained professionals.

With approximately 30 million pages digitized now that the project has come to an end, LAC has provided easy access to the records of 622,290* soldiers who enlisted in the CEF during the First World War. In addition, generating over half a petabyte of high-resolution still-image data enables LAC to better protect the documents themselves for future generations.

 

*Although the number of files was estimated at 640,000, the final file count was 622,290. This is because for the project, LAC digitally linked the documents of soldiers who enlisted multiple times and therefore had more than one file.

Sergeant Robert Spall, VC

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that they performed valiant actions for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today we commemorate Sergeant Robert Spall, whose valiant actions and self-sacrifice on August 12 and 13, 1918 earned him the Victoria Cross.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier.

Sergeant Robert Spall, VC, undated. Source: Wikimedia

Born in Ealing, Essex, England on March 5, 1890, Spall immigrated to Canada with his parents and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was a customs broker before the war and was a member of the Active Militia. On July 28, 1915, Spall enlisted in Winnipeg, joining the 90th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). He arrived in France with the Winnipeg Rifles on February 13, 1916 at age 26. Later, the 90th Battalion would be absorbed by the 11th Reserve Battalion to provide reinforcements to the Canadian Corps. Eventually, Spall ended up in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).

On August 12, 1918, German shells rained down on the PPCLI, the 116th Canadian Battalion, and the 42nd Canadian Battalion, keeping them in their respective trenches. Their objective was handed down at noon; in conjunction with the 42nd Battalion, PPCLI was to push the Germans out of Parvillers from the south. The plan was to move up to posts south of Parvillers held by the 9th Canadian Infantry and use them as jumping off points, while simultaneously bombing the trenches of the old German front line system and the trenches leading into Parvillers.

However, when the Company arrived at their assigned positions, it was discovered that the 9th Infantry did not control those points, and were still in the hands of the Germans. Despite the setback, the attack was to be carried out. At 8:00 p.m., the Canadians were met with heavy resistance, with little progress being made. Casualties were heavy on the German side as the Company pushed forward, with a bombing section moving down the German trench.

 black-and-white copy of a textual document with torn hole-punches on the left.

War diary from the PPCLI describing the attack when Spall fired at incoming German soldiers, August 1918, page 18, (MIKAN 2005881)

At 6:00 a.m. on August 13, 1918, the Germans counter-attacked heavily from Parvillers and Damery, coming out of the woods in a tight formation and attacking across the open. This sudden and vigorous attack forced the Company to retreat and head for the old German front line. In the mayhem, two platoons were cut off from the Company.

It is likely that Spall participated in this attack, and was instrumental in releasing his platoon from their locked position. Isolated with his platoon from the rest of the Company, Spall mounted the parapet armed with a Lewis automatic machine gun and fired directly at the oncoming German soldiers. He returned to the trench to motion to his platoon to move into a nearby sap 75 yards away from the enemy. He climbed back atop the parapet once more and continued his assault. It was at this time he was shot and killed. His insurmountable bravery and self-sacrifice allowed his men to rejoin the others, and his resourcefulness with the Lewis gun resulted in heavy German casualties.

A beige document with lines separating boxes, a red check mark, and a large purple stamp reading “Vimy Memorial.”

Sergeant Robert Spall’s Commonwealth War Graves Register, Vol. 31830_B034454, Page 845, August 22, 1918.

His citation read:

…during an enemy counter-attack, his platoon was isolated. Thereupon Sjt. Spall took a Lewis gun and standing on the parapet fired upon the advancing enemy, inflicting very severe casualties. He then came down the trench directing the men into a sap seventy-five yards from the enemy. Picking up another Lewis gun, this gallant N.C.O. again climbed the parapet, and by his fire held up the enemy. It was while holding up the enemy at this point that he was killed.

Sjt. Spall deliberately gave his life in order to extricate his platoon from a most difficult situation, and it was owing to his bravery that the platoon was saved.

London Gazette, Supplement 30975, October 25, 1918

Spall’s body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial. His name can also be found on the cenotaph in Barrie Military Heritage Park.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Sergeant Robert Spall.

Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen

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, and were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen and his bravery during the Battle of Amiens in France on August 12, 1918.

A black-and-white portrait photograph of a soldier.

Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen, undated. Source: Wikimedia

Born on August 9, 1892 to an affluent and aristocratic family in Rungsted, Denmark, Thomas Fasti Dinesen was a civil engineer when he tried on multiple occasions to enlist with armies from various countries. He was unsuccessful in joining the French Army, the British Army, and the American Army. On June 26, 1917, he successfully enlisted with the 2nd Reinforcing Company of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Dinesen served in the 20th Reserve Battalion before his transfer to the 42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders, known as the Black Watch of Canada.

On the night of August 11 to early August 12, 1918, the 42nd Battalion was sent in as relief to the old British front line, Parvillers sector, France. The Allied advance had been held up at this point due to impenetrable barbed wire separating the old British and German front lines. The objective was to take Parvillers by a bombing attack and capture the well-defended German trench. Around 10 o’clock on the morning of August 12, men were sent over to the jumping-off point along the northern side of the Rouvroy-Fouquescourt road in pairs at varying intervals to go unnoticed by the enemy. Only after the attack was well underway did the Germans try to hinder the approaching Canadians with a barrage. By mid-afternoon, Canadian soldiers simultaneously entered the enemy trenches, and they were met with counter-attacks. The Canadians  inflicted heavy German casualties and captured several machine guns.

A black-and-white copy of a textual record with four paragraphs and a handwritten “2” at the top of the page.

War diary appendix from the 42nd Canadian Infantry Battalion detailing the offensive on August 11–12, 1918, p. 26 (e001110175).

It was during this Allied offensive known as the Battle of Amiens that Dinesen earned his Victoria Cross as a private. On the last day of the battle, he rushed forward and single-handedly through heavy German counter-attacks and put hostile machine guns out of action. Engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his bayonet and bombs, Dinesen killed 12 enemy soldiers. His vigorous efforts over 10 hours resulted in the successful capture of more than 1.5 kilometres of fiercely defended German trenches at Parvillers.

In recognition for his gallantry, the French government awarded Dinesen the Croix de Guerre. Later he was commissioned as an officer in November 1918, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant.

A black-and-white photograph of six soldiers wearing helmets sitting in a large hole in the mud. Some are eating, while others are holding guns and facing away from the camera.

Canadians resting in a shell hole made by their own artillery, August 1918 (a002859).

He died in Leerbaek, Denmark on March 10, 1979. His Victoria Cross is on display in the Ashcroft Gallery of the Imperial War Museum.

After the war, Dinesen wrote and published a number of books in Danish, including a memoir about his experience trying to enlist, as well as the events that earned him the Victoria Cross titled, No Man’s Land: En Dansker Med Canadierne Ved Vestfronten. In 1930, it was translated into English under the title Merry Hell!: A Dane with the Canadians. A copy of the English translation can be consulted on-site at Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen.


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

James Edward Tait, VC

By John Morden

Today on the blog series commemorating Canadian Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Lieutenant James Edward Tait, who was awarded the Victoria Cross one hundred years ago, in August 1918, for his actions on the battlefield in France.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer wearing a Sam Brown belt, with his hands behind is back.

Lieutenant James Edward Tait, VC, undated (a006775)

Born on May 27, 1888, in Dumfries Scotland, James Edward Tait later immigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Prior to the war, he was a civil engineer who was active in the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers as militia. He also had prior military service, having served five years in the Imperial Yeomanry, four years in the Regimental Scouts and one year in a unnamed squadron. Tait enlisted in the 100th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 22, 1916. He transferred to the 78th Battalion in the winter of 1917. He was wounded twice in 1917, on April 1 and September 16, and then again on April 21, 1918. On August 16, 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross.

A black-and-white photo showing a group of soldiers surrounding a recently captured enemy combatant.

German prisoner captured by the 78th Battalion during a night raid, May 1918 (a002628)

A handwritten description of the weather and events of the day.

War diary of the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion for August 18, 1917, showing that James Edward Tait captured a German soldier. Tait is also mentioned in the war diary of September 17 (MIKAN 1883274)

Tait earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery on August 11, 1918. By this stage of the war, the Allies had begun the Hundred Days Offensive, their final push on the Western Front. On the first day of the Battle of Amiens, August 8, British and Canadian forces made massive gains in what German commanders later coined the “black day” of the German army. Over the next several days, German resistance stiffened. Tait’s unit came upon reorganized and strengthened German positions in France’s Beaucourt Wood. Here, the 78th was hampered by German machine gun fire. Tait continued to lead his men forward despite the shower of bullets. One German machine gun was still blunting the Canadian advance, so Tait charged the position himself, killed the German operating the position, and rallied his men. His actions are described in the London Gazette in September 1918:

“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative in attack. The advance having been checked by intense machine-gun fire, Lt. Tait rallied his company and led it forward with consummate skill and dash under a hail of bullets. A concealed machine-gun, however, continued to cause many casualties. Taking a rifle and bayonet, Lt. Tait dashed forward alone and killed the enemy gunner. Inspired by his example his men rushed the position, capturing twelve machine-guns and twenty prisoners. His valorous action cleared the way for his battalion to advance.”

Later that day, however, Tait was mortally wounded by a German shell. Nevertheless, he continued to give orders and rally his men until he died. Tait is buried in the Fouquescourt British Cemetery near the Somme, France. Today, Tait’s Victoria Cross is at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

Library and Archives of Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant James Edward Tait.


John Morden is an honours history student from Carleton University doing a practicum in the Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Victoria Cross Recipients Alexander Picton Brereton, Frederick George Coppins, John Bernard Croak, Raphael Louis Zengel

By John Morden

Today we honour four Canadians who earned the Victoria Cross during the last campaign on the Western Front, known as the Hundred Days Offensive. They are Alexander Picton Brereton, Frederick George Coppins, John Bernard Croak and Raphael Louis Zengel.

Alexander Picton Brereton

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier in uniform and cap.

Sergeant Alexander Picton Brereton, VC, 8th Battalion, undated (a006962)

Alexander Picton Brereton was born in Oak River, Manitoba, on November 13, 1892. Before enlisting in the 144th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on January 31, 1916, Brereton worked as a barber and served in the militia. In April of 1917, he was transferred to the 8th Battalion. Brereton earned the Victoria Cross for his actions near Warvillers, France, on August 9, 1918. During an attack on German positions, Brereton and his men got caught in the open and were pinned down by heavy German machine-gun fire. With the most conspicuous bravery, realizing his unit faced certain destruction, Brereton single-handedly charged and captured a German machine-gun position. Brereton’s actions rallied his men to capture other German machine-gun nests. Brereton would survive the First World War and be discharged from the army on April 10, 1919. Brereton died on January 10, 1976, in Calgary, Alberta, where he was laid to rest in Elnora Cemetery.

Frederick George Coppins

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in full uniform standing with his hands behind his back.

Sergeant Frederick George Coppins, VC, undated (a006765)

Born on October 25, 1889, in London, England, Frederick George Coppins served in the Royal West Kent Regiment before immigrating to Canada. Coppins enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force much earlier than other Canadian soldiers. He joined the 19th Alberta Dragoons on September 23, 1914. By the time of the final Allied drive to victory in the summer of 1918, Coppins was a hardened veteran. Coppins was promoted to Corporal and transferred to the 8th Battalion, the same unit as Brereton. Coppins earned the Victoria Cross on August 9, 1918. Much like Brereton, Coppins and his men were held up by German machine-gun fire. Realizing the situation at hand, Coppins gathered a handful of men to attack a German machine-gun post. During the attack, Coppins was wounded and the rest of the men were killed. Yet, Coppins persisted and captured the position, taking several enemy soldiers prisoner. Despite his wounds, Coppins stayed in the field of battle until the Canadian objectives were secured. Coppins would miraculously survive four years of service and be discharged from the army on April 30, 1919. He died on March 30, 1963, in Livermore, California, at the age of 73.

John Bernard Croak

A candid black-and-white photograph of a soldier standing outdoors.

Private John Bernard Croak, VC, undated Photo from Directorate of History and Heritage.

John Bernard Croak was born on May 18, 1892, in Little Bay, Newfoundland. He then moved with his family to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. Before the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, Croak worked as a labourer. Croak joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force on August 7, 1915, and was assigned to the 55th Battalion. In April of 1916, he was transferred to the 13th Battalion. Croak earned the Victoria Cross for his actions at the battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918. During the Canadian attack on that day, Croak became separated from his unit. He encountered a German machine position and, on his own, captured the entire gun crew. Although he was wounded later, he remained in the field. After reuniting with his unit, Croak came upon a position holding numerous German machine guns. In response to this threat, Croak, again on his own, charged the German position, soon to be followed by his comrades. The charge was successful, as they captured three machine guns and the German soldiers operating them. But Croak suffered severe wounds and died minutes later in an action that was “an inspiring example to all.” Croak’s final resting place is in Hangard Wood British Cemetery near the Somme in France.

 

Raphael Louis Zengel

A black-and-white bust photograph of a soldier wearing a light coloured non-commissioned officer (NCO) belt with bullets across his chest.

Sergeant Raphael Louis Zengel, VC, 5th Battalion, 1914 (a006796)

Born in Faribault, Minnesota, on November 11, 1894, Raphael Louis Zengel was one of several American-born Victoria Cross recipients. As a young boy he moved with his mother to Plunkett, Saskatchewan. Before the war, Zengel worked as a farm labourer. In December of 1914, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Zengel enlisted in the 45th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was later transferred to the 5th Battalion. On October 17, 1917, he was promoted to Sergeant.

Zengel earned the Victoria Cross on August 9, 1918, during the battle of Amiens. In that action, Zengel was leading his platoon in an attack when he noticed a gap had occurred on his flank. Under a hail of bullets from German machine-gun fire, Zengel charged ahead of his unit and captured the German machine-gun position. Later that day, a German shell knocked him unconscious. After coming to, Zengel continued to lead his men. His “work throughout the attack was excellent.” Though wounded in September, Zengel would live to see the end of the war on his 24th birthday and his discharge from the army on April 24, 1919. On February 27, 1977, at the age of 82, Zengel died in Errington, British Columbia.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service files of Brereton, Coppins, Croak and Zengel.


John Morden is an honours history student from Carleton University doing a practicum in the Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.