Private John Chipman Kerr, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

As part of the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, today we remember the life and military service of Canadian Victoria Cross recipient John Chipman “Chip” Kerr of Fox River, Nova Scotia.

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers in uniform sitting on a bench. The man on the right is looking directly at the camera with a slight smile.

Private J.C. Kerr, VC, on the right. (MIKAN 3217379)

Prior to the war, Kerr worked as a lumberjack near Kootenay, British Columbia, and homesteaded in Spirit River, Alberta, with his brother, Charles Roland “Rollie” Kerr. When war was declared in 1914, the Kerr brothers, Chip and Rollie, went to Edmonton to enlist, leaving a note tacked to the door of their cabin that declared: “War is Hell, but what is homesteading?”

A black-and-white collage of three typewritten pages with the date September 15 in the margin and an hour-by-hour account of the actions taking place.

Account of the operations of the 49th Canadian Infantry Battalion from September 15–18, 1916. (MIKAN 1883261)

On September 16, 1916, Kerr was serving with the 49th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) near Courcelette, France, not far from where Leo Clarke of the 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment) won the Victoria Cross the week before. Kerr’s actions on that day would earn him his own Victoria Cross. During a grenade attack carried out by his battalion, Kerr was the first bayonet man in a bombing party advancing on German positions. Recognizing that his unit’s bombs were running out, Kerr ran along the back ridge of the trench under heavy fire until he was close enough to the German troops to fire on them at point-blank range. Thinking they were surrounded, the German troops surrendered. Kerr’s citation in the London Gazette provides the details:

Sixty-two prisoners were taken and 250 yards of enemy trench captured. Before carrying out this very plucky act one of Private Kerr’s fingers had been blown off by a bomb. Later, with two other men, he escorted back the prisoners under fire, and then returned to report himself for duty before having his wound dressed. (London Gazette, No. 29802, October 26, 1916)

Chip Kerr survived the war, while his brother Rollie, also serving in the 49th Battalion, was killed in late December 1917. Kerr rejoined the army at the beginning of the Second World War, transferring to the Royal Canadian Air Force with the rank of Sergeant. He died in Port Moody, British Columbia, on February 19, 1963.

Mount Kerr, a 2,600-metre peak in Jasper National Park, is named after him, as is Chip Kerr Park in Port Moody, British Columbia.

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Private John Chipman Kerr and his brother, Private Charles Roland Kerr.

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

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette

By Alex Comber

Far from achieving their objectives, the Battles of the Somme, continuing into August 1916, had accomplished little, at enormous expenditure of lives and resources. The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which took place September 15 to 22, 1916, was another attempt to achieve a decisive result on the Somme Front. Fighting as part of the British Reserve Army, the Canadian Corps, commanded by Sir Julian Byng, would contribute two of its infantry divisions to the left wing of a wider attack.

This was the first major offensive operation for the Canadians, and their first experience of the devastating human toll of combat in 1916. The battle began by a massive artillery bombardment of enemy positions, similar to the earlier Somme battles. This “creeping barrage” was better timed with the pace of advancing soldiers, and kept just ahead of them. Most enemy units did not have time to recover and prepare their defences before the Canadian infantry battalions were upon them.

An image of a trench map, dated September 1916, showing the planned line of advance for the 27th Battalion near Courcelette, France.

This trench map, part of the War Diary of the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg), shows the planned lines of advance of this Battalion’s leading companies, from jumping-off trenches near Pozières (bottom left) toward the “final objective” just to the north of the sugar factory. Trench maps offer a wealth of detail, and this one shows the village of Courcelette at the top, and information about the other units that would advance on either flank of the 27th Battalion. (MIKAN 1883247)

Highlights of the successful advance of Canadian units included the capture of the village of Courcelette by Lt. Col. T.L. Tremblay’s 22nd Battalion (French Canadians) and the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) as well as the capture of the heavily fortified sugar factory east of the village by the 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario). Elsewhere, the attack stalled, and hopes for a decisive success faded, as the Germans launched strong counterattacks or withdrew to fortified positions. Canadian units suffered approximately 24,000 wounded and killed soldiers during the operation.

A black-and-white photograph of a ruined industrial building in a destroyed landscape.

This Canadian War Records Office official photograph of October 1916 shows the remnants of what was originally a sugar factory before the War following the bombardment and Canadian advance on the fortified German position. (MIKAN 3403776)

The first tanks, called “Land ships” appeared on the battlefields of Flers-Courcelette. They were slow, cumbersome, and mechanically unreliable, and most were put out of action or broke down before they could help the advancing soldiers. However, the few that remained operational destroyed fortified pillboxes and caused chaos in enemy lines. Lt. William Ivor-Castle, an official photographer working for the Canadian War Records Office, filmed tanks advancing to their starting positions, and these caused a sensation when published in England as the first photos of tanks “in combat.”

A black-and-white photograph of a British heavy tank advancing through a shell-cratered landscape.

This Mark 1 tank, named “Crème de Menthe,” was one of the most successful of those supporting the Canadian attack at Courcelette on September 15, 1916. Early tanks were painted with colourful “Solomon-style” camouflage. (MIKAN 3397296)

Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Sergeant Leo Clarke, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

We continue our series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients with the story of Sergeant Leo Clarke, Canada’s seventh First World War Victoria Cross recipient.

A black-and-white newspaper clipping of a photograph of a young man in uniform

Sergeant Leo Clarke, VC, died of wounds, c.1915-1916 (MIKAN 3214037)

Leo Clarke, born in Waterdown, Ontario, on December 1, 1892, was a surveyor for the Canadian National Railway. He enlisted in February of 1915 at Winnipeg with the 27th Battalion and transferred to the 2nd (Eastern Ontario Regiment) Battalion after arriving in England.

On September 9, 1916, Leo Clarke and the 2nd Battalion took part in an Allied assault on a network of German trenches stretching from Martinpuich to Courcelette in northern France. Clarke’s battalion was to capture a 50-yard area between Mouquet Farm, a Canadian-held position, and Courcelette. An Acting-Corporal at the time of the attack, Clarke led a party to clear the left flank of a German trench and create a “block” to fortify the Canadian position. The trench was heavily defended and, following bitter hand-to-hand combat, Clarke was the only member of his unit not killed or wounded. Alone he fought off a counter-attack of twenty German soldiers and officers.

A black-and-white handwritten page describing the day to day actions of the battalion.

War diary extract from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion from September 1-9, 1916 describing the days leading up to and including the offensive (MIKAN 1883206)

Clarke’s citation from the London Gazette recounts that:

After most of his party had become casualties, he was building a “block” when about twenty of the enemy with two officers counter-attacked. He boldly advanced against them, emptied his revolver into them and afterwards two enemy rifles which he picked up in the trench.

One of the officers then attacked him with the bayonet, wounding him in the leg, but he shot him dead. The enemy then ran away, pursued by Acting Corporal Clarke, who shot four more and captured a fifth. Later he was ordered to the dressing-station, but returned next day to duty. (London Gazette, no. 29802, 26 October 1916).

Leo Clarke died in action a month later, on October 19, 1916. His Victoria Cross, posthumously awarded in the spring of 1917, was presented to his father by the Duke of Devonshire, Governor General of Canada, before a crowd of 30,000 gathered at Portage and Main in Winnipeg.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of soldiers in uniform in a field.

Bombing Platoon (2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force) at Scottish Lines near Poperinghe not far from Ypres. This photo was taken by Henry Edward Knobel – an Official War Photographer – while the 2nd Battalion was out in rest billets after fighting at Sanctuary Woods, Maple Copse (Battles of the Somme). Leo Clarke, VC, is in the front row on the far right. June 16, 1916 (MIKAN 34005888)

Sergeant Leo Clarke lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as did two other Victoria Cross recipients: Frederick William Hall and Robert Shankland. Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925 in honour of the three men.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Sergeant Leo Clarke.

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

Lieutenant Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson, VC

Today our series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients remembers Lieutenant Thomas Lawder Wilkinson of the 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, British Expeditionary Force, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the Somme battlefields one hundred years ago today on July 5, 1916.

Lieutenant Wilkinson was born in Shropshire, England, and immigrated with his family to Canada prior to the First World War. On September 23, 1914, he enlisted with the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), later transferring to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, to serve as a Gunnery Officer. It was with this unit that Wilkinson found himself fighting in the Battle of the Somme.

A black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing a cap and uniform and gazing beyond the photographer.

Lieutenant Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson, VC, undated (AMICUS 2715209)

Four days after the most devastating single day in the history of the British forces, Wilkinson and two other men were fighting their way to a forward machine gun, recently abandoned by a retreating party of British soldiers. On their own they succeeded in holding up advancing German soldiers until another unit was able to reach and reinforce them. Later that day, Lieutenant Wilkinson reached several men of different units trapped at a wall of earth over which German troops were throwing bombs. His citation in the London Gazette recounts how:

With great pluck and promptness [Wilkinson] mounted a machine gun on the top of the parapet and dispersed the enemy bombers. Subsequently he made two most gallant attempts to bring in a wounded man, but at the second attempt he was shot through the heart just before reaching the man. Throughout the day he set a magnificent example of courage and self-sacrifice (London Gazette, 26 September 1916).

A black-and-white photograph of four soldiers carrying a stretcher with a shrouded body on it through a devastated landscape.

Bringing in the Dead on the Somme Battlefields, July 1916, Canadian War Records Office (MIKAN 3520928)

The body of Lieutenant Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson was never recovered. He is commemorated on the British Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, France.

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Thomas Orde Lawder Wilkinson.

Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients: Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell, VC

Frederick William Campbell, a lieutenant in the 1st (Western Ontario) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on June 15 1915, 100 years ago today. This also happened to be Campbell’s 48th birthday.

Black and white photograph of a man in uniform looking directly at the camera

Portrait of Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell, VC, undated. Note the superimposition of another photograph in the lower right corner (MIKAN 3213625)

Stationed at the front line near Givenchy, France, Lieutenant Campbell led an assault on a heavily fortified German trench line. Under heavy fire, he held his place in the assault as nearly all of his men became casualties. Intent on covering the withdrawal of those men still able to escape, Campbell and another soldier moved up with two Colt machine guns to an exposed position and successfully held back a German counter-attack.

Black and white copy of a handwritten page describing the events of June 15, 1915

Page from the war diaries of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion on June 15, 1915 (MIKAN 1883204)

His citation in the London Gazette tells of how Campbell:

“… arrived at the German first line with one gun, and maintained his position there, under very heavy rifle, machine-gun, and bomb fire, notwithstanding the fact that almost the whole of his detachment had then been killed or wounded.

When our supply of bombs had become exhausted, this Officer advanced his gun still further to an exposed position, and, by firing about 1,000 rounds, succeeded in holding back the enemy’s counter-attack” (London Gazette, no. 29272, August 23, 1915).

As he retreated, Lieutenant Campbell’s right thigh bone was hit and shattered. He died in hospital from an infection of his wound four days later.

Frederick William Campbell was born in Mount Forest, Ontario on June 15, 1869. He also served in both the Canadian Militia and the Machine Gun section of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, during the South African War. He is buried at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, Boulogne, France.

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell.