Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, VC

Today in the series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients, we remember Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe of the 27th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). In this series, we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients 100 years to the day in action for which they were awarded this prestigious military medal.

Born August 5, 1880 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Combe enlisted in the CEF as a Lieutenant, a rank he resumed at his own request, despite having qualified as a Major.

A black-and-white image (blended photograph and sketch) of a soldier with close cropped hair and a mustache.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, VC, undated (MIKAN 3645669)

While the Canadian Divisions had been successful in securing Vimy Ridge, the British and Commonwealth forces continued to push against German lines to provide a diversionary assault to draw the German Army away from the Aisne sector and allow the French Army to make a breakthrough. On May 3, 1917, at Acheville, France, Lieutenant Combe was leading his company forward against an intense barrage of enemy artillery. Having reached the German position with only five men, Combe inflicted heavy casualties and, gathering small groups of men to join him, managed to capture his objective and take eighty prisoners. His citation in The London Gazette, no. 30154, Wednesday, 27 June, 1917 reports:

….He repeatedly charged the enemy, driving them before him, and, whilst personally leading his bombers, was killed by an enemy sniper. His conduct inspired all ranks, and it was entirely due to his magnificent courage that the position was carried, secured and held.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his leadership and courage under fire. He was buried near Acheville, France. Ongoing fighting in the area resulted in the destruction of the military cemetery and the loss of his gravesite. For this reason, his name appears on the Vimy Memorial, along with the names of 11,000 other Canadian soldiers who have no known graves.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file of Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe.

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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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Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton

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.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 three Canadian soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions on the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

On April 9, 1917, Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell of Lachute, Quebec, and two runners, Private James T. Kobus and Arthur James Hay, became separated from their unit while storming a German position. MacDowell destroyed one machine gun and put another out of action. With Kobus and Hay, MacDowell entered a dugout, where he convinced the German soldiers he encountered that the three were part of a much larger force. Two officers and 75 soldiers surrendered to MacDowell, Kobus and Hay. The three men held the position for five days until relieved (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5702). MacDowell, a previous recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, was promoted to the rank of Major and later became Lieutenant-Colonel of the Frontenac Regiment in Napanee, Ontario. He died in Nassau, Bahamas, on March 29, 1960, and is buried in Brockville, Ontario.

A black-and-white photograph of two men in uniform standing in a field.

Lieutenant-Colonel C.M. Edwards, D.S.O., and Major T.W. MacDowell, V.C., D.S.O., 38th Battalion, October 1917 (MIKAN 3521126)

A typewritten page of the accounts of the day, from 8:45 a.m. to 6:05 p.m. The account starting at 11 a.m. states the following: “A report from Capt.MacDowell, timed 10.30 was sent in by runner stating that he could see no sign of the 78th Battn and that the Bosche were firing with machine guns on him but that he had not been able to locate these (it subsequently turned out to be in CLAUDE Trench Junction of CLUTCH), and calling for reinforcements. This report was forwarded to Brigade. At the same time a Reserve Lewis Gun crew was sent up to Capt. MacDowell and Private G.J.P. Nunney, who had come in to get a wound dressed, stated he had a Lewis gun and had salved 32 pans of ammunition and volunteered, if he got a carrying party, to go out again, get the ammunition and go over to Capt. MacDowell. All men going out to this point carried ammunition and bombs. Major Howland was ordered to send men over to reinforce Capt. MacDowell which he did sending a Machine Gun crew and ammunition. Three officers and specialists who were at Chateau de la Haie were ordered up at this time and on arrival reinforced Capt. MacDowell.”

Second page of the “Report on the operations of 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 9th to 13th, 1917” from the War Diaries, 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 1917, page 34 (MIKAN 1883252)

Private William Johnstone Milne was born in Cambusnethan, Scotland, and immigrated to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1910. He enlisted in the 16th (Scottish) Battalion and was serving near Thelus, France, on the first day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That day, as the advance of Milne’s company was held up by a German machine gun, Milne crawled forward and captured the gun. When his company was on the move again, Milne targeted another machine gun in the German line and succeeded in silencing it. His citation for the Victoria Cross states that his “wonderful bravery and resource on these two occasions undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades” (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5705). Private Milne was killed shortly after destroying the second German machine gun. His body was never recovered. He is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, along with 11,000 other Canadians who died in France and have no known graves.

A black-and-white photograph of a man in uniform. His cap and collar are adorned with maple leaves, and he is looking directly at the photographer.

Private W.J. Milne, undated photograph (MIKAN 3357327)

Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Wallacetown, Ontario, enlisted with the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion to serve as a battalion driver. Before the attack on Vimy Ridge, Sifton was asked to “take a chance with the boys in the front line,” a challenge he accepted. With his company under heavy machine-gun fire near Neuville-St. Vaast, France, Sifton located the German machine gun nest. He went through a gap in the wire, ran across open ground, charged the gun crew and managed to knock over the gun before fighting the gunners. As others in his company came forward, Sifton held off a German counter-attack (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5704). Just as he was about to be relieved, he was killed by a wounded German soldier.

A black-and-white photograph of two men adorning a makeshift grave with white stones in a desolate landscape that has patches of snow and frost on the ground. The grave is marked by a cross with the words “L.S. [Lance-Sergeant] E.W. Sifton, VC” and adorned with a maple leaf. Beside the grave is a larger cross with the words “RIP Canadian soldiers killed in action 9-4-17.”

Two comrades of the late Lance-Sergeant E.W. Sifton, V.C., 18th Battalion, visit his grave, February 1918 (MIKAN 3194451)

A typewritten account of the actions that led to Lance-Sergeant Sifton’s Victoria Cross medal: “An act of conspicuous gallantry was performed by Sergt. E.W.Sifton of ‘C’ Coy [Company]. A M.G. [machine gun] was holding up his Company and doing considerable damage. Sergt. Sifton, single-handed, attacked the Gun crew and bayoneted every man, but was unhappily shot by a dying Boche.”

War Diaries, 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion, April 9, 1917, page 6 (MIKAN 1883227)

Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Wallacetown, Ontario, enlisted with the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion to serve as a battalion driver. Before the attack on Vimy Ridge, Sifton was asked to “take a chance with the boys in the front line,” a challenge he accepted. With his company under heavy machine-gun fire near Neuville-St. Vaast, France, Sifton located the German machine gun nest. He went through a gap in the wire, ran across open ground, charged the gun crew and managed to knock over the gun before fighting the gunners. As others in his company came forward, Sifton held off a German counter-attack (London Gazette, 8 June 1917, no. 30122, p. 5704). Just as he was about to be relieved, he was killed by a wounded German soldier.

Library and Archives Canada holds the military service files for Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton.

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.

Canadians at the Naval Battle of Jutland, May 31–June 1, 1916

By Alex Comber

A century ago, the largest naval battle of the First World War took place off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. More than 250 warships of the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy manoeuvred to get ready for action.  The first salvoes of long-range cannon fire were discharged at 14:30 on May 31, 1916, and the ensuing clash lasted into the morning of June 1. With three British battle cruisers and 11 other ships destroyed, and more than twice as many sailors killed and injured, British naval power seemed to have suffered a setback. However, in a strategic sense, the smaller German fleet could not afford its more modest losses, and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s military commanders avoided a similar fleet battle for the duration of the War, focusing instead on submarine attacks.

A black-and-white photograph showing three large warships.

HMAS AUSTRALIA, HMS NEW ZEALAND, HMS INDOMITABLE, Second Battle cruiser Squadron ca. 1917–1919. This unit was at Jutland, where one of its ships, HMS INDEFATIGABLE, was destroyed (MIKAN 3400004)

In many regions of Canada, there were very strong pro-imperial sentiments and cultural ties to Britain. Many had recently emigrated, and still had family back in the “old country.” Though there was a small Canadian Navy (created in 1910), many residents of Canada and of the Dominion of Newfoundland volunteered to serve with the Royal Navy in a variety of roles. With ports across the British Empire and the prospect of an alternative to a soldier’s life in the trenches of the Western Front, there was much to appeal to recruits.

A black-and-white recruitment poster showing the silhouette of a sailor with ship’s guns and the following words: Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve – Overseas Division wants men ages 18 to 38, seamen & stokers. Join today. No previous experience necessary. Apply at nearest recruiting office.

Recruitment poster for the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve Overseas Division, appealing to Canadians to serve in British ships overseas (MIKAN 3635562)

Careful searching of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online casualty database reveals that at least a dozen of the approximately six thousand sailors killed serving in the British Fleet at Jutland came from Canada or Newfoundland. Stanley de Quetteville, a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, was attached to the Royal Navy and served in the massive battle cruiser HMS INDEFATIGABLE. He was originally from the English Channel island of Jersey and had emigrated to Canada in the years before the First World War in search of opportunities. A qualified engineer, he enlisted in 1910 and had served on the cruiser HMCS NIOBE, one of Canada’s first ships. He married Phyllis Fisher of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1915.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of men sitting or standing on the deck of a ship. The photo is mounted on a black background with the words “Gun Room” written at the top and a list of names at the bottom.

Members of the Gunroom, HMCS NIOBE, Halifax, N.S. Taken 1910–1911. Several of these young men went on to become important figures in the Royal Canadian Navy. Stanley Nelson De Quetteville is shown standing, the third officer from the right (MIKAN 3398852)

De Quetteville died at 16:03 on May 31, when HMS INDEFATIGABLE exploded after being hit by accurate shellfire from the German Dreadnought VON DER TANN. Of the crew of 1,019 men, there were only two survivors. The Minister of the Naval Service, J. D. Hazen, sent his widow a letter of condolence, which reads: “I wish to express to you not only my personal sympathy, but that of the whole Canadian Naval Service, which, in his death, has lost an Officer of undoubted ability and great promise. That he died a sailor’s death, in action against the King’s enemies, and in defence of the Empire, must be to you some consolation in your great sorrow.” Today, Mount Indefatigable in the Canadian Rockies stands as a tribute to de Quetteville and his fellow crew members.


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division.

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.

The Carignan-Salières Regiment

The colony of New France was in a precarious situation when France’s King Louis XIV acceded to the throne in 1661. The population and safety of the colony were a priority for him. In order to increase the population, the first contingent of the Filles du roi (“King’s daughters”) was sent there in 1663. Two years later, in 1665, the Carignan-Salières Regiment disembarked in New France to ensure the safety of the colony and, more specifically, to deal with the Iroquois threat.

A pen and watercolour sketch depicting an officer in the Carignan-Salières Regiment in profile. He is holding a lance in his right hand and wearing a sheathed sword on his left hip.

Officer of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, 1666 (MIKAN 2896020)

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Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of November 2015

As of today, 217,062 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box #3121 and surname Fitzpatrick.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Born to Serve: Georges P. Vanier

Born in Montréal on April 23, 1888, Georges Vanier would feel the influence of his bilingual parents throughout his life. After graduating from high school, he attended Loyola College and then the Université Laval where he received a law degree in 1911. He started practicing law thereafter, although priesthood was also on his mind. It was the outbreak of the First World War however, that eventually grabbed his attention and he enlisted in the Canadian Army. He was a strong recruiter and played an important role in the creation of the French-Canadian 22nd Battalion. It was also during the war that he was injured and had to have his right leg amputated.

A black-and-white photograph showing a man smiling broadly in an officer’s uniform with cap.

Major Georges P. Vanier of the 22nd Battalion, June 1918 (MIKAN 3192070)

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Nursing Sisters

The incredible contribution of Canadian nursing sisters in the First World War can be best appreciated by examining their experiences during service. Women left their families and homes to answer the call to duty and serve their country. Their dedication to their work, to Canada and, most importantly, to their patients, serves to measure the profound effect they had on the Canadian war effort.

A black-and-white photograph showing a woman in a nursing sister uniform sitting on the edge of a table. She is looking directly at the photographer and has a slight smile.

An unidentified nursing sister (MIKAN 3523169)

Library and Archives Canada holds a variety of materials on the history of military nurses, both published and archival. Below you will find a few examples:

A closer look at their daily lives

There are several recent publications that shed light on the varied experiences of nursing sisters during the Great War. Some focus on the individual accounts of nurses:

Pat Staton’s It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women and World War I offers a more general perspective of their contribution to the war effort.

A black-and-white photograph showing two nursing sisters standing by the bedsides of two wounded men.

Two nursing sisters with wounded soldiers in a ward room at the Queen’s Canadian Military Hospital in Shorncliffe, Kent, England, ca. 1916 (MIKAN 3604423)

In the archival collection, we are lucky to have the complete fonds for six of these nursing sisters, which allows us to delve deeper into what it was like for these women in the field. Learn more about Sophie Hoerner and Alice Isaacson who both served in France, or Dorothy Cotton who served in Russia. If that is not enough, you can learn about Anne E. Ross, Laura Gamble and Ruby Peterkin who all served in Greece.

Looking for a specific nursing sister?

If you are looking for information about a nursing sister who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, you will likely find it in the database Soldiers of the First World War. Generally, nursing sisters can easily be identified by their rank, usually indicated by “NS”. It is also important to note that that many women served with the British Forces through the Victorian Order of Nurses or St. John Ambulance.

Other resources: