Valour Road mural

Thanks to numerous news stories and a Heritage Minute airing on television, many Canadians are familiar with the story of Pine Street being renamed Valour Road. 

Through the years, a memorial plaque has been erected, a plaza was dedicated in 2005 and a mural was recently unveiled to commemorate the three Victoria Cross recipients who remarkably lived on the street. In fact, it is the only instance in history that three recipients of the Victoria Cross lived so near each other on the same city block.

While today we gladly celebrate the three brave men who fought for Canada during the First World War, it seems decidedly strange that decades ago the attempt to honour Cpl. Leo Clarke, Sgt.-Major Frederick Hall and Lieut. Robert Shankland was opposed by three Labour members of Winnipeg city council.

When the bylaw was placed before council in July 1925, aldermen Heaps,  Blumberg and  Jones opposed renaming Pine Street as Valour Road. They  spoke against the bylaw, saying it was an effort to glorify militarism.

The Winnipeg Free Press at the time reported Heaps declared, “There were deeds of heroism every day in civil life which went unnoted and though the departed heroes deserved their need for praise, it was not to his liking that the deeds of the war should receive such notice.

“When the vote was taken the bylaw passed its three readings ... Ald. Blumberg recorded the only audible, ‘No.’”

The three aldermen actually started what was called a “young crusade” in opposition to renaming the street.

Placed in the context of the time, it isn’t overly surprising that Labour members of council felt there was no need to glorify militarism, while there was a need to honour the civil heroes. Just a few years earlier, Winnipeg had gone through the trauma of a general strike and there were many who had lost loved ones during the carnage of the so-called “war to end all wars.”

The First World War so adversely affected many of those who fought that a great number firmly believed it was beneficial to society to commemorate their sacrifices without much fanfare. 

Even Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who brought Canada into the Second World War through a vote in Parliament, did so with some reluctance because the over 60,000 Canadians killed during the First World War remained a tragic memory. 

A first-hand witness to the bloodbath of the First World War, General Andrew McNaughton told the prime minister, “every effort should be made to arm and equip the troops to spare human lives.”

But it was Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Leader and Winnipeg MP James Shaver Woodsworth, who personified the Labour belief that war was futile and Canada should remain neutral. When Woodsworth opposed Canada’s entry into the war in the House of Commons, King came to his defence, admiring him for his conviction and having the courage of saying what was on his conscience, “regardless of what the world may think of him.”

Yet as First World War doctor John McCrae, a man whose task was to treat Canadians wounded in battle, said in his famous poem : “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

It is because they would not ‘break faith” that among the “large crowd (attending the dedication ceremony of the plaque in 1925) were members of the battalions to which the three heroes belonged.” Also in the crowd were Cpl. Clarke’s father Henry T. Clarke and his brothers and sisters, all of whom still lived on Valour Road, as well as Percy Hall, the brother of Sgt.-Major Hall, and the only Hall family member still residing in Winnipeg. 

Cpl. Hall earned his Victoria Cross on April 24, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres — the same battle in which a friend of McCrae died, inspiring him to write, In Flanders Fields. Hall and the men in his section of trench heard the groans of an injured soldier on the battlefield some 15 metres away. With two other volunteers, he crawled forward to the wounded man, but in the process drew heavy enemy fire which wounded his two comrades. Hall helped the two men back to the trench; waiting a few minutes, Hall went out alone and inched the other wounded man toward the trench. When Hall raised his head to get a bearing, he was shot and died instantly.

Clarke received his Victoria Cross during the Battle of the Somme. On September 9, 1916, Clarke found himself separated from a party of men sent out to clear a trench to build a blockhouse. Under attack by 20 German soldiers, he chose to launch his own counterattack and twice emptied his revolver. To keep up his fire, Clarke picked up two enemy rifles. During a struggle with a German officer, he was bayonetted in the leg, but stood his ground and shot the officer. Moments later, he killed another four Germans and captured another. Ordered to hospital after his valiant charge, Clarke stayed just a day and then rejoined the battle.

Shankland took part in the fight for the Belleview Spur during the Battle of Passchendaele. He led his men to a forward position on October 26, 1917, inflicting heavy casualties to the enemy when the Germans mounted a counterattack. Recognizing his company’s position was vital, he made his way to battalion headquarters and gave an accurate and complete report and then returned to his men. He was cited for having used personal gallantry and skill while leading his men.

Of the three VC recipients from Valour Road, only Shankland lived to see the end of the war.

The mural by Charlie Johnson at 1240 Ellice Ave. depicting the three Valour Road heroes was unveiled on September 30. The mural shows the faces of the three men, their medals, their homes and the changing of the street signs in 1925.

“The street has been renamed Valour Road to perpetuate the memory of three  men who won the Victoria Cross in the Great War, 1914-1919,” reads the plaque presented by the Women’s Canadian Club of Winnipeg in 1925 and unveiled on Armistice Day (now Remembrance Day), November 11.