For valour

Winnipeg possesses one of the more uniquely named streets in North America, the result of the courage shown by three men during the First World War.

During the war, 69 Canadians won Victoria Crosses and among them was Sgt.-Major Frederick Hall, Cpl. Leo Clarke and Lt. Robert Shankland, who lived within one block of each other, an amazing circumstance. 

Since the VC was first instituted by Queen Victoria on January 29, 1856, only 14 Manitobans have been awarded this decoration for bravery, which makes the feat of the “Pine Street Boys” all the more extraordinary.

The Victoria Cross was struck from guns captured by the British forces at Sevastopol during the Crimean War. It is a bronze cross pattee with the Royal Crest in relief, bearing the words, “For Valour.”

To show the uniqueness of this accomplishment, Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925 and a plaque was erected by the Women’s Club of Winnipeg: “To perpetuate the conspicuous bravery of the three men who won the Victoria Cross in the Great War.” 

On November 5 last week, the acts of bravery performed by Hall, Clarke and Shankland were further commemorated by the official opening of a new plaza at the corner of Valour Road and Sargent Avenue. On November 11, this new plaza will be used for the first time on Remembrance Day to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

“As we approach Remembrance Day, the important role these three young men played in our country’s history should be forever etched in our memory,” said Andrew Swan, the MLA for Minto.

“Neighbourhood pride is built on the contributions of those who lived here in the past and those who live here now,” said area Councillor Harvey Smith. “This new plaza ensures that the sacrifice paid by these brave soldiers and other Canadian military will live forever.”

Designed by local landscape architect David Wagner, the Valour Road Commemorative Plaza features tyndall stone monuments in the shape of the VC, thematic signage in the VC colours of crimson, gold and black, and complementary decorative concrete work and plantings. The plaza is adjacent to and integrated into the design of a re-developed transit loop at Valour and Sargent.

Hall was born in Belfast, Ireland, and came to Winnipeg several years before the outbreak of war. Serving in the 8th Battalion (The Winnipeg “Little Black Devils” was their nickname) on April 24, 1915 in the Ypres Salient, Hall heard the groans of a wounded soldier 12 metres in front of the battalion’s trench. With two other volunteers, he crawled forward to the wounded man, but they drew heavy fire and his two companions were wounded. Hall helped the two wounded men back to the trench and went out alone to eventually retrieve the first wounded man. To get his bearing, Hall raised his head and was immediately shot and killed.

Clarke was born in Waterloo, Ontario, lived in England and returned to Canada 11 years prior to the start of the war, settling in Winnipeg. During the Somme Offensive, on September 9, 1916, Clark was under attack by 20 German soldiers. He counterattacked on his own. In the ensuing fight, a German officer bayoneted him the leg, but he stood his ground and shot the officer. Moments later he killed another four enemy soldiers and captured one as a prisoner. Ordered to the hospital, Clarke stayed only a day then was again in action.

Shankland was born in Scotland and came to Winnipeg in 1911. On October 26, 1917,  during the Battle of Passchendaele, Shankland and his men held a defensive position under attack by Germans. While holding the position, his company inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. Realizing his company’s position was vital, he made his way to battalion headquarters and gave an accurate report and then returned to his men. He was cited for using personal courage and skill in leading his men.

Of the three VC winners, only Shankland lived to see the end of the war. He again served his country during the Second World War, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and died in 1968. Clarke and Hall were among the 59,544 who lost their lives while fighting for Canada during the First World War.

Why did these men show such courage? The words of fellow First World War Canadian VC winner Tommy Holmes perhaps sum it up best. After singlehandedly attacking a German position, he was asked if he had realized what he had done. “Well, no. I thought everybody did that sort of thing.”