Canada’s VC

Winnipeg is unique among North American cities in that it possesses a street named for the courage shown by three men during the First World War. 

During the war, 69 Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross and among them was Sgt.-Major Frederick Hall, Cpl. Leo Clarke and Lt. Robert Shankland, who all lived within one block of each other. 

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

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, 2005, 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 of that year, the new plaza was used for the first time on Remembrance Day to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. 

“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. 

In the early 1970s, the VC became a medal of Canada’s past when a new system of domestic medals was instituted. The feeling at the time was expressed by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who said that Canada’s then role in UN peacekeeping meant that all-out battles involving Canadian troops were a thing of the past. 

This forecast has proved to be quite premature, since Canadians are now fully engaged in fighting al-Quida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And, just a few years ago Canadian Armed Forces personnel were involved in bombing missions and firefights in the Balkans.

Canada’s contribution to the first Persian Gulf War helped turn public attention toward re-instating the VC as Canada’s top military honour. An all-party vote in the House established a Canadian VC and the Queen gave her approval in 1993. 

The Canadian VC — replacing “For Valour” with the Latin “Pro Valore” — will be awarded for “most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”

The enemy is defined to include even terrorists and pirates, which acknowledges that the VC can be awarded during peacekeeping missions.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has received Royal approval for the Royal Canadian Mint to strike Canada’s very own VC. Its launch as the nation’s top military decoration is slated for a special ceremony at the Vimy Ridge memorial in France to commemorate Canada’s hard-fought victory at the site on April 9, 1917.

The problem is that rumours have spread that Harper intends to award the first Canadian-struck VC to the Unknown Soldier, whose tomb is next to the National War Memorial in Ottawa. It is believed that the VC will be presented by Queen Elizabeth II at the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France to Canada’s Unknown Soldier during the 90th anniversary ceremony.

So far, it is only a rumour and no official government position has been announced.

Still, the Royal Canadian Legion is accepting the rumours as almost fact and has declared its opposition, citing that past VC medals have always been awarded for individual valour on the battlefield.

In a letter to the Globe and Mail, John Frost, Dominion Legion president, said that “placed in a sacred tomb ... the Unknown Soldier needs no other honour to emphasize his status as a hero among heroes.

The presentation of a VC  has always been accompanied by a well-documented explanation of the valour displayed by the individual. 

For example, Hall, while serving with the 8th  Battalion (The Winnipeg “Little Black Devils” was their nickname) on April 24, 1915 in the Ypres Salient, 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 then went out alone to retrieve the first wounded man. To get his bearing, Hall raised his head and was immediately shot and killed. 

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

Past Canadian VC recipients may  have thought they were not alone in their valour, but they were singled out for their individual acts of bravery; that is how the terms of receiving the new VC should remain.