Winnipeg possesses one of the more uniquely named streets in North America, the result of the valour shown by three men during the First World War. It is only fitting that during the 100th anniversary of the so-called “War to end all wars” that the Victoria Crosses awarded to three Winnipeggers living on the same street should be placed on display at the Manitoba Museum from August 6 to November 14. The VCs will be brought to the museum by the Royal Military Institute of Manitoba from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa where they are normally on permanent display.
During the war, 69 Canadians won Victoria Crosses and among them was Sgt.-Major Frederick Hall, Cpl. Leo Clarke and Lt. Robert Shankland, who all lived within one block of each other — an amazing coincidence.
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 the trio’s 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.”
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 in 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 before returning to 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.
Shankland, Hall and Clarke were commemorated in 2005 with the establishment of a plaza at the corner of Valour Road and Sargent Avenue. 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.
When the war began 100 years ago, Canada was totally unprepared, and it took time for the young nation to hone its citizen volunteers into a fighting machine. But it was these soldiers, aviators and sailors who forged a uniquely Canadian identity.
On July 29, 1914, Britain had warned its colonies that all was not well and that they should prepare for the possible outbreak of war. The Ottawa Free Press in bold five-inch red-flared type proclaimed “Hell’s Let Loose.” The Manitoba Fress Press put out a special edition on the Sunday of what was a banker’s holiday long weekend. The newspaper’s management apologized for working on the Sabbath, but added that they had the provincial government’s permission.
Prince Otto von Bismarck, who died in 1899, was right when he predicted: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” The “damned silly thing” that brought the world to war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in the city of Sarajevo. With the assassination, nations mobilized and calls to honour alliances become the rallying cry for war.
“Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by his Britannic Majesty’s Government that the neutrality of Belgium should be respected, his Majesty’s Ambassador at Berlin has received his passports, and his Majesty’s Government has declared that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany from 11 o’clock p.m., August 4,” said a dispatch from the British Foreign Office.
“When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier said in 1910, “there is no distinction.” Canada controlled domestic policy as a self-governing nation but did not control its own foreign policy. Canada, like other members of the British Empire, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, was automatically at war with the British declaration. In fact, Canada wasn’t even consulted when the decision was made to go to war by Britain.
On August 1, The Duke of Connaught, Canada’s governor general, sent a cable to England, saying “that if unhappily war should ensue the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire.”
It was pure jingoism, but an accurate judgement of the Canadian response. Impromptu parades broke out from Halifax to Winnipeg to Victoria, celebrating the news of war with flag waving, decorated vehicles and impassioned speeches.
Why did these “Pine Street Boys” show such courage in the bloodbath that became the First World War?
The words of 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.”