A street “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 were awarded Victoria Crosses, “For Valour,” 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. Clarke lived at 785 Pine St., Hall lived across the street and about four doors south at 778 Pine St., and Shankland resided at the home of John Ritchie, which was about 100 metres further south at 733 Pine St.

Since the VC was first instituted by Queen Victoria on January 29, 1856, only 14 Manitobans (also see story on page 4 of this issue for another Manitoba VC recipient) have been awarded this decoration for bravery, which makes the feat of the “Pine Street Boys” all the more extraordinary. All three VCs awarded to Clarke, Hall and Shankland are on permanent display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

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, 2005, the acts of bravery performed by Hall, Clarke and Shankland were further commemorated by the official opening of a plaza at the corner of Valour Road and Sargent Avenue. On November 11 that year, the plaza was 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 at the 2005 ceremony.

“Neighbourhood pride is built on the contributions of those who lived here in the past and those who live here now,” said then 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.

On Sunday, May 27, 2012 bronze plaques commemorating the three former residents of Pine Street, who received the Victoria Cross for their valour during the First World War were dedicated.The plaques were installed through fundraising efforts of the Cameron Association in Canada, The Cameron Regimental Foundation, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Senate, The Governor General’s Foot Guards, a private donation from Bob Williams and with additional financial support from the province of Manitoba. A fourth plaque, outlining the Valour Road story, was funded by the City of Winnipeg through a Land Dedication Reserve Fund grant from Councillor  Smith and the City Centre Community Committee.

The Remembrance Day ceremony this year at the plaza begins at 10:45 a.m.

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.”

It was a sentiment shared by other VC recipients.

When questioned by a Winnipeg Tribune reporter about receiving his VC for his exploits on the Passchendaele, Belgium, battlefield during the First World War, Winnipegger Christopher O’Kelly replied: “I merely did my duty, that’s all. Anyone else would have done the same under the circumstances.”

As for Shankland, the sole survivor of the three boys from Pine Street, he was modest about his accomplishments, and never mentioned having been awarded the VC or the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) to his parents, who were then living in Ayr, Scotland, during a leave from the battle front. His father, William, received word of his son’s VC and DCM in a letter from a Canadian chaplain, who wrote: “I would have preferred that you should have got the first word from himself (Robert), but I know that he would not tell you about it, so I have written the facts to you.”