Winnipeg war hero — O’Kelly led his platoon of 40 men in an attack on the Bellevue Spur during the Battle of Passchendaele

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

The belief was that E.L. Murray had been able to swim to shore once their canoe had apparently capsized on Lac Seul, 40 kilometres northwest of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, but had subsequently died of exposure. On the other hand, Christopher “Chris” O’Kelly, with his energy sapped by the icy-cold water in the lake, had failed to make landfall and drowned.

“Two row boats, equipped with grappling irons, etc., were used in the search,” reported the Winnipeg Tribune on June 27, 1923. “Storms hampered the work of the little party but despite these, combined with mosquitoes and black flies, they combed every inch of the lake bottom and also the shore.

“The only trace of Capt. O’Kelly was a pair of creeches (sic, breeches?), in a badly decomposed state. They were near the place where his knapsack was found ... Other wreckage from the canoe, identified as the property of the two men, was found washed up on the shore. This included tins of provisions.”

Sign boards were erected along the lake’s shoreline offering a $100 reward for information leading to the recovery of O’Kelly’s body, which was later increased to $200 by his father, who was also named Christopher.

The true irony was that the twice-decorated (VC, MC) O’Kelly had survived the bloody battlefields of France and Belgium, but drowned in what was a boating accident.

According to Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly’s Officers’ Declaration Paper, he was born on November 18, 1895, in Winnipeg. While a student at St. John’s College (University of Manitoba), he enlisted with the 90th Regiment of the 144th Battalion Winnipeg Rifles, commonly known as the Little Black Devils. He was sent overseas as a member of the Canadian Expedition Force (CEF) on September 18, 1916, as a lieutenant. Soon after arriving in Europe, he was transferred to the 96th Lake Superior Regiment of the 52nd Battalion, which was raised in Port Arthur (part of today’s Thunder Bay).

During the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began on April 9, 1917, he received a Military Cross for heroism for charging a trench in the Avion-Méricourt sector, while leading No. 9 Platoon of C Company.

Capt. E.R.C. Wilcox, C Company commander wrote: “As (O’Kelly) climbed the eastern side of Toronto Road he threw a bomb (grenade). One of the (German) gun crew threw a stick bomb at practically the same moment ... Lt. O’Kelly’s bomb exploding (sic) killed the machine-gun crew. He at once shouldered the (machine) gun and brought it in ...”

O’Kelly was promoted to acting captain on August 28, 1917, and on December 2, 1917, he was officially gazetted captain.

It was at Passchendaele, Belgium, that O’Kelly received the highest award “For Valour” in the British Empire, the VC.

British Army commander General Sir Douglas Haig had his sights on preparations for the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, three kilometres west of the Belgian town of Ypres. Haig had visualized the battle as the first major breakthrough of the war with the eventual objective being the Belgian seacoast and the capture of German submarine pens. In the summer of 1917, German U-boats were ravaging Allied merchant shipping in the North Atlantic, North America’s industrial and agricultural lifeline to Britain. British Admiral Sir John Jellicoe advised Haig and the British government that the losses incurred by the merchant fleet could not be sustained and something had to be done.

Haig’s answer to relieving the pressure on the fleet was not enthusiastically greeted by British Prime Minister Sir David Lloyd George, who believed Passchendaele was a foolish undertaking. Yet, no one else had come up with a credible alternate plan, so Lloyd George reluctantly gave his approval.

The battle had started in June and was still raging with little results when Haig suddenly appeared at Canadian headquarters on October 3, 1917. The battle was turning into a mess, both figuratively and politically. The Allied troops were hopelessly mired down in the mud. Similar to the Somme, the battlefield was turning into a grind-it-out, killing ground.

In his memoirs, Haig cited another reason for continuing the battle after its bloody first days: the widespread mutiny raging in the French army resulting from the carnage in its ranks due to the Neville Offensive, named after French General Robert Neville, who ordered the battle to proceed despite massive losses.

Haig said Marshal Phillipe Pétain had urged continuation of the Ypres offensive to prevent the Allied war effort from collapsing — an after-the-fact argument that carries little weight with historians. In fact, Pétain had already crushed the mutiny by selectively punishing the ringleaders, improving conditions along the front and providing more leave to soldiers.

Canadian Corps commander Gen. Arthur Currie protested his orders, saying prophetically that it would cost 16,000 Canadian casualties.

The Canadian general, who had 120,000 troops under his command, said, “Passchendaele is not worth a drop of Canadian blood.”

All Haig would say was that Passchendaele must be taken and some day he would tell Currie why. It was a promise that was never fulfilled.

Currie told Haig he had his own conditions that had to be met before the Canadians would participate in the battle. For one, the Canadians would not serve under British General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough’s 5th Army, as the Somme and Gough’s hopeless attacks were still fresh in Currie's mind. Currie insisted the Canadians would replace the Australian Corps under British General Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer, who was noted as a very capable military commander, in the line. He also called for more time to prepare for the battle.

“No one of us,” wrote Sir David Watson, the commander of the 4th Division of the Canadian Expeditionary (CEF), “who had previous experience of the Ypres Salient fighting, could anticipate without horror and dread, the orders received ... The approaches to the front, and on beyond, were simply beyond description. Wastes of mud, destroyed houses, roads torn up by constant shelling and above all, the vile weather conditions, that made life a burden.”

The German defenses were circular concrete pillboxes with 1 1/2-metre-thick walls which provided interlocking fire support. To assault these formidable fortifications, the Canadians built roads, duck-board pathways, drainage ditches, new gun platforms and collected supplies.

Currie planned for limited advances to be covered by artillery. At each stage, the infantry would consolidate their positions and guns would be brought up to support the next advance.

On October 26, the Canadian troops struggled through the mud and by nightfall had lost 2,481 men. Fresh troops were brought forward for the advance on the 30th and on November 6, the third and final advance was to take place. An adjoining British attack on their flank failed but the Canadians penetrated to their objective. The British failure meant their flank was exposed, which prompted an Australian to comment, “If the Canadians can hold that, they are wonderful troops.”

O’Kelly was among those expected to hold the line.

On the morning of October 26, Lieut. Robert Shankland, another Winnipegger who won a VC at Passchendaele, led his platoon of 40 men from Company D of the 43rd Battalion to the crest of the hill at Bellevue Spur, the main trench line defending Passchendaele. He and his platoon overran the trench and then dug in to repel any counterattack mounted by the Germans.

On his right, the 58th Battalion, which was under heavy fire from Snipe Hill, was forced to retire after failing to reach its objective. Some of battalion’s men joined Shankland and his men, but the general withdrawal had exposed their right flank.

Fearing that their position would be lost, Shankland turned over his men to another officer and went through the heavy mud to battalion headquarters, where he outlined their precarious position and the need for reinforcements, which included a detailed plan for a counterattack.

Among those sent to aid Shankland was O’Kelly and his men from A Company of the 52nd Battalion. According to his citation for the VC, in the London Gazette, January 11, 1918: “After the original attack had failed and two units of his unit had launched a new attack, Capt. O’Kelly advanced his command over 1,000 yards under heavy fire without any artillery barrage, took the enemy positions on the crest of the hill (Bellevue Spur) by storm, and then personally led a series of attacks against ‘Pillboxes,’ his company alone capturing six of them with 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns.

“Later on in the afternoon, under the leadership of this gallant officer, his company repelled a strong counter-attack, taking more prisoners, and subsequently during the night captured a hostile raiding party consisting of one officer, 10 men and a machine gun.

“The whole of these achievements were chiefly due to the magnificent courage, daring and ability of Capt. O’Kelly.”

After the battle, a reporter who interviewed him wrote: “He was very young. His manner was quiet and somewhat grim, as if he looked too closely into a hundred faces of death.”

(Next week: part 3)