Winnipeg war hero — many memorials to VC recipient O’Kelly

by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)

Although Captain Christoper O’Kelly uttered but a few words during his speech at a pubic reception at Columbus Hall, 255 Smith St., the Manitoba Free Press on April 15, 1918, reported that the hall rang out with applause for several minutes.

Manitoba Chief Justice Thomas Mathers told the appreciative audience that O’Kelly, who had been awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for his feats during the Battle of Passchendaele, had “ceased to be private property, and has become one of the most cherished assets of not only the city of Winnipeg but the whole of Canada ...”

After being feted in Winnipeg, O’Kelly boarded a train for Battle Creek, Michigan, to visit his mother, who was recovering in a sanitorium from an illness.

He later returned to Winnipeg and then on May 14, 1918, O’Kelly left the prairie city to rejoin his battalion at the Western Front in Europe. He was put back in command of A Company (Captain O’Kelly’s Victoria Cross: A Northwestern Ontario Connection, by Captain George J. Romick, Thunder Bay Public Library). “When O’Kelly joined them, the 52nd were preparing for their part in the series of battles for the Canal du Nord, part of the German ‘Hindenburg Line,’  near Cambrai. The first  phase of the battle was successful on September 27, and the next day at 7:20 a.m. the 52nd moved forward to attack and capture the section of trench known as the Marconing Line.

“The urgency of the situation required the 52nd to continue to work their way forward as best they could. That afternoon a new artillery barrage was fired and the attack renewed, but by 4 p.m. it was clear the Marconing Line would not be captured that day. The 52nd was exhausted and suffered the heaviest casualties it would in any individual battle. They were ordered to dig in and wait for other battalions in the 9th Canadian Infantry brigade to take over the battle. The unit lost nine officers and 250 other ranks. One of the casualties was Captain O’Kelly, wounded while trying to organize his troops for the attack. He had been hit by machine gun fire, and he managed to take cover in a shell hole, where he was subsequently hit by shrapnel. Because of the high casualties, he had to wait in the Casualty Clearing Station just behind the lines until 2 October before being evacuated to a hospital in the rear. From there he went to a hospital in England, undergoing further treatment, and finally reaching a convalescent hospital. By early November he had been transferred to the Manitoba Regimental Depot and then the 18th Reserve Battalion to await reassignment.”

On March 25, 1919, the SS Olympic, with O’Kelly and 5,000 returning soldiers aboard — 200 bound for Winnipeg — docked at Halifax.

The troops of the 52nd proceeded to the Lakehead for dispersal, wrote Romick. “The remaining members of the 52nd arrived by train on March 29 to a huge civic welcome. The battalion formed up at the Canadian Pacific Railway station, near the Pagoda and through throngs of well-wishers, marched down Cumberland to Pearl, then to Victoria and then back down Cumberland to Arthur Street and up to the Armoury. Here they were presented with the ‘Key to the City.’ Those who had homes in Port Arthur and Fort William (later combined to form today’s Thunder Bay) were dismissed and permitted to stay there, the rest were put up in the Colonial Hotel. That evening there was a dinner for the men at the YMCA and a street carnival and fireworks at the Pagoda. The next day they went by train to Fort William for a parade, with floats and a patriotic welcome. Over the next few days, as the final demobilization administration was completed, the men of the 52nd were hosted by numerous clubs and organizations. Finally on April 1 O’Kelly was demobilized.”

He returned to Winnipeg and took a job selling real estate with his father, Christopher, Sr., who’s long-time business partner was Herman Harrison.

O’Kelly rejoined his old militia unit, the Winnipeg Rifles, in 1921 and was promoted to the rank of major in March of 1922. Also in 1921, O’Kelly began mine prospecting in Northwestern Ontario with E.L. Murray.

With O’Kelly’s accidental drowning (Murray also died when their motorized canoe capsized, although his death was attributed to exposure — he was found lying face down on the shore of Lac Seul), while prospecting in Northwestern Ontario on or about November 15, 1922, there was obvious widespread angst over the loss of a popular war hero with many wanting to honour the memory of his accomplishments on the battlefield, especially since he was a recipient of the VC during the First World War.

The Tribune reported on July 10, 1924, that a wooden cross was erected to the memory of Major O’Kelly by the “brother officers of the 8th Winnipeg Rifles.”

The cross with a brass plate reading, “To this memorial add your care in passing — 1923 — R.I.P.,” was erected in the midst of a stone mound on Goose Island, “north of Lac Seul, in the northlands of Ontario, near the spot where Major O’Kelly was drowned ...”

The same newspaper on July 18, 1927, reported that a stone Celtic cross was placed in a pyramid of stones on a grassy knoll at Camp Morton, a few kilometres north of Gimli. The monument was raised on the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, which had established a summer camp for children at the site in 1920.

“It is a monument to Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, V.C., M.C., a Winnipeg boy, who, in the Great War (the name then given to the First World War), was selected to wear the highest prize for valor this country could bestow.”

According to the newspaper, hundreds gathered, “many of whom were “pre-eminent in the life of the city from which Chris O’Kelly came ...”

A small plaque bore O’Kelly’s name and regiment, as well as a brief story of his deeds.

The monument still exists at Camp Morton, but the cross on Goose Island in O’Kelly’s memory was covered by water in 1929, when the level of Lac Seul was raised some 16 feet by the building of a hydro electric power dam at Lower Ear Falls. Forty years later, a portion of the cross was recovered by one of Major O’Kelly’s 52nd Battalion comrades, Gerald Bannatyne, and the upright portion was donated to the Ear Falls Royal Canadian Legion No. 238 for display.

Another memorial plaque honouring O’Kelly can be found at Red Lake. The Ecole O’Kelly School for children of military personnel at CFB Shilo, Manitoba,  was named in his honour in 1976. The Thunder Bay Militia District Headquarters named their armoury after O’Kelly.

In 1992, Royal Canadian Legion members from Ear Falls, Sioux Lookout, Hudson and Dryden, dedicated a new cross and base to the memory of Major O’Kelly on Goose Island.

On July 4, 2014, the Manitoba government recognized the bravery and courage of 14 Manitoba Victoria Cross recipients, including Major O’Kelly, by naming provincial lakes in their honour through the Manitoba Geographical Names Program. O’Kelly Lake is located at 51° 59’ 0” N, 95° 50’ 11” W. The lake is between the communities of Bloodvein along the east shore of Lake Winnipeg and Little Grand Rapids along the west shore of Family Lake, and is 248 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The VC presented to O’Kelly is on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.