Shankland's medals

During the First World War, 69 Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross 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. 

Since the VC was first instituted by Queen Victoria on January 29, 1856, only 14 Manitobans have been awarded this decoration “For Valour,” 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 pattée 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.” 

Unfortunately, the medals of one of the “Pine Street Boys” could be lost forever to Manitoba. The medals are slated to be sold in an auction on May 25 in Toronto. Monetarily, the value of the medals has been pegged at $330,000, but historically the value of the medals to Manitoba and Canada is virtually priceless. 

Accompanying Shankland’s VC on the auction block is his Distinguished Conduct Medal. Only a few months after his arrival in France, he received his DCM for leading stretcher-bearers under the appalling conditions of battle. The combination of VC and DCM is regarded as extremely scarce with the two only awarded to a handful of individuals.

Should the medals go to a successful bidder in another country, especially a private buyer, they will be lost forever as a reminder of one of Manitoba’s great First World War heroes. Some may argue that it doesn’t matter, but most would see the medals’ loss as another instance of the cavalier way we view our own rich history. 

A recent Free Press on-line poll with 1,323 responses showed 78 per cent recognized the significance of the medals to our province’s history by indicating they wanted the medals to remain in Manitoba. Yet, 21 per cent of respondents said they didn’t care where the medals went.

Shankland was born in St. Quivox, near Ayr in  Scotland on October 10, 1887, the son of a railroad guard. When he completed his education, he worked as a clerk in the stationmaster’s office.

After immigrating to Canada in 1910, he worked as an assistant cashier for the Crescent Creamery Company in Winnipeg. With the outbreak of war, he enlisted on December 18, 1914, joining the 43rd Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Canada). Following his training in Canada, he was sent to England, landing on June 10, 1915. At Shorncliffe, he was promoted to Sergeant-Major in October 1915. Shankland arrived in France on February 20, 1916 and received his lieutenant’s commission on December 27, 1916. 

On October 26, 1917,  during the Battle of Passchendaele, Lt. Shankland and his men held a defensive position under attack by Germans. His citation for the VC reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and resource in action under critical and adverse conditions. Having gained a position he rallied the remnant of his own platoon and men of other companies, disposed them to command the ground in front, and inflicted heavy casualties upon the retreating enemy. Later, he dispersed a counter-attack, this enabling supporting troops to come up unmolested. He then personally communicated to Battalion Headquarters an accurate and valuable report as to the position on the Brigade frontage, and after doing so rejoined his command and carried on until relieved. His courage and splendid example inspired all ranks and coupled with his great gallantry and skill undoubtedly saved a very critical situation.”

Of the three VC winners from Pine Street, only Shankland lived to see the end of the war, despite receiving a number of wounds, including gunshots to the back and head. He returned to England in February 1919 and sailed for Canada aboard the RMS Baltic on March 12, 1919. He was demobilized in Canada on April 11, 1919. 

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.

“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 when the plaza was opened. “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.

There have been precedents set to save Canadian military medals when up for auction. The medals won by Tommy Prince (died 1977) from Brokenhead First Nation, who is Canada’s most highly-decorated aboriginal soldier, were purchased through the establishment of a special fund and are now held in trust for the Prince family in the Manitoba Museum. In other instances, public pressure has forced Ottawa to ensure VCs won by Canadians remain in Canada.

It would be a bonus for the medals to be purchased and returned to Manitoba, but at the very least they should find a new home in the Canadian War Museum in acknowledgement of their significance as a reminder of our nation’s contribution to the First World War and the sacrifices of so many. 

Fortunately, Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to prevent the “powerful and enduring symbol” of gallantry from leaving the country.