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Dufferin County were home to five of Ontario'WW1 VC Winners

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BerichtGeplaatst: 06 Nov 2009 9:20    Onderwerp: Dufferin County were home to five of Ontario'WW1 VC Winners Reageer met quote

Dufferin County and its neighbours were home to five of Ontario's 11 WW1 Victoria Cross winners

Last year, about this time, Keith Hunter was asked to prepare a presentation for the Orangeville Rotary Club to be delivered at the club's Remembrance Day meeting.

Being a student of military history, Keith selected as the topic the most coveted and highly praised military medal ever awarded by the British Commonwealth - known as The Victoria Cross - and some of its recipients.

While doing his research Keith made some interesting discoveries about this highly regarded military decoration and its relationship to our area.

This resulted in several other requests for Keith to deliver his presentation to a variety of service clubs, church groups of various denominations and branches of the Royal Canadian Legion in various nearby towns.

With Keith's permission and Remembrance Day coming up, we decided this story should be shared with others in our community.

He has entitled his presentation "Do Not Forget To Remember," since it is dedicated to the brave Canadians who fought during what was known as "The Great War."

Some of our parents or grandparents may well remember the Great War. Others, like myself, remember hearing about it. I recall being told that the exact time the Great War came to an end was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918.

And, I think you will agree that was a very unusual happening. That took place a few years before I was born.

This war was mistakenly called "The War To End All Wars."

Unfortunately, this was not the case. The war lasted for four years from 1914 to 1918. During that period, over a half million Canadians volunteered to fight the enemy in Europe. Over 65,000 of these brave men and boys failed to return home. Many of their bodies rest in Flanders Field.

I would like to tell you the story of just a few of these brave Canadians who put their lives on the line and marched off to fight the enemy who were a serious threat to our way of life.

Going back in history, during the reign of Queen Victoria, which was 1837 to 1901, she decided that recognition should be given to the fighting men of the British army who had performed outstanding gallantry on the battlefield.

All who were to receive this recognition were members of the British army or the navy. The volunteer's rank or length of service in the military had no bearing on the decision. It was a matter of exhibiting extreme bravery beyond the call of duty, bravery that had been witnessed by other volunteers. Many young men had sacrificed their lives and never knew they would be honoured in this way.

A medal was struck and with her permission, and it was named after the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.

The medal is bronze, highlighting the royal crest, and bears the simple words, "For Valour". It is suspended from a ribbon that was formerly blue for the navy and red for the army.

The ribbon is now a dull crimson colour for all three branches of the military. These medals for the most part were presented in England by a high-ranking officer, and for those who made the supreme sacrifice, it was received by their families back here in Canada.

This is the British Commonwealth's highest military decoration and the requirements are so high that very few people have qualified for it. The most recent Victoria Cross awarded was to Pte. Ernest (better known as Smoky) Smith of the Seaforth Highlanders and this took place in 1944, 68 years ago. That gives you an idea of how few have been awarded.

Because of the few presentations that have been made, I became fascinated and made a study of the Victoria Cross and its Canadian recipients. Now, keep in mind this medal has been restricted to armed forces personnel only in the various countries that made up the British Commonwealth and these countries are spread throughout the world.

The very first Victoria Cross was won by a Canadian, Lieut. Alexander Dunn, at the Charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War in 1856. Of the half million plus Canadians who fought in W.W. I, only 69 of these medals were awarded.

In my research, I learned that while no volunteers from my town had ever received a Victoria Cross, Orangeville does have a unique connection with this coveted historic medal. The question is, what did I learn?

Well, I learned that anywhere from a six-minute drive to a 60 minute drive from Orangeville, there were five young country boys, who didn't know each other and who, during W.W. I, distinguished themselves through their acts of valour and bravery to such a degree that each was awarded the Commonwealth's highest military decoration for bravery, "The Victoria Cross."

Now, think about that. Five young men, all from a rural area and living less than an hour from Orangeville, who became soldiers and all were awarded "The Victoria Cross" for bravery. To put this into perspective, Montreal, large as it is, had two Victoria Cross recipients and Toronto had none.

When I made the discovery of these five almost local boys, I searched to see if I could find any other community the size of the area I am talking about and an area that was as sparsely populated as we were at that time, that could match this record. There were none to be found across Canada.

I made an effort to document what I could about these five young men that gave them the recognition throughout the British Empire that they deserved by receiving such a fine tribute and I would like to tell you what brought this honour about. Some of the details are not very pretty, but unfortunately, that is what war is all about.


First, and perhaps foremost, was Billy Bishop, who was born and raised just about one hour from Orangeville in the town of Owen Sound. When W.W. I broke out in 1914, he was 20 years of age and he wanted to pilot one of those wonderful flying machines he had heard so much about.

Since there was no such thing as the Air Force at that time, he volunteered to join England's Royal Flying Corps. and before the war had ended, he was known as the greatest flying ace in the British Commonwealth.

Fighting a war in the air was new to the world. No one had done it before, but Billy Bishop learned fast. All in all, he shot down 72 enemy aircrafts. He won the Victoria Cross on June 2, 1917 when he crossed the enemy lines completely alone. He flew twelve miles into German territory, with machine guns blazing and a small supply of bombs the size of a baseball on his lap.

He attacked an airfield throwing bombs out of the open cockpit destroying buildings and airplanes on the ground. Four German airplanes took off with orders to shoot Bishop down. They got a surprise as Billy's plane wove back and forth dodging their bullets.

Taking a break from his bombing, he turned his machine gun on the enemy. He shot three of them down one after the other and then emptied his Louis machine gun on the fourth flying machine, sending it to the ground before escaping back to friendly territory thinking that was enough for one day.

For his one-man raid on the enemy, he was invited to Buckingham Palace where King George V personally pinned the Victoria Cross on Billy, along with two other medals.

The King told Billy he was the only man in British history to receive the Victoria Cross, the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order all on the same day.

Billy Bishop died from natural causes on 9-11, 1956. Owen Sound has a fine museum dedicated to their native son, Billy Bishop, with much of his regalia and personal belongings on display. Let me tell you, it's worth the trip to Owen Sound.


Then there was Capt. Fred Campbell who hailed from Mount Forest, just 45 minutes northwest of Orangeville. He held the army rank of Captain and won his Victoria Cross at Givencay, France, (Gi-venchee) on June 15, 1915, which was also his 48th birthday. A fierce battle was taking place and Captain Campbell's men were dropping like flies. Before the day ended, only Campbell and PTE. Harold Vincent, of Bracebridge, were standing.

The entire crew was either dead or wounded.

While their machine gun was in working order and they had a good supply of ammunition, the base that held the gun was broken and badly needed.

It couldn't be used unless it was on a stand or bench. Vincent, a former lumberjack, had a strong body and a cool head. He got down on all fours while Capt. Campbell lifted the gun on to Vincent's back and commenced firing. He fired over 1,000 rounds at the enemy from Vincent's back putting the Germans on the run.

They eventually returned with reinforcements. Captain Campbell was seriously wounded.

Vincent dragged the gun away to avoid it getting into the hands of the enemy while Sgt. Major Owen himself, badly wounded, carried his commanding officer to safety. Capt. Campbell died four days later on June 19, 1915. His next of kin in Mount Forest received the Victoria Cross on his behalf at a fitting ceremony.

The branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Mount Forest named their branch in honour of this Victoria Cross hero and it is still known as the Capt.. Frederick Campbell Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion No. 134.


Just about ten minutes east of Mount Forest, or a half hour from Orangeville on Highway 89, stands the little village of Conn. Even today, it still has only about a dozen houses. On one of the side streets, there is a little church and in front of the church stands an historic plaque to the memory of Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey, a local boy who left the children he was teaching in the one room school house in order to serve his country.

He was 24 years of age when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. It was at the battle of Bourlon Wood in France, where this young officer fought and died. His company was under heavy fire by the enemy and many of the 90 to 100 men had been either killed or wounded. This included all of his superior officers.

Young Lewis, only 24, took command, and under severe fire, he skillfully re-organized and continued the advance against the Germans. He soon found his outfit was suffering casualties from machine gun fire, which had not been the case earlier. This meant enemy re-enforcements had moved in.

Lt. Honey left his men in a safe area and went on ahead by himself and located the machine gun nest. He rushed in single handed with only his service revolver in his hand.

This was a complete surprise to the Germans and he captured the machine gun and ten prisoners by himself. After securing the captives, he and his men repelled four counter attacks with the help of the machine gun they borrowed from the bad guys.

There was no holding this young man back.

After dark, he went out again by himself, and having located another machine gun nest, he quietly returned to his camp, picked up a few volunteers and returned to face the enemy.

This time, they captured three machine guns and more prisoners. With great skill and daring, he led what was left of his men against a strong German position.

This gallant officer died of machine gun wounds during the battle that followed.

While he never knew it, 24 year old Lewis Honey joined the ranks of those brave men who distinguished themselves in battle and were awarded the Victoria Cross. In this case, it was presented to his father, who was the minister of the local church in the village of Conn.


Leaving Conn, we continue travelling east on Highway 89 for about another 15 minutes and arrive in Shelburne, just north of Orangeville, which was where Tommy Holmes hung his hat for a time prior to W.W. I. This was the most difficult V.C. winner I had to track down since different sources had different stories about his life.

Originally a Montreal boy, Tommy's family moved to Ontario and Tommy got himself a job in the Shelburne area as a farm labourer, or as they were called in those days, the hired man. He apparently stayed on this farm for some time and his only entertainment was going into Shelburne on a Saturday night and whooping it up with the boys.

I don't know whose farm he worked on but when the war broke our, he left his job on the farm and joined the army.

While things are a little vague up until now, I am sure his military records would be accurate and since I obtained these from the War Museum in Ottawa, I am going to use their information.

Tommy served with the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles and didn't waste any time getting into action. He had lied about his age in order to be accepted,for he was only 17 when he put on the uniform.

He was involved in the battle of Passchendale (Pass-endale) in Belgium, where over 15,000 Canadians were killed and if you haven't seen the movie yet, make sure you do.

It was on Oct. 26, 1917 that Tommy Holmes won the Victoria Cross. His act of bravery was well documented in the London Gazette on Jan. 11, 1918, and I would likeyou to read it ,

"Can you imagine this little boy doing all that damage? Some months later, Tommy Holmes was summoned to Buckingham Palace, where King George V, grandson of Queen Victoria, pinned the Victoria Cross on Tommy's chest. To show you a little of Tommy's modesty, in letters back home to his mother, at that time living in Owen Sound, this plucky little teenager didn't even mention the fact that he had been a guest at Buckingham Palace, had lunch with the King of England, won the Victoria Cross and the presentation had been made by the King himself."

I don't know whether or not Tommy Holmes even came back to this part of the country. We seem to have lost track of him again and now ninety years later, there is no one left to ask.

I believe he died in Toronto about 1950. All I can say at this point is that he was one of the few buck privates ever to win the coveted V.C. for bravery beyond the call of duty and we should all be proud of him.

He was the youngest Canadian ever to win the V.C. As mentioned, he was only a kid at the time and a little guy at that. While standing straight up and stretching his neck, he measured five foot, nothing.


Just six minutes south of Orangeville lies the village of Alton. This was the birthplace of Lieutenant Wallace Algie. He went overseas in 1916 and was deeply involved in the battle of Cambrai in France. There were many casualties in his ranks and it looked liked the enemy was bringing in more machine guns, which was bad news.

This was a situation that Lieutenant Algie was determined to prevent.

It was important that Algie and his men take control of the little village, that was at that time occupied by the Germans. He asked for nine volunteers to move in on the enemy.

With this small contingent following up the rear, Algie led the way and tackled a machine gun crew of Germans killing all three of them and then turned the German machine gun on the German troops. He asked one of his volunteers to take over the machine gun nest and keep firing while once again, single handed, the boy from Alton surprised another machine gun crew, killing the three men who were operating the gun.

With control of the second German gun, he captured an officer and ten men. He marched his prisoners back to his own troops, handed them over and returned with more Canadians to finish the job. While leading his men across a railway bridge, Lieut. Algie was shot and killed by the enemy.

Thanks to his ability and bravery, Lieut. Algie's men were able to complete their mission and take control of the village. Lieut. Algie was killed on Oct. 11, 1918 exactly one month to the day before the war ended. Algie's family in Alton was presented with the highest military honour in British history, The Victoria Cross.

The Alton Legion branch is named after Lieutenant Algie.

I mentioned earlier that WW I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, and it was called the War to End All Wars.

Unfortunately, things didn't turn out that way, for 21 years later, Germany had rebuilt its Empire under Adolph Hitler and once again the British Empire was at war with Germany and depending heavily on Canada for support.

I also mentioned this resulted in 45,000 Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen making the supreme sacrifice, never to return home again. The Orangeville list reads 24 of our young men lost their lives to the Nazis during WW II. Out of those 24, I personally knew 10 of these boys well.

Just to name a few:

Arnold Hagerman, who joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, lost his life three days after peace had been declared in 1945.

It was supposed to be all over. While driving an army truck, he hit an undiscovered land mine, destroying the truck and his life. Haggie, as we called him, was 23 years old. He is buried in a Canadian War Cemetery in Germany.

Then there was Bert Barber, a member of the Orangeville Rotary Club, who took a leave of absence from Rotary so that he could serve his country as a fighter pilot with the RCAF, Bert was shot down over North Africa by the Italians, who were the allies of Germany. That was in 1943. Bert was 30 years of age and is buried in a military cemetery in Tripoli.

Bill Hackett, better known as Snowball, lived across the street from me. He joined thye Air Force, hoping to become a pilot, bu that changed and he accepted the position of a tail gunner in an Anson bomber. This was the most dangerous duty to be assigned to in the Air Force.

A glass bubble was built into the tail of these huge bombers. The gunner, who had been well-trained, sat in this bubble, literally outside the plane, with the barrel of his machine gun protruding through a hole.

His job was to shoot down any enemy aircraft approaching from the rear, and it was the objective of the enemy to shoot and kill the gunner in the glass bubble before he could do his job. In this case, the German marksman found his target first and 19-year-old Billy was found dead in his glass bubble, with his body riddled with bullets. He is buried in Buxton Cemetery in England.

Reg Robb was a deep thinker and a bit of a philosopher. He was a bomber pilot with the RCAF. Reg is best remembered as the airman who wrote the unfinished letter to his parents, Judge W.T. and Mrs. Robb, with the request to his commanding officer to mail the letter in the event that he failed to return from one of his bombing missions over Germany.

The letter, although unfinished, was emotional, yet motivating.

It was really a letter of hope.

When it was received by Reg's parents, the Orangeville Banner requested permission to print it and from there it spread to newspapers throughout the free world. It appeared in a least one newspaper as far away as India.

The opening paragraph reads as follows: Dear Mom and Dad and all the Robb Family: I can give this letter no date as it is possible it may never be used, but in case anything goes wrong, this will be my last word to all of you."

I am fortunate to have a copy of Reg's letter as it appeared in the Toronto Star.

The last friend I am going to mention was probably my best friend since he was my brother, Roy, who served with the Royal Canadian Navy.

Of the 24 Orangeville boys who lost their lives, he was the only one who was killed here in Canada by the Nazis. This may sound strange to some of you, but you see, most Canadians think that Europe had an exclusive on war zones.

Not so. Very few Canadians realize that the St. Lawrence River was home to more than 100 German submarines and they were inland, up as far as Montreal.

Their job was to destroy our war ships.

Roy served on a Corvette named the Shawinigan, whose job it was to travel as an escort with troop and supply ships across the Atlantic. Working out of Sydney, Nova Scotia, they were asked if between trips they would escort a ferry boat, with civilians aboard, from Sydney to Port au Basque, Newfoundland, for they were also in danger with the enemy that close.

The navy agreed to this. The trip to Port Au Basque was uneventful and the Shawinigan headed back to Sydney.

Travelling eastward in the same stormy waters, about halfway between the two ports was a German submarine number U1228, under the command of Captain Frederich-Wilhelm Marienfeld. They were on their way back to Germany for badly needed repairs.

Marienfeld saw an opportunity for a trophy when they spotted the Shawinigan on the horizon.

He gave the command to fire and the gunners let loose with a giant torpedo. It was a direct hit. Exactly four minutes later HMCS Shawinigan disappeared into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. The date was Nov. 24, 1944. All 91 members of the crew perished.

Along with my brother was another local, Bob Brett, of Shelburne.

Both boys were19 years of age. As a matter of fact, the Shawinigan had on board the youngest crew in the Canadian Navy. The average age of the 91 crewmembers was just 19. They were only kids.

I recall a few years ago watching the news on Remembrance Day and reporters asking students why they were not in school that day. Some of the answers were unbelievable and offensive.

One young girl said, "We are celebrating some kind of a war so we got a holiday."

An older boy said he had no idea, nor did he care. As long as he didn't have to go to school that day, it didn't matter what the holiday was for. Others thought it was a trick question and the answer would be some kind of a joke.

Fortunately, there were a few who knew the right answer.

I sometimes wonder if we have parents in our communities who really do not know the meaning of Remembrance Day or perhaps they just choose to ignore it.

Regardless, I think it is our duty to wear the red poppy and educate those who don't know what the red poppy represents.

And, please consider this, try to attend the service at the local cenotaph so that you DO NOT FORGET TO REMEMBER.

The brave men and women who died, did so that we may live in a free country.

So I say to you, this November 11th, please, DO NOT FORGET TO REMEMBER.

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