The Victoria Cross is the British Commonwealth’s highest award for military bravery and 69 Canadians won it during the First World War, among them four plucky soldiers from Nova Scotia.
A record of their conspicuous bravery under enemy fire is part of a major exhibition underway in Halifax. The event, named The Road to Vimy and Beyond, is a presentation of the Army Museum Halifax Citadel, located at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. It runs until November, 2018, and commemorates the role that Canadians, particularly Nova Scotians, played in the eventual Allied victory.
In all, more than 600,000 Canadians served during the 1914-18 conflict. By the time it was over, 173,000 had been wounded and 67,000 lay dead, including three of the four Nova Scotians who won the Victoria Cross.
What follows are the accounts of how each of those four men won the highest honour that their King and country could give, as set out in official military citations. The actual VC won by Private John Bernard Croake is on display at the exhibition, along with replicas of the VCs won by Private James Peter Robertson, Private John Chapman Kerr and Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Eric Bent.
Private John Bernard Croake, VC, of Glace Bay, originally from Newfoundland
Amiens, France, Aug. 8, 1918.
Killed in Action
The citation reads: “For most conspicuous bravery in attack when, having become separated from his section, he encountered a machine-gun nest which he bombed and silenced, taking the gun and crew prisoners. Shortly afterwards he was severely wounded, but refused to desist.”
Not long afterwards, back with his platoon, Croake encountered a very strong enemy machine gun position. “Seeing an opportunity, he dashed forward alone and was almost immediately followed by the remainder of his comrades in a brilliant charge. Croake was the first to arrive at the trench line, into which he led his men, capturing three machine guns and bayoneting or capturing the entire garrison.”
According to the citation, “The perseverance and valour of this gallant soldier, who was again severely wounded, and died of his wounds, were an inspiring example to all.”
Private James Peter Robertson, VC, of Stellarton
Passchendaele, Belgium – Nov. 6, 1917
Killed in Action
The citation says that Private Robertsonwon his VC “for most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty in attack.’’ According to the official record, “When his platoon was held up by uncut wire and a machine gun causing many casualties, Private Robertson dashed to an opening on the flank, rushed the machine gun and, after a desperate struggle with the crew, killed four and then turned the gun on the remainder, who, overcome by the fierceness of his onslaught, were running towards their own lines. His gallant work enabled the platoon to advance. He inflicted many more casualties among the enemy, and then carrying the captured machine gun, he led his platoon to the final objective. He there selected an excellent position and got the gun into action, firing on the retreating enemy who by this time were quite demoralised by the fire brought to bear on them.
“During the consolidation, Private Robertson’s most determined use of the machine gun kept down the fire of the enemy snipers; his courage and his coolness cheered his comrades and inspired them to the finest efforts. Later, when two of our snipers were badly wounded in front of our trench, he went out and carried one of them in under very severe fire. He was killed just as he returned with the second man.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Eric Bent, VC, of Halifax
Polygon Wood, Belgium, Oct. 1, 1917
Killed in Action
The citation reads:“For most conspicuous bravery, when during a heavy hostile attack, the (men on the) right of his own command and the battalion on his right were forced back. The situation was critical owing to the confusion caused by the attack and the intense artillery fire. Lt. Col. Bent personally collected a platoon that was in reserve, and together with men from other companies and various regimental details, he organized and led them forward to the counter-attack, after issuing orders to other officers as to the further defence of the line. The counter-attack was successful and the enemy was checked. The coolness and magnificent example shown to all ranks by Lt.-Col. Bent resulted in the securing of a portion of the line which was of essential importance for subsequent operations. This very gallant officer was killed whilst leading a charge which he inspired with the call of ‘Come on the Tigers’.
Sadly, Lieutenant-Colonel Bent has no known grave and is commemorated on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium.
Private John Chapman Kerr, VC, of Fox River, Cumberland County
Dec. 16, 1916
The citation says: “For most conspicuous bravery. During a bombing attack, he was acting as bayonet man, and knowing that bombs were running short, he ran along the parados (an earth dike behind the enemy trench) under heavy fire until he was in close contact with the enemy, when he opened fire on them at point-blank range, and inflicted heavy loss. The enemy, thinking they were surrounded, surrendered. Sixty-two prisoners were taken and 250 yards of enemy trench captured.``
The citation notes that, before carrying out this very plucky act, one of Private Kerr’s fingers had been blown off by a bomb. “Later, with two other men, he escorted back the prisoners under fire, and then returned to report himself for duty before having his wound dressed.”
Happily, John Chapman Kerr survived the war and lived to be 76. He died in 1963.