Just three days before Remembrance Day Nov. 11, Manitoba NDP Premier Greg Selinger last Friday announced that four Victoria Cross recipients from Manitoba have been recognized with lakes east of Thompson named permanently in their honour.
The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories. It takes precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals. It may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.
The Victoria Cross was created by Queen Victoria in 1856, and was awarded to Canadians in all wars until 1945. The Canadian Victoria Cross retains the same design and the same awarding criteria as the British Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross recognizes the most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty, in the presence of the enemy.
The Cross is a bronze straight-armed cross pattée, 38 millimetres across, with raised edges:
on the obverse is a lion guardant standing upon the Royal Crown, and below the Crown, a scroll bearing the inscription PRO VALORE, and
on the reverse, the date of the act for which the decoration is bestowed is engraved in a raised circle.
The new Victoria Cross, formally adopted into the Canadian Honours System in 1993, is identical to the original award, only the motto on the obverse having been changed from For Valour to Pro Valore.
The original Victoria Cross was awarded to 81 of Canada’s military forces out of a total of 1,351 crosses and three bars awarded throughout the British Empire. Canada’s last surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross, Sgt. Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, V.C., C.M., O.B.C., C.D., (Retired), died on Aug. 3, 2005.
The four men Manitoba Victoria Cross recipients who had lakes permanently named in their honour today – Lt.-Col. Coulson Norman Mitchell, Lt.-Col. Harcus Strachan, Maj. Robert Edward Cruickshank and Company Quartermaster Sgt. Alexander Brereton – all won their Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War.
Mitchell was born in Winnipeg on Dec. 11, 1889 and graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1912 with a degree in engineering. After the First World War began, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force as an engineer officer, and served with the 1st Tunnelling Company, Canadian Engineers. Mitchell received the Military Cross at Ypres in 1916.
Mitchell, then a captain, earned the Victoria Cross on the night of Oct. 8-9, 1918 while leading a party of sappers on a reconnaissance mission near Cambrai in France. Their task was to venture beyond the Canadian front line to examine bridges over which the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade proposed to advance, and to prevent their demolition.
After finding one bridge destroyed, Mitchell moved on to the next, which spanned the Canal de l’Escaut. Running across the bridge in total darkness, Mitchell found that it had indeed been prepared for demolition. With a non-commissioned officer he cut the detonation wires and began to remove the explosive charges. When the Germans realized what was happening, they charged toward the bridge but were held off by Mitchell’s sappers until reinforcements arrived. Saving the bridge over the Canal de l’Escaut contributed significantly to the later success of the 5th Infantry Brigade’s offensive operations.
His citation, published in the London Gazette on Jan. 31, 1919, reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on the night of Oct. 8-9, 1918, at the Canal de L’Escaut, north-east of Cambrai.
“He led a small party ahead of the first wave of infantry in order to examine the various bridges on the line of approach and, if possible, to prevent their demolition.
“On reaching the canal he found the bridge already blown up. Under a heavy barrage he crossed to the next bridge, where he cut a number of ‘lead’ wires. Then in total darkness, and unaware of the position or strength of the enemy at the bridgehead, he dashed across the main bridge over the canal. This bridge was found to be heavily charged for demolition, and whilst Capt. Mitchell, assisted by his N.C.O., was cutting the wires, the enemy attempted to rush the bridge in order to blow the charges, whereupon he at once dashed to the assistance of his sentry, who had been wounded, killed three of the enemy, captured 12, and maintained the bridgehead until reinforced.
“Then under heavy fire he continued his task of cutting wires and removing charges, which he well knew might at any moment have been fired by the enemy.
“It was entirely due to his valour and decisive action that this important bridge across the canal was saved from destruction.”
Mitchell died in Montreal on Nov. 17, 1978.
Strachan was born in Borrowstounness, Scotland, on Nov. 7, 1887. He immigrated to Canada in 1908 and enlisted in the Fort Garry Horse in 1915. He was commissioned the following year. In May 1917 Strachan was awarded the Military Cross after a raid near St. Quentin. Six months later, he earned the Victoria Cross in Masničres, France on Nov. 20, 1917 in a similar action.
He took command of his squadron when the squadron leader was killed. Strachan, then a lieutenant, led the squadron through the enemy line of machine-gun posts, and then, with the surviving men, led the charge on the enemy battery, killing seven of the gunners with his sword. With the German battery silenced, Strachan went on to cut telephone communications three kilometres behind the enemy line. He then rallied his men and fought his way back at night to his own lines, safely bringing in all his unwounded men, in addition to 15 prisoners.
His citation, published in the London Gazette on Dec. 18, 1917, reads: “For most conspicuous bravery and leadership during operations. He took command of the squadron of his regiment when the squadron leader, approaching the enemy front line at a gallop, was killed. Lt. Strachan led the squadron through the enemy line of machine-gun posts, and then, with the surviving men, led the charge on the enemy battery, killing seven of the gunners with his sword. All the gunners having been killed and the battery silenced, he rallied his men and fought his way back at night through the enemy’s line, bringing all unwounded men safely in, together with 15 prisoners.
“The operation – which resulted in the silencing of an enemy battery, the killing of the whole battery personnel and many infantry, and the cutting of three main lines of telephone communication two miles in rear of the enemy’s front line – was only rendered possible by the outstanding gallantry and fearless leading of this officer.”
Strachan died in Vancouver on May 1, 1982.
Brereton was born in Oak River, Nov. 13, 1892. During the First World War he served with the 8th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.
On Aug. 9, 1918, near Warvillers in France, Brereton’s platoon suddenly came under fire from six German machine guns while in an exposed position. Brereton immediately charged one of the machine guns on his own, shooting one member of the crew, bayoneting another, and compelling nine other enemy soldiers to surrender. The rest of the platoon, inspired by his example, assaulted and captured the five remaining machine gun positions. For his actions on this day, Brereton was awarded the Victoria Cross.
His citation, published in the London Gazette on Sept. 27, 1918, reads: “For most conspicuous bravery during an attack, when a line of hostile machine guns opened fire suddenly on his platoon, which was in an exposed position, and no cover available. This gallant N.C.O. at once appreciated the critical situation and realized that unless something was done at once the platoon would be annihilated. On his own initiative, without a moment’s delay, and alone, he sprang forward and reached one of the hostile machine-gun posts, where he shot the man operating the machine gun and bayoneted the next one who attempted to operate it, whereupon nine others surrendered to him.
“Cpl. Brereton’s action was a splendid example of resource and bravery, and not only undoubtedly saved many of his comrades’ lives, but also inspired his platoon to charge and capture the fire remaining posts.”
Brereton died in Calgary on June 11, 1976.
Cruickshank was born in Winnipeg on June 17, 1888. His family moved to England when Cruikshank was very young. After leaving school, he worked as a salesman and joined the Territorial Army in 1908.
When the First World War broke out, Cruickshank volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps but transferred to the London Scottish Regiment. He was wounded in the Battle of the Somme in France before being sent to serve in the Middle East.
On May 1, 1918, Pte. Cruickshank’s platoon came under heavy fire east of the River Jordan in Palestine and sought cover in a ‘wadi’ (valley or dry river). With the men desperately needing assistance, he volunteered to deliver a message to company headquarters.
His citation, published in the London Gazette on June 21, 1916 reads: “The platoon to which Pte. Cruickshank belonged came under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire at short range and was led down a steep bank into a wadi, most of the men being hit before they reached the bottom. Immediately after reaching the bottom of the wadi the officer in command was shot dead, and the sergeant who then took over command sent a runner back to Company Headquarters asking for support, but was mortally wounded almost immediately after; the corporal having in the meantime been killed, the only remaining N.C.O. (a lance-corporal), believing the first messenger to have been killed, called for a volunteer to take a second message back.
“Pte. Cruickshank immediately responded and rushed up the slope, but was hit and rolled back into the wadi bottom. He again rose and rushed up the slope, but, being again wounded, rolled back into the wadi. After his wounds had been dressed he rushed a third time up the slope and again fell badly wounded. Being now unable to stand he rolled himself back amid a hail of bullets. His wounds were now of such a nature as to preclude him making any further attempt and he lay all day in a dangerous position, being sniped at and again wounded where he lay. He displayed the utmost valour and endurance, and was cheerful and uncomplaining throughout.”
Cruickshank survived and returned to England where he was hailed as a hero, receiving his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace on Oct. 24, 1918. After the war, he returned to his career in sales and became very active in the British Legion. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Cruickshank volunteered to serve in the Home Guard and reached the rank of major.
He died on Aug. 30 1961 and his ashes were interred at Glen Parva Parish Church in Leicester, England.
"As we reflect on the sacrifices made during the past century by tens of thousands of men and women from throughout Canada, it is absolutely essential their contributions be remembered," said Premier Selinger Nov. 8. "The lakes being named today will ensure these four brave men will never be forgotten."
All the lakes are located approximately 90 to 110 kilometres east of Thompson.
With today's announcement, the provincial government has now named geographical features in honour of all 14 Manitoba Victoria Cross recipients.
Only the Brereton family has been located to date and will be sent a commemorative name certificate for Brereton Lake.
Due to the difficulty in locating next of kin for other recipients, the province says, it is expected that certificates of registration will be given to their regiments. However, any family members of the other men being honoured are asked to contact Des Kappel, the provincial toponymist with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship in Winnipeg at (204) 945-1798 or by e-mail at: Des.Kappel@gov.mb.ca