Pine Street used to be just another small street in the east end of Winnipeg. It runs north from Portage Avenue, the same Portage Avenue that makes up one half of the coldest corner in Canada, as far as Notre Dame Avenue. It’s about a mile long altogether. You’d think it was a street just like any other street in Canada. However, during World War I, three boys from the same block of that street enlisted together. After all three of them won the Victoria Cross, the residents of that street lobbied to change its name to Valour Road.
Canadian soldiers and the Victoria Cross during World War I
Altogether, the Victoria Cross has been awarded 1,357 times since it was first created by Queen Victoria in 1856. Out of 628 VCs awarded during World War I, 71 went to Canadians. That’s the highest number for any Commonwealth country outside Great Britain. When you add in the two VCs that went to Newfoundland World War I soldiers, the total goes to 73! (But you really shouldn’t add them in. Newfoundland didn’t become part of Canada until 1949.)
With that kind of validation, there’s no wonder that the British and French respected Canadian soldiers a lot. British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote that “whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst.”
Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall
Hall won his VC during the Second Battle of Ypres. That’s the one where the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time, on April 22, 1915. The heroic action that caught everyone’s attention happened three days later, on April 25, 1915.
Along with two other soldiers, Hall had tried to rescue an injured soldier from the battlefield, but they drew heavy fire the moment they emerged from the trenches, and they were all forced back under heavy fire. His two companions had been injured during the attempt, and now the guns were waiting for them.
Nevertheless, Hall went out a second time, keeping as low as he could. He got to the injured soldier and began moving him back toward friendly territory.
He almost made it. Unfortunately, a bullet caught him when he raised his head to get his bearings. He died instantly. He was 30 years old.
Corporal Leo Clarke
The Battle of the Somme was the World War I battle which really gave the Canadians their reputation for valour, and that’s where the second of the boys from Pine Street won his medal. Clarke won it for refusing to give up against impossible odds.
He’d been caught alone in the trenches, under attack by twenty enemy soldiers. For most people, surrender would have been a reasonable option. Not for Clarke. He emptied his revolver, reloaded, and emptied it again. Then he picked up a German rifle from the ground and kept up the attack until the others fled.
Sometime during that attack, he’d been bayonetted in the knee, which is how Clarke became one of the 24,029 Canadian casualties of the Battle of the Somme. It didn’t stop him from chasing after the enemy soldiers and even taking a prisoner. After he returned to his post, he was taken to hospital, but he refused to stay there. He was back in the trenches the very next day.
However, the war eventually caught up with Clarke. He was killed a month after he won his VC. He was 23 years old.
Lieutenant Robert Shankland
The third of the Pine Street boys earned the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Second Battle of Passchendaele, where the Canadian Corps were once again assigned to be the main attack troops. On October 26, 1917, at great personal cost, the Canadians ended up capturing and securing every one of their objectives. Shankland’s heroism was an important part of that success.
Under heavy fire, Shankland’s platoon had managed to gain and hold a forward position at the crest of the hill of the Bellevue Spur, driving the Germans into temporary retreat. He then pulled together the surviving men of his forty man platoon, together with anyone else in the area who had been left leaderless during the assault, to dissipate a German counterattack and buy enough time for support troops to arrive.
That would have been heroic enough by itself. The outcome of the entire battle depended on this kind of small-unit courage and skill. The Bellevue Spur was particularly important. It was the main trench line defending the approach to Passchendale, so the battle really depended on holding the Spur.
They held out for four hours under heavy artillery fire and constant counterattacks without any support whatsoever. The 58th Battalion on Shankland’s right flank had failed to reach its objective and had been driven back by heavy fire, and the 8th Brigade on Shankland’s left flank was being forced back as well. Without reinforcements, Shankland’s platoon was in imminent danger of being cut off.
There was only one way to get those reinforcements. Shankland made his way alone through the battlefield to Battalion Headquarters, through constant artillery fire and mud that was so thick that men had drowned in it. He delivered an accurate assessment of his position and situation, along with a proposal of how British reinforcements could successfully counterattack against the Germans. And then he personally brought those reinforcements back to his embattled platoon and kept fighting to hold the position until the platoon could be relieved.
This was not the first act of heroism for Shankland. He had previously been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions at Sanctuary Wood as a sergeant in charge of a stretcher bearer party. Even his commission had been earned on the battlefield. At Passchendaele, “his courage and splendid example ... undoubtedly saved a very critical situation.”
Sometime in 1917, an official portrait of Shankland was painted by Alexander Young Jackson, who’d been wounded at Sanctuary Wood and later served as a war artist. A. Y Jackson had been a founding member of the Group of Seven, and went on to become a very famous Canadian painter. It's nice to think that sometime while Shankland was in charge of getting the wounded away to safety at Sanctuary Wood, he'd saved Jackson's life.
Alone of the boys from Pine Street, Shankland survived the war. After a civilian interlude working for several Winnipeg firms, Shankland served again in World War II, although he was too old for combat duty and was assigned to be camp commandant of the Canadian Army Headquarters in England. In 1946, he was discharged from the Canadian Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Shankland died in Canada on January 20, 1968. He was 80 years old.