‘War hero of the family’: Canadian War Museum acquires 3 more Victoria Crosses

Pte’s story. James Peter Robertson is well known in the family of Peter Harris.

Canadian soldiers single-handedly pulled out a German machine gun lair at Passchendaele during World War I. He then leads his troops to their target before being killed by a cannonball as he tries to save a comrade.

Now, Harris hopes the story of his eponymous uncle will be known in the rest of the country.

Britain awarded Robertson the Victoria Cross for his heroism in the muddy, blood-soaked soil of Belgium. This is one of three such ornaments given to Canadians during the war recently acquired by the Canadian War Museum.

“If it’s just sitting in a safe, it’s not doing anyone any good,” Harris said. “So it seems like a better place, it’s in the war museum, and hopefully other people can see it, appreciate it, and learn about the story.”

The other two medals were awarded to 2nd Lieutenant Edmund De Wind and Sgt. Thomas William Holmes, the youngest Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for valor in the British Empire.

Through these acquisitions, the museum now holds 36 of the 73 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians during World War I. These included seven of the nine from Passchendaele, where 15,000 Canadians were killed or wounded during weeks of fighting.

“We can use these medals to tell personal stories,” said Teresa Iacbelli, the museum’s World War I historian. “And because these are VCs, they’re stories of extraordinary valor and heroism under the most extraordinary circumstances.”

On November 6, 1917, Robertson and his troops participated in the attack on the ridge named after Passchendaele. There was a cold drizzle and a German machine gun charged at the Canadians, who were unable to advance due to a block of uncut barbed wire.

Robertson spotted an opening in the wires on the side of the machine gun position, jumped up and charged over, then charged at the Germans. In the ensuing fight, he killed four before turning his gun on more enemies.

The 34-year-old from Medicine Hat, Alta, isn’t done. Armed with a machine gun, Robertson led his troops to the final objective, where he continued to fire on the retreating Germans. Soon after, he was killed while trying to help a wounded comrade.

“He was a famous war hero in the family,” said Harris, whose mother owns a replica of the Victoria Cross, a photo of her at Robertson’s grave and a newspaper article announcing his exploits. “So it’s a well-known story for us.”

The Victoria Cross was given to Robertson’s youngest sister, Harris’ grandmother, who passed it on to her own daughter when she died. According to Harris, this is mainly because his father was most interested in history.

The medal remained largely confined to a safe until Harris’ father died at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We took it out of his safe and we started thinking about it,” he said. “Mom remembers that she promised my grandmother that if it left the family, it would have to go to the Canadian War Museum.”

Born in Northern Ireland at the outbreak of the First World War, Derwende lived and worked in Canada as a banker. After serving in the Canadian Forces, he was commissioned as a British officer.

While serving in the Royal Irish Rifles on March 21, 1918, he defended a position for seven hours before being killed.

Born in Montreal, Holmes was 19 years old when he single-handedly destroyed three German machine gun emplacements at Passchendaele on October 26, 1917, and received the Victoria Cross. He survived the war and died in Toronto in 1950.

Eric Fernberg, one of the War Museum’s collection experts, said the Robertson and Dewind Medal was purchased from the pair’s family with donations and federal support. Sherlock Holmes medals are purchased from overseas individuals.

While the exact price has not been announced, the museum auctioned off the World War I Victoria Cross for $420,000 in 2017. Another work awarded to a Canadian in World War II sold to a British collector for $550,000 the same year.

The Victoria Cross “has a long history, and it resonates in our collective military history,” Feinberg said. “So when opportunities arise or arise (get opportunities), we do pursue them.”

The museum had no immediate plans to display the three newly won medals, and Harris admitted he was initially concerned that his uncle’s decorations would end up in a storage drawer.

“But the logic still holds,” he added. “Even if they decide there is no place to show it right now, at least it’s in the war museum. Then there’s a chance that at some point, they’ll make it accessible to more people (who).

“So it still seems like a suitable place for it to live.”

Lee Berthiaume, Canadian Press

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