The Canadian War Museum announced Monday that it has acquired another Victoria Cross to add to its Hill 70 collection thanks to a donation from the Hill 70 Memorial project.
The medal, the highest honour bestowed to a combatant of a Commonwealth military organization, was awarded to Lt. Robert Hill Hanna of B Company of the 29th Infantry Battalion for “outstanding gallantry, personal courage and determined leading of his company.” The medal is the fourth that the museum has acquired. Six in total were awarded to Canadians.
The cross was acquired by the Hill 70 Memorial Project in which Cyril Woods is a founding member. Woods is a philanthropist who has worked to memorialize the battle of Hill 70 and those who served and perished in the battle, including Robert Hanna.
“It’s unbelievable and I’m very proud, ” said Cyril Woods as the medal was officially handed over to the Canadian War Museum.
Woods felt a strong connection to Hanna, which is why he came forward with an undisclosed amount of money to help purchase the medal.
“I think it’s being Irish and we come from the same county, we’re from Tyrone,” explained Woods. “All Irishmen, they have something built into us. We’re not scared; when trouble comes, if we’re loyal to our countries, we’ll fight.”
Hanna was the company sergeant major and during the battle of Hill 70, Canada’s first major engagement in the First World War under a Canadian commander, he took charge of the company after all officers were killed or wounded in three previous assaults. For the final assault, Hanna gathered all the survivors he could and charged a German machine gun team and neutralized it.
“Every officer in the company was dead, there’s none left alive, (Hanna) was the most senior …. So he organizes the company of about one hundred guys,” said Mark Hutchings, chair of the Hill 70 board of directors. “They are taking horrible casualties from one particular machine gun post. He goes and dispatches four of them and himself and basically saves his men.”
Hanna survived the war and died in 1967 near Abbotsford, B.C., at the age of 79.
“To keep a Victoria Cross, which is the worlds most recognized medal for valour in Canada and not lose it to a foreign purchaser is brilliant,” said Hutchings. “We have to thank Cyril Woods for that. All Canadians are now going to be able to see this medal which is part of our heritage.”
The 10-day battle for Hill 70 took place between Aug 15 and 25, 1917, and saw 1,877 Canadians killed and over 7,000 wounded. The victory secured a strategic position for the Canadian Corps overlooking the village of Lens, France.
The museum is currently working on plans to display the Hill 70 Victoria Cross medals to be unveiled in 2019. According to Eric Feinberg, collections specialist at the museum, there have been 99 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians since 1856 and the museum has acquired 39 of them.
“This is the story of our Canadian military, this is valour and heroism. It’s something that really speaks to the deep commitment of our service personnel who were fighting for Canada. (A Victoria Cross) is the one mark that stands out above all.” said Fernberg