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Canadian War Museum acquires more Victoria Crosses awarded to WWI soldiers

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The story of Pte. James Peter Robertson was well-known in Peter Harris’s family.

During the First World War, the Canadian soldier singlehandedly took out a German machine-gun nest at Passchendaele. He then led his unit to their objective before a shell killed him while he was trying to save a comrade.

Now, Harris is hoping his namesake great-uncle’s story will become more widely known by the rest of the country.

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Britain awarded Robertson a Victoria Cross for his bravery and heroism in the muddy, blood-soaked fields of Belgium. It was one of three such decorations given to Canadians during the war that were recently obtained by the Canadian War Museum.

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“If it’s just sitting in a safe-deposit box, it’s not doing anybody any good,” Harris said. “So it just seemed like it was a better place for it to be in the war museum, where hopefully other people can see it and appreciate it and learn this story.”

The other two medals were awarded to 2nd Lt. Edmund De Wind and Sgt. Thomas William Holmes, the youngest Canadian to ever win a Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest decoration for bravery.

With the acquisitions, the museum now has 36 of the 73 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians in the First World War. That includes seven of nine from Passchendaele, where 15,000 Canadians were killed or wounded during weeks of fighting.

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“We can use these medals to tell the individual stories,” said Teresa Iacobelli, the museum’s First World War historian. “And because these are VCs, they are stories of exceptional gallantry and heroism under the most extraordinary circumstances.”

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On Nov. 6, 1917, Robertson and his unit were part of an attack on the ridge bearing the Passchendaele name. As a cold drizzle fell, a German machine-gun ripped into the Canadians, who were unable to advance due to a wall of uncut barbed wire.

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Spotting an opening in the wire to one side of the machine-gun emplacement, Robertson jumped to his feet and rushed for it before running at the Germans. In the ensuing struggle, he killed four before turning the gun on more of the enemy.

The 34-year-old from Medicine Hat, Alta., wasn’t done. Carrying the machine-gun, Robertson led his unit to its final objective, where he continued firing on the retreating Germans. A short time later, he was killed while trying to help a wounded comrade.

“He was the famous war hero of the family,” said Harris, whose mother has a replica of the Victoria Cross as well as a picture of herself at Robertson’s grave and a copy of the newspaper article announcing his exploits. “So it was a well-known story to us.”

The Victoria Cross was given to Robertson’s youngest sister, Harris’s grandmother, who passed it down to her own daughter when she died. Harris believes that was largely because his father was most interested in history.

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

“We got it out of his safety-deposit box and we started thinking about it,” he said. “Mom remembered that she promised my grandmother that if it ever left the family, it would have to go to the Canadian War Museum.”

Born in Northern Ireland, De Wind was living and working in Canada as a banker with CIBC when the First World War broke out. After serving in a Canadian unit, he was commissioned as British officer.

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

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Born in Montreal, Holmes was 19 years old when he earned his Victoria Cross at Passchendaele on Oct. 26, 1917, by singlehandedly knocking out three German machine-gun emplacements. He survived the war and died in Toronto in 1950.

Eric Fernberg, one of the war museum’s collections specialists, said the Robertson and De Wind medals were purchased from the two men’s families with donations and federal support. The Holmes medal was bought from an individual overseas.

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While the exact prices have not been disclosed, the museum paid $420,000 at auction for a First World War Victoria Cross in 2017. Another awarded to a Canadian in the Second World War was sold to a British collector that same year for $550,000.

The Victoria Cross “has a long history, and it has resonance in terms of our collective military history,” Fernberg said. “So when opportunities present themselves or they arise (to acquire one), we do pursue them.”

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The museum doesn’t have any immediate plans for displaying the three newly acquired medals, and Harris acknowledged some initial concern that his great-uncle’s decoration would end up in a storage drawer.

“But the logic still holds,” he added. “Even if they decide that they don’t have a place to display it right now, at least it’s at the war museum. Then there’s a chance that at some point, they will be getting more people (who) can be exposed to it.

“So it still seems like the right place for it to live.”

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