Heroes of the First World War: Vancouver's Story

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Canadian soldiers going over the top at Vimy Ridge

This post was written by Will Woods – Founder and Chief Storyteller at Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours.

Today not a single soul survives who can actually remember fighting in the First World War. The men who stood for weeks in filthy trenches, dodging machine-gun bullets, nursing terrible wounds, are all gone now – even the ones who made it home have all now passed.

Vancouver sent more men to fight, per capita, than any other major city in Canada. The Canadian Great War Association identified 1,401 Canadians killed in the First World War who had a next-of-kin address in Vancouver.

Remembrance Day gives us the opportunity to remember the many who lost their lives – and the trauma of those who survived. Of the thousands who returned to Vancouver, many suffered missing limbs, severe burns, blindness, deafness or carried with them deep psychological scars. Only the very fortunate made it back alive and unscathed.

Two men returned to Vancouver from the First World War with the Victoria Cross pinned to their uniforms. A third man James Cleland Richardson – was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously after he died at the Somme in 1916.

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross remains today the very highest award for valour and bravery in the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. It is seldom granted, with only 1,357 having been awarded since its inception during the Crimean War in 1856. To date 100 Canadians have been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Robert Hill Hanna

Robert Hill Hanna

Robert Hill Hanna. Courtesy of B.C. Regiment.

Irish-born Robert Hill Hanna was working as a lumberman when the First World War broke out. At the age of 30, he signed up for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent to the front in France. On August 21, 1917, Hanna’s company attacked a German-held strong point at Hill 70 in Lens, France where they were met with fierce resistance.

The London Gazette of November 8, 1917 described Hanna’s role in the events as follows:

This warrant officer, under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, coolly collected and led a party against the strong point, rushed through the wire and personally killed four of the enemy, capturing the position and silencing the machine-gun. This courageous action was responsible for the capture of a most important tactical point. Hanna was decorated for his courageous actions with the Victoria Cross by His Majesty King George V, at a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace on December 5, 1917.”

By all accounts Hanna returned to normal civilian life after the war and continued his work as a lumberman. In 1930 he married a woman named Hannah (who, apparently, hence had the peculiar name of Hannah Hanna) and the couple had two boys, John and Robert. Sadly for the family, son John died in infancy. Hanna himself died in 1967 at the age of 80. He is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Burnaby.

Michael James O’Rourke

Michael James O'Rourke

Michael James O’Rourke. Courtesy of B.C. Regiment.

Michael James O’Rourke was – like Hanna – an Irish-born member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force when he received the Victoria Cross. Like Hanna, O’Rourke’s award was also due to efforts at the battle for Hill 70 at Lens, France in August 1917.

O’Rourke was deployed as a stretcher-bearer, bringing the wounded back from the front line so they could receive medical attention. He was somewhere between 39 and 42 years old at the time, depending on whether his military records (1879) or death certificate (1874) showed the correct date of birth. Either way, he would have been much older than most of his fellow soldiers.

At the height of the battle, O’Rourke worked unceasingly for three days and nights, saving several lives despite being under heavy machine-gun fire and having himself been knocked down and partially buried by enemy shells. For this remarkable display of bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917.

While Hanna and O’Rourke had much in common, their lives after the First World War were to be very different. Hanna was fortunate to return in fairly good health. O’Rourke’s exertions on the front had led him to develop sciatica. He was given a full medical discharge in 1918.

Like many returning soldiers from the First World War, O’Rourke also suffered from “shell-shock”, now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The combination of both physical and mental disabilities O’Rourke developed made it difficult for him to hold down regular work. He ended up living in a series of Downtown Eastside rooming houses, eking out an existence on his tiny pension in between bouts of employment.

O’Rourke did attain some prominence in Vancouver many years after the war. By the mid-1930’s he found casual work as a longshoreman on Vancouver’s waterfront. In the height of the Great Depression, the longshoremen’s union was locked in a bitter labour dispute with the owners of Vancouver’s waterfront businesses.

Business owners, politicians and many of the Vancouver newspapers were keen to portray the striking longshoremen as stooges of Moscow – a Communist threat right in the heart of Vancouver.

In response, O’Rourke and other First World War heroes who had since become longshoremen, took great delight in draping themselves in Union Jack flags as they marched at the front of union demonstrations – a deliberately visible display of patriotism. Even the most virulent anti-union commentators of the time found it difficult to condemn the actions of men who had fought for Canada with such bravery earlier in their lives.

Michael James O'Rourke leading the way to Ballantyne Pier.

Michael James O’Rourke (bottom-left holding a flag) leading the march to Ballantyne Pier. Courtesy of Past Tense Vancouver.

At one such demonstration in June 1935, around 1,000 union members attempted to march to Ballantyne Pier, where non-union workers [“scabs”], were employed doing the work of the striking longshoremen.

O’Rourke himself led the march, wearing his medals and carrying a flag. Before the march could reach the pier, it was attacked by a large contingent of club-wielding police on horseback. The resulting melee became known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, which saw many strikers and policemen hospitalized and one man shot in the legs by a police shotgun. The Battle remains the most violent event in Vancouver’s history of organized labour.

Fortunately O’Rourke who was somewhere around the age of sixty at the time  managed to slip away before the riot began. According to a biography of O’Rourke, written by Michael Kevin Dooley, O’Rourke would later say “When I saw we were beat, I beat it. I heaved a brick at a mounted policeman’s head though.”

O’Rourke died in 1957, aged around 80. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burnaby.

James Cleland Richardson

James Cleland Richardson

James Cleland Richardson. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. Ref C-033428.

James Cleland Richardson did not make it back from the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross after his death for his acts of bravery at the Somme: the bloodiest battleground of the entire war in which over a million men lost their lives.

Richardson was born in Scotland and after emigrating to Canada had lived in both Vancouver and Chilliwack. Befitting his Scottish heritage he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a piper.

At the Battle of the Ancre Heights in October 1916, Richardson was granted permission to lead his company of men ‘over the top’: out of their trench in an assault on a German position. The movement was successful and the position captured.

Under orders later to take back a wounded comrade and some prisoners, he remembered he had forgotten his bagpipes and returned to retrieve them. He was never seen again. It was for his valour that day that he received the Victoria Cross.

Richardson’s remains were discovered four years later in 1920 and he was buried in Adanac Military Cemetery in France.

Richardson’s death, in some ways, symbolizes the horrors of the First World War. The war saw huge legions of men on both sides fighting against modern machinery such as machine-guns and tanks, using Victorian-era fighting methods. Richardson’s piping may well have inspired his company to a heroic advance, but would sadly not protect him from machine-gun fire.

Quite remarkably, the bagpipes themselves were discovered in 2002. A Chaplain in the British Army Major Edward Yeld Bate had found the mud-caked pipes in 1917 and taken them home to a school in Scotland where he was a teacher. Thanks to an internet search 85 years later, the pipes were identified as belonging to Richardson and repatriated to Canada, where they now reside on display in the B.C. Legislature.

James Cleland Richardson's bagpipes

James Cleland Richardson’s bagpipes on display at the B.C. Legislature. Courtesy Glen A. Allen, 2010.

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