Canada’s Most Distinguished VC Winner
George Randolph Pearkes (Major) 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles
Pearkes’ first experience of the trenches was at Ploegsteert and then with the enemy in December 1915 near Messines. He was selected for specialist bomb training and became a sergeant in the bombing platoon, but was injured near Hooge on 26 March 1916. Shortly after he re-joined his platoon he was commissioned. Then followed a series of promotions, injuries and awards for gallantry. He had a Mention in Dispatches, awarded the Military Cross at the Somme.
On 30 October 1917, during the Second Battle of Passchendaele, Major Pearkes led his men over the top as the second phase of the campaign began, but was hit in the thigh almost immediately, but continued. They were headed across the swampy ground of Woodland Plantation towards the heavily fortified German strongpoint of Vapour Farm on the edge of the Goudberg Spur and met strong German resistance. Without realising the position of the other three Companies, Pearkes’ men pushed on, being exposed to fire from ahead and pillboxes to the left. They began taking heavy losses, not just from the barrage of fire but from falling into shell-holes and drowning in the mud.
After taking their first objective, Pearkes split his men, sending a platoon to take Source Farm which was still a strong point for the Germans, and with just 36 men, he headed towards Vapour Farm. Because of the smoke, Battalion HQ wasn't aware of the vicarious position that the Pearkes' platoon was in with the Germans only 100 yards away. However, although Pearkes had got a message to HQ the Company had moved so far ahead of the other companies, it was difficult for support to reach them. They held on, but Pearkes sent another message for help via a message attached to a pigeon using a strand of sandbag fibre.
Ignoring his leg wound, Pearkes kept up the spirits of his men, crawling from shell-hole to shell-hole, but after nearly eight hours of continuous fighting the men were exhausted and it was looking hopeless. Yet, the men continued to stand and fight with Pearkes continuing to send messages for support, although only a few men were getting through. By 5.45 pm via a wounded soldier, he reported ‘Men of 5th CMR Bn all in. Do not think I can hold out until morning’. As darkness fell support arrived, but fewer than 40 men returned from Vapour Farm and Source Farm, the last to leave was George Pearkes. They were the only attacking unit to capture and hold any of the final objectives on that day.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for most conspicuous bravery’ but his war did not end there, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel with the 116th Battalion and went on to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order at Amiens on 8 August 1918. Finally, he was seriously wounded on 17 September at Guemappe, France and was convalescing in London when the war ended.
After the war, he continued in service and by the outbreak of the Second World War, he was a brigadier. In December 1939, he arrived in England and was soon promoted to major-general of the 1st Canadian Division. He returned to Canada to take over Pacific Command, holding the post until 1945 when he retired from the Army with a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath and United States Order of Merit.
In June 1945 he became a politician and in 1957 was appointed Minister of Defence and a Canadian Privy Councillor, the only Cabinet minister in the Commonwealth to hold a VC. He stepped down in 1960 to become one of the most popular lieutenant-governors in the history of British Columbia. He also held the post of grand president of the Royal Canadian Legion until 1976.
More information on these and other stories can be found in 'VCs of Passchendaele' by Stephen Snelling.