Passchendaele's Last VCs
On 6 November 1917, after nearly four months of fighting, the village that would give its name to the campaign was devastated, with only the ruin of the church recognisable. Passchendaele Ridge, was still the centre of shelling and artillery bombardment. Passchendaele, the deadlock of three years fighting was now the main target and by the end of the day, after 99 days to cover five miles, the fight for Passchendaele was over. The last two Victoria Crosses of Passchendaele were awarded to two Canadians.
Colin Fraser Barron (Lance-Corporal) 3rd (Toronto) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force
He emigrated to Canada in March 1910, becoming a railway worker in Toronto. He enlisted in the 48th Highlanders, a militia unit in May 1913 and was posted to H Company. He volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January 1915 and was posted to D Company, 35th Battalion. On 31 July 1915 he joined the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion. He was promoted to lance-corporal on 8 April 1917, the day the Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge.
On the morning of 6 November 1917, the Canadian First Division were facing the enemy strongpoints along the spurs feeding onto the main ridge north-west of Passchendaele with the aim of taking Vine Cottage, one of the largest pillboxes in the sector. They would be hampered by the rain and mud. Slowly and at considerable loss, Lieutenant H.T. Lord’s D Company closed in on Vine Cottage, but they were driven back before they could get within bombing range. However, Cpl Colin Barron, commanding one of the battalion’s Lewis gun sections, decided to carry on and managed to get his weapon close to fire at ‘point-blank’ range. Two of Vine Cottage’s three machine-gun crews were wiped out by his deadly fire. He couldn’t see the third gun at first, but before the pillboxes crew could react, followed by some of his platoon, he attacked and took out four men and the rest were taken prisoner. Barron finished by turning the captured machine guns on to those who had escaped. For these actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
In early 1918 he was assigned to the Canadian Corps Lewis Gun School as an instructor. In March 1918 he returned to Scotland to receive a gold watch from the Duke of Richmond and Gordon and a wallet of treasury notes raised by public appeal.
He returned to Canada a sergeant and was demobilised in April 1919, but re-enlisted in the 48th Highlanders of Canada in 1921 until 1931 rising to Colour Sergeant Major. He married and had two daughters and had a variety of jobs including serving with the Provincial Police at Kitchener, Orangeville and Niagara Falls. When the Second World War broke out he enlisted again and took part in the occupation of Iceland and was later made provost sergeant-major at 1st Division HQ in England.
After the war, he returned to his job as a security guard at the Don Jail and then joined the Toronto Corps of Commissionaires. Barron was among the Commonwealth holders of the Victoria Cross who attended the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He died on 15 August 1958 and was buried in the Veteran’s Plot, Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.
James Peter Robertson (Private) 27th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force
James Peter Robertson was one of eleven children of Scottish-born parents. In 1898 the family relocated to Medicine Hat, Alberta and Pete joined the Canadian Pacific Railway working his way up to locomotive engineer. He enlisted at Macleod on 14 June 1915 in the 13th Canadian Mounted Rifles and embarked for England in June 1916. He arrived in France in September 1916 as part of the 27th Battalion.
Standing 6ft 3in tall, Robertson, known as ‘Singing Pete’, was a popular and highly regarded fighting soldier, who had refused all offers of promotion. A man noted for his willingness to take risks, on the 6 November 1917, he was part of the 27th Battalion advancing towards Passchendaele. Following a creeping barrage they swiftly advanced, but the nearer they came to the village the fiercer the opposition grew. One machine-gun was proving difficult to defeat, barring the way into the main street and heavily fortified. Three times the platoon had charged it, only to be driven back, when Robertson decided to intervene. While his colleagues were firing their Lewis guns and rifles at the machine-gun post, he leapt up and sprinted alone across the line of fire, dashing around the flank, hurdled the barbed-wire fence and set about the gun team with his bayonet. Within seconds four men were dead and as the remainder bolted, Robertson turned their gun on them.
This allowed the Canadians to advance through the village, with Peter Robertson at the front of the advance setting up his captured weapon and using it to great effect on the Germans. It took 30 minutes to clear Passchendaele and an hour later the eastern crest of the ridge beyond the village. The rest of the day was spent consolidating their position, but minor fire-fights continued throughout the day. When Robertson saw two snipers from his battalion lying wounded ahead of the Canadian line, he set out to bring them in. He rescued one, but the enemy were closing in, making it more dangerous, however, he ignored the risks and went out again. Capt. Theodore Roberts, of the Canadian War Records Office, wrote:
‘He fell before reaching the second man – he was probably hit – but picking himself up, he continued on his way, and secured his second comrade. Slipping on the sticky mud, nearly exhausted, he stuck to his man, and had put him down close to our line, when an unlucky shell exploded nearby, killing him instantly’.
Robertson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, the only one to be awarded for fighting in Passchendaele itself and the last one of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). He is buried in Tyne Cot cemetery. He was also the first ‘Locomotive engineer VC’. In Medicine Hat the Robertson Memorial Park was dedicated to him and a swimming pool, a street and the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion together with a ‘Hero Class’ coastguard vessel being named after him.
More information on these and other stories can be found in 'VCs of Passchendaele' by Stephen Snelling.