“Exceptional Acts Of Valour”
100 years ago, on 16 August 1917, a local soldier‘s courage earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross. It was created in 1856 by Queen Victoria to recognize “exceptional acts of valour in the face of the enemy” and is the rarest bravery award in the world. Since it was created 161 years ago, over twenty-five million British and Commonwealth sailors, soldiers, and airmen have served in wars, yet the Victoria Cross has been awarded only 1,388 times including to 94 Canadians, the last time in 1945.
John Henry ‘Harry’ Brown was born in Gananoque 9 May 1898. Following his father’s death, the family settled near Peterborough just before the start of the First World War. Brown was working in a munitions factory in London, Ontario, when he enlisted 18 August 1916, soon after turning 18. Following training in England, he arrived in France on 27 June and reported to his unit, the 10th Battalion which consisted largely of many men from Western Canada. He was among the many new arrivals who were reinforcing the battalion which had suffered heavy casualties during the capture of Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917 and in subsequent fighting.
The task assigned the 10th Battalion and other units of the Canadian Corps on 15 August 1917 was to capture Hill 70, about ten kilometers north-east of Vimy Ridge. The attack was successful, but on 16 August the battalion was isolated by a German artillery barrage and was subjected to numerous, intense infantry counter-attacks. Brown and another soldier were given a crucial message through the enemy artillery barrage requesting support. The other runner was killed almost immediately but Brown, despite having his left arm almost torn off and having received a severely wound to his hip, delivered his message before collapsing from loss of blood. He died in hospital the next day. The official historian of the Canadian army wrote that Brown’s valour was “one of the many acts of heroism that illuminate the dark pages of war.” His Victoria Cross citation states that his “devotion to duty was of the highest degree imaginable, and his successful delivery of the message undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades.” Private Brown was age 19 and is buried in Noeux-Les-Mines military cemetery, France. In early 1918 his mother, who was ill with cancer, accepted her son’s Victoria Cross from the Governor General of Canada. She died a few months later.
Ten days of fighting for Hill 70 and the nearby city of Lens was intense and came at a cost of almost 9,000 Canadians killed or wounded to capture an area of about six square kilometers, considerably smaller than the town of Gananoque. Brown’s Victoria Cross is held by the Canadian War Museum. A replica can be seen at the Gananoque Legion along with over 250 medals awarded to other local soldiers covering the period from 1866 to the present day. The medal display is open to the public.
Courage, unfortunately is not always recognized. The message that Private Brown delivered and cost him his life called on Canadian artillery to stop German infantry attacks that threatened to overwhelm the Canadian defenders. In response, German artillery immediately began saturating Canadian gun positions with 15,000 rounds of mustard gas that caused severe blistering of exposed skin and attacked the eyes and corroded the lungs. In order to maintain the rate of fire needed to stop the German attacks, many gunners, including Alfred Stunden of Gananoque’s 3rd Field Battery, removed their gas masks and protective clothing and suffered the full effects of the gas. Many gunners, including Stunden, age 22, died after weeks of agony. An officer in his unit wrote: “There is no finer example of sacrificial devotion to duty in the annals of the army than that recorded by the gunners on the fateful night.” Doctor William Brown of Mallorytown enlisted in 1917 shortly after graduating from Queen’s Medical School. When his hospital was hit by poison gas in May 1918, Brown remained behind to attend patients who could not be moved. He died three days later of the effects of the gas, age 24. Despite their courage, neither man received any recognition because the Victoria Cross, which rarely is awarded, is the only Commonwealth bravery award that can be given posthumously.
Private Brown’s headstone in France with engraved Victoria Cross.