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Artists Drawing of Hero Class Patrol Vessel
Looking Back - John KinnearOn February 10, 2011, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced that nine ships in a new class of midshore patrol vessels would be named the Hero-class patrol vessels and that one of these new guardians of our coastline will be named the CCGS Private Robertson V.C..
A couple of weeks ago the Canadian Coast Guard sent out a plea into the city of Medicine Hat to see if there were any living relatives of Pte. James Peter Robertson around. Lynne Tebay, a grand niece, was shocked when her husband spotted the piece in the Medicine Hat paper and she realized that she was what they were looking for. A living relative of a wonderful war hero who could come to Halifax on November ninth to participate in the official dedication of a patrol vessel named after her great uncle. Defense Minister Peter MacKay called the naming of the new ships, "tributes to Canadians whose heroic efforts define bravery and sacrifice.”
Two of the new vessels are to be named after First World War soldiers who died in the line of duty. The other seven include two Mounties, two coast guard members, two Canadian Forces soldiers and one fisheries enforcement officer.
So who then was this Private James Peter Robertson and why was he chosen? Robertson’s name carries the important letters V.C. at the end, letters which stand for the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories. The Cross is awarded for...” most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. “
In the case of James Robertson it is a story of remarkable bravery in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought in the First World War at a place called Passchendaele. The battle for this Belgian crossroads village has been described by Winston Churchill as “a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility”. Canadian Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie wanted to call this assault off but was overruled by British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, whose strategy was to try and overwhelm enemy manpower no matter what the cost in human lives!
It was all part of an offensive brought about by a complicated war that was going badly. In 1917 the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare, Russia crumbled under the impact of revolution and withdrew from the war and part of the French army mutinied following the failure of General Nivelle's spring offensive. Haig’s attack was supposed to relieve the resulting German pressure on the Allied forces, a pressure that had left British and Australian/New Zealand troops with horrendous casualties.
As an example, On October 12, 1917 (First Battle of Passchendaele) there were more than 2,700 New Zealand casualties, of which 45 officers and 800 men were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines. In terms of lives lost in a day, this remains the blackest day in New Zealand’s recorded history.
So it was that Currie’s Canadians were sent into the appalling conditions of Passchendaele where they suffered over 15,000 casualties before finally gaining what was essentially five square kilometres of mud.
What follows is the description that the London Gazette gave on January 11, 1918 of Robertson’s fatal act of exceptional bravery:
“For most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty in attack. When his platoon was held up by uncut wire and a machine gun causing many casualties, Pte. Robertson dashed to an opening on the flank, rushed the machine gun and, after a desperate struggle with the crew, killed four and then turned the gun on the remainder, who, overcome by the fierceness of his onslaught, were running towards their own lines. His gallant work enabled the platoon to advance. He inflicted many more casualties among the enemy, and then carrying the captured machine gun, he led his platoon to the final objective. He there selected an excellent position and got the gun into action, firing on the retreating enemy who by this time were quite demoralised by the fire brought to bear on them.
During the consolidation Pte. Robertson’s most determined use of the machine gun kept down the fire of the enemy snipers; his courage and his coolness cheered his comrades and inspired them to the finest efforts.
Later, when two of our snipers were badly wounded in front of our trench, he went out and carried one of them in under very severe fire.
He was killed just as he returned with the second man.”
Robertson was one of nine soldiers awarded the V.C. during those horrific 12 days at Passchendaele where men and horses were hopelessly thrown at the enemy in a virtual quagmire of mud and bomb craters.
James Peter was a Nova Scotian, born in Pictou in 1883 and educated in Springhill. At the turn of the century the family moved to Medicine Hat. Robertson was known as Singing Pete, a nickname he earned after he had signed up with the CPR. It didn’t matter whether he was in the roadhouse or in the cab of an engine he was always cheerfully singing or whistling.
He joined the 13th Canadian Mounted Rifles in 1915 and transferred to the 27th Battalion when in England. His VC earning act of bravery made him a legend amongst the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers the world over.
James Peter Robertson was 34 when he died and is buried in Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery in Passchendaele. Medicine Hat has acknowledged this man by naming its Legion # 17 after him as well as a street and a swimming pool.
Passchendaele was a defining moment in Canada’s military history and one that helped shape us as a country. Canadian soldiers did in 16 days what others failed to do after almost three months of fighting. Twenty thousand Canadians entered the Passchendaele offensive; 5,000 never came home.
It is an entirely appropriate thing for the Government of Canada to name these new coast guard vessels in honour of Canadian heroes “who put their duty ahead of their own safety in service of our country”. We must never ever forget those who have paid the greatest price for our security, safety and freedom.
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