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How a Springhill boy saved the day at Passchendaele

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Private Robertson V.C. on the St. Clair River at Sarnia Ontario August 20 2017.
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Private Robertson V.C. on the St. Clair River at Sarnia Ontario August 20 2017. - Submitted

SPRINGHILL – The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest honour.

Introduced in 1856, it is awarded for gallantry in combat, often posthumously. When that happens, instead of a medal proudly worn on a veteran’s chest, the initials ‘V.C.’ are prescribed to the recipients on their community’s cenotaph.

James Peter Robertson is one of those recipients.

Born in 1883 in Stellarton, N.S. – then known as Albion Mines – Robertson’s family moved to Springhill where he grew up with familiar last names like Brown, White and MacDonald. In time, his family moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta, and when the First World War broke out Robertson – then 32 years old – joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Two years later he would be dead, but not before distinguishing himself in the heat of battle and saving the lives of his colleagues.

On November 6, 1917, during the final assault at Passchendaele, Belgium, Robertson and his platoon were pinned between a rock and a hard place. Behind them, barbed wire prevented retreat. Ahead of them, a German machine gun was doing it’s best to mow them down. Nonetheless, Robertson found an opening in the enemy’s flank and rushed the gunner. It wasn’t an easy sneak attack.

In a desperate struggle, Robertson killed four members of the German gun crew before wrestling away control of the machine gun and turning it on the remaining Germans. With the enemy in retreat of Robertson’s fire, his platoon advanced and joined his position.

The Second Battle of Passchendaele was now moving in the allies’ favour, and most of the units had reached their goals. As Robertson’s platoon advanced towards theirs, two friendly snipers fell injured in front of his trench. Robertson went out and carried one of them back to safety under heavy fire, but when he tried to skirt enemy fire a second time an enemy shell exploded, killing him.

Robertson remains rest in the Tyne Cot Cemetery, five miles north of the Belgian town Ypres. His marker was dubbed “Plot LVIII. Row D. Grave 26,” but his name is still remembered today by both his community and his nation.

The first Canadian hero-class vessel built for the Canadian Coast Guard and launched in May 2012 is named the CCGS Private Robertson V.C. It now patrols the Great Lake.

Here in Springhill, however, it is the community cenotaph which holds Robertson’s name for us to remember and those of the Browns, the Whites, the MacDonalds and all the other families whose loved ones paid the ultimate price.

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