The Yukon is getting the short end of the stick in the narrative of World War I. There are plenty of books on the Great War, but many of them don’t mention Canada’s involvement in the conflict. British authors emphasize the British dimension of the war, and American authors do the same, though for a somewhat abbreviated version as they didn’t enter the war until April, 1917.
I was not surprised, therefore, when a special program was recently brought to my attention. The “Toll of War” commemorative project will “highlight stories of Victoria Cross recipients from sea to sea from 1914-1945.” There are two elements to this project: the first is to develop educational material for Canadian students; the second is a banner program in each of Canada’s capital cities.
It is sponsored by The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick, which describes itself as an internationally recognized centre of excellence in the study of war and military history.
The project proposes to develop a banner highlighting a Victoria Cross winner from each province and to install complete sets of these banners in each capital. It is added that “there are no Victoria Cross winners from the territories to recognize with a banner.”
They are wrong on that point: the Yukon had two.
George Randolph Pearkes was born in Hertfordshire, England, February 26, 1889. He moved to Canada in 1906. He joined the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and served for five years before he enlisted in Victoria, on March 2, 1915. While he was stationed in Whitehorse, he served on the White Pass summit the summer of 1914, assisting the immigration officer stationed there.
In early January 1915, he escorted a prisoner to Dawson City on the overland stage. Not long after his return, he received his discharge from the Mounted Police, and went to Victoria to enlist. Pearkes rose rapidly through the ranks and was wounded five times over the course of the war.
On October 30, 1917 Pearkes, now a major, led two companies of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) forward to capture on the left flank on the approach to Passchendaele from the Belleview Spur. Pearkes was wounded in the leg early on, but continued to lead the advance, which succeeded in capturing their objective, called Vapour Farm.
With a greatly depleted force of men, low on ammunition, he held the position against German attacks, despite being exposed on both flanks.
According to the report submitted after the battle, “The boldness, initiative and skill displayed by Major G.R. Pearkes cannot be too highly commented upon. It was entirely due to his leadership that the operation of this battalion was so successful. For a considerable time he held Vapour Farm and Source Farms with a mere handful of men, beating off the first German counter attack without any other assistance. His appreciation of the situation was most accurate and his reports at all times were clear, concise, and invaluable.”
Pearkes remained in the military and served as a senior officer in the Canadian army in World War II. After the war, he was elected to Parliament four times and served as a cabinet minister in John Diefenbaker’s conservative government. He was later appointed lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.
The other Victoria Cross went to Rowland Bourke. Born in London, England on November 28, 1885, he found himself in Dawson City with his parents around the turn of the century.
At the end of the War, The Dawson News proudly announced that “Lieutenant Commander Rowland Bourke, a former Dawson boy, has emerged from the great war as one of the most notable heroes of the conflict…He is the only Dawson boy known to ever have won the Victoria Cross.”
“Young Bourke was the son of Doctor and Mrs. Isadore McWilliam Bourke, for years resident of this city. The young man lived in Dawson a long time with his parents…” In fact, his father operated a hospital, was the owner of the Metropole Hotel and resided in Dawson from the gold rush for 10 years.
In appearance, Rowland Bourke did not display the proportions of a hero. Slender of build, wearing glasses and unassuming in demeanor, he tried to enlist in Canada but was rejected by all three branches of the Canadian armed forces because of poor eyesight. He paid his own passage back to his birthplace, and enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
In April of 1918, Lieutenant Bourke volunteered for a mission involving the blocking of a heavily defended U-boat base at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. On the evening of the 23rd, he took his motor launch into the harbour to pick up 38 sailors from the sinking ship HMS Brilliant and towed another crippled motor launch out of the harbour. For that, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Only three weeks later, on May 10, he was involved in another mission off the coast of Belgium. The citation for his award explains the details:
Bourke “volunteered for rescue work in command of M.L. (Motor Launch) 276, and followed Vindictive into Ostend, engaging the enemy’s machine guns on both piers, with Lewis guns. After M.L. 254 had backed out Lieutenant Bourke laid his vessel alongside Vindictive to make further search. Finding no one he withdrew, but hearing cries in the water he again entered the harbour, and after a prolonged search eventually found Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne and two ratings, all badly wounded, in the water, clinging to an upended skiff, and rescued them.”
“During all this time the motor launch was under very heavy fire at close range, being hit in fifty-five places, once by a 6 in. shell – two of her small crew being killed and others wounded. The vessel was seriously damaged and speed greatly reduced. Lieutenant Bourke, however, managed to bring her out and carry on until he fell in with a Monitor, which took him in tow. This episode displayed daring and skill of a very high order, and Lieutenant Bourke’s bravery and perseverance undoubtedly saved the lives of Lieutenant Alleyne and two of the Vindictive’s crew.
Bourke was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 11th September 1918.
Pearkes and Bourke pursued their careers after the war in British Columbia, but they were both citizens of the territory before the First World War began. Yukoners were then and still are proud to claim these two heroes as our own. After all, we had them first.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org