Captain O’Kelly’s Victoria Cross: A Northwestern Ontario Connection
By Captain George J. Romick, OStJ, CD2
Captain Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC, was born in Winnipeg in 1895. He won his Victoria Cross (“For Valour’) at the battle of Passchendaele, Belgium in 1917. Though Winnipeg may claim him as its native son, Northwestern Ontario has a reason to share in a part of that acclaim. O’Kelly’s connection to this region is significant. He served in a unit, the 52nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) which was raised in Port Arthur. His Victoria Cross (VC) and Military Cross (MC) make him the most remembered and honoured of the men of the 52nd. Demobilized in Port Arthur in 1919, he spent time after the war prospecting in the Red Lake region, where he met an untimely death on Lac Seul in 1922. Memorials in his name can be found in Red Lake and on Goose Island, as well as in Port Arthur. This is the story of Captain O’Kelly’s war.
The impact of the First World War was felt throughout Canada including Northwestern Ontario. Along with the recruiting of soldiers there was of course the impact of the casualties, whether killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. As the war continued, this was brought home to the people of the region in the reports and casualty lists printed in the local papers. Despite this, among many of the residents of the region there was a sense of pride in their contributions, particularly in one of the units raised in the region, the 52nd Battalion out of Port Arthur, Ontario. The exploits of the 52nd, especially the fact that Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, one of its members won the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for valour in the British Empire, were followed in the local papers.
Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, was born 18 November 1895, the only son of Christopher and Cecilia O’Kelly. When the war started he was attending St. John’s College, part of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. While still an undergraduate he joined the 90th Regiment Winnipeg Rifles on 10 October 1915, with the rank of Provisional Lieutenant and was given command of No. 4 Company. He served with the 90th Regiment only a short time before being taken on the strength of the 144th (Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion on 26 February 1916, this time with the rank of Lieutenant. His medical records indicate he was comparatively tall at 5’ 11” and slender, weighing 145lbs. He was single and unlike many of his fellow officers in the 144th and 52nd Battalions, had not yet grown the military style mustache he is seen sporting in later publicity photos.
To the War Front
The 144th had been raised in Winnipeg in December 1915, after the 52nd had departed Canada. After being in uniform less than a year O’Kelly embarked at Halifax, with the 144th on 18 September 1916, for England and after an 8 day voyage he disembarked at Liverpool. Here the men of 144th were transferred to the 18th Reserve Battalion at Seaford, to await reassignment. Then on the 19 February 1917, O’Kelly was drafted to the 52nd Battalion and joined them in France. He arrived on 27 February and was assigned to D Company, which the 52nd Battalion War Diary described as a “fine and dry” day and the unit was in rest billets near Marles Les Mines in the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais in France. He remained with the unit until 2 June. At that time he was detached to the Canadian Corps School. It is unclear if he went as a student or instructor, however, he returned around 22 June in time for a major attack by the 52nd. He was now with C Company, commanding 9 Platoon. By this time the Canadian Corps had taken Vimy Ridge from the Germans and the 52nd was waiting orders to move on to the next objective.
The Battalion moved down the ridge towards the trenches in front of Avion, on the 27 June. The Canadian Corps had to take the town of Avion, before moving onto Hill 70, which the Germans held and gave them commanding views over the surrounding area as well as the city itself. The operation of taking Hill 70 was intended to engage as many German formations as possible and to prevent them from reinforcing the Ypres sector during the Third Battle of Ypres.
By 2am on the 28 June the troops were in position and a short, but intense artillery barrage started at 2:30am sharp. It moved forward at one minute intervals. At 2:40am when the artillery barrage was lifted from the forward part of the German line, the men were assaulting the trenches. As C Company, in which O’Kelly was commanding 9 Platoon (a unit of 30 men), advanced on the left, it was discovered that in a few places the barbed wire was still intact and this caused a delay as the men scrambled thorough it. Upon reaching the first trench they came under machine gun fire. The men of 9 Platoon reacted quickly, bringing suppressing fire onto the machine gun and Lieutenant O’Kelly moved forward tossing grenades. The German crew was killed and O’Kelly brought in the captured gun. This decisive action prevented the gun crew from inflicting more serious casualties on the attackers.
The Military Cross
Over the next two days the attacks continued with the 52nd aiding in the capture of Avion. For their part in the attack, the 52nd Battalion headquarters put forward nominations for 3 Military Crosses, 2 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 22 Military Medals, one of the largest groups of awards the 52nd was nominated for. It took until early August for the decision on who would actually receive the awards and it was announced 2 of the officers and 17 of the men would receive the decorations. O’Kelly was one of the officers who received a gallantry award, the Military Cross for his distinguished service in the 52nd Battalion attack on 27-28 June.
The following is the excerpt from the London Gazette:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his platoon through heavy wire against the enemy trenches. Having reached and captured his objective, he led a bombing party against a hostile machine gun which was firing on his flank. He bombed the crew and captured the gun, by his gallant conduct and fine leadership, saving his company many casualties and setting a fine example to all ranks.1
O’Kelly was granted 10 days leave to the United Kingdom on 15 August 1917. During that time the 52nd was involved in the battle for Hill 70, north of Lens from 24-27 August. When O’Kelly arrived on the 28th, the news came that he had been granted the rank of Acting Captain. Canadian troops in mid-October had begun relieving the New Zealanders who were at that point leading the attack on Passchendaele Ridge. The 52nd remained in the area of Vimy and Lens until 22 October, when they boarded trains for Ypres.
The 52nd joined the attack at 5:40am on 26 October and the initial reports were good. However, by 8:30am it was apparent the 43rd and 58th had suffered heavy casualties and had yet to secure the brigade objective of the German front line. The result was that at 10:40am both C and D Companies of the 52nd had moved forward to assist holding the part of the line that had been captured. The attack had stalled. At the same time it was learned that the remaining German pillboxes (concrete defensive structures in the German lines) on the spur dominated the captured ground inflicting casualties on the 43rd. Orders were received from brigade headquarters for the 52nd to fill the gap on the left of the 43rd with A Company, flank the German pillboxes with B Company and push through the 58th to secure the rest of the spur with D Company. The entire brigade assault now rested on the 52nd, supported by the other two units.
The Victoria Cross
O’Kelly, leading the flanking assaults of A Company using new tactics, cleared a number of the German pillboxes. He then linked up with B Company to clear more pillboxes and helped consolidate the defence of the ground captured. According to the press release prepared by the propaganda section of Military Intelligence, “Throughout the day Lt. O’Kelly had been always where the danger was greatest, encouraging the weary, cheering the wounded, and inspiring every man of his company…Under such leadership his men were willing to go anywhere and do anything.”2 By about 2:50pm, after beating off a number of counter attacks, the 52nd consolidated. Extra ammunition, water and rations were brought up to them. The Battalion had captured 9 pillboxes, some 275 prisoners and 21 machine guns. The unit remained in the front line until the evening of 27 October when it moved into support.
After the battle headquarters nominated 28 men for gallantry awards. In the following weeks it was learned that 23 awards had been accepted. The officer awards were 2 Distinguished Service Orders and 4 Military Crosses, while the soldiers were awarded 6 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 11 Military Medals. However, apparently there was nothing for Acting Captain O’Kelly.
In the meantime the 52nd continued the now familiar routine of trench rotation. On 12 December 1917 O’Kelly was granted 14 days leave to the United Kingdom. No doubt he spent a portion of this taking in the sights. He had one official duty however, to report to Buckingham Palace on 19 December, to be invested by King George V with the Military Cross he had won in June. He rejoined the unit on 29 December, in the front line, to learn his A Company had suffered a trench mortar attack, in which 14 men were killed.
On 13 January 1918 the 52nd learned there had been a 24th gallantry award won at Passchendaele. Two days earlier, the King had awarded Captain C.P.J. O’Kelly the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the British Empire. It was one of the three Victoria Crosses, given to Canadians for the attack on 26 October. The following is the excerpt from the London Gazette:
For most conspicuous bravery in an action he led his company with extraordinary skill and determination. After the original attack had failed and two companies of his unit had launched a new attack. Capt O’Kelly advanced his company over 1000 yards under heavy fire without any artillery barrage, took the enemy positions on the crest of the hill by storm, and then personally organized and led a series of attacks against “Pill-boxes”, his company alone capturing six of them with 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. Later on in the afternoon, under the leadership of this gallant officer, his company repelled a strong counter-attack, taking more prisoners, and subsequently during the night captured a hostile raiding party consisting of one officer, 10 men and a machine gun. The whole of these achievements were chiefly due to the magnificent courage, daring and ability of Capt. O’Kelly.3
This was quite an accomplishment, to win both the Military Cross and Victoria Cross, not yet reaching his 22nd birthday. After being awarded the VC, O’Kelly was granted the rank of full Captain, on the 4 December 1917. Early in March 1918 he applied for compassionate leave with the intent of returning to Canada to see his ailing mother. He was posted to the Manitoba Regiment Depot at Shorncliff on 16 March, but did not sail for Canada until the 26th. The delay was caused by more official duties. He was summoned again to Buckingham Palace to be invested by the King with the Victoria Cross, on 23 March.
After a brief stop at the Lakehead, O’Kelly arrived in Winnipeg to a hero’s welcome. On 14 April 1918, he was given a most enthusiastic civic welcome, from the people of Winnipeg. A wonderful reception was held at the Columbus Hall where many speakers paid homage to the first Winnipegger to return to the city bearing on his breast the little bronze cross bearing the simple words “For Valor”. O’Kelly seemed overwhelmed by the noise made by the audience when he rose to speak, said scarcely a dozen sentences. It was the first speech he had ever given and he felt “like a new sentry on duty at the front for the first time.”4
The Varley Portrait
He was initially given leave until 26 May, but was granted an extension until 18 June. A delay in his return to the unit occurred when he arrived back in England. The Canadian War Records Office, as part of its propaganda campaign, had commissioned war artists to paint portraits of some noteworthy Canadian soldiers. He had been selected to be memorialized in this way. One of the staff of the Canadian War Records Office who saw O’Kelly when he reported observed: “He was very young. His manner was quiet and somewhat grim, as if he had looked too closely into a hundred faces of death.” 5
This was the O’Kelly who met Captain F.H. Varley, who would later be part of the famous Group of Seven, to stand for his portrait. Though the portrait was not completed during O’Kelly’s stay in London, art scholars have noted that the subject did not stir Varley’s heart as other subjects did. Rather there was a sense of pathos to it. Varley “felt the ordinary soldier was a victim of forces beyond his control” and his intent “was to reveal the intimate experience of the individual caught up in a ‘game of life and death.’”6 The artist’s grandson (Christopher Varley) recorded that O’Kelly “posed drunk” and that the portrait shows him “shattered….slack, shrunken, and uneasy before the viewer.”7 Some consider the portrait of O’Kelly, one of two portraits of Canadian soldiers distinguished in battle, could quite rightly be considered the first of his mature works, finished in June 1918. Although not as good as his later portraits, it is a convincing psychological study. The painting later went on to be shown at several war memorial exhibits in 1918-1926, but thereafter it was relegated to obscurity in favour of other war art.
O’Kelly remained in England with the 18th Reserve Battalion doing “conducting duty”, which is escorting groups of soldiers being transferred, until he was transferred back to the 52nd on 26 August. He was put back in command of A Company. When O’Kelly joined them, the 52nd were preparing for their part in the series of battles for the Canal du Nord, part of the German “Hindenburg Line”, near Cambrai. The first phase of the battle was successful on 27 September, and the next day at 7:20am the 52nd moved forward to attack and capture the section of trench known as the Marconing Line.
The urgency of the situation required the 52nd to continue to work their way forward as best they could. That afternoon a new artillery barrage was fired and the attack renewed, but by 4:00pm it was clear the Marconing Line would not be captured that day. The 52nd was exhausted and suffered the heaviest casualties it would in any individual battle. They were ordered to dig in and wait for other battalions in the 9th Canadian Infantry brigade to take over the battle. The unit lost 9 officers and 250 other ranks. One of the casualties was Captain O’Kelly, wounded while trying to organize his troops for the attack. He had been hit by machine gun fire, and he managed to take cover in a shell hole, where he was subsequently hit by shrapnel. Because of the high casualties, he had to wait in the Casualty Clearing Station just behind the lines until 2 October before being evacuated to a hospital in the rear. From there he went to a hospital in England, undergoing further treatment, and finally reaching a convalescent hospital. By early November he had been transferred to the Manitoba Regimental Depot and then the 18th Reserve Battalion to await reassignment.
“A Huge Civic Welcome”
In the meantime the war ended. The general policy for demobilization was that, although individual soldiers might be sent home when the situation warranted it, preference was given to returning whole units. This would allow many of them to return with their comrades, to be greeted, where the local community desired, with a public reception. Having sufficiently recovered from his injures, O’Kelly was transferred back to the 52nd, which was now in England, on 9 March 1919. With his remaining 587 comrades he embarked on the SS Olympic eleven days later at Southampton, England.
They landed in Halifax and proceeded to the Lakehead for “dispersal”. The remaining members of the 52nd arrived by train on 29 March to a huge civic welcome. The battalion formed up at the Canadian Pacific Railway station, near the Pagoda and through throngs of well-wishers, marched down Cumberland to Pearl, then to Victoria and then back down Cumberland to Arthur Street and up to the Armoury. Here they were presented with the “Key to the City”. Those who had homes in Port Arthur and Fort William were dismissed and permitted to stay there, the rest were put up in the Colonial Hotel. That evening there was a dinner for the men at the YMCA and a street carnival and fireworks at the Pagoda. The next day they went by train to Fort William for a parade, with floats and a patriotic welcome. Over the next few days, as the final demobilization administration was completed, the men of the 52nd were hosted by numerous clubs and organizations. Finally on 1 April O’Kelly was demobilized. He returned to Winnipeg and took a job selling real estate. Not content to be out of uniform completely, he rejoined his old militia unit the Winnipeg Rifles in 1921 and was promoted to Major in March of 1922.
A Fatal Return to NWO
Soon he re-entered the history of Northwestern Ontario. In October 1922 leave was granted to him to go on a prospecting trip in the District of Lac Seul, located 40 miles south of Red Lake. He was recruited by E.L. “Bill” Murray, whose father was part owner of the real-estate firm O’Kelly had been working for. They would join a group of prospectors searching for gold, several of whom were war veterans and then spend the winter trapping
They spent the summer prospecting on Red Lake and in November they cached supplies and prepared for their winter activities. Murray and O’Kelly stopped at the Hudson’s Bay Company store at Pine Ridge on 14 November to buy additional supplies, before crossing Lac Seul on their way to their winter camp on Bluffy Lake. He and Murray were last seen on Lac Seul, near Goose Island by others from the shore, heading out in a canoe powered by an out board motor into a storm that was building up. It has been suggested that they left in a hurry, trying to shake some claim jumpers who wished to know where they were prospecting. A few weeks later when the ice was strong enough to walk on, a trapper found Murray’s pet dog stranded on the island. The Hudson’s Bay store was alerted and the manager notified the local Ontario Provincial Police, who also informed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Winnipeg.
Several searches were conducted over the winter, but they were hampered by snow. Both the Hudson’s Bay Company and some of O’Kelly’s comrades from the Winnipeg Rifles and the 52nd, helped in the searches. When the ice left Lac Seul in May 1923, some of their belongings where located and the body of Murray was found near the shore partly submerged, but the body of O’Kelly was never found. The canoe was found on a reef near the shore with a hole in the bow, the small outboard still attached. It was now clear what happened, they had tried to swim to shore, O’Kelly did not make it. Murray’s body was found on the south shore of Goose Island in a few feet of water, with his hand on the shore edge. Murray, the stronger man, reached the shore, but died of exposure and exhaustion. Another search was conducted under the direction of Corporal Hall of the RCMP, but the search was called off in June and both Murray and O’Kelly pronounced dead on or about 15 November 1922. There is some irony in the fact that the twice decorated war hero who survived some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, died in a boating accident.8
Remembering a War Hero
A wooden Memorial Cross with a silver plaque was erected 10 June 1924 on Goose Island, by his brother officers from the Winnipeg Rifles, with the following inscription:
“Erected to the memory of Major Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, V.C., M.C., by his Brother Officers of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles. Ye who pass this way are asked to care for this monument.”9 The site of the memorial was covered by water in 1929 when the level of Lac Seul was raised some 16 feet by the building of the Hydro Electric Power Dam at Lower Ear Falls. Forty years later a portion of the cross was recovered by one of Major O’Kelly’s 52nd Battalion comrades, Gerald Bannatyne, and the upright portion was donated to the Ear Falls, Royal Canadian Legion #238, for display. The St. John’s College Association, in 1927 also erected a stone cairn in his memory at Camp Morton, on Lake Winnipeg. On the 14 November 1965 a replica plaque, honouring the memory of Major C.P.J. O’Kelly was unveiled in the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Red Lake Ontario.
Major O’Kelly’s Victoria Cross, Military Cross, British War Medal, and Victory Medal were donated to the Canadian War Museum in 1970 by his two sisters, Mrs. Margaret M. Wall and Mrs. Monica Kiely. The Ecole O’Kelly School for children of military personnel at Canadian Forces Base Shilo was named in his honour in 1976. In 1989, the then Thunder Bay Militia District Headquarters sought permission to have the Armoury in Thunder Bay named after him. The honour was approved on 14 May 1990 to designate it officially “The Major Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC Armoury” with the short title “O’Kelly Armoury”.10
In 1992, Royal Canadian Legion Members from Branch 238, Earfalls, Sioux Lookout, Hudson and Dryden, dedicated a new cross and base to the memory of Major O’Kelly on Goose Island. On the 4th of July 2014. The Government of Manitoba recognized the bravery and courage of the 14 Manitoba Victoria Cross recipients including Major O’Kelly by naming provincial lakes in their honour through the Manitoba Geographical Names Program. O’Kelly Lake is located at 51° 59’ 00” Lat.; 95° 50’ 11”.
Although he was a Winipegger born and bred, OKelly’s connections to Northwestern Ontario are evident, in life and in death. He fought for the 52nd Battalion, which has memorialized him as one of its own. His last resting place ties him permanently to the region.
This article is a major reworking of the author’s original article which appeared in George J. Romick, “Captain C.P.J. O’Kelly Northwestern Ontario’s Only Victoria Cross Winner 52nd Bn. C.E.F.,” Military Collectors Club of Canada The Journal, 148 (Spring 1987), 20-22.
- Notice of the award was published in September and the citation the following January. Even though the unit received the notice in August, the official date of the award is 26 September. Fifth Supplement to the London Gazette 25 September 1917, no. 30308, 26 September 1917, 9981; Supplement to the London Gazette 8 January 1918, no. 30466, 9 January 1918, 611.
- Lieutenant J.P. Lloyd, “Tales of the V.C. Lieut. Christopher Patrick O’Kelly, M.C. Canadian Infantry” http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/5431 (accessed September 2013). Also Jeremy Arter, M.I. 7b: The Discovery of a Lost Propaganda Archive From the Great War (NP: Privately Printed, 2013). For another such account see Anonymous, “Valorous Deeds and Victoria Crosses – I” The Children’s Story of the War, No. 46, (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, ), 21.
- The published citation heading listed him as Lieutenant (Acting Captain). Sixth Supplement to the London Gazette 8 January 1918, No. 30471, 11 January 1918, 722. See also scholarly study by Douglas N. Walton, Courage: A Philosophical Investigation (Berkley: University of California Press, 1986), 128-129.
- “Winnipeggers Pay Homage to Their V.C. Hero,” Manitoba Free Press, 15 April 1918.
- Captain Theodore G. Roberts in Snelling, VCs of the First World War, 241; [Theodore Goodridge Roberts, Robin Richards and Stuart Martin], Thirty Canadian V.C.s: 23rd April 1915 to 20th March 1918 (London: Canadian War Records Office, 1918), 63-67.
- The National Gallery of Canada Exhibition of Canadian War Memorials, Ottawa, 5 January-23 March 1923; Catalogue of an Exhibition of Canadian War Memorials, Art Gallery of Toronto, Grange Park, October 1926 in LAC, RG24-G3, file 934.009 (D124), vol. 20,283, Catalogues of Canadian War Memorials, War Photos and War Trophies; Katerina Atanassova, ed., F.H. Varley: Portraits Into Light (Toronto: Dundun Press, 2007), 30.
- Christopher Varley, F.H. Varley (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada and National Museums of Canada, 1979), 10-13.
- There has been a lot written about the death of O’Kelly and Murray. D.F. Parrott, The Gold Mines of Red Lake, Ontario, Canada (Red Lake: Privately Printed, 1995), 151; Major J.L. Stevens, “Biography of Captain C.P.J. O’Kelly, V.C., M.C. Late 90th Winnipeg Rifles, V.C. Won With the 52nd Battalion, C.E.F.,” Eight Battalion (Overseas) Association, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, [1950?], Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum Files; Anonymous, “H.B.C. Helps in O’Kelly Search,” The Beaver, 3(11), (August 1923), 410-412; Michael Barnes, Red Lake: Golden Treasure Chest (Renfrew: General Store Publishing House, 2008), 89-90.
- “O’Kelly Plaque Unveiled,” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 November 1965.
- E-mail Lieutenant Colonel G.A. Abthorpe to Major D. Ratz, 18 September 2013.
Public Archives Canada
Canadian War Museum
Directorate of History, National Defence Headquarters
Canadian Forces Photographic Unit
The London Gazette
Manitoba Provincial Archives
Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regimental Museum
In The Face of Danger – Lieutenant Colonel George F.G. Stanley
Canada’s V.C.’s – Lieutenant Colonel George C. Machum
Manitoba Free Press – Winnipeg, Monday, 15 April 1918
The Register of the Victoria Cross
Thirty Canadian V.C.’s, Canadian War Records Office
The Red Lake Gold Rush – D.F. Parrott
VC’s of the First World War, Passechendaele 1917 – Stephen Snelling
F.H. Varley – Christopher Varley
100 Brave Canadians: The Canadian Gallantry Awards, 1854-1989 – Francis John Blatherwick
Canadians Decorated by The King – Kevin J.P. Joynt
Various newspaper articles