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Excerpts from
Courage Rewarded: Canadian Soldiers Under Fire 1900-2007

Major George Pearkes at Passchendaele

As the Great War progressed into 1917, it seems that many soldiers became disillusioned by the senseless war in the trenches but managed to carry on, as they became emotionally numbed or fatalistic. However, others (a minority but perhaps a large minority, particularly in the officer class) continued to be driven by a sense of idealism. They were products of the Victorian/Edwardian society in which they were raised, most often coming from middle or upper class families and influenced by the romantic values of that era, which held honour and duty as the highest goals. Perhaps one of the best examples of this type of soldier was George Pearkes. He had been brought up in England where a strong sense of duty had been instilled in him by his education at Berkhamstead School. He later wrote that

I'm certain that my public school days influenced my whole life more than anything else that I can think of. I am sure that the idea of playing for a team, for the school, influenced all my life and I see it, the further I look back, why the sense of duty in the war to your battalion, to your men and even when one goes through to Parliament, why you have your Constituency, and so forth. The sense of doing your duty was inculcated to you in those very impressionable days.

In 1906, he immigrated to Canada and eventually joined the Royal Canadian North West Mounted Police. As soon as the war broke out, however, he applied for a discharge and in early 1915 enlisted as a private in the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles. Going into action near Ypres in early 1916, he was twice wounded, but was commended for personal bravery and commissioned in the field in April. At the end of September 1916, he was transferred to the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles with the rank of captain. In the battle of the Somme, he was wounded again but received the Military Cross for his leadership under fire. In October 1917, he found himself leading a company of the 5th CMR in an attack on the outlying defences of Passchendaele. As he led his men out of their trench, they were immediately hit by a German counter-barrage. Pearkes later recalled that

at the time I was hit in the thigh and was knocked down. I don't think I was unconscious but there was a heavy blow on my side and I rather thought, 'Now I've got it.' There seemed to be a little uncertainty with the men immediately alongside me whether they should go on. Well, for the moment I had visions of going back wounded and I said to myself this can't be, I've got to go on for a while anyway, wounded or not, so I clambered to my feet and I found a stiffness in my left thigh but I was able to move forward and then the rest of the company all came forward.

He led his men forward over swampy ground and, although receiving heavy casualties along the way, they fought their way to their final objective. By that time, Pearkes had only twenty men left with him. They were now a thousand metres from their start line and the battalions on either flank had been unable to advance, leaving the flanks of this small force unprotected. Despite his wound, Pearkes inspired his men to hang on and they beat off a series of German counter-attacks. Meanwhile, his battalion headquarters remained in suspense, not having heard whether any progress had been made because of the low swampy ground that was being swept by German machine gun fire. Major Pearkes had a carrier pigeon with him, but the clips and message forms had been lost. Using a piece of fibre from a sandbag, he was able to attach the following message to the pigeon and get word of their situation back:

Am holding line of shell holes as shown on attached map. Have about 20 men & Lieutenants Andrews, Gifford & Otty, 5 CMR. Strong counter attack by enemy en masse successfully beaten back. 60 men 2 CMR arrived. Both my flanks in the air. Bde on left must endeavour to come up. Am short SAA [small arms ammunition] but will hold on.

They did hold on, reinforcements arrived, and the attack by his brigade that day was considered successful only due to the determination of his little force. Major Pearkes received the Victoria Cross for his leadership and courage. His later reflections emphasize where he had found his strength:

I felt cold, muddy, and dirty. I don't think I felt scared - just bewildered. You just staggered on in a sort of half-aware manner. I think it's fear that keeps you going, fear of being considered not competent, not being up to your job. You keep going because you feel it's your duty to keep on going. You don't think about it. Your men are going on because you are .