By Steve Brearton, U of T Magazine
In the pre-dawn gloom of April 9, 1917, Canadian Army captain Thain MacDowell slipped over the top of his trench in northern France and began advancing toward Vimy Ridge. As heavy guns from his battalion rained shells down on German defensive positions, the 26-year-old MacDowell became separated from his fellow soldiers. Attended by only a pair of runners, he continued forward, lobbing a pair of hand grenades at two German machine gun nests that were guarding an underground dugout. MacDowell scored a direct hit. He approached the dugout and called down the tunnel for survivors to surrender. After receiving no response, he proceeded cautiously inside and confronted German troops. Thinking quickly, MacDowell shouted up to an imaginary force to convince his enemy that a substantive number of Canadian soldiers waited above. His ruse worked. Two German officers and 75 soldiers surrendered, and MacDowell sent the enemy troops out of the tunnel in groups of 12 so the runners could take them back behind Canadian lines. A military dispatch by MacDowell indicates just how precarious his situation was that day: “German aeroplanes came over and saw a few of my men at the dugout entrance and now we are under fire… unless I get a few more men with serviceable rifles, I hate to admit, but we may be driven out.” Although wounded in the hand, he held the position for five days, until relief arrived.
For his bravery, MacDowell (BA 1915 Victoria) was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour. He is one of only 94 Canadians ever to have received the award. A replica of MacDowell’s Victoria Cross now sits on proud display among rows of glittering medals in Soldiers’ Tower at U of T. (The original was donated to Victoria University and is held there in safekeeping.) In 2006, Eugene Ursual, a military antiquarian dealer based in Kemptville, Ontario, appraised MacDowell’s Victoria Cross at more than $350,000, but it’s what the medal represents that makes it truly valuable. “It’s the British Empire’s highest honour, and it represents the better side of humanity,” he says.
About the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross (VC) 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.
It takes precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals. It may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command. In the United Kingdom, it is usually presented to the recipient or to their next of kin by the British Monarch at an investiture held at Buckingham Palace. In other countries where the Monarch of the Commonwealth Realms is the head of state, the Governor-General usually fulfills the same function. It is the joint highest award for bravery in the United Kingdom with the George Cross, which is the equivalent honour for valour not in the face of the enemy. However, the VC is higher in the order of wear and would be worn first by an individual who had been awarded both decorations (which has not so far occurred)
The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,356 times to 1,353 individual recipients. Only 13 medals, nine to members of the British Army, and four to the Australian Army, have been awarded since the Second World War. The traditional explanation of the source of the gunmetal from which the medals are struck is that it derives from Russian cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol. Recent research has thrown doubt on this story, suggesting a variety of origins for the material actually making up the medals themselves.