James P. Robertson, V.C.
James P. Robertson was one of the nine Victoria Cross recipients awarded for their actions at Passchendaele during the First World War. The Victoria Cross is Canada’s highest military honour, bestowed upon individuals who display the most conspicuous bravery, extraordinary valour, and unwavering commitment to duty in the face of hostile forces.
Born on October 26, 1883, in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, Robertson was one of five children. He would move throughout Nova Scotia during his childhood, before his family settled in Medicine Hat, Alberta, in 1899. Robertson worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway as an engineer until, on June 14, 1915, he enlisted with Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Robertson earned his Victoria Cross during the Second Battle of Passchendaele. On November 6, 1917, the 27th Battalion was assaulting German positions when Robertson’s platoon was stalled by uncut barbed wire and a German machine gun. Witness to the heavy casualties wrought by the firing machine gun, Robertson courageously dashed to an opening on the flank and attacked the position on his own. He killed four German gunners before capturing the machine gun and aiming it at the enemy. The fierceness of his onslaught broke the German line and enabled his platoon to advance. Robertson then carried the captured gun to a forward position that allowed him to suppress enemy snipers and his platoon to capture the final objective. His citation notes: “His courage and coolness cheered his comrades and inspired them to the finest efforts.”
Tragically, Robertson would lose his life later that day. After capturing an objective, soldiers would begin to “dig in” and create defensible positions from which to repel enemy counter attacks. During this process, the front lines can be more fluid than normal as proper trenches have yet to be established. When Robertson saw two gravely wounded Canadian snipers in front of the Canadian trench, he gallantly rushed to save them under very severe fire. He was struck by artillery just as he was returning with the second man. Robertson was 34 years old when he died.
Robertson is buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery, located 5 miles northeast of Ypres in Passchendaele, Belgium. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National War Museum in Ottawa. In recognition of his bravery, he was formally honoured at a postwar international convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The Canadian Coast Guard’s first Hero-class patrol vessel, CCGS Private Robertson V.C., bears his name as a tribute to his courage and legacy.
Additional information & further reading:
Canada’s WW1 Battlefields: Video Series
Alex Decoteau: A First Nations soldier that also participated in the battle of Passchendaele
Cecil J Kinross, V.C.: Another Canadian soldier awarded a Victoria Cross for actions at Passchendaele
Main photo: Lt- A portrait of James P Robertson (Credit: Canadian Virtual War Memorial) and Rt- James Robertson’s grave. (Credit: Canadian Virtual War Memorial)
Canadian Expeditionary Force Research Group. 2022. “Private James Peter Robertson VC in the Great War.” Accessed July 2023. https://cefrg.ca/blog/private-james-peter-robertson-vc/.
Government of Canada. 2022. “James Peter Robertson.” The Canadian Virtual War Memorial. Accessed July 2023. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/464460.