One of the reasons I continue to be interested in the Great War is not the greater histories, the battles, the politics, the way it shaped the world in ways that are still felt today. Rather it is the individual stories, at turns tragic, or heroic, at times funny, many times profoundly sad. The Great War chewed up some 9 million soldier's lives, scarring countless others. Millions of civilians also perished. And on its heels came our last great epidemic, the Spanish Influenza. An epidemic that took another 20 million lives worldwide. Many young men survived the horrors of the war, only to be struck down by a tiny, but deadly pathogen.
There are many ways to count Canadian Victoria Cross recipients. The world, and our citizenship was different at times. Many soldiers serving with Canada were born elsewhere. We were considered British Subjects, rather than Canadian citizens at the time of the Great War. The Department of National Defence, by way of example, in their excellent brochure on the Canadian Victoria Cross only includes men who served in "Canadian" forces. They include in that list, Thomas Ricketts, who earned his VC with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1918, thirty-one years before Newfoundland joined confederation, at a time that it was a separate country in the British Commonwealth.
I like to cast a pretty large net when I think about Canadians that earned the VC. It includes a young man, born in England, who lived a stone's throw from where I grew up (at Shellmouth Manitoba), who moved to Australia shortly before the start of the war. Leonard Keysor earned his VC at Gallipoli with the Australian Expeditionary Force, using his fine baseball skills lobbing live grenades back at the Turkish Forces throwing them at him and his comrades.
Canada's youngest Victoria Cross recipient is not in the DND's brochure. He served in the Royal Flying Corps. Alan Arnett McLeod was born in Stonewall Manitoba and after the war started he tried to enlist, first in the army, then in the Royal Flying Corps. In both cases he was turned down, he was after all, only 17 years old. But the RFC held out the promise that once he was 18, they would indeed take him. When he turned 18 he quit school, for a different education, how to fly.
He did well, and soon found himself a pilot with the RFC. However once again his age confounded his ambitions, the RFC considered 18 too young for combat. So he was put in an aging plane to help defend Britain against Zeppelin attacks, managing in the process to get shot down by a Zeppelin's gunner.
By late 1917 the war had taken a heavy toll on allied pilots, so they were more than willing to overlook McLeod's youth. His age was changed from 18 to 19 and he was sent to France. Not to become a fighter pilot as he desired though. Bombers and observers were being chewed up quickly, as they were no match for German fighters. That was were the greatest need for pilots was, and that is where he was sent.
Not content with the important work of observation that he was tasked with, the audacious McLeod took to patrolling behind enemy lines looking for fighters to engage with. Although the FK8 he flew was armed with both a forward machine gun for the pilot and a rear one for the gunner/observor they were no where near as manouverable as the fighter planes, and they frequently got into scrapes. But they also had success to go with their near disasters.
In December 1917, on just his second trip into enemy airspace, they got into a dogfight with 8 Albatross DIII's, sending one down out of control. On another trip they also shot up a large troop concentration, causing considerable damage.
McLeod's reputation for daring do took a major leap forward early in 1918 when he and his gunner at the time, Lt Comber were set upon by three German Triplanes. They managed to keep them at bay as they headed for the front, escaping into Allied territory. The Germans didn't like straying from their side of the line and so they escaped. But then they did the unexpected.