Robert Hill Hanna VC (1887 - 1967):
Robert Hill Hanna was the fourth Irish-Canadian VC of the First World War.
Hanna was born in the townland of Aughnahorry, near Kilkeel, County Down and was a member of the local Orange Lodge. He emigrated to Canada in 1905 and settled in British Columbia where he was a lumber worker, retaining his Orange roots through membership of Vancouver LOL 2226. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914 he enlisted (in November of that year) in the Canadian Army and was posted to the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion, British Columbia Regiment, Canadian Expeditionary Force. By the time of the action which earned him his VC, he had been promoted Company Sergeant-Major. (The previous year he had been badly wounded in action, but on release from hospital rejoined the front lines the same day.)
British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig decided to launch a strategic offensive in Flanders, east of Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Known as the Passchendaele campaign, it quickly stalled amid heavy fighting, rain, and mud with diminishing hope for a large-scale breakthrough. (The very name Passchendaele would become a byword for futile warfare with heavy casualties.) To divert German reinforcements away from the Passchendaele battlefield, Haig ordered attacks further to the south. One of these, involving the First Army, would see the Canadian Corps attack Lens.
Haig ordered Sir Arthur Currie, who in June had been placed in command of the Canadian Corps, to launch a frontal assault on the city of Lens. Instead of attacking the heavily fortified city directly, Currie, after studying the ground, convinced his British superiors that a better plan would be to capture Hill 70, directly to the north. If this dominating hill could be taken, the Germans would have no choice but to counterattack. Currie planned for artillery and machine-guns to smash these German concentrations, thereby weakening their hold on the entire sector.
The Canadians attacked on 15 August and captured many of their objectives, including the high ground. They then held their positions against 21 determined German counterattacks over the next four days. Canadian probing attacks against Lens on 21 and 23 August were unsuccessful, but Currie’s forces had inflicted severe casualties on the enemy and gained the high ground overlooking the city.
The Canadians suffered more than 9,000 casualties at Hill 70, but killed or wounded an estimated 25,000 Germans. He was recomended for the Victoria Cross; this was approved on 21 September that year.
The London Gazette of 8 November detailed his actions deemed worthy of the award:
On August 21, 1917, at Hill 70, an important German strongpoint near Lens, France, Company Sergeant-Major Hanna's company met with most severe enemy resistance at a heavily protected strong point, which had beaten off three assaults and all the officers of the company had become casualties. This warrant officer, under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, coolly collected and led a party against the strong point, rushed through the wire and personally killed four of the enemy, capturing the position and silencing the machine-gun. This courageous action was responsible for the capture of a most important tactical point.
Of the four enemy he killed, three he bayoneted and one he despatched with a rifle butt.
The Canadian War Records Office adds:
In a momentary lapse, Hanna and his few surviving men created a blocking position in the trench system, before the Germans launched a series of counter-attacks. Each renewed attack was turned back by the small band of Canadians led by CSM Hanna, and they held out until relief arrived later that day.
After the War, which he finished a commissioned officer (lieutenant) he returned to British Columbia where he worked in the lumber business for a time, before turning to farming.
He died at Mount Vernon, British Columbia and is buried in the Masonic Cemetery, Burnaby, British Columbia. His grave has since received a traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission tombstone. On 21September 2017, the centenary of the approval of his award, the Ulster History Circle unveiled one of its distinguished commemorative blue plaques, to him at Kilkeel Presbyterian Church, (known locally as "The Wee "Meetin' ") where he used to worship.
|Born:||6 August 1887|
|Died:||15 June 1967|
www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history; Richard Doherty & David Truesdale: Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross, Four Courts Press, 2000; The London Gazette (Supplement), 8 November 1917, p 11568 no 15361; www.vimyfoundation.ca/company-sergeant-major-robert-hanna-vc
© 2017 Ulster History Circle