Tuesday November 07, 2017

This woman wants to buy her great-grandfather's Passchendaele WW I medal at auction

Lesley Barron Kerr sits with a signed letter from The Queen from a 1956 review of holders of the Victoria Cross, in her Vaughan, Ont., home on Monday. Kerr's great-grandfather was awarded the Victoria Cross for his service at Passchendaele, and she would like to buy the medal, which is up for auction.

Lesley Barron Kerr sits with a signed letter from The Queen from a 1956 review of holders of the Victoria Cross, in her Vaughan, Ont., home on Monday. Kerr's great-grandfather was awarded the Victoria Cross for his service at Passchendaele, and she would like to buy the medal, which is up for auction. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Listen 6:31

Read Story Transcript

Lesley Barron Kerr has long wondered what became of the Victoria Cross her great-grandfather, Colin Barron, received for heroism at the Battle of Passchendaele — until she found it on the auction block.

The Vaughan, Ont., woman says her father sold the medal, one of only 96 ever awarded to a Canadian, about 30 years ago, after her mother left.

"He had sole custody of me, so he had the house and income to bring in," Kerr told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"He was strapped for money and decided to sell the Victoria Cross to pay for the mortgage and ensure that I'd live a stable life and that nothing else had changed. He was pretty intent on me not being affected by it, other than my mom not living with us anymore."

Kerr says she's been looking for the medal ever since, but had no luck until she spotted a Canadian Press article about an upcoming auction in London, England.

Among the items on the block is a Victoria Cross awarded to 24-year-old Cpl. Colin Barron for his actions exactly 100 years ago on Monday — with a starting bid of $250,000.

Kerr plans to bid. 

Victoria Cross

A Victoria Cross, left, awarded to 24-year-old Cpl. Colin Barron for his actions exactly 100 years ago Monday, is set to go up for auction on Dec. 5. (Spink )

Barron was one of nine Canadians to receive a Victoria Cross — the British Empire's highest medal for bravery — for his actions at Passchendaele.

The four-month Allied offensive against the German Empire in 1917 has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of the First World War.

More than 275,000 people died at Passchendaele, including some 4,000 Canadians.

The murderous mud of Passchendaele13:08

On Nov. 6, 1917, a cold drizzle was falling on the muddy, shell-torn and blood-soaked fields surrounding the Belgian village and ridge bearing the Passchendaele name.

The men of the Canadian Corps had been fighting in the quagmire for two weeks, after relieving other allied troops.

Barron was part of the third assault on the ridge. A native of Scotland, he had moved to Canada in 1910 before enlisting in Toronto in 1914 and crossing the Atlantic to fight the Germans.

The ridge was heavily defended by a German pillbox and five machine-guns. The Canadians had tried several times to get close enough to throw grenades, only to be thrown back with heavy casualties.

The attack appeared on the verge of collapse when Barron took matters into his own hands.

"Worming his way round the flank, lugging his weapon with him, he somehow managed to reach a position close by the strongpoint without being seen. Then, he opened fire at 'point-blank range' with devastating results," author Stephen Snelling wrote in his book VCs of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917.

Colin Barron

Colin Barron received the Victoria Cross for heroism at the Battle of Passchendaele. (Spink)

The citation for Barron's Victoria Cross would later credit his actions with having "produced far-reaching results, and enabled the advance to be continued."

Kerr never met her great-grandfather. He died at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto in 1958. But she has heard stories. 

"I know that he was quite spunky, quite feisty and a little impatient," she said. "That's what I've been told."

She still has the citation and box given to her great-grandfather.

Victoria Cross 20171107

A booklet that accompanies a 1956 signed letter from The Queen from a review of holders of the Victoria Cross. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Now Kerr, who runs a large karate-school business in Toronto, is hoping to get the medal back. But that won't be an easy feat.

The last Victoria Cross to come up at auction was awarded to Maj. David Currie during the Second World War and was sold to a British collector in August for $550,000.

"That's unreachable for me," Kerr said.

If she gets outbid, she's hoping whoever buys will lend it to a museum or put it on display "to preserve the story, to further motivate other people to live their lives and take initiative."

"It would set my mind at ease at least knowing where it is and the ability to go there and pay my respects," she said. "It would be a shame if it was stuck in someone's house."

— With files from Canadian Press