Montreal

Quebec's only Vimy Ridge Victoria Cross winner felt cheated of 2nd VC, son says

A plaque in honour of Capt. Thain MacDowell and others from the Argenteuil region of Quebec will be unveiled Sunday at the cenotaph in Lachute.

Wounded, Capt. Thain MacDowell captured 2 officers and 75 men, but felt heroism months earlier overlooked

Capt. Thain MacDowell, right, in an undated photograph from World War I. (Courtesy of Patt MacDowell)

Winning a Victoria Cross for his role in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, wasn't enough for Thain Wendell MacDowell.

MacDowell was one of just four Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge to be awarded the highest military honour of the British Commonwealth, and one of just 96 Canadians to ever receive it.

Yet, according to his son, Angus MacDowell, the Lachute, Que., native thought he deserved a second.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, 80-year-old Angus and his family will join others at the cenotaph in Lachute Sunday for the unveiling of a plaque in honour of his father and others from the Argenteuil region of Quebec.

'A cut above the rest'

It might be said that Thain MacDowell's dissatisfaction with his single Victoria Cross sprang from the very characteristics that helped him win such a high honour for conspicuous courage "in the face of the enemy."

The husky, handsome 23-year-old was already something of a hero by the time war was declared in August 1914.

Thain MacDowell's graduation photo and blurb from the University of Toronto. (University of Toronto)

While attending the University of Toronto's Victoria College, he was captain of the school's Jennings Cup-winning ice hockey team in 1912.

"He knew he had something good. He was a cut above the rest, and I don't fault him for that," Angus MacDowell says.

Angus recalled one occasion in 1956 when he joined his father and other Victoria Cross winners in England for the 100th anniversary of the medal's introduction during the Crimean War.

Capt. Thain MacDowell in an undated photo from WW I. (University of Toronto Archives)

"We were given free tickets to a movie, and we went to see Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster," Angus said. "There was a big, long lineup, but he just went straight through to the front."

"He was a unique individual and would get so frustrated when he couldn't get what he wanted."

Distinguished Service Order

Capt. Thain MacDowell proved equally impatient in battle, a quality that led to his first decoration for gallantry in combat within three months of his arrival at the Somme in 1916.

Capt. Thane MacDowell was born in Lachute, Que., in 1890. He was one of just four Canadians to win the Victoria Cross at Vimy Ridge in 1917. (Courtesy of Patt MacDowell)

On Nov. 18, MacDowell led an attack by the 38th Battalion's "B" company on a trench called Desire near Petit Miraumont.

According to Victoria Cross historian Paul Oldfield, MacDowell and his company took on three German machine-gun posts that were holding up the 38th's advance.

"After severe hand-to-hand fighting, he captured three officers and 50 men," Oldfield writes.

MacDowell suffered a hand injury from a grenade and a concussion in the battle and was sent to hospital on Nov. 21.

After two months in hospital back in England, MacDowell returned to front-line duty with the 38th Battalion at Vimy Ridge in January 1917.

The battalion's war diary notes his return and his new honour, reporting on Jan. 19 that "MacDowell D.S.O and eleven other ranks paraded."

D.S.O. stands for Distinguished Service Order, an acknowledgement of MacDowell's meritorious service under fire.

'Chucked a few bombs' to earn Victoria Cross

The actions that earned MacDowell his Victoria Cross in the opening hours of the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge on April 9 are briefly mentioned in the battalion diary entry for 8:45 a.m.

"A report came in from Capt. T.W. MacDowell by a runner timed 8 a.m. that he was on his objective at Baby trench and had taken two machine guns and two officers and 75 other ranks prisoner."

MacDowell's report is included as an appendix in the 38th's war diary for April.

Written in haste as the battle raged around him, MacDowell notes his location as a dugout near the junction of the trenches Cyrus and Clutch.

An unidentified newspaper cartoon depicts Capt. Thain MacDowell's VC-winning exploits at Vimy Ridge. (Courtesy of Patt MacDowell)

His men scattered and their weapons clogged with mud, MacDowell writes, "I don't know where my officers and men are, but I am getting them together."

MacDowell then notes that he and three runners "chucked a few bombs down" into a German bunker and went down themselves to check it out.

"The dug out is 75 feet wide and is very large. We explored it and sent out 75 prisoners and two officers."

"This is not an exaggeration as I counted them myself. We had to send them out in batches of 12 so they would not see how few we were."

A typed version of Capt. Thain MacDowell's original hastily scribbled report mentions his capture of 77 German prisoners during the attack on Vimy Ridge. (Library and Archives Canada)

The official citation for MacDowell's Victoria Cross, published on June 8, provides additional details not mentioned in his battle report.

In this newspaper photograph from the London Gazette, King George V presents Capt. Thain MacDowell with the Victoria Cross. (Courtesy of Patt MacDowell)

"For most conspicuous bravery and indomitable resolution in face of heavy machine gun and shell fire.

By his initiative and courage this officer, with the assistance of two runners, was enabled in the face of great difficulties, to capture two machine guns, besides two officers and seventy-five men.

Although wounded in the hand, he continued for five days to hold the position gained, in spite of heavy shell fire, until eventually relieved by his battalion.

By his bravery and prompt action he undoubtedly succeeded in rounding up a very strong enemy machine post."

MacDowell received his Victoria Cross from King George V at a Buckingham Palace ceremony on July 17.

The rest of his time at the front was spent in and out of hospital for a variety of illnesses, including shell shock.

A second VC?

Angus MacDowell said the men of the 38th thought his father deserved a second VC.

He had, after all, captured those three officers and 50 men five months before the Battle of Vimy Ridge. That had earned him a D.S.O., but for a man of MacDowell's nature, nothing but the highest honour would do.

At the time when he won it, the D.S.O. was also being awarded to staff officers behind the lines, something front line officers felt devalued the honour.

Angus MacDowell composed a pipe tune for his father called 'Major Thain MacDowell, V.C., D.S.O.'s Farewell to Vimy Ridge. (Stephen Smith / CBC)

At the Victoria Cross anniversary in 1956, Angus said, it all came to surface after his father had a few drinks.

"It was the only time I saw my father drunk. That's when he really started feeling the effects that he'd been [robbed] of a second VC."

"It was the main thing in his life," Angus recalls.

MacDowell kept his Victoria Cross in the top drawer of his dresser and donated it to Victoria College just prior to his death in 1960.

'Proud as hell'

Growing up the son of Thain MacDowell wasn't easy, Angus says. He was distant and "tough as nails," and that might have coloured his appreciation of his father's wartime heroism.

"I didn't publicize it," Angus said.

Time, and now the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, have helped change that.

Angus, a well-known bagpiper, even wrote a tune dedicated to his father called "Major Thain Wendell MacDowell, V.C., D.S.O.'s Farewell to Vimy Ridge."

"I'm in awe of him, absolute awe. I'm proud as hell."

About the Author

Stephen Smith

Journalist

Stephen Smith is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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