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Canadian War Museum acquires historic Victoria Crosses

The Canadian War Museum has announced the acquisition of two Victoria Cross medal sets of outstanding significance to Canada’s military history and to the Museum’s own collections. One was awarded during the First World War to Lionel B. (“Leo”) Clarke, a Canadian soldier who single-handedly defeated a force of about 20 attackers while armed only with a pistol. The other was earned in the Second World War by John Mahony, a Canadian who played a heroic role in the defeat of enemy forces in Italy.

The Victoria Cross is Canada’s highest award for bravery in the presence of the enemy. Clarke’s medal is especially notable because it was one of three awarded during the First World War to residents of a single Winnipeg street, later named Valour Road in their honour. Clarke’s medal is now the second Valour Road Victoria Cross held by the War Museum. John Mahony’s medal is one of only three awarded to Canadians during the Sicily-Italy campaign of 1943–1945, and the first from that campaign acquired by the War Museum.

“These medal sets will help the Museum document the country’s role in both World Wars and keep alive the remarkable legacy of Canada’s veterans,” said Mark O’Neill, Director General the Canadian War Museum. “They will help us convey to a new generation what their forebears endured and achieved in the fight against tyranny.”

Corporal Clarke was serving on the Somme Front in 1916 as a volunteer member of a bombing platoon — soldiers assigned to clear enemy trenches at close quarters using hand grenades. On September 9, a small group led by Clarke had captured a section of enemy trench in fighting so fierce that all his comrades were left dead or injured. Clarke hastily began assembling a barricade when about 20 enemy soldiers counter-attacked the position. Clarke opened fire with his semi-automatic pistol. When the fighting stopped, Clarke had been bayoneted in the leg, but had killed or captured all of his attackers. Clarke’s Victoria Cross was presented posthumously. Two months after his remarkable display of heroism, he was killed by enemy shellfire.

Lieutenant Colonel John Keefer Mahony, of New Westminster, B.C., earned his Victoria Cross on May 24, 1944. Then a major, he was leading a company assigned to secure a vital bridgehead on the Melfa River in Italy. He led his soldiers to the enemy’s side of the river under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Fighting against overwhelming odds, the Canadians destroyed the enemy on their left flank and stayed all counter-attacks, despite suffering heavy losses. In a particularly heroic move, Mahony rescued one of his sections — pinned down by enemy fire — by crawling forward with the aid of smoke grenades and leading the men to safety. He was wounded in the head and twice in the leg during the battle, but refused evacuation or medical treatment until reinforcements arrived. Mahony died in London, Ontario, on December 15, 1990.

With the acquisition of Mahony’s medal set, the Museum now has one Victoria Cross from all three major overseas land campaigns fought by the Canadian Army from 1939 to 1945: Hong Kong, northwest Europe and Sicily-Italy. Only 94 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Canadians since the medal was instituted in 1856. Thirty-two are now held by the War Museum.

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