Lt. Harcus Strachan, Fort Garry Horse, Dec 1917. Photo digitally colourized by Canadian Colour. Would you be able to charge towards machine gun fire on a horse with a sword as your only weapon like Strachan did?
On November 11th every year, we honour the millions of Canadians who have fought, served, and died in for their country over the past century. However, most stories don’t get told. Many acts of bravery and sacrifice are forgotten. That’s why for Remembrance Day this year I thought I would changes things up and share two veterans’ stories: Martha Morkin, a Nursing Sister from World War I and Harcus Strachan, a veteran of both world wars and a Victoria Cross recipient. Although (spoiler alert) both survived, their experiences exemplify the horrors of war and why working towards maintaining peace is never a fool’s cause.
By the time Martha Morkin joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1917 at the age of 31, she was already an experienced public health nurse and educator for the Alberta Department of Agriculture. She was someone who clearly enjoyed moving around. Born in Middlesex County, Ontario in 1876, Morkin studied at the Saint Boniface Training School for Nurses in Winnipeg, relocated to Calgary for her career, and then was sent to Boulogne, a small city in Northern France for the war. Morkin worked at the Canadian Casualty Station No. 3. Casualty stations were right on the front lines to speed up the process of the wounded being assessed, treated, and possibly sent to the hospital if their injuries were too severe. With only 800 beds, the station was always busy and unfortunately right in the line of fire. Heavy shelling not only closed the hospital twice, but gunfire killed both patients and doctors.
One time while helping with an operation, the surgeon was shot dead right in the middle of it. Did she panic? Nope. Morkin jumped in and finished the operation so that the patient would not die as well.
Postwar Morkin dedicated herself to helping war refugees and demobilizing Canadian soldiers. After this, like other Nursing Sisters Morkin could not readjust to her old life. So she packed her bags and set off to Dawson City, Yukon to work at a hospital there. “She lived alone in a cabin, hobnobbed with prospectors and explored the rugged terrain.” (Source). Morkin spent the rest of her life working in health care.
Martha Morkin’s Officers’ Declaration Paper, (her enlistment form). [Source]
Morkin never forgot her first patient, a soldier who had an agonizing death as the result of a gas attack. Memories like that are why she did not like to speak much about her experiences during the war. It was not until towards the end of her life that she spoke about her time in France with her niece. Morkin was one of the 3,141 Canadian Nursing Sisters who served during WWI.
Harcus “Harry” Strachan
Lt. Harcus Strachan, V.C., Fort Garry Horse (c. 1918). [Source]
Did you know that there were still cavalry units during WWI? The Great War marked a transitional period; machine gun and artillery fire swept away 19th century warfare. Although everyone began to realize that cavalry units were swiftly becoming a relic of the past, some soldiers like Harcus Strachan proved that they weren’t totally obsolete yet. Although his nickname was Harry, it really should have been “bad ass.” He brought a knife to a (machine) gun fight and won.
Born in Borrowstounness, Scotland in 1887, Strachan immigrated with his brother to Alberta in 1908. He enlisted in the Fort Garry Horse regiment in 1915. He rose quickly through the ranks, going from private to major, to finally a lieutenant by1916. While he earned the Military Cross for his involvement during a trench raid in April 1917, he is best known for his actions a few months later in the first Battle of Cambrai. (This battle is actually an excellent example of the warfare transition as it is also known for being the first battle to involve the large-scale use of tanks).
Lt. Strachan, V.C., & Squadron of Fort Garry Horse passing through village on Cambrai front. December, 1917. Strachan is the riding alone behind the two men in front. [Source]
Following the death of his company leader, Strachan immediately took command, raised his sword, and led 128 cavalrymen in a charge through the Germans’ line of machine-gun posts to attack the German battery. Strachan killed seven German artillery gunners with his sword and the calavry silenced the German battery. By nightfall, they were out-numbed and surrounded by the enemy. So what did Strachan do? First, he proceeded to cut telephone communications three kilometres behind the German line. Second, with no reinforcements coming, Strachan then rallied his remaining men and they sent the surviving horses (there were only five left) on a stampede towards the Germans. They were gunned down, but the distraction allowed the cavalrymen to not only escape, but take 15 prisoners along with them. In total, the company killed 100 German soldiers and Strachan was awarded the Victoria Cross.
When WWII broke out, he enlisted again and eventually became the commanding officer of the Edmonton Fusiliers. Strachan not only survived that war too but he lived to the rip old age of 97. He is in the Guinness World Records as the longest-lived holder of the Victoria Cross.
Want to read more veterans’ stories? Canada’s Great War Album and The Memory Project are excellent places to start.. For those interested in learning about how Canadians at home and abroad celebrate the end of World War I and World War II, please check out those links.
Barnes, Dan. “Faces of War – Strachan survived to fight another war,” Edmonton Journal. Originally published July 11, 2014. Accessed from http://ww1.canada.com/faces-of-war/strachan-survived-fight-another
Bishop, Arthur. “Cambrai And The Great Retreat: Part 10 of 18.” Legion Magazine. July 1, 2005. Accessed from: https://legionmagazine.com/en/2005/07/cambrai-and-the-great-retreat/
“The Nursing Sisters of Canada,” Veterans Affairs Canada. Government of Canada. Last modified: November 25, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters#sisterhist2
“Martha Morkin,” Canada’s Great War Album. Canada’s History. 2014. Accessed from: http://greatwaralbum.ca/Great-War-Album/About-the-Great-War/Medicine/Martha-Morkin
“Victoria Cross – First World War, 1914-1918 – Harcus Strachan,” National Defence and the Canadian Forces. Government of Canada. Last modified April 2010. Accessed from: http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/gal/vcg-gcv/bio/strachan-h-eng.asp