St. Patrick's Day is an apt time to recall that the only Victoria Cross medal to be awarded for bravery on Canadian soil was won by an Irishman. Timothy O'Hea was born in the scenic village of Schull, County Cork, Ireland, in 1843, but left home as soon as he became 18, old enough to join the British Army. Six feet tall and blue-eyed, he made a fine-looking soldier in a crack regiment, The Prince Consort's Own Rifle Brigade.
Two years later, in 1866, O'Hea found himself on duty in Quebec, helping guard Canada from possible attack from south of the border. At that time, the Canadian provinces were still mainly defended by small units of the British Army, as the bulk of Imperial forces had been withdrawn a decade earlier, sent to fight the Russian Czar during the Crimean War. Their departure drew attention to the colonies' vulnerability and stirred action to form volunteer Canadian militia regiments for their own defence. The end of the US Civil War in 1864 increased fears that the powerful Union Army might then march north to conquest.
As it turned out, though, the real threat of invasion that did develop was by an unofficial army calling itself the Fenian Brotherhood, composed of about 1000 Irish-American war veterans. Their optimistic if farfetched goal was to capture and occupy the Canadian colonies so as to force the British to abandon its government of Ireland.
After an abortive raid on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, the Fenians began to menace Quebec and Ontario. At dawn on June 1, 1866, a force of about 800 well-armed Irishmen and sympathizers, led by a self-styled 'General' John O'Neill, stormed ashore at Fort Erie, Ontario. Their invasion brought hurried response from local militia, who were poorly equipped with muzzle-loading muskets and had virtually no military experience compared to the battle-hardened Irish ex-soldiers.
A short sharp battle near the village of Ridgeway ended in a rout for the Canadians who lost 10 men dead, then fled the field when falsely told of a pending attack by cavalry. A couple of other skirmishes took place along the frontier, more successfully when British regulars became involved, and the Fenians retreated to Buffalo, New York. Would-be General O'Neill and his followers were arrested by American authorities for violating US neutrality laws, but were soon released when Britain made no move to demand their extradition.
However, the atmosphere was still tense along the entire border three weeks later when Private O'Hea was detailed to form part of an armed escort of a Grand Trunk Railway train moving ammunition from Montreal to Fort Erie. On June 19, 1866, he and three other privates under orders of a Sergeant Hill took charge of a munitions van loaded with 95 barrels of gunpowder and 2000 pounds of ammunition. To disguise the cargo, it was hitched at the rear of several passenger-cars carrying 800 German immigrants. This somewhat dangerous arrangement was compounded by locking the civilians in their carriages, to prevent any infiltration by Fenian agents.
When the train stopped at Danville station, about halfway to its destination, smoke was seen billowing from the ammunition car. Railroad workers and the soldiers quickly disconnected it, but were unable to move it away to a safe distance. When the flames gained strength and word spread about the dangerous cargo, it was realized an explosion could obliterate most of the village, and panic set in among the bystanders who stampeded away. Soldiers made a hurried attempt to open the passenger doors and release the German men, women, and children locked inside and still unaware of their dangerous plight. But a frantic call for the keys revealed that the railwayman who carried the passenger door keys had already scampered away and could not be found.
For reasons unknown, Sgt. Hall apparently stood frozen with indecision, ammo key in hand. Realizing that the gunpowder could blow up at any moment, Private O'Hea snatched the key, found a ladder, and climbed inside the smoking box-car. Seeing the flames were mainly on tarpaulins over the powder-barrels, he threw the burning covers outside, then he leaped down, grabbed a bucket, and raced to fill it from a nearby creek. Without any assistance from others, Timothy ran back and forth 19 times to throw water on the burning woodwork, while the locked-in immigrants cheered happily, not realizing their lives depended on him. Finally, after almost an hour of hot work in the face of almost certain death and without regard for his own safety, he single-handedly quenched the flames and the trapped civilians were out of danger at last.
The doused box-car was re-coupled to the immigrant train, and proceeded on its way to Montreal. After his superiors received reports of O'Hea's outstanding courage, they recommended the young soldier be awarded a Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military medal. When originally introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856, the VC was intended as recognition "For conspicuous bravery in the face of the enemy." However, this definition was soon amended to also include "bravery under circumstances of great danger," and it was this clause that allowed Pte. O'Hea to be presented with a much-honoured VC in January, 1867.
Though he could have continued military service with considerable prestige, O'Hea for his own reasons left the army the year after receiving his medal. Restless for new challenges, he sailed to New Zealand in 1872, and joined a mounted constabulary unit fighting in the last Maori War. Two years later, he sailed to Sydney, Australia, where he met Andrew Hume and an English ex-soldier, Lewis Thompson. The pair were about to set out to solve the mysterious fate of Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichardt who had disappeared in the Simpson Desert of northern Australia 25 years before. Their intended quest intrigued O'Hea, who maybe was also struck by another German connection with his own search for excitement.
So, in December, 1874, he set out with them into the trackless Outback, hoping to locate a lone survivor of the Leichardt party, rumoured to be living with an aboriginal tribe in western Queensland. Before long, though, the three companions became hopelessly lost in the blazing hot desert, out of food and desperately short of water. Tough as he was, O'Hea finally collapsed, and Hume was also exhausted. Promising to return, Thompson left them and set off to find water. But when he came back with filled canteens three days later, he found Hume and O'Hea lying dead. The Irish VC's adventurous short life had ended at the age of just 28, and he was buried in an un-marked grave at Noccundria Station, Queensland.
Feeding the modern hunger for conspiracies, O'Hea's saga has recently been clouded with complicated theories of mistaken identity and dotty speculation it was his brother instead who died. The real mystery of the disappearance of his medal itself was solved in 1950, when it was found forgotten in a drawer of an art gallery in New South Wales. He had left it as security for a loan by a financial backer, who later presented it to the gallery. Today, Timothy O'Hea's Victoria Cross is proudly displayed by his old regiment in the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, England.
Sidney Allinson is a Canadian military historian, author of
"The BANTAMS: The Untold Story Of World War One."