Lieutenant Robert Shankland, VC, DCM, 43rd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada, born on 10 October 1887 at 6 Gordon Terrace, Ayr, was the son of William Shankland, a Glasgow & South Western Railway Guard, and Jane Shankland (nee McCririck), of 68 Church Street, Ayr.

His sibling was Janet Wilson Shankland.

Robert was educated at Smith’s Institution in Holmston Road. As he progressed through the classes, he received a medal for being top of the class, finishing up as Dux of the school. He then had a further year of education at Russell Street School and here he also received the dux medal as the school’s highest achiever. He was an enthusiastic member of No. 2 Company of the Ayr Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade. On leaving school Robert worked for two years in the Newmarket Street office of accountant John T. Scott, then became a clerk with the Glasgow & South Western Railway, working in Ayr Passenger Station in the stationmaster’s office and then in the parcels and left luggage office. In 1911 he emigrated to Canada along with his friend George Ritchie. They sailed from Glasgow on SS Sicilian, arriving at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 27 April. He entered employment with the Crescent Creamery Company in Winnipeg, rising to hold the post of assistant cashier.

In December 1914, Robert enlisted. His battalion left Canada on 1 June 1915 to undergo combat training. Robert had been promoted to Orderly Sergeant due to his clerical skills. While on leave he visited his family in Ayr. On 22 February 1916 his battalion crossed the Channel to commence active service in the trenches of the Western Front. On 4 June 1916, now Company Sergeant Major,  Robert volunteered to lead a stretcher-bearer party which went out under heavy shell fire and rescued wounded men during fighting at Sanctuary Wood in Belgium. For leadership and bravery under fire he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Robert saw more action in the Battle of the Somme during the summer and autumn of 1916, and received a battlefield promotion to Second Lieutenant. He also took part in the successful Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. On 26 October 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele, the 43rd Battalion was among the units of the Canadian 3rd Division which attacked the heavily fortified Bellevue Spur. Concrete strongpoints, bristling with machine guns and connected by thick entanglements of barbed-wire, had repelled all previous assaults. Losses were heavy, a withdrawal commenced, and it appeared that this attack too had failed, but due to Robert’s leadership and determination, his platoon managed to hold on to the foothold it had gained in the German positions in spite of fierce counter-attacks. However, without support it was in danger of being surrounded and overrun.

Crossing ground which was under fire, Robert made his way to the rear to organise reinforcements, explained the situation to battalion headquarters, and pointed out how weaknesses he had observed in the German defences could be exploited. He then made the dangerous journey back to the front line to re-join his men. A fresh attack was launched incorporating the information which Robert had provided, and after further heavy fighting Bellevue Spur was captured. This success and others enabled the Canadians to move forward onto higher dry ground, away from the deep mud of the quagmires which had made the fighting at Passchendaele particularly horrific. For his actions Robert was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation stated that his courage and his example undoubtedly saved a critical situation. He was the first native of Ayr to receive the award.

Robert had been slightly wounded during the fighting on Bellevue Spur, and he received a second and more serious wound on 11 November. He was sent to Britain for treatment and recuperation. On 15 December 1917 he arrived in Ayr to spend leave at his parents’ home in Church Street, and on Monday 31 December he was presented with the Freedom of the Burgh of Ayr in the Town Hall. The hall was filled to capacity, with the Boys’ Brigade occupying the front seats. The Boys’ Brigade presented him with an inscribed gold wristwatch.

Robert received his VC from King George V at Sandringham on 7 October 1918, and ended the war with the rank of Captain. On 20 April 1920 at St Nicholas Parish Church, Prestwick, he married Anna Stobo Haining, the younger daughter of the stationmaster at Prestwick Railway Station. On 1 May the couple set sail for Canada from Southampton to set up home in Winnipeg.

Robert was employed in secretarial and managerial posts with several Winnipeg firms, and remained a part-time reservist with the Cameron Highlanders of Canada. The Shanklands later moved to Victoria, British Columbia, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where Robert worked as secretary of a securities corporation. He continued to be a part-time soldier with the Canadian Scottish Regiment. In Winnipeg, Robert stayed on Pine Street. Two other residents of the street were awarded the VC during the war, but Robert was the only one of the three to survive the conflict. To commemorate this, the street was renamed Valour Road in 1925, and Robert attended the ceremony. (The VC medal bears the inscription ‘For Valour’.) A plaque commemorating the three VC winners was placed on a lamp post.

Robert died on 20 January 1968 at Shaughnessy Hospital, Vancouver. His ashes were scattered in the city’s Mountain View Cemetery. His name appears alongside that of his wife Anna Stobo Haining on the Haining family gravestone in Monkton and Prestwick Cemetery. Robert’s two sons were William Stobo McCririck Shankland, and David Haining Shankland. Winnipeg’s Valour Road Commemorative Plaza was laid out in 2005 at the junction of Valour Road and Sargent Avenue. Shaped like a Victoria Cross, it has bronze plaques commemorating the area’s three VC winners including Robert Shankland, and three bronze silhouettes of soldiers in WW1 battledress.

Robert’s Victoria Cross, DCM, and other medals were put up for auction by an anonymous seller on 25 May 2009. They were purchased for C$240,000 by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. His battlefield blouse and set of miniature medals are displayed in the museum of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada in Winnipeg.

Thanks to Tom Barclay, South Ayrshire Council Libraries, March 2017.

Robert Shankland as a Sergeant Major.

 Lieutenant Robert Shankland

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