Tuesday, November 29, 2022 12 minutes (audio)
Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. Today’s episode is going to be a little different. Every year, Canadians mark Remembrance Day on November 11th as a way to recognize the sacrifices made by so many who fought to keep our country free and to honour the many who continue to serve to protect us. This episode is in honour of that important day and of its significance at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Many employees of the Legislature, as well as elected Members of Provincial Parliament, have served in the armed forces throughout the years.
David: One of the positions with the strongest connection to past military service here is that of the Sergeant-at-Arms. Historically, the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms has always been to protect the Speaker and the Mace, and this can be traced back over centuries to the earliest days of parliament in England during the Middle Ages. Over time, right through until today, the role has evolved to encompass much more than that.
Erin: The Sergeant-at-Arms is now responsible for the maintenance of the Legislative Building as well as the overall safety of everyone who enters the precinct.
David: That mandate falls under an entire department of the Legislature that includes the Legislative Protective Service - with a full complement of highly trained security staff - as well as the Precinct Properties Branch that takes care of all the maintenance and upkeep projects here. The person who is hired to take on this responsibility today is expected to have experience in all of these areas.
Erin: But, in the earlier decades of our parliament – I’m talking the late 19th and early 20th centuries - the role of the Sergeant-at-Arms was an appointment that was usually assigned to someone who came from either a military or policing background. Coming from a military background, some of our previous Sergeants-at-Arms would have even participated in active combat. The appointment at the Legislature was often a gesture of honour for past service.
David: While there are many individuals who have served in the military and in Parliament, our episode today will focus on a smaller group of individuals who not only served in the armed forces and the Legislature, but who were also awarded the highest honour one can receive within the Canadian and British honours system: the Victoria Cross.
Erin: The Victoria Cross, is awarded to members of the armed forces who demonstrate acts of “most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”.
David: The Victoria Cross takes precedence over all other orders, decorations, and medals within the Commonwealth.
Erin: Introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War, the medal has been awarded 1,358 times. And only 15 times since the Second World War. There have been 99 medals awarded to Canadians since its inception.
David: As of 1993, Canada established its own Victoria Cross Medal.
Erin: Remarkably, four of our province’s Sergeants-at-Arms were awarded the medal - Walter Leigh Rayfield, Charles Smith Rutherford, Henry Howey Robson, and Benjamin Handley Geary. Each of them served and survived the First World War and were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery and valour before serving as the Sergeant-at-Arms in Ontario’s Parliament.
David: Let’s start by taking a look at each man’s story and learning what they did to receive such a prestigious honour; starting with Walter Leigh Rayfield.
Erin: Born in Richmond-on-Thames, in England on October 7th, 1881 Walter Leigh Rayfield later came to Canada, settling in Vancouver, British Columbia where he worked in a real estate office. When the war broke out, Rayfield tried twice to enlist in the army, until he was finally accepted at a recruiting office in Los Angeles, California.
David: He would soon transfer back to a Canadian regiment, joining the 7th Infantry Battalion, 1st British Columbia Regiment.
Erin: Rayfield was awarded the Victoria Cross for three acts of bravery while he was serving near Arras in France in September of 1918. During the first instance, Rayfield rushed ahead of his company to attack a heavily occupied German trench. During the skirmish, he personally took down two enemy soldiers and took ten others captive.
David: His second act of bravery came a little later when Rayfield located and engaged an enemy sniper who had already caused many casualties. He rushed the section of trench where the sniper was located, while taking constant rifle fire. Thanks to his bravery and great skill, thirty more enemy soldiers surrendered along with the sniper.
Erin: Rayfield’s third courageous act was to leave cover and carry a badly wounded comrade to safety through heavy machine gun fire.
David: Because of these acts, Walter Rayfield was awarded not only the Victoria Cross, but he was also made a member of the Royal Order of the Crown of Belgium by the Belgian government.
Erin: After the war, Rayfield returned to Vancouver and tried several jobs [including farming] before eventually moving to Toronto. There, he joined the Queen’s York Rangers and was given the rank of Lieutenant. He was also appointed as Sergeant-at-Arms to the Ontario Legislature from 1934-1935. He held the position until being appointed Deputy Governor and then Governor of the Don Jail.
David: Walter Leigh Rayfield died in 1949 at the age of 68; his medals are on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Erin: Our next valiant hero is Charles Smith Rutherford. Born in 1892 near the town of Colborne, Ontario, Charles Rutherford enlisted in the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion in March of 1916.
David: A brave man, Rutherford had already earned the Military Medal for his heroism at Passchendaele, Belgium, in 1917, and the Military Cross for his feats at Arvillers, France in 1918.
Erin: One day in August of 1918 while serving in France, Lieutenant Rutherford found himself quite far ahead of his men. At the same time, he also noticed a group of armed enemy soldiers outside of a Pill Box. He beckoned them to come closer to him with his revolver. In return, the enemy soldiers waved for him to come to them. In a bold move, he bluffed and informed them that they were surrounded and now prisoners and convinced the entire company of 45 soldiers, including two officers and three machine guns, to surrender to him.
David: After that, he convinced the captured officers to have a nearby platoon stop firing on his fellow battalion so that they could catch up. Once the rest of Rutherford’s party arrived, they attacked the other bunker and captured an additional 35 soldiers.
Erin: Charles Rutherford was awarded the Victoria Cross in November 1918 for having been a wonderful inspiration to all ranks while attacking and succeeding against an enemy in a very strong position. He later achieved the rank of Captain.
David: Following the War, he served as Ontario’s Sergeant-at-Arms from 1934 until 1940. Charles Rutherford died in Ottawa, Ontario, on June 11th, 1989 at the age of 97 years old.
Erin: Another man with multiple medals and honours to his name is Henry Howey Robson. Born in South Shields, England, on May 27th, 1894, Henry Robson was the son of a miner. He took up his father’s profession but enlisted at 18 when the First World War broke out.
David: Robson served as a private in the 2nd Battalion The Royal Scots [Lothian Regiment]. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions near Kemmel, Belgium, on December 14th, 1914. During an attack on the German position, Robson left his trench under very heavy fire and rescued a wounded Non-commissioned Officer.
Erin: On his way back, he attempted to bring another wounded man to safety as well. But while exposed, he was wounded by enemy fire. Robson persevered in saving the second man until he was incapacitated by being shot a second time.
David: After convalescing, Robson returned to the front in France in November of 1916. Unfortunately, he was injured on the first day of the Battle of Ancre.
Erin: Following the War, Robson worked many different jobs before he decided to set sail for Canada. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money for a ticket, and so sold his Victoria Cross medal to pay for the crossing.
David: In Toronto, he worked as a streetcar conductor before being appointed Sergeant-at-Arms in 1941. He served in this position for six years. In 1946, Robson became an information clerk at the Legislature, showing visitors around the building. He retired in 1954 and passed away in 1964 at the age of 70. Henry Robson’s Victoria Cross medal is now part of the collection of the Royal Scots Museum in Edinburgh.
Erin: Last but not least, we have the brave acts of Benjamin Handley Geary. Born in London in 1891, Benjamin Geary was commissioned into the 4th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment on August 15th, 1914.
David: He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous acts on Hill 60 during the battles of Ypres. Geary’s platoon had sustained heavy fire from enemy soldiers during a night attack. Separated from the rest of his battalion, Geary led his men through heavy fire over exposed terrain to a crater where other survivors of his regiment were holed up. Throughout the night, he kept the enemy away from the crater by exposing himself to heavy fire while protecting his men using his rifle and grenades.
Erin: Close to dawn the next morning, Benjamin Geary was shot in the head and he would later remain blin in one eye. He was evacuated to England to recover and, remarkably, returned to active service. He was wounded again in 1918 but survived the war.
David: Geary became a clergyman after the War and served as a chaplain in the British Army before immigrating to Canada in the late 1920s. When the Second World War erupted in 1939, he enlisted in the Canadian Army where he served as a Major.
Erin: After the end of the Second World War, Benjamin Geary returned to Toronto where he was appointed Sergeant-at-Arms of the Ontario Legislature. He remained in that role for 30 years. Benjamin Geary died in 1976 at the age of 85.
David: Each of men that we discussed today not only served their country valiantly, but also served with honour within the Legislature.
Erin: The role of the Sergeant-at-Arms is no doubt, a truly important position in Parliament.
David: The remarkable stories of this small group of men and the countless other individuals – women and men - who have served in our country’s military history should not be forgotten. Although we only had time to share the acts of valour and heroism of a small group of individuals who served and help protect us, there are surely many others who deserve to be recognized not just today, but everyday.
Erin: Thank you for joining us and reflecting with us today during this very special episode of the ON Parliament podcast in honour of Remembrance Day. But we’ve got to go, I think I hear the bells.
Erin: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing. For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram : @onparleducation. Et en français: @parloneducation . Thanks again and see you next time