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Remembering the Sacrifice of Robert Grierson Combe

Oil portrait by James Peter Quinn.
Oil portrait by James Peter Quinn.
Copy of an original that hung in the
Peace Tower in Ottawa.

This year for Remembrance Day, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan is highlighting the story of Robert Grierson Combe, a recipient of the Victoria Cross for his bravery in a battle in northern France in 1917 during WWI. Victory at this battle became a defining moment in Canadian history, though that victory came with a terrible cost we must all remember.

Combe was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on August 5, 1880. He attended Aberdeen Grammar School from 1894 to 1897, and later served his apprenticeship in pharmacies in Aberdeen and London. He came to Canada around 1906 and joined the staff of a drug store in Moosomin, Saskatchewan.

Combe’s “dog tag”
Combe's "dog tag"

Two years later, he opened his own pharmacy in Melville, which he operated until his enlistment in 1915. He was granted a commission and was posted to the 53rd Battalion at Prince Albert. Proceeding overseas, he qualified as a major and was placed on the instructional staff in England. Later, at his own request, he reverted to the rank of lieutenant and joined the 28th Battalion in France. Illness forced his return to England for a time, but he was soon back at the front, this time with the 27th Battalion.

He served with distinction in that unit until his death on May 3, 1917. Combe was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the Empire's highest medal of honour, for "most conspicuous bravery and example." The action described in the citation took place near Acheville, three miles from Vimy village and several weeks after the main Battle of Vimy Ridge. He led a small force on the right side of the Canadian line, which inflicted heavy casualties. He succeeded in achieving the company's objective, capturing 250 yards of trenches together with 80 German prisoners. He repeatedly charged the enemy, driving them before him. While leading his men, he was killed by an enemy sniper.

Victoria Cross awarded to Lieutenant Robert Combe posthumously for the action of May 3, 1917.
Victoria Cross awarded to
Lieutenant Robert Combe posthumously
for the action of May 3, 1917.

His widow, Jean Combe, was invited on two occasions to Buckingham Palace to receive her late husband's decoration from King George V. However, ill health prevented her from attending. The medal was eventually presented to her by the Prince of Wales during a ceremony at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in 1919. Lieutenant Combe has no known grave, but his name is inscribed on the Canadian Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge. A life-size oil painting of Lieutenant Combe was hung in Ottawa's Peace Tower.

The Melville Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and a lake in northern Saskatchewan are named in his honour. The Victoria Cross, his service medals and a copy of the portrait were presented to the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan after the death of Jean Combe in 1963.

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