Born in Limerick, Michael James O’Rourke immigrated to Canada prior to World War I and he served in the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Canadian Militia. During a bitter 10-day struggle, from Aug. 15-25, 1917, the Canadian Corps overran Hill 70, a treeless hillock on the north side of the French mining centre of Lens. The corps suffered nearly 9,200 casualties and Michael, 39, having had already earned the Military Medal for bravery at the Somme in 1916, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.
During the first phase of the fighting around Hill 70 between Aug 15-17 the former lumberjack, serving as a stretcher-bearer with the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion, went without sleep for three days and nights to tend the wounded. He continually left the trenches to venture into no man’s land to bring food and water to injured comrades. While doing that O’Rourke exposed himself to severe shelling, machine-gun and rifle fire and several times he was knocked down and partially buried by mud when shells exploded near him. On one occasion when O’Rourke noticed a blinded soldier staggering about in clear view of the enemy, he leapt from the trench and guided the wounded man back through heavy rifle fire.
His V.C. citation read ‘his magnificent courage and devotion in continuing his rescue work in spite of exhaustion and incessant heavy fire of every description,inspired all ranks and undoubtedly saved many lives’.
After the war, O’Rourke eked out a meagre existence in Vancouver, surviving on a disability pension and casual work on the docks. During a longshoremen strike in 1935 he headed a protest march, wearing his medals, of about 1,000 strikers and when marchers attempted to pass a police line guarding the waterfront they were attacked with clubs and tear gas in what came to be known as the Battle of Ballantyne Pier.
He died on 6 December 1957 in Vancouver and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Burnaby, Canada.
Thanks to team member Niall Carey for researching and writing this piece.