Military historian Bart Armstrong stands beside a newly unveiled gravestone at Royal Oak Burial Park marking the final resting place of Royal Canadian Navy volunteer reserve Lieut.-Cmdr. Rowland Bourke

A mark of respect for forgotten First World War hero

Historian Bart Armstrong leads charge to memorialize Victoria's Roland Bourke, a Victoria Cross recipient from 1918

Ninety-five years ago, as the First World War was well underway, and Lieut.-Cmdr. Rowland Bourke made a valiant effort to lead his Motor Launch into enemy fire, determined to find survivors of the sunk Vindictive in Ostend harbour, Belgium.

“He could hear voices in the water. And he went back not once, not twice, not three times – four times he went back into the battle area to find those voices. And he finally found three men, and he saved their lives,” said Bart Armstrong, an passionate amateur military historian from Victoria.

“One of them happened to be a British knight by the name of John Alleyne. And for this rescue (Bourke) got a Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross is the British Commonwealth’s highest military honour awarded to recognize bravery in action.

About eight years ago, Armstrong learned about a Victoria Cross recipient – Bourke – buried at Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich.

“I went there and I couldn’t find his marker. I ended up getting directions, and when I found it I was a bit chagrined,” Armstrong said. “What I found was the marker that’s there today – flat and dark. You would never know he’s there unless you specially went on a hunt to find it. I thought, ‘This guy is a hero. Why isn’t there something a little bit more significant?’”

Since then Armstrong has fought to turn Bourke’s final resting spot into a place of recognition, to pay tribute to a military man who earned such an important honour.

On Wednesday afternoon, Armstrong finally had a smile on his face visiting Bourke’s grave, as a new upright monument was unveiled recognizing the significance of the man buried below.

“It is so important because it is bringing to the public’s attention that in amongst ourselves are fellow Canadians who are heroes that need to be recognized for what they did,” he said.

In attendance at the ceremony was Belgium’s ambassador to Canada, a representative from the British High Commission at Ottawa, the Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, and Bourke’s descendants.

Lorraine Fracy, client services supervisor at the burial park, said Wednesday’s unveiling marks a long-fought battle, spearheaded by Armstrong, to honour Bourke for his bravery.

“When you hear and read some of Rowland’s story, he was quite a reserved man. And it wasn’t all about that. For him he was just doing his job,” she said. “When you stand from a distance, it’s such a landmark now from that section, to tell his story. And he is so deserving of it. If he was sitting with us today, he would probably sheepishly be overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Armstrong, whose main passion is researching Canadian recipients of the U.S. Medal of Honor, said recognizing Bourke’s bravery in such a significant way is how we keep his memory and his story alive.

“You hear the term, ‘Lest we forget,’ but people forgot, and we’re now reminding them.”



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