When Rutherford passed away June 11, 1989 it marked the passing of the last surviving Canadian holder of the Victoria Cross from World War One. While now officially considered a foreign decoration, when Canada’s warriors marched off to war in foreign lands the winner of the Victoria Cross represented our bravest of the brave. Charles Rutherford held not only the Victoria Cross but the Military Cross and the Military Medal, two other high awards for bravery. He is believed to be the most decorated soldier in Canada if not the Commonwealth.
Simple, direct and unadorned was the way that Charlie lived his life. To know Charlie was to develop a sense that he treated his heroism as a regular course of events not befitting any hoopla. As Rev. Victor Parsons of the Colborne United Church and Padre to Br. 187 wrote following his death:
“He walked with royalty, rubbed shoulders with the political and military leaders of our nation, yet remained a very humble, God fearing and unobtrusive person, never wanting to be elevated above his peers.”
Born January 8, 1892 near the Town of Colborne among the rolling hills of Northumberland County in eastern Ontario, Charles Smith Rutherford was of staunch Presbyterian farmer stock. He enlisted in the Queen’s Own Rifles on March 2, 1916 and shortly afterwards was transferred to the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, a Quebec regiment.
By June 1916, Rutherford and his unit were serving in France. After two terms of duty at Ypres his unit marched to the Somme. He was wounded in the Regina Trench but returned from the hospital in England in time to take part in the battle of Vimy Ridge in March 1917. Wounded in June of 1917 near Amiens, Rutherford didn’t return to his unit until August of that year.
At the end of October 1917 then Sgt. Rutherford went into action at Passchendale under the command of Major George Pearkes. Major Pearkes was awarded the VC for his actions and Rutherford was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.
After being sent on course to Bexhill-on-the-Sea Rutherford returned to his unit as a Lieutenant and was placed in charge of No. 9 platoon. In early August Rutherford’s actions once again brought recognition for which he received the Military Cross. In Rutherford’s words, the action which led to his MC:
“On August 9th, 1918 I went into battle and with my Company we captured two towns, the first Arvillers, the German Division Headquarters where I managed to get a paymaster and a lot of German money. The Germans were clearing out as they knew we were coming. The only things that they left behind were a box of pigeons and 300 new machine guns. This was on the Amiens Front. Then we captured a little town called Bangor and that was as far as we were to go. I was given the Military Cross for capturing these two towns.”
It was later that same month that the actions that earned him the VC took place. While on leave in England in November of 1918 Rutherford met up with Colonel Pearkes VC and learned that he was to be presented with the VC by King George.
After the war Rutherford returned home to Colborne where he met and married Helen Haig in 1921. The couple established a dairy farm in Vernonville, a small hamlet close to Colborne. They had four children, Andrew, Isabella, Rosemary and Dora.
In 1934 Rutherford was appointed by the Mitchell Hepburn Government as Sergeant-at-Arms in the Ontario Legislature and in 1939 he was made Postmaster in Colborne. In 1940 after the outbreak of WW2 Rutherford joined the Veteran Home Guard. As well as being posted to Arvida, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario Rutherford was also sent to the Bahamas from 1942 to 1943. In the Bahamas, part of his duty was to guard the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He was discharged at the end of World War Two with the rank of Captain.
In 1955 Charlie left his beloved Colborne to go to Keswick on Lake Simcoe. There he and his brother-in-law ran a General and Drygoods store. It was there that Clark Gable, now of Haliburton, Ontario met Rutherford. Gable was a teenager at the time and recalls Charlie as being a quiet, friendly farmer type with a dry sense of humour. It was many years leter that Clark read a newspaper article about the famous soldier and realized just who this quiet unassuming man really was.
In 1979 Charlie Rutherford returned to his hometown to retire. He settled into retirement on the same property that he had attended school on as a boy. The Legion Branch named in his honour welcomed him back with a motorcade and celebration dinner.
It was at this dinner that Eileen Argyris, editor of the Colborne Chronicle first met Charlie. Like so many who met and interacted with this gentle little man he left a lasting impact on her. In her tribute after his passing she summed up eloquently what appeared to be Charlies philosophy of life:
“For Charlie, it seemed to me, life’s challenges were simply there to be met, whether they were planned for or took one by surprise.”