War Museum teams up with soldier's great-granddaughter to buy Victoria Cross

By Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA -- A rare medal awarded to a Canadian soldier for extreme bravery at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 will be staying in Canada thanks to the Canadian War Museum -- and the soldier's great-granddaughter.

Cpl. Colin Barron's Victoria Cross was sold Tuesday by an auction house for $420,000, almost a century after Barron crept behind enemy lines at Passchendaele to take out several machine-gun nests.

Some feared the medal -- sold by Barron's grandson in Toronto about 30 years ago to support himself and his only daughter, Lesley Barron Kerr -- would be bought by a foreign collector.

But the Canadian War Museum has confirmed that it successfully purchased the medal with help from Kerr, who donated an undisclosed amount of money to make sure it stayed in Canada.

"It was a huge sense of relief," Kerr said in an interview on Tuesday after learning of the purchase.

"My first choice, of course, was for me to have it, though I would still display it at the war museum. But it's a very close second, so I'm happy. And it stayed in Canada, so it is accessible to me and my kids."

Barron was one of nine Canadians to receive a Victoria Cross for actions at Passchendaele, which has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of the First World War.

On Nov. 6, 1917, the 24-year-old, who was born in Scotland but moved to Canada in 1910, managed to sneak behind the German lines and take out several machine-guns that had been holding up the Canadian attack.

The citation for Barron's Victoria Cross would later credit his actions with having "produced far-reaching results and enabled the advance to be continued."

He died at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto in 1958.

This isn't the first Victoria Cross that the Canadian War Museum has tried to buy this year; it bid unsuccessfully in August for the cross awarded to Maj. David Currie during the Second World War.

But Mark O'Neill, head of the federal Crown corporation that runs the war museum, said acquiring Barron's Victoria Cross on the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele was especially meaningful.

"This medal is a testament to one soldier's courage and a symbol of the service and sacrifice of all Canadian soldiers who fought on the Western Front a century ago," O'Neill added in a statement.

The Canadian War Museum now owns 37 Victoria Crosses, including five of the nine awarded for actions at Passchendaele.

While Kerr's involvement in the bidding adds a personal element to the story, it almost didn't happen.

Kerr had lost track of the medal when her father sold it to a collector after Kerr's mother left and was looking for it when she learned from a report last month by The Canadian Press that it was going on sale.

But when she realized the asking price was out of her reach, she decided to team up with the museum to make sure that her great-grandfather's medal remained on Canadian soil.

"I emailed them at first asking if they were interested in bidding and if we could work together to secure the medal," Kerr, who owns a successful karate business in the Toronto area, said in an interview on Tuesday.

"And then weeks go by and there was no response, so I wasn't sure if they were planning on bidding at all."

It was only last Friday that the museum, which normally doesn't reveal whether it plans to bid in auctions for Canadian military medals and other paraphernalia, finally responded.

Kerr said she plans to bring her family to Ottawa in the coming days to see her great-grandfather's Victoria Cross -- and perhaps hold it.