The son of a British soldier, Vokes attended schools in Kingston, Ontario. He graduated from the Royal Military College in 1925 and from McGill University with a bachelor of science in 1927. He joined the Royal Canadian Engineers and completed army staff college in England in 1935. When the Second World War came, he rose rapidly through command and staff appointments.
Second World War
Brigadier-General Vokes led the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 – Canada's first sustained ground campaign of the war in Europe. In November he was promoted to major-general and given command of the 1st Canadian Division, leading it through the brutal house-to-house fighting at the Battle of Ortona, and on to the Hitler Line (see Italian Campaign).
In November 1944, Vokes was sent from Italy to northwest Europe, where he joined the First Canadian Army under Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar, then preparing for its push to the banks of the Rhine River. Vokes was given command of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, which he led through the bitter Hochwald Forest battle up to the Rhine. (See Battle of the Rhineland).
By the spring of 1945, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had crossed the Rhine and was sweeping through northern Germany, amid continued enemy resistance. Two incidents during this period illustrate Vokes' no-nonsense attitude, and his ambivalence toward the German people whose country he and his men had been waging war with for six years. In the town of Sogel, after some civilians had joined the fighting and taken the lives of several Canadian soldiers, Vokes – believing the civilians needed to be taught a lesson – ordered the destruction of several houses in the town. The rubble of the homes was used to build roads for the Canadians' tanks.
Days later at the town of Friesoythe, Vokes was enraged by a report – which turned out to be wrong – that one of his favourite battalion commanders had been shot in the back by a German civilian. Vokes ordered the burning and levelling of the town's buildings in reprisal. He would later say, after learning that his battalion commander had in fact been killed in a firefight with uniformed German troops: "I confess now to a feeling still of great loss over (the battalion commander) and a feeling of no great remorse over the elimination of Friesoythe."
At war's end, Vokes commanded the Canadian Army Occupation Force in Germany. In that role, he officially commuted the death sentence that had been passed on Kurt Meyer, a German SS general, convicted of war crimes against Canadian soldiers in France in 1944 (see Normandy Massacres).
In the postwar years Vokes returned to Canada, where he commanded the Army's central command and then western command before retiring to Oakville, ON in 1959.
Vokes was judged by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery as no better than "a good plain cook" as a military tactician. But Vokes was a tough, hard-driving general who met the rigorous objectives set for his division. Although no intellectual, he was one of the ablest generals among Canada's pre-war army, and went on to lead Canadians in some of the most difficult fighting they would encounter during the war.