…and in the setting of the sun we shall remember them…
Thus begins my 11 day 11 story documentary journey. An act of remembrance that lasts longer than 11 seconds on the 11th day of the 11th month.
I spent an evening doing research last night in hopes of flushing out the bare facts of the first soldier I wanted to feature.
I didn’t grow up in Saskatoon but this name is familiar to anyone who has lived here for a while. There is a school, an armoury, a baseball field and a monument all bearing the name of HUGH CAIRNS VC.
The basic facts on the spread sheet don’t give a lot of information. Wikipedia fills in a few blanks but I want more info than the fact of how he died valiantly battling for a patch of land in the Great War, the war to end all wars. Some of what I have written is a paraphrase of public domain information and some is projection.
Hugh Cairns was born Dec. 1896 in Ashington, Northumberland, England, third of eleven children (remember that number for later) of George Henry Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Donkin. His schooling occurred in England. His family immigrated to Saskatoon in May 1911 when he was 15 years old. I would hazard to say that they came for a chance for the children. A better life. Jobs were hard to come by in England in that era. They moved to the Caswell Hill area. Hugh became actively involved in football. Safe to say he had probably played at home in England and was happy to find a league to play in. He spent a mere 4 years here; the papers list that he was an apprentice with the Northern Plumbing Company of Saskatoon. Cairns was also a member of the Christ Church choir but I wasn’t able to figure out what church that was.
He and his elder brother, Albert, enlisted on August 2, 1915 in the 65th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Saskatoon. From base knowledge gained reading Tim Cooks “Shock Troops” they would have trained in Eastern Canada before shipping out to England in June 1916. They were the “lucky ones” who were transferred to the 46th Infantry Battalion, soon to depart for France. Young men enlisted and grew weary waiting in the wings in Canada and England so they were probably pumped to be going into battle so soon.
By June 3, 1916 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” He had led a party forward at a critical time and supplied supporting fire to the flank of a battalion attacking enemy lines near La Coulotte, close to Avion. Despite being wounded, he covered his group’s subsequent withdrawal until his ammunition was expended before making his way back to his lines.
The brothers served with in some intense Canadian battles; the stuff that legends grew from. He saw duty with the battalion at the battles of Hill 70 in August 1917, Passchendaele in November 1917, and Amiens in August 1918. He was promoted corporal and then sergeant. Hugh Cairns was admired and respected by soldiers and officers of the 46th Battalion. He had become very proficient on the Lewis rifle which was a tricky gun at the best of times. He kept true to his sporting form from a his previous life and was known as a long distance runner and, as a boxer, had made his mark in the ring. It is signficant that he has seen this much duty and remained physically unscathed.
By now one would suppose he has become a hardened soldier but perhaps bearing a lot of mental stress. The post cards home will talk about a day out of the trenches and what they managed to eat. I’m sure his mother regularly sent along treasured treats from home to her boys. By now she has 4 sons serving overseas.
Albert was shot down while standing beside Hugh and died in Sept. 1918 from wounds suffered at the taking of the Drocourt-Quéant Line and this had a profoundly deep effect on Hugh. The brothers had been inseparable, and one of Hugh’s comrades recalled that “Hughie said he’d get fifty Germans for that” and added, “I don’t think he ever planned to come back after Abbie got killed.” His parents would have received the telegraph and letter from his commanding officer in mid September. By now the next offensive is being planned and Hugh Cairns’s almost fanatical desire to avenge his brother’s death becomes his next step within this battle. There was a recommendation that he not be part of the skirmishes that day but he refused to be left behind. His path appears to have been clear in his mind.
On 1 Nov. 1918 Cairns’s platoon, while advancing on Marly, a suburb of Valenciennes, came under heavy enemy machine-gun fire. He seized a Lewis machine-gun and rushed the post, killing 5 Germans and capturing the gun. A short time later the platoon once more encountered enemy resistance. Again Cairns launched a one-man assault, killing 12 and capturing 18 and two more machine-guns. For a third time the advance was checked. Although wounded, Cairns led a small party to outflank the German force. The group killed a number and captured approximately 50 soldiers and their weaponry.
Despite these superhuman accomplishments, Cairns’s day was not done. After the Canadian line east of Valenciennes had been consolidated, he accompanied a small patrol in Marly. There it trapped and forced the surrender of 60 enemy soldiers. While the captives were being disarmed, a German officer shot Cairns in the abdomen. The patrol returned fire, inflicting heavy casualties. During the battle Cairns collapsed from loss of blood. He died of his wounds on 2 November, nine days before the armistice, and is buried in Auberchicourt British Cemetery, east of Douai, France.
In a letter to Cairns’s mother, Chaplain F. H. Buck said, “Your son was by all odds one of the outstanding men in the battalion. He simply did not know what fear was and his skill with a machine gun could not be surpassed.” In recognition of his “most conspicuous bravery” Cairns was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the last given to a Canadian for World War I. The medal was presented to his father in April 1919. Cairns was also named a chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the government of France. He was recognized further by the town of Valenciennes, which in 1936 named an avenue after him. This avenue is the only one in France to be named after an ordinary soldier from a foreign country.
In 1936 the town of Valenciennes renamed a street in his honour, and he was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government. His parents journied to France to take part in the ceremony.
By 1921 a memorial to Cairns was erected near Saskatoon’s University Bridge. The statue is of Hugh Cairns, and around the base are the names of seventy-five Saskatoon football players who did not return from the war. It is interesting to note that during that era soccer was called football as it still is in Europe.
There would be none left alive to remember his bravery on the battle field. I suspect there are descendants of his family still in Saskatoon who cherish family stories and wonder about how things might have been if he hadn’t died 22 days short of his 22nd birthday. He died 9 days before the war ended and was awarded the last VC (Victory Cross) of the First World War. In the end I felt that I had not fleshed out any personal details, only snippets from the Internet and books. Despite this fact I am going to hit publish because today I want myself and my readers to stop and give a moment to contemplate his actions. He was a “casualty” of the war but there was nothing casual about his actions on the November 1, 1918.
11 Stories — 11 Days
If you have a story to share you would like to share please contact me via email at email@example.com or leave a comment here. I would be honoured to “publish” the remembrances here on this blog site in honour of your family member. Also please feel free to share this across various social media forms. Let’s work together on
Acts of Remembrance
Editor’s Note: the Flanders fields museum in Ypres Belgium is very intense and gives you the feeling of being near the battle. The imperial war museum in London has a trenches experience that gives you goose bumps and makes you realize how tight, muddy, miserable and dangerous the time in there was.