Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The last from the First

As is so often the case with heroes - especially those earning their nation's foremost honour, such as the Victoria Cross - the story of Sergeant Hugh Cairns, V.C., D.C.M. is poignant but inspiring:

Sgt. Cairns was in charge of a platoon during the advance. About 300 yards north of Aulnoy, when he was advancing down the Famars road, a machine gun opened on his men from a house on the side of the street. The fire was coming from a window upstairs. Sgt. Cairns seized a Lewis gun and rushed into the house. Dashing upstairs in face of fire turned on him, he killed the crew of five and captured the gun. The Canadian line advanced. It swung across the Famars road to the south side where, in front of an old French cemetery, they were held up again by fire from a strongly-held machine gun post.

Again Sgt. Cairns rushed forward alone, firing his gun from the hip as he went. He silenced and captured two enemy guns, killing 12 Germans and taking 18 prisoners. Once more the Canadian line moved on, routing out the Germans from the houses and sending back scores of prisoners.

In the outskirts of Valenciennes, in an old brickfield, the advance was again stayed by a battery of field guns firing point blank, and a large number of machine guns. Sgt. Cairns was wounded in the shoulder, but notwithstanding, he led a small party of his men around the position and outflanked it. Working his way to within 75 yards of the guns he took careful aim and killed a large number of the enemy gunners, causing 50 others to surrender. Seven machine guns, four field guns and one trench mortar were captured.

The objective was gained and the line of railway in the city of Valenciennes consolidated. The two front lines of the attacking companies had instructions to push out patrols to ascertain whether or not the enemy were evacuating and to gain other information of military importance. Sgt. Cairns accompanied Lieut. J. P. G. MacLeod; D. S. O., with a small patrol to exploit Marly, a suburb east of Valenciennes. Cairns noticed a considerable number of the enemy in a courtyard surrounded with buildings, and with Lieut. MacLeod, pushed forward to the gate, where they came face to face with about 60 Boche.

The Germans, seeing the Canadian officer and the sergeant with his Lewis gun, threw up their hands when ordered but before they could be disarmed one of them gave the signal that the two men were alone and, as he approached Sgt. Cairns as if to surrender, a German officer drew his pistol and shot Cairns through the stomach. Sgt. Cairns immediately dropped to his knees and fired upon the German officer, killing him instantly. The other Boche then took cover behind boxes and piles of debris and began firing on the two Canadians. In spite of the fact that he had received his fatal wound, Cairns got his gun into action. Again he was wounded in the hand and arm, but bleeding and in great pain he continued to operate his gun. Then another shot blew away the trigger and mangled his hand. Twenty Boche ran forward to overpower him. Seizing his broken gun, he hurled it into the face of the nearest Hun, then staggering to the gate, collapsed unconscious.

In a moment the remainder of the patrol came running to the courtyard and a skirmish took place, during which Lieut. MacLeod dragged away the insensible form of the hero, placing him on a door to use as a stretcher. During this evacuation enemy fire was taken from the flank killing one of the stretcher bearers and wounding Sgt. Cairns yet again. They carried him back to the Canadian line and then to the field hospital where he died the next day.

Cairns' brother Albert had been killed less than two months previously, and one of Hugh's comrades said of him “I don’t think he ever planned to come back after Abbie got killed.”

A statue of Cairns still stands in his hometown of Saskatoon...

...in what is now known as Kiwanis Park, near the University Bridge. The statue is of Sgt. Cairns as a footballer. Soccer players in their hundreds joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and many did not return from the conflict in Europe. Around the base of the statue are the names of the seventy-five Saskatoon soccer players who lost their lives in the Great War.

He was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in WWI. Thanks to RodF at Small Dead Animals for the pointer.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them


Post a Comment

<< Home