Hugh Cairns VC DCM

By Benjamin Massey

November 11th, 2014 · 3 comments

Hugh Cairns was a typical Canadian soccer player of the early twentieth century, in that he was English. Born December 4, 1896 in Ashington, a Northumbrian town fifteen miles north of Newcastle[1], he was the son of George H. Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Cairns and the third child of eleven[2]. Hugh grew up in England, but in 1911 the large Cairns family emigrated to Saskatchewan[3], setting up shop in the rapidly growing town of Saskatoon.

The Cairns family appears to have been a completely ordinary example of the thousands then settling in the newly-opened Canadian prairies. Saskatoon was no frontier: it had been linked to eastern Canada by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway since 1907. But it was still a boom town bursting at the seams, going from 113 souls in 1901 to “near 28,000” in 1912[4]. By Hugh Cairns’s day Saskatoon boasted a university, several churches, and a thriving local sports scene. Immigrants from across Europe and even further afield followed the steel lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, and the Canadian Northern railways, swelling the ranks of formerly minor outposts like Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Gastown. The Cairns were but a cup of water in the tidal wave.

Surviving photos suggest Hugh Cairns was a handsome young man in the classic mold of the early West: not tall (5’6″) but stocky, broad across the shoulder, with a strong jaw and a plain, unbeguiling expression. A common look on many young prairie Canadians of the era, where even the softest job required a certain amount of guts and self-reliance. Cairns was a plumber, getting his start in the trade after a few years apprenticing. Very much a man of the urban boom, but also someone used to working with his hands, and probably working very hard in a fast-growing city.

Cairns immediately found prominent role of Saskatoon soccer. An Anglican, Cairns was a member of the Christ Church Intermediate Boys team in his teenage years, winning a championship. Church teams were a big part of Saskatoon soccer in those early days, as indeed they were across much of the prairies: while in the established areas like Ontario and southern Vancouver Island clubs like Galt F.C. and Victoria United were already becoming well-known, in more recently-settled areas the church often remained a catch-all social hub.

In 1912 a Saskatchewan soccer team toured England. Cairns would have been only fifteen years old, but it’s been suggested he represented his new home in his old one; certainly despite his youth he was a strong local player. In the last year before his enlistment Cairns won the Saskatoon league with the St. Thomas Church team, apparently playing a major role[5]. Not a bad soccer career, for a teenage Canadian on the prairies in 1915, but the Great War was to end it as it ended so much else.

Hugh Cairns enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1915. At least two of his brothers, Albert and Henry, also signed up; Albert and Hugh signed their attestation papers the same day and were assigned to the same battalions, first the 65th and then the 46th. Henry survived the war but Albert died September 10, 1918 from wounds suffered taking the Drocourt-Quéant Line[6].

Arriving in France in August 1916, Cairns missed the bloodiest weeks of the Battle of the Somme but still would have seen some of the infamous offensive. Over the course of the war Cairns distinguished himself, becoming a sergeant and winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In that most famous of Canadian battles, Cairns took the initiative to recover a pair of lost guns and attacked the enemy with them[7], a good example of the independent thinking which made the Vimy victory possible. The DCM was the non-officer’s equivalent of the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest award for gallantry in the British Empire behind the Victoria Cross. Cairns was also wounded in the battle, but recovered in time to participate in the campaigns of 1918.

The risk of burnout for an active soldier was then not always understood but has been discussed at length in the years since. Both memoirs and fiction have made us familiar with the highly experienced soldier who starts to lose his self-control. In his first months a soldier on the front line is a danger to himself and those around him, lacking the experience to be much good. If the soldier survived he became more knowledgeable, able to survive, skilled in hitting back. But if he spent too long in action then he grew jaded, unable to cope with the constant tax on his mental resources, prone to fall apart or to take stupid, unnecessary risks. Even the strongest has only so much strength, and each barrage, each battle, each poking of the head over the parapet, drained a little more from that limited account.

By the end of his life Hugh Cairns had been at the front for over two years, with some leave and “rest” periods that amounted to performing still-onerous jobs often within shell range. His brother Albert, with whom he had been especially close, had died two months earlier, and some sources suggest Hugh was fixated on paying the Germans back. If so he took his chance on November 1, 1918.

Cairns was leading No. 3. Platoon of “A” Company, 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan) in the drive to take Valenciennes, a town near the Belgian border occupied by the Germans in 1914. This portion of 1918 is often called “Canada’s Hundred Days”; the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Arthur Currie, was in the van of the British assault through northern France into Belgium.

The 46th had earned the unenviable nickname of the “Suicide Battalion” due to its prodigious casualty rate, but it had also earned an armful of battle honours; the battalion, and Cairns, had fought in every major British Empire campaign on the western front since its arrival in 1916[8]. It was among the units engaged on November 1, in the front line of the assault on Valenciennes.

Cairns’s Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette reads[9]:

No. 472168 Serjt. Hugh Cairns, D.C.M., late 46th Bn., Saskatchewan R.

For most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on 1st November, 1918, when a machine gun opened on his platoon. Without a moment’s hesitation Serjt. Cairns seized a Lewis gun and single-handed, in the face of direct fire, rushed the post, killed the crew of five, and captured the gun. Later, when the line was held up by machine-gun fire, he again rushed forward, killing 12 enemy and capturing 18 and two guns.

Subsequently, when the advance was held up by machine guns and field guns, although wounded, he led a small party to outflank them, killing many, forcing about 50 to surrender, and capturing all the guns.

After consolidation he went with a battle patrol to exploit Marly and forced 60 enemy to surrender. Whilst disarming this party he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, he opened fire and inflicted heavy losses. Finally he was rushed by about 20 enemy and collapsed from weakness and loss of blood.

Throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership greatly contributed to the success of the attack. He died on the 2nd November from wounds.

The Lewis light machine gun with which Cairns “rushed” the German machine gun posts weighed nearly thirty pounds without its ammunition drum; somewhat less if like many soldiers Cairns discarded the cooling jacket. With that would have come spare ammunition plus up to seventy pounds in standard infantry equipment. Making any speed whatsoever over broken terrain while firing under such a load is inconceivable. Such a “rush” into the jaws of the enemy guns would have been no split-second burst but a deliberate half-plod, half-jog straight down the most dangerous line on a battlefield.

“A” Company was split in several different directions, sections flying off here and there to shore up positions of weakness, the company commander working hard just to stay in touch with the attack. Years of trench-saturated stalemate had given way, in the past six months, to a sudden sharp war of movement, old tactics had been replaced with new, and the veteran soldiers were called upon to do far more than “walk forward, take that trench”. Cairns was given responsibility for several important jobs, including flanking a problematic German gun emplacement, and pulled them all off. Cairns, a sergeant, would not normally be leading a platoon at all: the “Suicide Battalion” had taken its toll out of the officers.

According to the report of his company commander, Captain R. W. Gyles, Cairns and Lieutenant J. P. G. MacLeod of “C” Company 46th encountered a large group of Germans in one corner of a field. Depending on who you believe, MacLeod and Cairns were either alone or had two others with them. MacLeod had an officer’s pistol, Cairns his Lewis gun. Cairns had already been wounded fighting other, large groups of Germans, as the main mass of the attack had pushed past and left the Germans cut off from their army. Cairns and MacLeod may have been outnumbered twenty-five to one, but they had also spent the morning fighting a winning battle.

MacLeod ordered the Germans to surrender. Most raised their hands; one German raised his rifle. MacLeod covered the German with his pistol. A German officer made to have his fellow put the rifle down. Simultaneously, he drew his own pistol and shot Cairns through the chest.

Consider the thinking of that officer. In spite of the propaganda of a later Reich German soldiers at the front were under no illusions: their country was two weeks from surrendering and the troops knew how near the end was. Two days later German sailors at Kiel would mutiny rather than make a seemingly-pointless sacrifice, beginning the Revolutions of 1918-19. Yet rather than go into captivity this officer chose to risk his life, and the lives of his men, on slim odds. We will never know his name, let alone what his war was like.

The would-be capture degenerated into a point-blank gun battle with machine guns on both sides, MacLeod and Cairns standing their ground. Cairns was hit several more times, passed out from his wounds, and was dragged to safety by MacLeod[10]. Trying to get Cairns to a casualty clearing station, the stretcher-bearers came under fire and Cairns was hit again before he could finally be brought to medical attention. Both Cairns and MacLeod were recommended for the VC; MacLeod settled for the Distinguished Service Order but Cairns got the Cross, posthumously. He died the next day, nine days before the Armistice that ended the First World War, and is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery.

In 1936 a street in Valenciennes was named after Cairns, with his parents coming from Quebec for the dedication; the Daily Herald called it the first known case of a French street being named in honour of a non-commissioned officer[11]. Other honours include a plaque in the same town, a posthumous Legion of Honour, Hugh Cairns V.C. School in Saskatoon, and a place for his parents at the dedication of the Vimy Memorial, the battleground where Hugh won his DCM.

The most substantial memorial lives in Saskatoon’s Kiwanis Park, where the local soccer association and the community chose to place a statue of Cairns atop the memorial commemorating the soccer community’s war dead. The memorial was erected in 1921, showing Cairns in full soccer kit: it is believed to be the only war memorial featuring a soccer player anywhere in the world[12].

Inscribed on the plinth are the Union Flag and the Red Ensign under which Cairns fought and 77 names, the soccer players of what was then an insignificant if booming city on the banks of the South Saskatchewan, who gave their lives for their country from 1914 to 1918[13].

J. E. Bartlett · R. J. G. Bateman · E. Baty · R. Baty · E. W. Bayes
W. Black · T. Bowlt · H. Brown · A. Cairns · H. Cairns
H. K. Carruthers · T. K. Chalmers · A. T. Clayton · L. V. Clare · G. W. Clementson
T. Clinkskill · J. G. A. Cockburn · J. M. Coles · E. H. Cook · W. K. Craighead
G. F. Doree · A. B. Douglas · E. Gemmell · H. E. Gibbons · J. W. Goble
C. J. Fox · W. Grant · J. W. Graham · D. K. Gordon · F. J. Guy
W. R. Hay · W. Harrison · C. Hopwood · A. Hunter · T. Huggins
E. Key · S. M. King · W. W. King · P. Kinnear · S. V. Laver
F. Lippross · A. S. K. Lloyd · J. W. Lowes · A. MacDougall · O. R. Marsh
N. M. N. McIntosh · R. McNiel · S. McNiel · W. May · S. H. Monk
A. Moss · C. G. D. King-Mason · W. Mitchell · W. K. Munro · W. Nichol
A. H. Peat · V. D. B. Rae · G. Rippingale · C. Robbins · V. Robertson
J. J. Scott · W. T. Sinclair · D. F. Smart · C. B. Smillie · T. H. Smith
A. G. Starkings · G. A. Stebbing · A. Steele · W. Spence · G. Swift
R. Smyllie · L. Tinkess · T. Waters · W. T. Wesley-Long · A. E. Whitehouse
J. H. Wight · W. Wood


[1] — This and other biographical details from: “Attestation Form [for Hugh Cairns, 472168].” Library and Archives Canada, August 2, 1915. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/first-world-war-1914-1918-cef/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=81461.

[2] — Hanson, Stanley D. “Cairns, Hugh.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cairns_hugh_14E.html.

[3] — Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation. For Valour: Saskatchewan’s Victoria Cross Recipients, July 1995, 31.

[4] — City of Saskatoon. “Significant Dates,” Saskatoon.ca. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.saskatoon.ca/DEPARTMENTS/City%20Clerks%20Office/City%20Archives/City%20History/Pages/SignificantDates.aspx.

[5] — Filan, Rod. “Sgt. Hugh Cairns, V.C., D.C.M.” Rosebud’s WW1 and Early Aviation Image Archive. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://members.shaw.ca/flyingaces/cairns/. Filan will be known to students of First World War aviation, like myself, as a voluminous and essential collector of pre-1919 aviation images and minutiae. I have no idea how he came to have a web page on Hugh Cairns VC, but based on what I know about his other work I trust it.

[6] — “Albert Cairns.” The Canadian Virtual War Memorial. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/4024725?Albert%20Cairns.

[7] — Barry, Bill. “Sergeant Hugh Cairns VC DCM.” The Saskatchewan Virtual War Memorial. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://svwm.ca/svwm-pages/pdf_cas_details.php?id=A000000816.

[8] — “46th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF.” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/46th_canadian_infantry_battalion_cef.html.

[9] — “Eighth Supplement to the London Gazette of Tuesday, the 28th of January 1919.” The London Gazette, January 31, 1919, 1504. Accessed November 10, 2014. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/31155/supplement/1504.

[10] — Gyles, R. W. “‘A’ Company’s Report on Valenciennes Operation.” Via The Canadian Virtual War Memorial, November 1, 1918. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/533791#inline_content_modal_3, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/533791#inline_content_modal_5, and http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/533791#inline_content_modal_4 (the pages on the website are out-of-order).

[11] — “Dedicating street to dead V.C.” The Daily Herald via The Canadian Virtual War Memorial, July 17, 1936. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/533791#inline_content_modal_16.

[12] — “History.” Saskatoon Adult Soccer. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://saskatoonadultsoccer.com/page.php?page_id=60627.

[13] — Saskatoon plinth names from: “Hugh Cairns.” From Pitch to Plinth: The Sporting Statues Project. Accessed November 10, 2014. http://www.offbeat.group.shef.ac.uk/statues/STFB_Cairns_Hugh.htm. Most sources say there are 75 names on the plinth, but 77 are listed. I invite any Saskatooners to visit the memorial and count in person. Possibly at one point some newspaper writer referred to “the Cairns brothers and 75 other deaths” or something similar.

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3 responses to “Hugh Cairns VC DCM”

  1. Dennis Laurie says:

    Good piece. Appropriate for the day, and a good homage to the history behind the title of your blog.

    • Benjamin Massey says:

      Yeah, it was a bit different, but I’d never heard of the guy and I figured it was a story worth sharing. Thanks.

  2. Seathanaich says:

    The armoury in Saskatoon is also named after him.