attack opened with a heavy artillery and smoke barrage
before dawn. The first wave of infantry went over the top
and advanced to its objective, capturing Mount Houy, a
steep wooded hill, strongly held, which has proved fatal
to several previous attacks. When the leading battalion
had reached Aulnoy the 46th Battalion passed through and
carried the attack to the final objective, the main
railway in Valenciennes. There was hard fighting in
Aulnoy and down the two rural streets connecting Aulnoy
and Famars with Valenciennes. The streets were closely
packed on either side with houses, from which the Boche
attacked the passing troops. Small mopping up squads were
formed in the Canadian line and these houses cleaned out,
the men fighting from house to house down the long
street. The number of prisoners taken in this operation
was greatly in excess of the attacking force, the 46th
Battalion alone taking 800 prisoners with a force of not
more than 300 men.
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,
this point the 44th Battalion had some trouble so I
ordered No.1 Platoon to assist them overcoming their
resistance. They captured some machine guns and many
prisoners besides killing a great number. The advance
then continued without any check until about 50 yards
beyond the sunken road when direct machine gun fire was
encountered from the trench and main road behind us. At
this particular stage I only had about 20 men under my
direct command as Lieut. Johnstone had taken something
like 20 men with him who were now merged with
"B" Company on the left. Realizing that I had
not sufficient men to tackle the area allotted to
"A" Company I called upon two sections of
"C" Company, one to assist on the right flank
and one on the left. The barrage playing here for 15
minutes enabled me to organize for the second stage and
upon barrage lifting the line went forward in good order.
Opposition was not met with until we
got practically in line with the houses at the junction
of the roads in E.27.b.70.70. Here they held us up for a
few minutes when the left L.A.R. section got their guns
into action allowing the right to advance. The Boshe were
now retiring down the sunken road to the brickfields and
we bought to bear heavy fire from our L.A.R.'s and rifles
on them which was very effective. The advance continued
without further trouble until we reached the south side
of the brickfields. At this point we came under very
heavy machine gun fire and there was a fight on for over
20 minutes, when finally I ordered C.S.M. Gibbons, Sergt
Cairns and 4 other ranks with 2 L.A.R.'s to outflank them
on the right. These men crawled on their hands and knees
while we covered them with rapid rifle and machine gun
fire, resulting in them getting within 75 yards of the
Boshe. The Boshe Officer became a casualty and the whole
position fell. We captured 3 field guns, one trench
mortar, 7 machine guns and over fifty prisoners and the
ground had plenty of dead on it. The advance then
continued to the south edge of the factory without much
opposition. Here I ordered Sergt Cairns with 8 other
ranks and 1 L.A.R. to seize the railway crossing in
E.16.c.85.30. I then went over to the right flank to
straighten things out as this flank was held up by
machine gun fire from the railway in E.23.a.60.20. I
found nothing could be done by be as the fire came from
the east of the river so I directed them to remain where
they were until the situation cleared on the left. I
proceeded to the left and met Lieut. Johnstone coming
over with 10 O.R's [Ordinary
and two L.A.R.'s of "A" Company and 20 other
ranks of the 44th Battalion he had taken charge of. He
was proceeding to rejoin the Company. I ordered Lieut.
Johnstone to mop up the factory and established posts on
the railroad, while I proceeded to the left to find out
how Sergt Cairns had made out. Sergt Cairns had
established a post covering all the approaches and was
then moving down the railway to connect with Lieut.
Johnstone. The situation here was now clear. I once more
went to the right to see if the bridgehead could not be
taken but found a very limited field of fire and not a
satisfactory position to be taken up so retained the
position in E.22.b.60.00. The whole line was established
by 0900 hours.
I then notified Lieut. Jones of
"C" Company to have patrol report to me at once
(as per O.O.181 of Oct.31/18). Lieut. MacLeod reported to
me and I gave him the necessary instructions and he moved
his party forward at 0920 hours. With him were 1 Sergt,
10 O.R's with L.A.R. They entered the factory just the
other side of the railway in E.16.c.90.40.
At 1800 hours same date two platoons
of 50th Battalion came up to reinforce. These consisted
of 2 Sergts and 23 O.R's.
Distinguished Conduct Medal citation
Transcribed from hand-written entry on service record
“Awarded DCM for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to unit in leading a party forwards at a critical moment and supplying covering fire to the flank of an attacking Battalion. With great initiative he recovered two guns which had been left behind [and loaded them] repelling three enemy attacks and successfully covering our subsequent withdrawal. Though wounded he held on until all his ammunition was expended, when he made his way back to our line having done invaluable service and set a very fine example.”
Victoria Cross citation
Sergeant Hugh Cairns
Awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, for acts of Valour before Valenciennes:
“For most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on 1 November 1918, when a machine gun opened on his platoon. Without a moment's hesitation, Sergeant Cairns seized a Lewis gun and single-handedly, 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 soldiers and capturing another 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 of the guns. After consolidation, he went with a battle patrol to exploit Marly and forced 60 enemy soldiers to surrender. Whilst disarming the party he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, he opened fire and inflicted heavy losses. Finally he was rushed by about 20 enemy soldiers and collapsed from weakness and loss of blood. Throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership contributed to the success of the attack. He died on 2 November from his wounds.”
The memorial was dedicated on June 8, 1921 and unveiled by Rev. B.W. Pullinger of Detroit, Michigan. Rev. Pullinger had been the Chaplain of Sgt. Cairns’ regiment in France. Constructed of a 6 foot marble statue carved in Naples, Italy, set upon a 12 foot polished granite base, the Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC DCM Soccer Memorial is reputed to be the only war memorial in the world dedicated to soccer players. It is doubly unique considering that it is found in such a young soccer nation as Canada.
On the day preceding the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial of July 25, 1936, the city of Valenciennes renamed a street L'Avenue du Sergent Hugh Cairns. This was the only instance this type of honour was bestowed upon an allied non-commissioned officer by a French city.
In 1960 the city of Saskatoon named a street and a school after him and his regiment renamed their new armoury to honour him.
² In November 1977, Sgt. Cairns’ nephew Bill, representing the family, presented the hero's medals in trust to the armoury. Along with the Victoria Cross, he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the French Legion of Honour (presented posthumously by the French government in 1936) and two standard WWI service medals. In addition to Sgt. Cairns’ medals, the Cairns family also presented the armoury with medals won by his brothers, Albert, Henry and Lawrence. The Victoria Cross is now on public display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.
In 1995, the provincial government of Saskatchewan developed a program to erect markers at appropriate sites throughout the province in honour of Saskatchewan's six Victoria Cross winners. In August 1995 a plaque was unveiled at what was thought to be the home of Sgt. Hugh Cairns.
Likely mistaken as an unknown Hugh Cairns Jr. in the 1912 and 1913 Saskatoon Henderson address directories, Sgt. Hugh Cairns was identified as living at 418 10th St. East. – presumably the son of Rev. Hugh Cairns at the same address.
³ Coincidently, yet another Hugh Cairns lived in Saskatoon during this time. Hugh Charles John Cairns was the only child of successful merchant and celebrated sports founder James Frederick Cairns. – J. F. Cairns, for whom Cairns Field is named; his wife Edith, and son Hugh, resided on Spadina Crescent. Tragically the younger Cairns died in a boating accident on Pike Lake, near Saskatoon, in June 1917 at age fourteen.
Nevertheless, the 1914, 1915 and 1916 Henderson directories correctly published Hugh Cairns, the plumber, as one of the Cairns boys living at Ave G North. Apparently this was overlooked by bureaucratic planners of the program eighty years later. An imprudence which regrettably caused considerable confusion and dismay to family members and fellow veterans.
In February 2005, an ongoing
initiative to have the plaque relocated to the correct residence,
spearheaded by Mrs. Rowena McLellan of Saskatoon, was successful.
Although the date of the plaque's transference was not set, the Saskatchewan Government Heritage Resource Unit stated that an error may have been made and it is their intention to transplant the marker in its entirety once the ground is sufficiently thawed.
On Tuesday, July 12, 2005 Sgt. Cairns’ plaque was relocated to his home at 832 Avenue G North. This was completed by a civic work crew and purportedly brought about without any public notification, proclamation, nor rededication ceremony.
Ed. – I extend my gracious apologizes to a great Canadian for the inexcusable delay, and thank you to all those who contributed, in any fashion, to getting the job done.
Manufactured by Krupp of Essen in 1917, the L/40 fired a 15cm shell and had a maximum range of 20,451 yards.
In 1917 the German Army was desperately short of artillery of all types. The German Navy on the other hand was not short of surface vessels and a number of large calibre barrels were deemed surplus to requirements by the Navy.
The army took these barrels and mounted them on wheels. This picture shows the complete unit with trails as a separate piece. In this case they are being reattached for firing. Normally when traveling, they were separated into two individual pieces. The Sgt. Hugh Cairns Armoury gun is missing the trails which is as long as the gun itself.
It is unclear whether this weapon system was captured or seized by the Allies when Germany surrendered. A great many captured weapons were sent all across Canada as a thank you for raising Victory Bonds. It is known that the more a community raised, the larger the weapon system it received.
Other Saskatchewan recipients of the Victoria Cross are: