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Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC. Canadian Expeditionary Force 46th Saskatchewan Regiment

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Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC.

Canadian Expeditionary Force 46th Saskatchewan Regiment

(d.2nd Nov 1918)

Hugh Cairns was born in 1896 in Ashington, Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. In 1911 the family emigrated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. On August 2, 1915 at age 18, Hugh Cairns enlisted with the 65th Battalion and returned to England in June 1916. On June 30th, Sgt. Cairns was transferred to the 46th Battalion before proceeding to France.

The Website gives an account of the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross:

Sergeant Cairns, had two brothers in the army during the Great War, Henry Cairns and Corporal Albert Cairns; the later having been killed on September 10, 1918, age 23, during the battle of Cambrai. Albert and Hugh were said to have been inseparable, and one of Sgt. Cairns’ comrades recalled that “Hughie said he’d get fifty Germans for that” adding, “I don’t think he ever planned to come back after Abbie got killed.” Only Cairns’ almost fanatical desire to avenge his brother’s death can explain his actions seven weeks later.

"Sgt. Cairns was in charge of a platoon during the advance near Valenciennes, France. 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. A spirit of recklessness had animated Sgt. Cairns from the moment of attack that day. His superior officer had suggested he not to go into action; as he had seen a great deal of fighting in all the engagements; but he absolutely refused to be left behind. His brother had been shot at his side a few weeks before and he seemed possessed with the idea of avenging his death. Sgt. Cairns led four skirmishes that day on which more than 50 Germans paid with their lives for the death of his brother. It had been a day of incredible achievement for the 21-year old Canadian soldier. One of heroic service which won him the last Victoria Cross awarded for actions during World War I. He was buried on the field of honour."

As a one-time Saskatchewan resident, I now live in Paris, I am deeply in love with Military History. While reading a recent WWI history of France at war I saw a photo of a tank named after Hugh Cairns which had been donated by the citizens of Saskatoon to France and was simply amazed by it. I also found a photo of it in Saskatoon’s Local History Room. I find this is a wonderful example of Canadian/prairie spirit and reaching out to others. I am thus saddened that there isn’t more about this story. I am trying to discover the fate of this tank called ‘Ville de Saskatoon” and/or ‘Hugh Cairns’ (there is a street named after him here in France) and looking for anyone who might have leads or ideas about where to look. Did it ever get to France, was it demolished, buried or sold for scrap? Is it sitting in someone' backyard, or in a forgotten museum? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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