b. 04/12/1896 Ashington, Northumberland. d. 02/11/1918 Valenciennes, France.
Hugh Cairns (1896-1918) was born on December 4th, 1896 in Ashington, a Northumbrian town fifteen miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne, he was the son of George H. Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Cairns and the third child of eleven. Hugh grew up in England, but in 1911 the large Cairns family emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada, setting up shop in the rapidly growing town of Saskatoon.
Following his schooling, Hugh served an apprenticeship and became a plumber. He also was a keen sportsman, particularly with football (or soccer as the Canadians would call it). As 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. 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 autumn 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.
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 being awarded 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, 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.
On 1st November 1918, just 10 days before the Armistice, 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.
When a machine gun opened fire on Cairns’ platoon, he 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.
Cairns was recommended for the VC, but sadly died of his wounds the following day, 2nd November, and was buried in 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. 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 earned 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. His medals including the VC, DCM, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 and French Legion d’Honneur are held by the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: AUBERCHICOURT BRITISH CEMETERY, DOUAI, FRANCE.
PLOT I, ROW A, GRAVE 8
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map
Canadian War Museum – images of Hugh Cairns VC DCM’s medal group
Andrew Swan – Images of VC Stone, programme and Memorial Board in Ashington, Northumberland.