He was born in Ashington, Northumberland, England. The Cairns family immigrated to Canada and settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1911. He was a keen footballer, playing for the Christ Church Intermediate Boys Football club, reaching the championship of the Sunday School League. He also played for the St. Thomas Church team when they won the Saskatoon League Championship in 1915.
Hugh and his older brother Albert enlisted in the army in August 1915. Cairns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his actions at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. At the time DCM was the second highest award for gallantry in the British honours system.
He was 21 years old, and a sergeant in the 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.
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.
With the German surrender and armistice on 11 November, ten days later, Sergeant Cairns would prove to be the last of seventy-one Canadians to earn the Victoria Cross for his actions in the Great War. Cairns was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the Government of France.
I dropped in on Hugh the other day. Hugh isn’t that easy to get to. He stands at a prominent corner in the city with a terrific view of the river, but there’s nowhere to park nearby, the path beside him doesn’t seem to go anywhere and there are no benches to sit on.
It seems odd to hang around Hugh in August. You get November feelings when you look at him, feelings of guilt and gratitude and sadness — feelings more suitable for a day when the sky is grey, the air is cold and winter is just a sigh of regret away.
But in a way, summer is perfect because it illuminates all the contrasts and contradictions that go with Hugh’s story.
He was a soldier in the First World War but you wouldn’t know it because he’s wearing a soccer uniform. His right foot rests casually on a ball. He’s held that pose for 92 years. Hugh was carved from marble in Naples and set on a granite base. Black and white. Shades of grey to follow.
Hugh’s mom and dad were guests in June of 1921 when the city’s Football Association unveiled the statue. George and Elizabeth watched three of their sons go off to fight and only one come back. The Great War didn’t have a number then. It didn’t need one.
“We are determined, through God, that there shall never be another conflagration like that in which those men lost their lives,” Rev. B.W. Pullinger said at the dedication.
Hugh played soccer on two city championship teams as he prepared for a life as a plumber. He played violin and went to church. He was 18 years old when he enlisted with his older brother Albert.
It’s just one of a million mind-boggling contradictions of war to picture a choir boy becoming a hero at Vimy Ridge. Hugh used his Lewis machine gun to hold off a German position for an hour and a half while his platoon reached safety. The rat-tat-tat noise of the gun didn’t stop until it ran out of ammunition.
Hugh suffered 13 shrapnel wounds. He was out of action for two weeks, won a medal and got promoted.
Hugh and his brother fought side-by-side until Albert was killed. Hugh carried him on his back to the aid station. It’s impossible to imagine what he was feeling. It was Sept. 10, 1918.
In the First World War, some men didn’t last a day before cracking. Hugh had been fighting for two years. Soldiers on both sides were keenly aware how the war was changing them.
There are few more truthful passages in literature than one in All Quiet on the Western Front. Author Erich Maria Remarque quotes his friend, also named Albert, saying “The war has ruined us for everything.”
What follows in the novel is a stunning description of the hidden cost of war:
“He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were 18 and had begun to love life and the world, and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.”
When his brother died, Hugh gave everything he had to that war.
“Ever since Albert was laid out beside him . . . he always said he had a lot to get evened up,” a fellow soldier said.
Six weeks after Albert died, an enraged, grief-stricken footballer from Saskatoon spent a blood-soaked day killing Germans in France. Alone, he stormed a house and killed the entire machine gun crew of five. Shooting his Lewis gun from the hip, he charged another position and killed 12.
Then, wounded in the shoulder, he led a party that outflanked another enemy group, shooting as many as they could until the rest gave up.
They were disarming another 60 Germans when an enemy officer shot Hugh in the stomach. Hugh went down on a knee and started shooting.
The Germans returned fire, shooting him through the wrist. Hugh kept firing until his hand and gun were both shredded by gunfire.Then he threw his gun at an onrushing soldier and collapsed. When he was being rescued, he was shot again. The next day he was dead. Hugh got things evened up. The war ended nine days later.
A sprinkler makes a rat-tat-tat noise as it waters the flowers and grass at Hugh’s feet in the park. You stand there and think about the word “courage” and the second syllable of that word, which is rage. And you wonder where one ends and the other begins and how little any of that would matter in the unimaginable terror of a battlefield.
There are 75 names on the monument, all young men who loved sports, who went over there, became different people and never saw home again.
Some names are so badly weathered you can’t read them anymore. It’s shocking and embarrassing that we’re letting that happen. Hugh Cairns and those guys went through hell to qualify for that black granite.
“Your name will be revered forever and ever by your grateful country, and God will take you unto Himself.”
General Currie said that to his Canadian troops in 1917 when it looked like Germany was going to win the war.
We couldn’t promise them much, but we did promise them that much.