Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember the last Canadian soldier of the First World War to receive the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Hugh Cairns, for his bravery at Valenciennes, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier in uniform.

Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC, undated (a006735)

Born in Ashington, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on December 4, 1896, Hugh Cairns and his family immigrated to Canada and settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cairns was a plumber before the war. Hugh and his older brother Albert Cairns both enlisted on August 2, 1915 and August 11, 1915, respectively, in Saskatoon. They both joined the 65th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which was absorbed into the 46th Battalion on June 30, 1916 On September 10, 1918, Albert died of head wounds caused by a shell.

Hugh Cairns served in France, proving his determination and resilience as a soldier on several occasions. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal on August 25, 1917 as a private. He was promoted to corporal in the summer of 1918, then to sergeant three months later.

A black-and-white photograph of a uniformed soldier, facing away from the camera and standing in the middle of the bricks and rubble of a destroyed building. A cart with a large wheel is on the left.

A Canadian post in Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003355)

Through October and into November 1918, the Canadians continued their assault on the German lines. Despite German efforts to stubbornly defend their retreating lines, the Allies’ persistent offensives resulted in heavy German losses, the capture of thousands of prisoners, as well as dozens of kilometres in ground gained. By November 1, 1918, the Germans were clinging to the city of Valenciennes and maintaining their stronghold near Marly.

The push into Valenciennes from the 46th Battalion’s “A” Company included an assault on a two-platoon frontage with one support platoon. Cairns was leading the support wave platoon. The Canadian barrage opened at 5:15 a.m. and the platoons began to move toward their objectives. After advancing about 500 yards, they were met with heavy machine gun fire from their left. The platoons pushed on, squashing the resistance from the German machine guns, capturing prisoners and weapons along the way.

A black-and-white photograph of abandoned buildings, crumbling and filled with holes. The ground is covered in debris, mud, and rocks. Four soldiers are walking away from the camera, having crossed an expanse on a bridge made of debris.

Canadians entering Valenciennes over an improvised bridge, November, 1918 (a003376)

As the advance inched along, the Company was held up by very heavy machine gun fire. Under a spray of bullets, Cairns and other soldiers moved to outflank the gun. Crawling on their hands and knees, under cover from friendly rapid machine gun fire, the party succeeded in closing in on the battery. They seized 3 field guns, a trench mortar, 7 machine guns, and over 50 prisoners. Cairns went on to lead his men to capture the railway and establish a post.

As Cairns was heading off to examine a nearby factory, a German soldier opened direct fire on him with an automatic rifle from a nearby post. Cairns, wielding a Lewis gun, made a run for the post of German soldiers, and fired. He killed and wounded many German soldiers in his assault as they ran for a nearby courtyard.

A black-and-white photograph of an ornate railway station in the background, crumpled and heaving, with broken windows and missing walls. The ground is cut diagonally with railway tracks, flooded with water, and littered with debris, planks of wood, and assorted rubble.

The flooded railway station at Valenciennes, November, 1918 (a003452)

Later, Cairns and another soldier were patrolling the city when they entered a courtyard and found 50 German soldiers. While in the process of taking them prisoner and confiscating their weapons, a German officer grabbed for his pistol and shot Cairns through the stomach. In retaliation, Cairns opened fire, killing or wounding about 30 German soldiers. The would-be German prisoners, realizing they needed to fight for their lives, descended upon Cairns and opened fire. Cairns was shot through the wrist, but continued to fire his Lewis gun at the enemy. He was again shot through the hand, nearly taking it off, and breaking his Lewis gun. Cairns threw the useless gun in the face of a German soldier who was firing at him, knocking him over. With his remaining strength, Cairns staggered to a gateway and collapsed, where he was carried off by his comrades.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people standing in front of a building with an open door. Women wearing wide white hats are shaking the hands of soldiers in uniforms. On both ends of the photograph, groups of civilian men and women are smiling into the camera. Someone in the back of the group is holding the French flag.

French nuns and civilians in Valenciennes greet the first Canadians entering the town, November, 1918 (a003578)

Cairns’ heroic maneuvers and self-sacrifice are detailed in the 46th Battalion’s war diaries for November 1918 (pp. 21, 22, 23), where he is mentioned by name throughout the whole account. He is one of several names given special recognition for his actions in Valenciennes. His efforts and bravery helped his company achieve their objectives. By the end of the day, the Canadian Corps captured approximately 1,800 German soldiers and killed more than 800 men. The Canadian losses including Cairns were 80 killed, and approximately 300 wounded.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a white blouse with her arms around a soldier in uniform, kissing his cheek.

French civilian woman kissing a Canadian soldier after the Canadians cleared the Germans out of Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003451)

Cairns died of his wounds on November 2, 1918 and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

Cairns is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery in Nord, France.

Several dedications have been made in his memory, honouring his gallantry. The town of Valenciennes renamed one of its main streets to Avenue du Sergent Cairns. His parents travelled to France to attend the civic ceremony held on July 25, 1936. Back in Canada, an elementary school is named after him, Hugh Cairns V. C. School, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The 38 Combat Engineer Regiment armoury in Saskatoon bears his name, Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC Armoury.

His Victoria Cross is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Sergeant Hugh Cairns.


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Canada’s zombie army

By Andrew Horrall

In the early morning of October 24, 1944, one week before Halloween, Prime Minister Mackenzie King dreamed about close friends. King—who was fascinated by spiritualism—felt that his dream signified “the presence of relations interested in matters pertaining to myself, and wishing to let their presence be known” (WLMK diary, October 24, 1944, p. 1). During that day, King noticed further signs of otherworldly guidance, as he tried to resolve an issue that was splitting his government and the country.

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, King had promised not to introduce conscription, but now Canada’s army in Europe desperately needed reinforcements. King spent the afternoon chairing a heated discussion in Cabinet about whether to force young men into the military. He was especially annoyed when Thomas Crerar, the Minister of Mines and Resources, insisted that “Zombies ought to be sent overseas” to help end the war (WLMK diary, October 24, 1944, p. 8).

A colour poster of a smiling soldier with the caption: Come On, pal ... ENLIST!

“Come On, pal … ENLIST!” recruiting poster, ca. 1942 (c087427k)

Modern readers might ask themselves, did the government debate sending one-time humans, transformed by infection into cannibalistic undead monsters, into battle? The answer is no. The Cabinet discussion reflected how wartime tensions had transformed the relatively uncommon term “zombie” into a popular Canadian colloquial expression.

Zombies appear in many contemporary movies, comics, books and television programs; however, in the 1940s, zombies were much more obscure and still firmly rooted in Haitian folklore as mindless, mute automatons raised from the dead to perform manual tasks. Most North Americans first heard about zombies in a bestselling 1929 book, The Magic Island, whose author claimed to have met actual zombies in Haiti. Hollywood adapted the book three years later into the first zombie movie: White Zombie. Bartenders also began mixing the “zombie,” a potent rum cocktail whose stupefying effects put people in mind of the addled creature.

The story of zombies in the Canadian army is more complicated. At the start of the war in September 1939, King pledged that he would not introduce conscription for overseas military service. The issue had split the country in 1917, and it threatened to do so once again. Volunteers were instead asked whether they agreed to fight overseas. In 1940, the National Resources Mobilization Act gave the government the power to conscript men, but only for service within Canada. Individuals still had to declare their willingness to become General Service, or “GS” men. Tensions between the two groups—the GS men and those who refused to serve overseas—soon became apparent at basic training stations throughout Canada. GS men derided those who had elected to serve in Canada as “Maple Leaf Wonders” for not accepting dangerous front-line posts. After completing their training, many GS men proceeded overseas, while those who remained at home undertook administrative
tasks and guarded Canada’s coasts.

A colour photograph of three men climbing over a wooden fence clad in helmets, short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and socks and boots, and carrying rifles.

Troops in basic training, Lansdowne Park, Ottawa (e010778708)

Ongoing political, social and military tensions about conscription resulted in a national plebiscite in April 1942, in which English Canadians voted to give the government the power to force men to fight, while French Canadians opposed the idea in equal numbers. The deep divisions were apparent to King, who tried to chart a middle ground under the slogan “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

A black-and-white photograph of a man standing at a lectern that is wrapped in the Union Jack, in front of a large audience of workers. Policemen are in the first row.

James S. Duncan, President and General Manager of the Massey-Harris Company, urging workers to vote in favour of conscription in the forthcoming national plebiscite, 1942 (a164429)

By early 1943, men who refused to fight overseas were being ridiculed as “zombies” by GS men, women in uniform and the public at large. It is not clear when the insult was first used to depict these men as cowardly, passive and unable to think for themselves. The image was reinforced by English-Canadian newspapers and magazines, which reported on how zombies were the target of jokes and were linked to supposedly subversive elements in Canadian society, and how women refused to date zombies. A photograph in the Toronto Star in January 1943, showing a group of shipyard workers who had painted zombie faces on their welding masks, suggests that some men were proud of their decision not to fight and embraced the supposedly degrading term (“Shots behind scenes in Canada’s war factories,” Toronto Star [January 13, 1943], p. 17).

The idea of zombies was seared into the Canadian imagination in July 1943 by reports about a riot at a Calgary military base. Fighting broke out there after GS men taunted those who refused to serve overseas with “Salute to a Zombie,” a song that appears to have been commonly heard across Canada. The copy sent to Colonel J.L. Ralston, the Minister of National Defence, who strongly advocated sending zombies overseas, is preserved at Library and Archives Canada.

A typed poem with a rubber stamp marking on the side and some handwritten text on the bottom.

“Salute to a Zombie,” RG24, vol. 2197, file HQ 54-27-63-38

By the time King chaired the Cabinet meeting a week before Halloween in 1944, he faced intense pressure from ministers, military commanders and large sections of the public to send zombies into combat, because Canadian army casualties could no longer be replaced by volunteers alone. King resisted until November, when he decided to compel some 17,000 zombies to go overseas, causing a wave of desertions and a short-lived mutiny in British Columbia. In the end, about 2,500 zombies fought in Europe, where 69 of these soldiers died.

A generation of Canadians, mostly in English Canada, associated zombies with bitter social divisions caused by the Second World War. The term’s modern meaning and the creature’s prominent status in popular culture dates to the release of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.


Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Newfoundland’s Private Thomas Ricketts and his selfless bravery demonstrated at Ledeghem, Belgium.

A black-and-white copy of a newspaper clipping. “Proclamation!” is written in large, capital letters at the top of the clipping.

Seeking recruits to the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, The Daily News, August 22, 1914 (Source: The Rooms)

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire. In order to support the British Army and war effort, Newfoundland recruited a volunteer army, garnering enough men to outfit and sustain a battalion throughout the entirety of the war. Two additional battalions were later added: the 2nd Reserve Battalion, mostly stationed at Ayr, Scotland, and the 3rd Battalion, responsible for recruiting and training in St. John’s. In 1917, in recognition of their courageous actions and heroic participation during the battles of Ypres and Cambrai in France, King George V bestowed the regiment with the prefix “Royal”.

A sepia photograph of a soldier in uniform with a Victoria Cross and a Croix de Guerre pinned to his chest.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC, undated (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

 

Born in Middle Arm, White Bay, Newfoundland, on April 15, 1901, to John and Amelia (Cassels) Ricketts, Thomas Ricketts enlisted with the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, on September 2, 1916. He was underage—only 15 years old—when he volunteered, but claimed to be 18 on his attestation papers. His deception went unnoticed and he was accepted. He embarked for England with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and during his service was shot in the leg in November 1917. Ricketts returned to his regiment in the spring of 1918, after recovering.

On October 14, 1918, the 1st Battalion was participating in the advance from Ledeghem, east of Ypres, in Belgium. The regiment had been fighting through rolling smoke and mist to push back the Germans and capture enemy pillboxes and weapons. By mid-morning, the mist had burned off, revealing a stream, the Wulfdambeek. Forced to cross it, the regiment was exposed to enemy fire. They suffered heavy casualties and soon after were pinned down by enemy shelling. Unable to call on their own artillery fire to combat the German shelling, the only solution was to disable the enemy battery and weapons and to kill the enemy soldiers.

Ricketts volunteered to run forward with his section commander, toting a Lewis machine gun in an effort to outflank the battery. They rushed forward in short advances under heavy machine gun fire, and soon ran out of ammunition, still 300 yards away from the battery. The Germans saw an opportunity to move up their gun teams to take out the advancing pair while they were vulnerable. Ricketts realized the situation and retreated 100 yards under debilitating machine gun fire to retrieve more ammunition. Upon his return with additional resources, he adeptly handled the Lewis gun, driving the enemy and gun teams back to a nearby farm. With the threats removed, the platoon advanced without casualties and captured four field guns, four machine guns, and eight prisoners. Later, a fifth gun was intercepted and captured.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform, angled away from the camera.

Private Thomas Ricketts, undated (Source: National Defence)

As recounted in the London Gazette:

By his presence of mind in anticipating the enemy intention and his utter disregard for personal safety, Pte. Ricketts secured the further supply of ammunition which directly resulted in these important captures and undoubtedly saved many lives.

London Gazette, no. 31108, p. 309, January 6, 1919

Ricketts survived the remainder of the war and was discharged on June 17, 1919, for demobilization. He was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George V on January 19, 1919, at Sandringham, England, when he was only 17 years old, the youngest Victoria Cross army combatant recipient. He returned to Newfoundland a war hero. Upon his return home, he returned to school and later became a pharmacist. In addition to his Victoria Cross, Ricketts was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Golden Star for his gallantry.

He died in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on March 21, 1967.

Rickett’s Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file for Private Thomas Ricketts.

Tag pictures and give history a hand

You can tag the images in this blog! Immerse yourself in the CEF digitized files and transcribe, tag, translate and describe their content. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping LAC’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Visit the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!


Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

On this day in 1918, Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie was killed in action northeast of Cambrai, France. His actions on that day would lead to his posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.

Wallace Lloyd Algie was born on June 10, 1891, in Alton, Ontario, the son of James and Rachel Algie of Toronto. He graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada and volunteered in the active militia with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the 40th Regiment, serving as a lieutenant.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer wearing a peak cap.

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie, undated. Source: Directorate of History and Heritage (National Defence and the Canadian Forces)

Algie was a bank clerk in Toronto before enlisting as an officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on April 19, 1916. He sailed on the SS Laconia on September 25, 1916, and was attached to the 95th Battalion upon arrival at Seaford, England. He proceeded to the European theatre with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion on May 26, 1917. He completed various officer training courses, including one on the Lewis Gun.

On October 11, 1918, the 27-year-old lieutenant was leading his troops in the 20th Battalion of the CEF near the village of Cambrai, France, when they came under intense machine-gun fire from a nearby village. His citation in the London Gazette, January 28, 1919, tells the story of the actions that led to his death and the awarding of the Victoria Cross:

“For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice on the 11th October, 1918, north-east of Cambrai, when the attaching troops which came under heavy enfilade machine-gun fire from a neighbouring village. Rushing forward with nine volunteers, he shot the crew of an enemy machine gun, and, turning it on the enemy, enabled his party to reach the village. He then rushed another machine gun, killed the crew, captured an officer and 10 enemy, and thereby cleared the end of the village. Lt. Algie, having established his party, went back for reinforcements, but was killed when leading them forward. His valour and personal initiative in the face of intense fire saved many lives and enabled the position to be held.”

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie is buried in Niagara Cemetery, Iwuy, France.

A typed page detailing the events of October 10 to 11, 1918.

War diary page of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion explaining Lieutenant Algie’s actions for the day (e000960948)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie.


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in the Digital Operations and Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The aeronautical engineers at A.V. Roe Ltd.

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the rightBy Andrew Elliott

In 1948, the first class of the new aeronautical engineering school at the University of Toronto graduated. This graduating class comprised people such as Gerald Vincent Bull, Fred Matthews, Daisy Pon, William McCarter, William Kuzyk, and Ralph Waechter. Most of these individuals (including the first woman to graduate in aeronautical engineering) would take on jobs at the A.V. Roe Ltd. headquarters in Malton, Ontario. They would go on to work on various aspects of a number of revolutionary aircraft that would appear within the next ten years, including the famed (and fated) supersonic Avro Arrow. Library and Archives Canada recently acquired the fonds of two of these individuals, William Kuzyk and Ralph Waechter.

The story of A.V. Roe Ltd is, as the Canadian Air and Space Museum suggests, “a chronicle of triumph and tragedy for Canadian aviation.” Starting in 1945, the company had two initial projects. One was a commercial aircraft called the Jetliner, or the C-102. The other was a military aircraft, a two-engine, all-weather fighter-interceptor called the Canuck, or CF-100. Finally, starting in 1950, the company began work on the design for the Avro Arrow. The company assembled aeronautical engineering teams from Britain and Canada and began work on the design of the airframe and turbo-jet engines for these airplane types.

The C-102 Jetliner was a revolutionary aircraft designed for commercial air travel. The first flight of the C-102 Jetliner was in August 1949, and in every subsequent flight, it broke records for speed. Unfortunately, production of the aircraft never went beyond the testing phase.

A black-and-white photograph of an airplane on a runway with groups of men hanging around the aircraft.

Avro Canada C-102 Jetliner aircraft (a092486)

One of A.V. Roe’s most successful productions was a two-engine, all-weather fighter-interceptor called the Canuck, or CF-100, as seen here:

A black-and-white photograph of an airplane on a runway with a man looking into the open engine box and another man standing behind him.

Avro Canada CF-100 (a068257)

The CF-105 Arrow had “technically advanced features’, such as the striking high delta-wing, tailless configuration, as well as other leading-edge aerodynamic features. You can see this in the early designs:

A black-and-white cross-section drawing of an airplane showing the fuselage, wing and vertical tail for an airplane.

Drawing no. 7-0400-01, Issue 1 of CF-105 Avro Arrow (e011161348)

A sketch of the outline of a very futuristic looking airplane.

Sketch of Avro Arrow (e011161340)

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was an exciting time to be an aeronautical engineer, and A.V. Roe hired new graduates in the field immediately.

Ralph William Waechter (1926–2012) studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Toronto from 1944-1948. After graduating, he was hired to work as an aeronautical engineer, a flight-test engineer, and an experimental aerodynamicist at A.V. Roe Canada Ltd. in Malton, Ontario. William Kuzyk (1922–1990) attended the University of Toronto between 1943 and 1949, graduating with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1949. While he was completing his degree, he also worked for A.V. Roe as a design checker in the Gas Turbine Division.

During their decade of work at the company, Waechter and Kuzyk worked in various departments. Among other things, they were flight test engineers in the Flight Test Research Department. Here, their principle activity was data collection. Many of their reports deal with the technical challenges of high-speed flight and the related phenomena that can occur. Along this line, there is considerable data and graphs indicating performance and effects, particularly in relation to air speed and high-speed performance. Concerning the Avro Arrow, both aeronautical engineers tested the performance of various other experimental versions, including those with zero-length launch technology.

A black-and-white drawing of the side, front, and top views of an aircraft.

Rocket Geometry Zero Length Launch, CF-105 Arrow (e011161341)

A detailed technical drawing of an airplane in launching position.

Arrow Launching Position for Zero Length Launch (e011161347)

A drawing showing two planes above the clouds.

A photograph of a drawing of a CF-105 AVRO Arrow (a111546)

Despite continued design and flight success through to 1958, the international and national political climate played a role in the demise of the Avro Arrow. On February 20, 1959, the federal government cancelled the entire Avro Arrow project. All work on the project ceased, and 14,000 employees at A.V. Roe were laid off. Waechter and Kuzyk, like many other employees, found jobs in aeronautical engineering companies in the United States where they would stay through the 1960s. Unlike others in the field, they came back to Canada in the early 1970s and had continued success in their fields of expertise.

When the Avro Arrow project was cancelled, it was advised that all project records be destroyed. Consider, then, how lucky it is for us that neither William Kuzyk nor Ralph Waechter heeded these orders. Because of this, we now have unique visual evidence of the innovative aeronautical research and development that was occurring in Canada in the middle part of the 20th century.

Further research

LAC holds various fonds containing material related to the Avro Arrow, including:

As well, material can be found in the fonds of various Members of Parliament and Prime Ministers, including:

Within the government holdings, a researcher may find scattered material about A.V. Roe and its various aeronautical projects:


Andrew Elliott is a private archivist in the Science, Economics, and Environment section of the Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell and his courageous acts at the Canal de l’Escaut, France, from October 8 to 9, 1918.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer in uniform.

Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell, VC, ca. 1918 (c001595)

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on December 11, 1889, Mitchell was a civil engineer before enlisting as a private with the Canadian Railway Construction Corps on January 21, 1915. In 1916, he became a lieutenant and joined the 1st Tunneling Company, Canadian Engineers. Mitchell was promoted to captain in 1917 after receiving the Military Cross for his gallantry. In 1918, Mitchell was posted to the 4th Battalion, Canadian Engineers. During his time with the 4th Battalion, he performed a heroic feat that helped to ensure Allied success at the Canal de l’Escaut, northeast of Cambrai, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a dried-out canal with a crooked bridge in the background. A bridge in the middle distance has a horse-drawn carriage crossing it with supplies. Throughout the photo, soldiers are moving about, and some are carrying supplies.

Canadians constructing a bridge to move supports and supplies, Canal du Nord, France, September 1918 (a003285)

After the end of the Battle of Canal du Nord on October 1, 1918, Allied soldiers were intent on entering and clearing the town of Cambrai. Previous offensives had opened some roads into the town, and now a further manoeuvre was needed to bring in the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. German resistance was strong to the northeast of Cambrai, and the Canadians aimed to capture and move beyond the town. The following days would see a Canadian offensive, with Canadian forces liberating French villages against stubborn German resistance.

On the night of October 8 to 9, 1918, Mitchell led a party of sappers (soldiers responsible for building and repairing roads and bridges, and clearing mines) on a reconnaissance mission near Cambrai. Their task was to go beyond the security of the Canadian front lines to inspect bridges over which the Canadian 5th Infantry Brigade planned to advance. The goal was to prevent these bridges from being demolished. After coming across one bridge that had been destroyed, Mitchell and his team moved on to the next bridge, which stretched across the Canal de l’Escaut.

A black-and-white photograph of a town with damaged buildings, with stone and rubble heaped in the middle. One soldier is bent to the ground beside a large pile of debris. A nearby soldier standing to the left is watching him.

Canadian Engineers looking for mines in Cambria, France, October 1918 (a003271)

Under heavy barrage and in total darkness, Mitchell ran across the bridge, unaware of the enemy’s positions or strength. He discovered that the Germans had prepared it for demolition. With the assistance of a non-commissioned officer, he cut the detonation wires and removed the explosive charge. When the Germans realized that their explosives were being removed, they moved toward the bridge to set off the detonations. Seeing that his sentry was wounded, Mitchell rushed forward to assist. He killed three German soldiers and took 12 prisoners. Saving the bridge helped to assure the later success of the 5th Infantry Brigade’s operations.

As recounted in the London Gazette:

Then under heavy fire he continued his task of cutting wires and removing charges, which he well knew might at any moment have been fired by the enemy. It was entirely due to his valour and decisive action that this important bridge across the canal was saved from destruction.

London Gazette, no. 31155, January 31, 1919, pp. 1503.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer in uniform.

Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell, VC, ca. 1918 (c001594)

Mitchell served in the Canadian Engineers until April 28, 1919, when he left during general demobilization. He returned to Canada after the war and resumed his career as a civil engineer. During the Second World War, he commanded engineering units in Britain. In 1943, he returned to Canada as a lieutenant-colonel in charge of an engineering training centre. After the war, he returned to his civilian career once again.

Mitchell’s service in both world wars has been commemorated in a variety of locations. In Manitoba, Coulson Mitchell Lake was named in his honour. In Montréal, a street and a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion bear his name. The main building of the Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering at the Canadian Army Base in Gagetown, New Brunswick, also carries his name.

Mitchell passed away at his home in Montréal on November 17, 1978.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell.

Transcribe war diaries or tag pictures, and give history a hand!

The War Diaries of the Canadian Engineers are open for you to transcribe, tag, translate and describe their contents. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping Library and Archives Canada’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Visit the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Sergeant William Merrifield, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Sergeant William Merrifield and his gallant actions near Abancourt, France, on October 1, 1918.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform.

Sergeant William Merrifield, VC, undated. Source: National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Born in Brentwood, Essex, England, on October 9, 1890, Merrifield was a firefighter before the outbreak of the First World War. He enlisted on September 23, 1914, at Valcartier, Quebec, joining the 2nd Battalion (Canadian Mounted Rifles) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In 1917, he joined the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion. For his bravery in November 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele, Merrifield received the Military Medal.

As September 1918 drew to a close, the Battle of Canal du Nord in France was also near its end. The Canadians stationed around the battlefield were engaged in regular patrols and reconnaissance missions. Allied artillery, including 6-inch guns and 60-pounders, fired continually, but the shells often fell short of their targets in the German trenches. In one instance, the Allies accidentally shelled and destroyed one of their own Lewis guns and caused casualties among their own soldiers. The Germans stubbornly defended their trenches, making the Canadians’ objective of breaking through the lines very difficult.

On October 1, 1918, near Abancourt, Merrifield and his men were under fire from two enemy machine-gun posts. Unable to advance further because of the German guns, Merrifield decided to attack both posts single-handedly to eliminate them. Dashing from shell hole to shell hole, he killed the enemy soldiers in the first post and sustained wounds during the assault. In spite of his injuries, he pressed on to the second post, killing its occupants with a hand grenade. He remained in battle and continued to lead his platoon until he was severely wounded.

A black-and-white copy of a typed textual record, with handwritten signatures down the right side of the page.

War Diaries, 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion, describing some events from October 1, 1918, page 4 (e001078521)

Merrifield survived the remainder of the war and was discharged on April 24, 1919, in general demobilization. He moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He died in Toronto on August 8, 1943.

A public elementary school in Sault Ste. Marie was named after Merrifield; William Merrifield V.C. Public School in the Algoma District School Board was open from 1946 until June 2015. And Merrifield Outdoor Rink is located at the corner of Henrietta Avenue and Patrick Street in Sault Ste. Marie.

As well, the 56th Field Artillery Regiment in Brantford, Ontario, dedicated its armoury (Sergeant William Merrifield VC Armoury) to his memory.

Merrifield’s Victoria Cross was donated to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Sergeant William Merrifield.

Want to experience life during a time of war?

The War Diaries of the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion are open for you to transcribe, tag, translate and describe their contents. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping Library and Archives Canada’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Visit the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!

Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Captain John MacGregor, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Captain John MacGregor and his bravery during the Battle of Canal du Nord near Cambrai, France, between September 29 and October 3, 1918.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling soldier in his service dress uniform.

Captain John MacGregor, VC, April 1919 (a004598-v8)

Born near Nairn, Scotland, on February 11, 1888, John MacGregor moved to Canada in 1909. He was a carpenter before he enlisted with the 11th Canadian Mounted Rifles of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on March 26, 1915. MacGregor had served for three years with the Garrison Artillery in Nairn. During the First World War, he was a decorated soldier, earning several military awards including the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Military Cross and the Bar to Military Cross.

MacGregor rose quickly through the ranks in the CEF, starting with a promotion to sergeant in 1916, then to lieutenant in 1917, and finally to captain in 1918. He was wounded twice in the line of duty and invalided for a period with influenza; his resilience helped him through the war and served him well in combat. By September 1918, he was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion in France, fighting as part of Canadian Corps operations to break across the Canal du Nord and capture the roads leading into Cambrai.

A black-and-white photograph of four people standing and looking toward the camera.

Captain John MacGregor, VC, between two unidentified women, with Lieutenant R. Darcus, MC (a006914-v8)

During the Battle of Canal du Nord, MacGregor led the battalion’s “C” Company under intense pressure from the German defences. With the company’s advance hampered by debilitating machine-gun fire, he pushed on and located the enemy guns, despite being wounded during the fight. In broad daylight, he ran forward, armed with a rifle and bayonet, coming under heavy fire from all directions, and single-handedly put the enemy crew out of action. His bravery resulted in the deaths of four German soldiers and eight taken prisoner. MacGregor’s quick thinking and initiative saved his men from danger and allowed the advance to continue.

Afterward, he reorganized his command while facing continued heavy fire, and he offered support to neighbouring troops. As the German lines continued to resist, he defiantly moved along the front lines. Many other officers were wounded or killed in action, so MacGregor took command of platoons, organized waves of soldiers and pushed the advance forward.

During daytime reconnaissance under suppressive fire, MacGregor established his company in Neuville-St.-Remy, which greatly assisted the advance into Tilloy. Throughout the operation across the Canal du Nord and leading toward Cambrai, MacGregor showed strong leadership and bravery in the face of danger.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in service dress uniform, squinting in the sun and turned slightly away from the camera.

Captain John MacGregor, VC, date unknown (a007507-v8)

MacGregor survived the remainder of the war and was “struck off strength,” or released from service, in general demobilization on April 9, 1919. He went on to serve in the Second World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel; he commanded the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s), a reservist infantry regiment based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He died on June 9, 1952, and was buried at Cranberry Lake cemetery in Powell River, British Columbia.

A black-and-white copy of a typed textual record with titles underlined and some text organized into columns.

War Diaries from the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion, with McGregor’s name under “C” Company, September 1918, p. 26 (e001126713)

MacGregor’s Victoria Cross and other medals are on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Captain John MacGregor.

Do you want to experience military life during the First World War?

The War Diaries of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles Battalion are open for you to transcribe, tag, translate and describe their contents. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping Library and Archives Canada’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Visit the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!


Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Samuel Lewis Honey, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey and his bravery during the Bourlon Wood operations between September 27 and September 30, 1918.

A colour poster with “Fall in the Grenadiers” in large red text, with varying other black and red text. On the right, a uniformed soldier with a tall black hat, a red coat and a rifle slung over his shoulder stands at attention.

Recruitment campaign poster for the 78th Battalion, undated (e010697069)

Born in Conn, Ontario, on February 9, 1894, Samuel Lewis Honey was a schoolteacher when he enlisted as a private on January 22, 1915, joining the 34th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a decorated and accomplished soldier, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal, and was later commissioned as an officer on July 2, 1917. In autumn 1918, he was serving in France as a lieutenant in the 78th Infantry Battalion.

On September 27, 1918, Honey was fighting alongside thousands of Canadian soldiers under heavy machine-gun fire from the German lines at Bourlon Wood. The operation to reach across the Canal du Nord with the ultimate objective of capturing Bourlon Wood and Village was vital for opening the road leading to Cambrai. When the commander and officers in his company became casualties to the unrelenting German attacks, Honey took charge. He commanded and reorganized the company and continued with the advance.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier wearing a cap and a Sam Brown belt, part of an officer’s uniform.

Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey, undated. Source: National Defence and the Canadian Forces.

Under his leadership, the objective of capturing Bourlon Wood was achieved; however, it came at the expense of severe casualties. Machine-gun fire was causing significant damage and loss to his company. Honey located the machine-gun nest and rushed it alone, single-handedly capturing the guns and taking 10 prisoners.

Following this feat, Honey successfully resisted four enemy counterattacks. He later went out alone in the dark and located an enemy post. Honey and a party of soldiers captured the post and an additional three guns.

As recounted in the London Gazette:

On the 29th September he led his company against a strong enemy position with great skill and daring and continued in the succeeding days of the battle to display the same high example of valour and self-sacrifice.

London Gazette, no. 31108, January 6, 1919

A black-and-white photograph of three soldiers bent at the waist, searching around trees and through bushes for blackberries.

Canadian soldiers picking blackberries in Bourlon Wood after capturing it, France, October 1918 (a003275)

During this attack, Honey received fatal wounds and died at No. 12 Canadian Field Ambulance on September 30, 1918. Buried at the Queant Communal Cemetery in Pas de Calais, France, he was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A plaque is dedicated to Honey in Mount Forest, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey.

Tag pictures and give a hand to history!

The images in this blog post are open for tagging! Immerse yourself in the Canadian Expeditionary Force digitized files and transcribe, tag, translate and describe their contents. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping Library and Archives Canada’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Read the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!


Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg and his courageous actions during the Battle of Canal du Nord on September 28, 1918.

Born on April 10, 1892, in Mountain Dale, Kings County, New Brunswick, Milton Fowler Gregg was a student before enlisting with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on November 5, 1914. Gregg earned the Military Cross in 1917 and was awarded a bar for the Cross for gallant actions in 1918. A decorated soldier, Gregg was serving as a Lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) in September 1918.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier.

Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg, VC, undated (a006811)

From September 28 to September 30, 1918, the RCR was moving with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on operations to cross the Canal du Nord, capture Bourlon Wood and Village, and advance to Cambrai, France. With the ultimate objective of opening the road to Cambrai, it was essential for the RCR to advance and gain a foothold. The RCR assault began at 5:40 a.m. and faced little opposition until it was met with heavy machine-gun fire from enemy soldiers positioned in nearby buildings. Three tanks were brought up as reinforcements; however, the persistent machine guns and anti-tank guns put them out of action.

During the Battle of Canal du Nord, Gregg performed heroically, as in previous operations. On September 28, 1918, both flanks of the brigade were held up by heavy enemy fire, pinned down by rapid machine-gun bursts, and trapped by twisted, uncut barbed wire. Crawling forward alone, Gregg eventually found a small gap in the wire. He led his men through the hole and forced his way into the enemy trench.

A black-and-white photograph of large mortars pointing upward, as a soldier leans over one to look down its barrel.

Trench mortar referred to as “minenwerfers” were used by the German armies in the Canal du Nord during the Canadian advance east of Arras, September 1918 (a003200)

A heavy counterattack from German soldiers saw increasing RCR casualties, and dwindling bomb supplies, leaving the brigade vulnerable. Gregg, who had been wounded during his forward push, retreated in order to retrieve additional grenades. He rejoined his party with much-needed supplies but suffered a second wound in the effort. Despite his injuries, he reorganized the men and led them against the enemy trenches. Under his leadership, they cleared the enemy trench and gained a footing in the Marcoing Line.

A black-and-white copy of a page with paragraphs of texts typed in black ink.

War Diaries, Royal Canadian Regiment, describing operations, September 1918, page 28 (e001072260)

As detailed in the London Gazette:

He personally killed or wounded 11 of the enemy and took 25 prisoners, in addition to 12 machine guns captured in this trench. Remaining with his company in spite of wounds, he again on the 30th September led his men in attack until severely wounded. The outstanding valour of this officer saved many casualties and enabled the advance to continue.

London Gazette, no. 31108, January 6, 1919

Gregg survived the remainder of the war, held a variety of political positions, and served overseas during the Second World War. He passed away on March 13, 1978, at the age of 85. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg.

Want to experience life during a time of war?

The War Diaries of the Royal Canadian Regiment are open for you to transcribe, tag, translate and describe their contents. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping Library and Archives Canada’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Read the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!


Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.