Wednesday, July 12, 2017

World War Wednesdays: He Served His Country: Maj. George Stirrett, M.C. D.C.M Part Two

     Welcome back to part two of Maj. George Stirrett's incredible memoirs. You'll recall that at the end of last week's post, George, Lt. Billy Bishop, and the rest of the Second Canadian Divisional Cavalry Squadron embarked for England aboard the S.S. Caledonia on June 9, 1915. Read on for the rest of the story!

      ”On the Caledonia, with three decks of horses underneath, our main duty was to feed and water the horses. There were no kitchens on board and the cooks had to prepare our meals on the open deck. It was awful food. It was the worst conditions I had ever seen. The ship wasn't designed for this kind of duty and there wasn't even a doctor on board. Fortunately we had good weather and were able to set out hay and sleep on the deck. There were hammocks below but the air was too foul to sleep there. The next day, the hay we had used for our beds would be fed to the horses. We swung wide to the south while sailing across the Atlantic and still thought that we were going to Egypt. However, we landed at Devonport, England. We had crossed the Atlantic without any escort ships, without even a machine-gun on our own ship. It was not until later on in the war that shipping was being attacked by the enemy, creating a need for escort ships.
SS Caledonia,

     We landed at South Hampton and moved to Devonport. From Devonport, our squadron entrained for Canterbury where the Cavalry Headquarters for England was located. The 2nd Division was scattered all over the south coast of England. Two days later we rejoined the Second Canadian Division at Dibgate Plains (near F o l k e s t o n e) where we went under canvas. At Dibgate Plains the squadron was issued 168 riding and light draught horses, new Lee-Enfield rifles and swords. Training was continued at an accelerated pace. However, the area was very heavy clay and after every rain the horse lines became almost impossible. One day when the mud was very bad, two Royal Air Force planes went over. While Bishop, who hated to be dirty, and I stood in the mud watching them, only a few hundred feet high, Bishop turned to me and said, "It's clean up there George. And if you were killed, at least you would be clean. Imagine being killed in this mix of mud and horse manure." Lieutenant Billy Bishop joined the Air Force that afternoon and was replaced in the troop by Lt. C. G. Cockshutt, a member of the family that owned the Cockshutt Plough Company. Lt. Bishop hadn't told anyone in the Hussars where he was going or what he was going to do so we didn't know where he was for about two weeks.

     Billy Bishop, while with the Royal Flying Corps, became the world's greatest flier during the First World War. He received many decorations including the V.C. and the D.S.O. and the Saturday Evening Post ran a series of articles about him. He told us that they paid him $75,000 for his story. He told Evan Cobb his story in three hours and Cobb made the series run almost two years. Bishop would visit us at least once a month; he was always popular with all ranks. He once invited me to his new lines where he made me stand on a grand piano and have a drink. Around the room on the wall were the names and ranks of Officers and beside each name were women's garters. Some had one or two and some had six or more. Billy told me you could only hang a garter if you'd personally taken it off the woman. Also, there was an indication by some names that this particular Officer had been killed.
A group of despatch riders of the Canadian Signal Corps on Hendee motorcycles (Indian Powerplus) , Camp Valcartier, Quebec, ca 1917.
     The fellows flying the airplanes were given more privileges than we were and almost all of them rode motorcycles. I guess it was because their work was so intense that they wanted them to be able to relax when not training. They had some older airplanes and we watched one day as they drove them all into the hedges to break them up so they could get new ones. They were never disciplined for anything they did. Billy's batman was a guy we called Slim Adams from Alvinston, Ontario. He was a terrible horseman, we used to say he looked like a sack of potatoes riding behind Bishop. One day Billy asked him to send a dozen roses to his girl friend. When Adams tried to do this, they wouldn't extend any credit so he paid for the roses out of his own pocket. When he asked Billy for the money back - he didn't have any to give him.

     In mid-September, the squadron sailed from Southampton and disembarked the next morning at Le Havre in France. The same day the squadron moved up to the front by train and went into billets near Westoutre In Belgium. We took over from "B" Squadron, Surrey Yeomanry Divisional Cavalry of the British 28th Division. On reaching France, I had been made a Sergeant with the second troop. During the fall and winter, our squadron was engaged in frontier patrol duty, trench mapping, classification of water supplies, assisting engineers, artillery spotting, stretcher bearing, and other similar duties under the direct orders of the Divisional Commander. Twenty-five of our men were designated to act as mounted police and to keep order in the camps assisting the Provost Marshall. We were to do very little in a cavalry role for much of the war.

    In January, 1916, through the efforts of Colonel Leonard, authority was granted by the Canadian Government for the Second Canadian Divisional Cavalry Squadron to be known as the Special Service Squadron, First (Canadian) Hussars. Later, in the spring of 1916, the Canadian Corps was formed to include the First Canadian Corps Cavalry Regiment, subsequently known as the Canadian Light Horse. This unit was formed from the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Divisional Cavalry Squadrons. The Canadian Light Horse was formed into three squadrons of four troops each. The total strength was to be 36 Officers, 600 men, and 550 horses. Each troop had a Hotchkiss machine gun mounted, and each squadron carried two extra Hotchkiss Guns in echelon (a total of 18 guns in the Regiment). The three squadrons each retained their own unit identity. They all wore should flashes showing Canadian Light Horse but wore collar dogs and cap badges from their own unit - 'A' Squadron 19th Alberta Dragoons; 'B' Sqn First Hussars; and 'C' Sqn 16th Light Horse (Regina). Colonel Leonard was given command of the Canadian Light Horse. Later a battalion of cyclists, made up of three companies, and the motor machine gun elements were placed under Colonel Leonard's command as well. This whole command was known as the Storm Troopers.

     During this time, even though we were not being used in a cavalry role, our cavalry training continued whenever it was possible. General Haig, who as the senior cavalry officer, believed that there was still a need for cavalry and kept all cavalry units up to strength and well trained. During 1916 and part of 1917, when the war was being fought in the trenches, 100 yards was a major advance. Since there was little opportunity to use cavalry, most of our time was spent in training, looking after the horses, or on duty in various capacities as sub-units attached to the advanced units in the trenches. When on the line we would stand to for two or three hours at a time as there were always rumours about the Germans attacking. Our job was to go forward if the attack came but we knew that with the trenches and barbed wire, our cavalry would do no good.
Mounted Canadian troops heading into action at Vimy Ridge, April 1917, Canada at War

     The RCDs had heard that horses could see in the dark and would be able to jump over trenches and barbed wire in a night assault even if their riders couldn't see. The RCDs made up a series of trenches and barbed wire behind the lines and one night sent a troop of cavalry over them at the gallop believing the horses would jump when necessary. It was an awful mess and all of the horses had to be shot. That's the way you learned. What happened to me then I don't know but all fear was gone, in a trance you might call it. I walked and went any place I wished to that day and night without fear. I came back in about an hour and emptied his pockets. We worked that day, that night, and the next day as stretcher bearers under continuous fire. By the next day, I had only 18 of our 60 men who were able to come home to our own lines. I had been working with four men and told them to wait here while I went forward to see where we should go next. A shell got all of them but only wounded them. They couldn't hear for awhile. Eighteen to twenty had been killed and the rest wounded. It took one man to help a walking wounded back to the line and they could use some cover but it took two men to carry a stretcher and they made good targets. As a result of the good work done by the 1st Hussars, and because of an incident I was involved in, the 8th Battalion recommended I be decorated. I was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). The incident was when I was with three Officers who were looking for their CO. I could hear a person calling and I said to the three Officers, "There's somebody out there calling for help". They said "We know but the Germans aren't likely no more than 100 yards out there, you can't go" I said, "You just watch me. Just boost me up." So I went out and a Sergeant that was there wanted to go with me. I said, "No, you stay here cause if there's two they'll shoot at us but if I go alone, they won't." So I went out towards where this fellow was yelling for help and, holy Moses, before I got to the shell hole he was in, I got eight of them that were out there wounded and lying waiting for dark. I got them out and pulled them over to our trenches and then waved over at the Germans because I knew they were close enough to see what I was doing. So I just waved at them and dropped down into our trench. These three Officers were there and immediately a bullet came over as if to say, "we saw you and could have killed you but we didn't - we saw what you were doing." So that's what got me the decoration. In my diary for this date I have written, "Whoever it was that said war is HELL is correct."

     Thanks so much for continuing with George's amazing story. I anticipate there being one or two more editions, so stay tuned for those! Credits once again to Petrolia Heritage for making this material accessible.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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