Wednesday, July 5, 2017

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

     I was recently looking into the history of the 1st Hussars for the annual D-Day post and came across the name of George Hunter Stirrett, a highly decorated local First World War soldier who served with the Hussars. When I looked into his story a bit more, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a full transcript of his wartime memories that has been archived by Petrolia Heritage. I thought that nobody could tell George's stories better than the man himself, and hope you enjoy reading his accounts as much as I did!

     To begin, some background on George will be of interest. He was born in Forest on March 2, 1891, raised in Petrolia, and spent his adult life in Sarnia. He joined the cavalry shortly after war was declared in 1914 and trained in London. Here is part one of his experiences:

     "The 1914 War as it came to the average young man in Canada was unexpected, unimportant, and certainly nothing to interfere with hockey, rugby, baseball, and lacrosse. Our gang, or boy's club at Petrolia had no one in the militia who went to the yearly camp at Niagara Falls. Military things never were referred to or thought about. We knew that General Wolfe had captured the Plains of Abraham from Montcalm and that Napoleon had been defeated by Wellington at Waterloo. These were things we got marks for in exams, so we had to learn them. Then for memory work, our class had to learn "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Tennyson. And, if you had a Scottish teacher like I did, you learned "Scots, Wa He we Wallace blead. Scots whom Bruce had often lead." This was about the extent of our military knowledge or training.

     On August 4th, 1914, the Methodist Sunday School picnic was going by train from Petrolia to Courtright. Then the Tashmoo steamer from Sarnia picked us up to take us to Tashmoo Park at the entrance to Lake St. Clair. It would return us to Petrolia about dark. As we got to Port Algonac, about 10 AM, a news boy was calling from the dock that England declared war on Germany. He sold all his Detroit newspapers to our boat. Very little was said about the news. There were far more important things that affected us. The war was not as important as the Detroit team beating the Chicago Red Sox at Detroit that afternoon.

     On reaching home after dark, I saw Harry Bolt turning into our house. He had been the trainer for our rugby team and he was very popular with anyone who played games of any kind. Harry wanted to see my father who was Mayor of Petrolia. My father was busy at a council meeting, but was expected home any minute. So I sat with Harry on the veranda and found that he wanted my father to sign a paper that would allow the Grand Trunk Railway to provide Harry with a ticket to Montreal and then to England. Harry told me that he had been a Reserve soldier with the Lincolns of England. Now that war had been declared, he had received his call to rejoin the regiment he had trained with for five years before he came to Canada. He was leaving a wife and two children and they would receive a pension of a dollar a day while he was in the service. Harry got away at 6:00 AM the next morning. The idea of his going was a shock to me and the other boys I told. The local paper said nothing about him quitting his job at the wagon works. His job was soon filled.

     Rugby in 1914 ended in a playoff between London and Sarnia at London. I was asked to referee the game. Four of us on the train started talking about the war which had not ended in ten days or a month like the papers had said it would. After the game, we decided to visit the Armouries in London and try to find out about Army matters and what it was all about.

     At the armouries, we ran into McEwen, who had scored the winning touchdown for London that afternoon against the team from Sarnia. He had been down to Valcartier where his brother was with the artillery. The 1st Division, mostly infantry and artillery, were being collected at Valcartier. He had heard some important persons say there and then that the war would likely last for four or five years and, as a member of the First Hussars, he was going to start recruiting in two weeks time. They would likely go to Egypt as cavalry. He also told us that a military school was starting the next week in the London Armouries. Up to this time we had thought of the war as a joke but now we started to think of it as a serious thing. Two of us decided to take the course starting the following Thursday.

     On our way home to Sarnia on the train, we saw in the evening paper that Harry Bolt of Petrolia had been killed while fighting with the Lincolns in the retreat from Mons. This was our first knowledge that wars would kill people we knew. We had all known and liked Harry.

     At the military school the following week, we found out things about the army. Canada had already sent the First Division and was now raising the Second Division. I found that a Division was usually about 16,000 men, composed of 12,000 infantry (12 Battalions of 1,000 each in 3 Brigades), The other 4,000 were support troops, artillery, signals, supply troops, a cyclist company, and a squadron of cavalry. Before the school closed, it became known that the First Hussars were to form a Squadron of about 160 men for the Second Canadian Division. The 19th Alberta Dragoons had sent a squadron with the First Canadian Division which was now in England.

     After class each day, about a dozen of us would go to talk to McEwen who seemed to know more than our instructors. When the course ended, about a dozen of us, now lieutenants, joined the First Hussars as private soldiers. McEwen, who was the Recruiting Officer, asked me if there were any more young men in Petrolia who might sign up. I said I thought so and contacted Dr. Fairbanks, a fairly wealthy man who lived in Petrolia. He held a banquet to bring all the young men in Petrolia together and McEwen came to town as well. Dr. Fairbanks paid for everything, even the hotel room for McEwen. At the banquet, Dr. Fairbanks told us that he was in California when war was declared and that he immediately sent a telegram to Ottawa saying he was ready to go in any capacity they wish to use him in. Nine of the Petrolia rugby team signed up with us. By January, 1915, we were in barracks at the Exhibition Building at Queen's Park in London.

     Lieutenant Colonel Leonard, who was given command of the First Hussars Squadron, hired Jim Widgrey, an old retired Royal Canadian Dragoon Sergeant Major. Colonel Leonard paid Widgrey out of his own pocket to train our Officers, NCOs and Men. Widgrey put us into shape in about half the time it would otherwise have taken. We had plenty of horses for training from the remount depot at London. Let me tell you of a personal experience relating to Widgrey. I gave evidence one day while I was a Lance Corporal and in my evidence I said I thought a certain thing. Widgrey later found me and said "When you were giving evidence you said you thought something. I want you to get it through your head that there are people in this army paid for thinking, and you are not one of them." Through similar incidents, he was able to help nearly everyone in the First Hussars.

     The First Hussars, or the 7th Canadian Mounted Rifles, as we were then known, had a H.Q. and two Squadrons in London and one Squadron in Toronto. Within a few weeks, "A" and "B" Squadrons in London had progressed to the level of squadron tactical exercises and were able to conduct training schemes in cooperation with infantry units stationed in the London area. On 30 March, 1915, the Regiment was honoured by being ordered to supply the Divisional Cavalry Squadron for the Second Canadian Division. This squadron was organized and commanded by Lt Col Leonard, who selected as his officers Captain C. F. McEwen, Lieutenants A. C. Spencer, J. A. G. White, W. A. Bishop, and H. M. Campbell. Volunteers for service with the squadron were called for. Virtually all other ranks volunteered - the squadron was organized and we began intensive cavalry training.

     On 06 June, 1915, orders were received for the Second Canadian Divisional Cavalry Squadron to proceed overseas. By this time, I was a Corporal with the Second troop. Lieutenant Billy Bishop was our Troop Officer. The squadron entrained two days later for Montreal and, at 11:00 a.m., 09 June, 1915, sailed for England on the S. S. Caledonia."
A comical photo of Billy Bishop taken by George Stirett aboard the Caledonian
     Stay tuned next week for when George goes to war. Many thanks to Petrolia Heritage for the wonderful digitized material!
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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