Do you recognize the name George Hilton Soles? Chances are that it is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me just a few short months ago. I had known for a long time that a Canadian had won, during the First World War, a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) with two bars; however, I never knew who he was and I had never found myself in a position to look into this man’s history. So, to help make this man’s name and deeds perhaps a little more well known among Canadians, allow me to share what I have found of his story.
During World War I an infanteer from the 72nd Battalion CEF was awarded three separate times the second highest military honour in the British Empire: the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Until 1993, when it was discontinued, the DCM was second only to the Victoria Cross for acts of gallantry and distinguished conduct in the field. In fact, Soles is among only a handful of people in the entire world to ever be awarded the DCM with two bars. To put that into perspective, 2,132 Canadians were awarded the DCM prior to 1993; only thirty-eight Canadians in history were ever awarded the DCM with just one bar; George Soles is the only Canadian to be awarded the DCM with two bars. This in itself should warrant more recognition of the name George Hilton Soles and, hopefully, this post will help to start that.
George Hilton Soles was born to Richard Hilton Soles and Elizabeth Margaret Storie in Hastings Country in Ontario on 7 April 1894. Upon joining the Canadian military in March 1915, Soles stated on his attestation papers (link) that he worked as a farmer and had previous militia service with the 107th Regiment. Initially assigned to the 48th (British Columbia) Battalion CEF, who he would fight with during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Soles eventually ended up with the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) CEF in 1917, the unit which he would serve the remainder of the war with.
The action that would earn George Soles his initial Distinguished Conduct Medal was gazetted about in The London Gazette dated 28 March 1918 (link). The official account of the action is seen in the below entry from The London Gazette, issue 30601, page 3890:
According to Soles, however, the events that led to his receiving his DCM happened quite a bit differently than what was gazetted about:
“There was a little village; I forget the name that we had taken. There were two trenches, a kid [sic] of a pincher like affair, skirting the village with a main trench in the centre of the village. I had been wounded in the head, and figured the best I could do was to make for a dressing station. I started back, threw away all my equipment, and was well into the village trench when I suddenly saw a German sentry. He was standing guard at the entrance of a deep dug-out. I had to pass him, but I didn’t have a rifle. I scouted back a few yards, found an abandoned German rifle, and sneaked back, put it against the German’s back, and said ‘Hands up’. He couldn’t understand English, but he knew the feel of cold steel. He dropped his rifle, and elevated. There was a pile of hand grenades near the sentry, and I could see the entrance to the dug-out. ‘How many?’ I signaled, holding up my hand fingers spread, and pointing to the dug-out with the rifle. Fritzie wasn’t dull. He put up eight fingers and two thumbs, four times, closed both hands, and then held up two fingers. ‘Forty-three, including the sentries’. I thought well I might as well take them along, because if I don’t Fritizie will get me after I pass. So I pointed to a box of hand grenades standing near the sentry, and then motioned for him to tell his comrades to come up, or else. And he understood. He yelled something in German; I guess it meant come up and give up. Any, way, up came forty-two Germans, unarmed and with their hands reaching…I took them along and later was awarded the D.C.M. That’s all there was to it.”
Perhaps the Gazette and Soles’s descriptions actually depict two separate events from the same time period or battle; or, maybe they do actually depict the same event, but to very different degrees of detail. Regardless, even though there may exist some conflict regarding the exact details, George Soles was awarded his first DCM for gallant actions on the battlefield in France.
Soles’s first bar to his DCM was also awarded for actions in 1918. During an attack by the 72nd Battalion and other units, a British tank had fallen behind the advancing infantry and mistakenly began firing on the Canadian soldiers in front of it, believing them to be the enemy. Soles immediately took off his helmet and placed it upon his bayonet, then proceeded to run through the tank’s fire to it’s front in an effort to get the tank’s attention. Once he had the crew’s attention, Soles redirected their fire upon the enemy forces.
It was during the Hundred Days Offensive of the Allies that George Soles earned the second bar to his DCM, becoming the only Canadian in history to do so in the process. According to the citation placed in The Edinburgh Gazette, Soles received his second bar to his DCM for several actions that occurred on 29 September 1918 in the area near Cambrai, France: firstly, and all alone, Sole rushed an enemy position and single-handedly captured three German machine guns; secondly, while navigating a railway cutting (a man-made trough or valley through a hill, carrying at its base a railway) he personally shot and killed eight enemy soldiers; lastly, Soles was responsible for the organization of a friendly strong point that successfully repelled a German counter-attack. What the below entry from The Edinburgh Gazette doesn’t note is something that appeared in a British Columbia Provincial Police (BCPP) magazine before that force’s dissolution in 1950. In that magazine it was noted that George Soles was also awarded his second bar to his DCM for leading a Canadian counter-attack, consisting of 120 men, against the Germans. Even though the counter-attack was successful, the BCPP magazine goes on to state that only seventeen men, and Soles himself, were left to speak of the event. It should be noted that this counter-attack and subsequent casualties are not noted, at least as described by the BCPP magazine, in the History of the 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (link). It is, however, stated that, on 29 September 1918, the battalion was engaged with the enemy in a railway cutting (pg. 147), that a strong-point was established by elements of the battalion shortly thereafter (also on pg. 147), and that it was during this advance that Soles performed the actions that would lead to his second DCM bar. Soles’s second bar to his DCM was gazetted on 12 January 1920 (link).
In the years following the end of hostilities in Europe, George Hilton Soles became one of the most decorated soldiers of the Commonwealth, the only Canadian (before or after) to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal with two bars, and only one of a very exclusive group in the British Empire to also hold the DCM with two bars.
By the end of June 1919 the 72nd Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) CEF had returned home to Canada and was demobilized. A year later in June of 1920, a son was born to Soles, and he was named Frederick George Soles (1920-1938). George Soles eventually became a constable with the British Columbia Provincial Police (BCPP) and served as a member of the BCPP for twenty years. In the 1944 winter issue of the publication Shoulder Strap, it was reported that Soles had retired that previous October due to “excessive concentration to the pursuit of duty”. As read in the Shoulder Strap, Soles was chasing a suspected criminal over several miles of rough terrain and later suffered a heart attack, something which Soles chose not to ignore, thus leading to the decision to retire. According to Soles, he just couldn’t do what he once could anymore. On 26 July 1945 George Soles passed away in Vancouver, British Columbia and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery and Crematorium.
Now you can say to yourself that you know of the man named George Hilton Soles and the gallant acts that made him one of the highest decorated Canadians in our history. Hopefully, you’ll tell others about him and his deeds, and those will tell even more people. Maybe, eventually, the name of George Hilton Soles will then be spoken about with more frequency when the topic of Canada’s military history comes up. Lest We Forget.
More than 8,600 Canadians volunteered for service in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). During that conflict, four Canadians would win the highest award for valour and gallantry within the British Commonwealth: the Victoria Cross. While many people are today aware of the Victoria Cross and the Canadian recipients of it during the Boer War, it is often overlooked and forgotten that one Canadian in particular performed two separate acts of heroism and in return received a very unique and rare award specific only to that conflict; an award that was hand-crafted by Queen Victoria herself.
Private Richard Rowland Thompson was born in Cork, Ireland in 1877 and was the youngest of eight children. After leaving college in Ireland without completing his exams, Thompson immigrated to Canada and, by the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, had settled in Ottawa, Ontario. Deeply influenced by the writings of Rudyard Kipling, Thompson found himself in great support of British Imperialism and enrolled with the 43rd “Ottawa and Carleton” Battalion of Rifles. Once enrolled in the Canadian militia he volunteered for service in South Africa with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry. By the end of November of 1899 the 2nd Battalion had set sail for, and arrived in, the port of Cape Town, South Africa.
After several months of training, the Canadians were selected in February of 1900 to be a part of the British offensive which the leadership hoped would take them north-east towards Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. While on the march it was learned that General Pieter Cronjé, Boer commander of the the western theatre of war, had been in contact with other British units and had decided to dig in along the banks of the Modder River near Paardeberg Drift. Upon arriving at the Modder River in the early morning of 18 February, the Canadians were ordered to advance upon the Boer positions. They forded the river and then, as ordered, advanced along a relatively flat, uncovered plain towards their objective. As they advanced the Canadians came under intense fire from the Boers and were forced to take cover behind whatever natural objects they could find: large ant hills, depressions in the earth or below the tall grass. In a letter to brother William, Thompson described his feelings regarding the events of that first day at Paardeberg:
“…we lay down under what cover we could find which proved to be nothing but grass a few inches high. It did not take one long to find out that the air was simply alive with bullets, and every second I could hear the hiss of the Mauser bullet, or the short crack of the explosive bullet as it swished past my head, but even as I was beginning to fear for my own safety Kipling’s verse ran through my head, ‘When you’re first under fire and your wishful to duck, don’t look nor take heed to the man that is struck be thankful your living and trust to your luck and go to the front like a soldier.’” 1
It was during this initial day of the Battle of Paardeberg that Private Richard Thompson performed the first of two acts which endeared him to many of his comrades. In the late afternoon on that first day of attacks, the Royal Canadian Regiment was joined by a British unit, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. The Commanding Officer of the Duke of Cornwall’s invited the Canadians to join in another attack against the Boer positions and the Canadians agreed. During this advance the Boers again opened up with intense fire upon the advancing British and Colonial forces, and one RCR soldier, Private James Bradshaw, was shot through the throat, rupturing his jugular vein. In clear and constant view of the Boers, Thompson rushed to the aid of Bradshaw and hurriedly applied a field bandage to the latter’s wounded throat. For the next seven and a half hours Thompson stayed with Bradshaw and kept constant pressure on the wound, despite being under persistent fire from the Boer Commandos. The Boers, in fact, had even managed to shoot Thompson’s helmet off of his head, but he stayed with Bradshaw until stretcher bearers were able to reach them at approximately 12:30 that night.
The Battle of Paardeburg continued for another nine days until 27 February and it was on that last day of fighting that Thompson performed his second act of note. During one of the final attacks by British and Colonial forces upon the main Boer defensive positions, the attacking units ended up pulling back to their staging point. Upon Thompson’s safe return to the line of departure, a stretcher bearer noticed a severely wounded soldier who was moving on the ground just in front of the Boer lines. When the call went out for a volunteer to help bring the wounded man in, Thompson, according to his company commander at the time, Capt E.S. Rogers, immediately dropped his rifle and calmly navigated the 300 yards to where the wounded soldier laid. However, just as he got to the man another Boer bullet struck the wounded man causing him to die just as Thompson got a hold of him. Upon again arriving back at the British lines Thompson was complimented by Capt Rogers regarding the act that he had just witnessed.2
It was these two acts that Private Richard Thompson performed during the Battle of Paardeberg that led to his being picked only months later for a very special honour, of which only eight soldiers in the world were entitled: to receive one of four crocheted scarves, personally knitted by Queen Victoria, that were to be awarded to private soldiers of the colonial armies in South Africa (Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa); another four scarves were allotted specifically for NCO’s within British units.
Following his return from South Africa, Thompson’s family would regularly press via official channels for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross; likewise, in 1901 Thompson’s former commanding officer in South Africa, William Dillon Otter, twice recommended him for the Victoria Cross for the same actions for which he received the Queen’s Scarf. On all accounts, the request was continually denied by various levels of both the Canadian and British governments. Lord Minto, the then-Governor General of Canada, requested of Otter why an application of request for a Victoria Cross to be awarded to Thompson had not been submitted at the time of the noted acts.
Regardless of the various campaigns to have Richard Thompson awarded the Victoria Cross, it should not be forgotten the numerous acts of bravery and courage that Thompson performed while serving in South Africa. While the Victoria Cross will forever hold an unmistakable mystique about it, the Queen’s Scarf is, in itself, a truly unique and interesting piece of history; a specially created award specifically designed and hand-crafted by Queen Victoria, one of the most famous British monarchs of all time.
Private Richard Rowland Thompson will always be remembered for what he did during the Second Boer War and also for being the only Canadian in history to be awarded a Queen’s Scarf.
Notes & references
- Library and Archives Canada, William F. Thompson fonds [textual record], letter from Richard Rowland Thompson (written at Paardeberg Drift) to William Thompson, dated 19 February 1900. Photocopy available in the Queen’s Scarf File located at the Canadian War Museum.
- Library and Archives Canada, RG 38 A-1 Vol. 104, letter from Capt. E.S. Maynard Rogers, former company commander of “D” Coy, to William Dillon Otter, former commanding officer of the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry in South Africa, dated 15 July 1901.