By Maureen Storey
This article was published in the April 2017 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was established by the British government in 1854, during the Crimean War, as an award for warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men for ‘distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field.’ It was the first medal awarded to service personnel of the British Empire for individual acts of bravery. Between 1856 and 1993 (when it was discontinued) it was the second highest award for gallantry, outranked only by the Victoria Cross. A Bar to the medal was introduced in 1881 and could be awarded for each subsequent act of distinguished gallantry.
During the first months of World War I so many DCMs were awarded that it was thought the sheer number of them might devalue the award, therefore a new medal, the Military Medal, was introduced in 1916. The Military Medal was also for individual acts of gallantry, but ranked below the DCM. Even with the introduction of this new award, by the end of the war 24,591 DCMs as well as 472 first Bars and 9 second Bars had been awarded to troops from Britain and the Empire.
One of the 9 recipients of the DCM with two Bars was George Hilton Soles, the only Canadian soldier ever to be awarded three DCMs. George was born on 7 April 1894 in Fort Stewart, Ontario, Canada, and was the fourth of the seven children of Richard Hilton Soles and Elizabeth Storie. George’s early years were spent around Carlow Township, but in about 1900 the Soles family moved to the Columbia Valley in British Columbia, where his father Richard continued his trade as a logger.
Along with his brother William and cousins John and James, George joined the Canadian militia’s 107th (East Kootenay) Regiment in the summer of 1914 a few months before war was declared and, again with his brother and cousins, on 29 Mar 1915 he enlisted in the 48th Battalion (British Colombia) of Canada’s Expeditionary Force. At the time of his enlistment he was described as a farmer and was said to be 5 feet 8 inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes and a dark complexion. After basic training in Canada, George and his battalion left Halifax, Nova Scotia, aboard RMS Grampian on 1 July 1915 heading for England.
Further intensive training followed and then on 9 Mach 1916 George’s battalion, now renamed the 3rd Canadian Pioneer Battalion, was sent to Europe where it served as part of the 3rd Canadian Division. In September and October 1916 the battalion took part in the later stages of the British offensive on the Somme at Fler-Courcelette, Thiepval and Le Transloy.
Spring 1917 found the 3rd Canadian Pioneer Battalion fighting at Vimy Ridge and it was here that in early April George was wounded in the leg and evacuated to hospital in England. While he was recuperating, the Canadian forces were regrouped, and the 3rd Pioneer Battalion was split up to provide reinforcements for other Canadian units. Having been declared fit for return to duty, George was reassigned to 72nd battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada on 1 July 1917.
The Seaforth Highlanders were involved in some of the most notable and bloody battles of the later stages of World War I as is testified by the fact that between October 1917 and 11 November 1918, George took part in actions that lead to him being awarded the DCM on three separate occasions.
His first DCM was awarded for an action during the closing stages of the Second Battle of Passchendaele. The following citation appeared in the London Gazette:
L/Sgt G H Soles 430337: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During an attack, when the left flank was held up by some strong posts, he led his men to the right and worked round to within bombing distance. He knocked over a machine gun with a bomb, killing eight of the enemy and taking the remainder, eighteen in number, prisoners.
His second DCM was earned during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. The citation (again from the London Gazette) reads:
Bar to DCM: When a Tank which had fallen behind commenced firing on our men, this NCO immediately put a steel helmet on his bayonet and ran to the Tank through a storm of bullets until he attracted their attention and diverted the fire. His conduct in charge of a platoon throughout the operations was characterised by daring and high fighting qualities.
George’s third DCM came on 29 September 1918 during the Canadian forces’ fierce attempt to breach the Hindenberg Line. At the time he was leading A Company of the 72nd Battalion of Seaforth Highlanders as it fought to secure the French hamlet of Sancourt. As noted in the London Gazette:
2nd Bar (72nd Bn.): For marked courage and good leadership during the operations near Cambrai from 27th September to 1st October 1918. On 29th. Sep he rushed an enemy strong-point single-handed, accounting for the garrison and capturing three machine-guns. Later, he worked his way along a railway cutting and personally shot eight of the enemy. Later, again, he organised a strong-point, which successfully held up an enemy counter-attack.
In an interview given years later to the British Colombia Provincial Police (BCPP) magazine George gave a modest and somewhat toned-down description of this incident:
There was a little village, I forget the name, that we had taken. There were two trenches, a kind 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 Fritzie 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. Anyway, 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.
What George doesn’t say is that when he was wounded in the head he was unconscious for some time.
George’s time with Seaforths was extraordinary. As well as being the only Canadian ever to be awarded the DCM three times, he was promoted from corporal to company sergeant-major in less than a year.
Although he recovered from his wounds he didn’t fight again and in the summer of 1919 George returned to Canada aboard the SS Olympia On 20 August 1919 he married Eleanor Victoria Brett, with whom he had four children: Frederick, Elizabeth, Kenneth and Marguerite.
George went back to farming on his return to Canada and was awarded a piece of land in Peace River, Alberta, under the Soldier Grant program. Between 1922 and 1928 he was a constable in the Office of the Provincial Game Warden and then in 1928 he joined the British Columbia Provincial Police (BCPP) as a constable. At that time the BCPP was the only law enforcement agency in the entire province and as provincial government agents its constables’ roles included such diverse activities as acting as returning officers, tax collecting, and census taking as well as ordinary policing.
A highlight of his career was being presented to the King and Queen on May 1939 when the royal train stopped in Chillwack. The King remarked about the dangers George had faced and the courage he displayed during the First World Wat. George smiled and replied, “Why, it was no more dangerous than big game hunting in Northern British Columbia”. When he was advised to put on his medals for this occasion, it was the first time his wife had seen or heard of them before.
Sadly his eldest son Frederick was drowned in 1938. George retired in 1943 following a heart attack while chasing a fugitive. “My body”, he said, can’t take what it could.” He died in Vancouver on 26 Jul 1945.