My great grandfather’s cousin was believed to have been the only allied soldier ever decorated on the field of battle by the enemy! When I first read this, my natural inclination was to think – “Leave it to someone in my family to be known for this!” But as I would soon discover, Cyril Gardner was not a traitor, but an inspiration, and not only for his time, but for ours as well.
As we celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May here in the United States we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. My relatives in Newfoundland will celebrate Memorial Day on July 1, the anniversary of perhaps the most devastating battle ever faced by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and one of humanity’s bloodiest. The RNR suffered a near 90% casualty rate at Beaumont-Hamel that day during the Battle of the Somme in WWI.
Cyril Gardner (my great grandfather’s cousin), his brother and a cousin were all wounded at Beaumont-Hamel – his brother died during the battle and the cousin succumbed to his wounds ten days later, but Cyril recovered, returned to his battalion and would later be awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the additional Bar for further acts of gallantry in battle. We may find it easy to understand those acts of tremendous courage when soldiers stand up against the horrors of war to protect or rescue their comrades or “innocent victims” but it may be more difficult to understand the courage necessary to take enemy soldiers prisoner rather than simply killing them. Cyril did just that, but he went even farther than that – he risked his own life to protect his prisoners.
The official reports say that Cyril had gone out on his own, leading a party of stretcher-bearers into “No Man’s Land” to recover the wounded. Taking a revolver from one of the dead and approaching cautiously, he convinced a German officer that everyone else had surrendered and the German brought out his own company unarmed. Although there are anecdotal embellishments to the story, what is certain is that Cyril did capture an entire German company single-handedly and marched them back to his camp. It was for this that he was awarded the Bar to the DCM.
But it was the German Iron Cross pinned to Cyril’s uniform on the field of battle that showed not that he was a traitor but his true heroism. While marching the enemy company back to his camp they came upon a superior British officer (at the time Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire). The senior officer congratulated Cyril on the capture and raised his own weapon planning to fire on the prisoners. Risking court martial or even being shot on the spot, Cyril stepped into the officer’s line of fire and told him that if even one of the prisoners was shot, he, the officer, would be the next to die. The officer hesitated only a moment and then stepped down and walked away. The senior German officer among the prisoners then stepped forward, removed the Iron Cross from his own uniform and pinned it on Cyril.
Although the story of the confrontation and the receipt of the Iron Cross are not part of Cyril’s official war record or the news articles of the time, the Iron Cross itself does remain in the possession of his great nephew.
It was a gruesome two years between when he enlisted in December 1914 and his death on Apri 17, 1917 during which Cyril survived some of humanity’s bloodiest battles and at least twice he chose to protect human life rather than to take it. During that time there were 88 men who were captured alive rather than killed by Cyril’s hand.
Whichever day we celebrate Memorial Day and whichever country or homeland we claim, may we not only remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice but also those who took the ultimate risk to prevent others from having to make that sacrifice. Although Cyril didn’t survive the war, perhaps some of those 88 men whose lives he protected did survive. While we remember those who died, we can honor their sacrifice best by learning how to preserve our common humanity and “study war no more.”