Capt. Claud Harry Stokes (left) and Flt.-Lt. Leslie Eyres who were shot down behind enemy lines in France in the First World War. (Submitted)

REMEMBRANCE DAY: Heroism behind the lines in WWI

Last flight in First World War for future Chilliwack MLA Leslie Eyres

By Al Blow

Submitted to The Progress

On Oct. 29, 1918, two men from a world apart climbed into the two cockpits of an Airco DH.4 on an allied airstrip in France, heading out for what they surely hoped would be another somewhat routine mission.

It would turn out to be nothing of the kind.

One of those men was my great uncle, Leslie Harvey Eyres who would survive the war and later serve as elected Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Chilliwack from 1937 to 1952.

Born Aug. 3, 1892, in MacGregor, Manitoba, Les Eyres was the last child of Charles Eyres and Emily Turner. Charles and his third wife Emily with children immigrated to Ontario, and eventually settled in Manitoba.

Les enlisted Dec. 11, 1914 at Winnipeg, Manitoba. On April 22, 1916 he sailed with the 4th RD Lord Strathcona Horse (Royal Canadians) aboard the SS Metagama from St. John, New Brunswick, to Liverpool, following which he was posted to Shorncliffe near Cheriton, Kent.

Les would fatefully cross paths with Capt. Claud Stokes in the last year of the Great War in RAF training in England.

Stokes was born in England in 1884, and from 1910 he worked as a mechanical engineer in Rhodesia before returning to England to enlist in 1916. After just five days in action in late 1916, Stokes was injured on the Western Front and returned to England. After his recovery he served as an instructor, being appointed a wing instructor in Gunnery, eventually being upgraded to flight commander.

On Jan. 2, 1918, Stokes was appointed a flight commander with the acting rank of captain to serve in No. 57 Squadron RFC.

Stokes earned himself the title of “Ace” with five confirmed downed German aircraft while flying an Airco DH.4 light bomber.

Two years before they met, as Eyres was in training, in a letter sent home to Manitoba dated Aug. 3, 1916, he wrote: “We are soldiering in earnest this week. In the mornings we ride out into the country and have regimental and squadron drill. We rush over hills and valleys, jumping over ditches, fences, etc. Sometimes a couple of airplanes come along and float around in the air just over our heads.”

On Oct. 4, 1916, Eyres was posted to the LSH, Canadian Calvary Brigade, 2nd Indian Cavalry Div. and proceeded to Le Merge, France. Eyres saw action at Guyencourt, France, on March 27, 1917. After a brief illness he rejoined the LSH at Verguies on July 12, 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal Aug. 27.

March 2, 1918, Eyres transferred to England for aircrew training with the RAF. On Sept. 2, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant (observer) with the RAF, and posted to 57 Squadron. On Sept. 2, Lt. F. de M Hyde and Eyres were credited with the downing of a Fokker DV11 during a morning photo/bombing operation over Bauvois aerodrome.

Shortly thereafter Flt.-Lt. Les Eyres replaced Lt. Robert D. Bovill as an observer with Capt. Claud Stokes.

A fateful day

It was while on a bombing/observation mission Oct. 29, 1918, behind enemy lines over Maubeuge, France, when anti-aircraft fire (or “Archie” as it was called) struck their DH.4. Despite damage to the plane and a horrific life-threatening wound, Stokes was able to land the plane safely.

In a letter to Stokes’s father dated Dec. 12, 1918, Eyres wrote:

“We were shot down on Oct. 29th by ‘Archie’. The shell passed through the pilot’s cockpit taking your son’s left leg off just below the knee, and also injuring his left arm at the elbow. The engine was also damaged, so were forced to come down on enemy side of the line. The landing was fairly good, but when I climbed over to your son he was unconscious, but regained consciousness when we were taking him out of the machine. The Germans did their best to make him as comfortable as possible until a motor car was fetched, when they took him away. I got into the car and wanted to go also, but they would not let me. A German that could speak English told me that he would be taken to hospital at Mauberge (town almost straight east of Cambrai).

An Airco DH.4 light bomber, the type of plane flown by Capt. Claud Harry Stokes and Flt.-Lt. Leslie Eyres that was shot down over France on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo 57 & 630 Squadrons’ Association website, 57-630sqnassoc.org)

An Airco DH.4 light bomber, the type of plane flown by Capt. Claud Harry Stokes and Flt.-Lt. Leslie Eyres that was shot down over France on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo 57 & 630 Squadrons’ Association website, 57-630sqnassoc.org)

“Capt. Stokes was simply wonderful and in spite of the dreadful pain he must have felt he talked cheerfully to me and joked. I feel sure he would be strong enough to pull through if cared for properly at the hospital.”

Stokes is the real hero of this story, his remarkable courage under extreme duress defies description.

While Eyres was repatriated to England on Dec. 8, it was not to be for Capt. Claud Harry Stokes. He died of his injuries Nov. 7, 1918, just four days before the armistice was signed. He was interred at Erquelinnes, Hainaut, Belgium. On Jan. 1, 1919, he was posthumously award the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Les Eyres, with no disability arising from service, was discharged by the Medical Board of London on December 31, and departed Jan. 15, 1919 from Liverpool aboard the SS Scotian to St. John, New Brunswick.

Now, 102 years later, it is hard for me to imagine a more remarkable and determined act of courage as did Capt. Stokes perform in landing his aircraft on that day, ultimately saving the life of our Uncle Les Eyres.

It has been said that, given a second chance at life, one should make the very best of it.

On July 26, 1922 Les married Ann Adelia (Ted) Sanford at Virden, Manitoba, and raised two daughters; Jean (1923-2012) and Roberta Joy, who turned 94 this year. He and Aunt Ted moved to Chilliwack, B.C. where Uncle Les served as an alderman on city council for 13 years. Les was first elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Chilliwack in B.C.’s provincial government in 1937, and won re-election in 1941, 1945, and 1949, ultimately to be defeated in 1952. Re-enlisting in WW2, he served as a recruiting officer in Vancouver, B.C., for three years.

I remember Uncle Les and Aunt Ted well from my visits as a youngster along with my parents to their retirement cottage on Cultus Lake near Chilliwack back in the ‘60s; cheerful, gracious, considerate, thoughtful intellect, are words that immediately come to mind.

Uncle Les passed away February 26, 1983 in Victoria, B.C., as did Aunt Ted April 7, 1993 in Chilliwack, B.C.

Al Blow lives in Cranbrook but he was born in Chilliwack, and is a direct descendant of the Evans/Wells/Chadsey pioneer families. Al Evans, who served as a Reeve for many years in the early 1900s, was his great-grandfather. A version of this article originally appeared in the winter 2020 newsletter of the 57 & 630 Squadron’s Association.


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Remembrance Day