George Dawson Tyson was born in England on the 4th of July 1889. When he was still young he emigrated to Canada with his father and settled near Victoria in British Columbia. By 1914, George had grown up with a love of the outdoors and was working as a surveyor. But when Britain declared war on Germany in the summer of that year, the trajectory of his life was forever changed. Like tens of thousands of other young Canadians that summer, George promptly volunteered to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
The first contingent of troops set sail in October of 1914 and spent a cold, wet winter training on the Salisbury Plain in the south of England. But even as the first group left Canada, plans were being laid for raising more units to support the initial force. It was into this group that George was enrolled on the 9th of November 1914. After some training in Canada, George’s unit, the 30th Infantry Battalion, set sail for England, arriving there in late February of 1915. It had originally been intended that this battalion would become part of a newly raised Canadian Infantry Division but events soon overtook those plans.
On the 22nd of April, the Germans launched an attack against the Ypres salient in south-western Belgium. The 1st Canadian Division had only recently been deployed to the sector and had not yet seen any serious action. But the 22nd was the first day of more than a month of intense and deadly combat, combat that included the first large-scale use of poison gas as a weapon of war. Ultimately though, the salient was successfully defended and the Canadians established their reputation as first-rate troops. They were widely credited as having saved the day when they plunged into the gap left in the front when the French troops on the flank collapsed in the wake of the initial gas attack. But the victory and the glory had come at a terrible price. Casualties in the division had been extremely heavy with some battalions losing more than half of their effective strength. Immediately the division called for replacements and it was because of this call that George, still in England, was transferred from the 30th Battalion to the 7th Battalion. On the 4th of May he arrived at his new unit, along with over 200 other officers and men transferred from the 30th Battalion.
George participated in the various actions of the 1st Division through that first summer, actions that included the end of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Festubert and the Battle of Givenchy. Throughout this fighting George established his own reputation as an intelligent and courageous soldier, though still only a Private, the lowest rank in the army.
In the Tyson family lore, there was old story that suggested that George’s grandfather had arranged for the purchase of a commission for George in the British Army. This was an act that the family credited for George’s survival as it was presumed that officer status had gotten him largely out of harm’s way. But the truth was very different. In fact, the practice of purchasing commissions in the British Army had been banned in the late 19th century as part of a wide-spread series of reforms meant to make the British service more professional. More importantly, officer status was not by any means a path to safety, especially for the junior officers. Not only were the officers in the “thick of it” with the troops, the officers were expected to lead, and lead by example. By any measure, being a junior officer in a frontline infantry unit was a very dangerous job indeed.
George did indeed receive a commission in the British Army. But it not come about by purchase and it was not done for the purpose of protecting him from danger. When George moved to Canada, he still had an extended family living in the Liverpool area in England. George’s brother had remained there and, when war broke out, had joined a local army unit, the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Tyson’s were a comfortably well-off professional family and George’s brother had been accepted into the unit as an officer. By the summer of 1915, both George and his brother were serving in different regiments in different armies, both of which fought under the same King and the same flag. It must have seemed obvious when George’s brother wrote to his commanding officer requesting that George be transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment where the two brothers from Liverpool could serve together. The British and Canadian chains of command seemed to have viewed the circumstance in the same light and in September of 1915, George was transferred to the British Army where he served for the remainder of the war.
Reading his war record, it is impossible to escape the irony of the notion that his commissioning had made him safer. Over the next two years, George was in the thick of numerous battles, battles that included the infamous Battle of the Somme, the Battle Arras (of which the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge was a part), the Battle of Messines and the Battle of Passchendaele. At both Arras and Passchendaele, George fought alongside his comrades from the original Canadian Expeditionary Force, a force that by that time had expanded to 4 Divisions and enjoyed the reputation of being among the elite formations of the British Empire forces.
George had himself earned a reputation as a fire-eater and was twice awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. The citation for his second Military Cross read in part, “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a raiding party. He led his men in the most gallant manner, and carried out his task with conspicuous success.” By late 1917, George had risen to the rank of acting Captain and was in command of one of the companies of his battalion.
In the aftermath of the Passchendaele fighting, George was assigned to defend a stretch of the forward edge of his battalion’s position. It had been relatively quiet over the past few weeks but on the 30th of November, the Germans launched a heavy attack on the British position. The assault began early in the morning with a terrific bombardment followed by a determined attack by German infantry. At first the line held but soon George noticed that the enemy were working their way around his left flank. To counter this, George lead a bombing party in a counter attack against the flanking force. At this moment, George was struck by a machine gun bullet that entered the left side of his neck, grazed his spine and then traveled down his back, exiting above his shoulder blades. George was immediately rendered unconscious and the Germans succeeded in overrunning his position. Most of the company were killed, wounded or captured. For the next several months George was listed as “missing in action.”
Although grievously wounded, George was picked up by German stretcher-bearers and was evacuated to a series of hospitals in Germany where he was treated over the next two months. Eventually he was released from the hospital and transferred to a German prisoner of war camp where he spent the remainder of the war. When he first regained consciousness, George found that he was paralyzed in both arms and one of his legs. But his condition slowly improved and by the time that the armistice was signed in November of 1918, he was able to walk and to use both of his arms, though one of his hands continued to give him problems. With the coming of the armistice, prisoners were repatriated quite quickly and by December of 1918, George was back in England.
Almost immediately, George was confronted by the great bureaucratic machinery of the British Army. First of all, there was the board of inquiry to answer to. Why had George – an officer – permitted himself to be captured? Needless to say, he had a spectacularly good excuse since, at the time of his capture, he was lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood with gaping wounds in his neck and back. In the end, the board concluded that “no blame attaches to you,” and the proceedings were closed. Sometime later George received a cc copy of a letter from the British Army to a legal firm that was responsible for investigating the circumstances of George’s AWOL (absence without leave) directing them to cease further action against him. He was also informed, in terse language, that he would receive the back-pay which had accumulated pending the resolution of his AWOL status.
George returned to Canada where he made a life for himself and raised a family, always enjoying the Canadian outdoors and, as was the case with so many of that generation, never really talking much about the war.