A Washington County native who earned Great Britain's highest military award for his military heroism in World War I will be honored again in a graveside ceremony on Sunday, October 14, in Eastport. Military officials from both sides of the international border will be in Bayside Cemetery at 2 p.m. for the dedication of William Metcalf's new Commonwealth Expeditionary Force gravestone.
Lt. Col. (retired) Robert Dallison of Fredericton has been helping to plan the event since he visited Eastport military historian Wayne Wilcox last year and saw Metcalf's grave.
"I noticed Bill didn't have a commonwealth stone to which he was entitled," recalls Dallison. "When it comes to Commonwealth Expeditionary Force gravestones, they take a very strong view that everyone is treated equally and gets the same stone. The one big difference here is that it [depicts] that he is a Victoria Cross winner."
"I was very impressed with the heroism of the man," Dallison says of Metcalf, who enlisted in the Canadian forces. "He won three awards, and he was wounded several times, but he still stayed in the war from beginning to end. That's extremely unusual and fascinating."
"We're very honored to be able to host this," says Victor Voisine of Eastport, who will be master of ceremonies and is commander of the local American Legion post. "I just got a call that someone will be flying in from Paris so they can be here. We'll have members of the American Legion and VFW from Eastport and Calais, [representation] from the Maine National Guard, two police cruisers with Mounties and the U.S. Coast Guard."
William Metcalf was born in a log cabin in Waite Township at the end of January 1894. When he discovered that war had been declared by Great Britain on August 4, 1914, the 20-year-old American tried to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces but was thrown out twice because enlistees had to be either 21 or over 18 with their parents' consent. In his third attempt, he lied about his age. Metcalf became a member of the 12th Canadian battalion and sailed for Europe. When his mother found out about the lie, she contacted the proper authorities, and Metcalf was met on the dock by the American ambassador. But the determined young man denied he was the Metcalf they wanted and said he lived in St. Stephen.
He was a 23-year-old lance corporal with the 16th Highland Battalion in Arras, France, on September 2, 1918 -- the day his actions earned him the Victoria Cross. The young Yankee was commanding 400 soldiers because no commissioned officers were available for the mission to defeat the Hindenburg Line eight miles from Arras. Fourteen hours after the assault started at 4 a.m., Metcalf's ranks were down to only 60 men when they were surprised by four German concrete-housed gun-nests. He rushed straight toward them by himself but, fortunately, an Allied tank was passing by and its captain asked Metcalf if he could use some help. The lone soldier told him about the German gun-nests, and the captain asked him to point them out. Then an amazing thing happened. Metcalf was not invited inside the tank and, instead, proceeded on foot.
His Victoria Cross citation says, "With his signal flag he walked in front of the tank, directing it along the trench in a perfect hail of bullets and bombs. Three of the German gun-nests were destroyed by the tank, so Metcalf headed for the fourth. Enemy fire shot the tail off his kilt, hit the canteen at his side three times and blew the steel helmet from his head" before striking him twice in the right thigh. The soldier continued walking toward the gun-nest until he was close enough to throw hand grenades. When he ran out, Metcalf attempted to finish the job with his rifle. When it jammed, he switched to his pistol, and the gun-nest crew was killed.
Seeing the Hindenburg Line just ahead of him, Metcalf waved his men to follow. He then became the first Allied soldier to step upon the parapet of this important German defense, but just as he went over the top, an enemy bullet broke his right leg near the ankle. The sudden injury caused Metcalf to turn two forward somersaults, but he rose with pistol in hand. When Allied soldiers reached him, he was sunk against a fire step with his pistol still raised, covering nine German soldiers and an officer.
Metcalf was recovering from his injuries when he was escorted to the royals' residence of Sandringham, where, on February 11, 1919, he received the Victoria Cross from an admiring King George V. According to a Boston Sunday Post article, "Looking the embarrassed young man exactly in the eyes, the late King George V, ruler of more people than any living man, and therefore perhaps the most important single personage in the world, clicked his heels and brought his forearm sharply upward in the British military salute. The young Yankee, Maine born and bred, then and still an American citizen, responded in kind, and then they warmly shook hands."
The occasion of his acceptance of the Victoria Cross was only the first of several meetings with British royalty for Metcalf. As bearer of that decoration of valor, he remained the honored guest of the British Empire wherever he went, and the Mainer did return to England for King George and Queen Mary's silver anniversary, the Prince of Wales dinner at the House of Lords and Queen Elizabeth's coronation, all expenses paid. He was also invited to all important ceremonies in Canada and was an honored guest at openings of the Canadian Parliament.
The contingent from Canada on October 14 will include Royal Canadian legionnaires from St. Stephen, as well as New Brunswick Command, a chaplain from Ottawa, and members of Metcalf's regiment, who will travel from British Columbia, Ottawa and Gagetown. A bagpiper will be on hand, and as many as four officers from the RCMP will be represented.