Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On This Date in Minnesota History: April 11

*April 11, 1916 – Lester L. Spalding, formerly employed at Gilbert, Minn., as a cashier for the Republic Iron & Steel Company, and who is the only American who ever received the coveted Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery on the battlefield by the personal designation of King George V of England, was in Duluth today.

Spalding enlisted with the Ninetieth Winnipeg Rifles in August 1914. The young man went from Duluth to the Western Canadian metropolis and was engaged in the real estate business when war was declared.

Last April, the Ninetieth Winnipeg Rifles, known as the “Little Black Devils,” went into action in the first line of trenches at St. Julien, which is just outside Ypres (West Flanders, Belgium). For two days the attacking Germans rained a terrible fire of shells on the exposed trenches where the Canadian soldiers lay. Shrapnel was literally falling on their positions. Suddenly Spalding discovered that the members of his machine gun crew, which was on the extreme left of the line, had been killed. Instead of retreating or joining another company, the young American boy stood by his gun and single-handed worked it against the charging lines of Germans. Alone he discharged 21,000 rounds, mowing down the charging lines of soldiers.

Wounded in both legs, his arm hanging helpless by his side, suffering from the poisonous gas fumes, and lying under his overturned machine gun, the Minnesota fighting man was discovered by a British captain, his face scarred with powder, his pants stained with his own blood.

It was the British captain who mentioned the remarkable feat to bravery in his dispatches from the front. The distinguished service of the young man was brought to the attention of King George V, and last Saturday evening in Winnipeg, before 8,000 soldiers and citizens of that city, he was adorned with the Distinguished Conduct Medal by Gen. Hughes, Inspector of Western Canadian troops.


For his bravery Spalding has been promoted from the rank of private to that of lieutenant. He is currently on furlough; his condition is bad as the result of his wounds and the terrible ordeal he suffered from the poisonous gases. Canadian friends are planning to send him to Banff (Alberta, Canada) to recuperate. After he recovers it is believed Spalding will be engaged in recruiting work.

“Life in the trenches was at times relieved by real touches of comradeship between the contending soldiers,” said Spalding. “The Saxons, for instance, seemed less inclined to savagery than the Prussians and Bavarians. There were nights when the Canadian and Saxon troops declared a truce and hoisted peace signals. We even came out of the trenches and mingled with one another, exchanging stories and repairing the trenches. When the German staff officers discovered this, they speedily put a stop to it.”

Canadian Trenches2

“Sniping is one of their favorite sports. One German shooter had 37 notches on his rifle. It seems hideous even to think about this gloating over murder, but it is true, nevertheless. Some of the trenches are named after the London streets. When soldiers are quartered in trenches for any great length of time, they find a way of fixing them up like city abodes. We had sidewalks and street signs where we were last spring.”

Spalding left Duluth this evening for Aitkin, Minn., where his parents live. He will remain there for several weeks, then return to Duluth. The young man had several serious hemorrhages of the lungs, the result of inhaling poison gas, and will most likely go to the Canadian mountains to recuperate.

The Duluth Herald; “Former Gilbert Boy is Given Medal for Bravery. First American to Be Decorated by King George. Single-Handed, He held Trench Against German Forces. Visits Duluth Friends After Ovation From Winnipeg Citizens.”; April 12, 1916; p. 2.




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