Ralph Sausmarez Carey

“I didn't expect then that I would ever get back alive to my family so I wanted them to have a picture to remember me by.”

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Ralph Carey knew that a pilot’s life in the Great War was fraught with danger. That’s why, while walking through London in 1917, the Royal Flying Corps cadet sought out a photography studio to have his portrait taken. “I didn’t expect then that I would ever get back alive to my family so I wanted them to have a picture to remember me by,” Carey later wrote.

Born in Winnipeg on November 30, 1898, Ralph Sausmarez Carey served in England and France. In his memoir, Carey recalled the bonds of friendship forged during basic training at Camp Borden, Ontario. “At night, the cadets used to sing ribald songs. I had led a sheltered life and at first I didn’t understand the songs, but I learned fast.”

He honed his dogfighting skills by practicing with a “gun camera” mounted to his plane; the goal was to line “enemy” pilots in your sights and then snap them with your camera.

In England, his commanding officer was nicknamed “Crasher” for his penchant for downing planes. In France, Carey flew with Sopwith Camel Squadron No. 73; its main duties were to protect aerial reconnaissance planes and to fly support missions for ground troops. “We shot up the (German) trenches, spraying machine gun bullets at the enemy from 100 up to 200 feet,” Carey wrote. “With the artillery shells going over, the air was very bumpy. Also the troops from the ground were firing at us and there was a general air of confusion.”

Carey makes special note of a dangerous mission he undertook in the final days of the war. On November 4, 1918, just seven days prior to the Armistice, he was ordered to attack German positions near the town of Mons, Belgium.

Told to “go out in pairs and hit the enemy hard,” he flew off with a wing-mate named Peters. They were soon flying for their very lives. “We started by diving and strafing. Suddenly, I lost Peters and I was all alone. I didn’t know where I was … the air was so bumpy that my compass was swinging and I couldn’t tell whether I was flying east, west, south or north. I thought I must be over Germany because every time I came over a town I was shelled by anti-aircraft guns.”

Carey eventually landed in a British-held field. But the next morning, on his flight back to base, he ran into thick fog, and while attempting to land, hit a telephone wire. Miraculously, he survived the crash and was forced to walk back to base. “I had been away for three days and the officers in the squadron thought that I had been lost, shot down or taken prisoner.”

The war ended a few days later. Carey notes in his memoir that the squadron celebrated with a fireworks display. He returned to Winnipeg in May 1919 to find his hometown paralyzed by the now-infamous general strike. He later became a lawyer, practicing until 1929, before joining Hudson’s Bay Company management. During WW2 he served as a colonel in the Directorate of Personnel Services. Returning to the HBC, he retired in 1964 after 34 years with the company. He died in 1976 at the age of 78.

Do you have an ancestor who served in the Great War? Submit their story and it could be included on this Great War Album website.