Lt Colin Cuthbert Gemmil Girvan - 6 Squadron Royal Air Force
Lieutenant Colin Girvan was one of the many British army officers who transferred into the Royal Flying Corps as observers, often with a reduction in both rank and seniority. After completing his observer training, twenty two year old Lt Girvan was posted to 6 Squadron on the western front in January 1917, after the squadron had lost four airmen and two wounded over a short period of time. For the first few months he flew on operations as an observer in various variants of BE2 until the squadron was re-equipped with RE8s in April 1917.
There is no mention of Lt Girvan in the official squadron operational records until 7th June 1917. He took part in the well-documented Battle of Messines, when the allies detonated one million pounds of high explosive beneath the German positions as a prelude to driving the enemy off the Messines Ridge. Flying contact patrols at altitudes as low as 500 feet due to darkness and poor visibility resulted in the greatest number of casualties suffered by 6 squadron in any single day, a record that still stands to this day. Between the first sortie at 3:00 am and the last at 10:30 pm, three 6 Squadron airmen were killed in action, one died of his wounds, another was taken prisoner and three were injured, including Lt Girvan who became yet another of the Royal Air Force casualties when he received a bullet wound to the thigh from enemy ground fire. Though close to losing consciousness from the loss of blood, Lt Girvan still managed to submit a report on the latest infantry positions before collapsing. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he was awarded the Military Cross in August 1917.
All of the above I managed to glean from the official 6 Squadron records and various public archives, but I was unable to determine what happened to him after he was wounded. That is, until I was contacted by Clive Girvan, nephew of the late Colin Girvan, who helped me fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.
After spending several weeks in a Belgian hospital, during which time it is thought that his mother went out from England to be with him, Lt Girvan was shipped back to England where he slowly recovered in hospital, having lost five inches of his right femur and suffering a severe infection. Apparently, beginning in October 1917, he wrote at least ten letters asking for a “wound gratuity”, for which he was entitled, but nothing was forthcoming from the British government. With the war at an end and still unable to get government assistance, Lt Girvan resigned his commission in July 1919, citing his injuries as the reason. Disillusioned with the treatment he had received from the country he had fought for and almost given his life to, as soon as he had got his affairs in order he boarded the 11,000 ton Cunard liner the SS Royal George (nicknamed ‘Rolling George’ for apparently obvious reasons!) at Southampton and set sail for the Americas, stopping first at Halifax before disembarking five days later at New York’s Ellis Island wharf on 1st October 1919.
Colin Girvan settled into life in his new country and in the nineteen twenties married an American lady. Though they were childless, Helen Girvan wrote numerous children’s adventure novels over the next four decades, the last book being published in 1970. In 1926, Colin’s brother Alan, ten years his junior, emigrated from England to Canada, stopping off first in New York where he stayed with Colin for a week. Colin later visited Montreal in the mid nineteen thirties to attend Alan’s wedding (see photograph).
Colin Girvan lived and worked in the United States of America until his death in 1972, having surprisingly outlived his younger brother by nine years. His nephew, Clive Girvan, tells me he met his uncle once in 1969 when he was driving back to Canada after his honeymoon. He found him to be a ‘wonderful man but not very interested in recounting any war stories’ – so typical of the men who fought in the Great War.
I am happy to report that despite having no children of his own, Colin’s name and legacy has been passed down through his brother’s side of the family. Colin’s nephew, Colin Clive Girvan, has two sons, the elder son naming his first child Colin. Military tradition and service to their country is as evident today in the Girvan family as it was when their great uncle answered the call back in 1914, as one of Clive's sons is a firefighter in Ottawa and the other a captain in the Canadian Special Forces.