The photograph in the newspaper clipping is grainy, yet you can tell that the young man in it is smiling proudly, at ease, in his 7-button Canadian Expeditionary Forces uniform. The date of the photograph is unknown but is undoubtedly taken at some time prior to the September 1918 publication in the London Free Press. The photograph was probably taken before the soldier left for service overseas making him all but close to 19-year-old. At this young age would this man know that his military service would be the formative experience that would shape his life in years to come.
Private Sterling Carl Campbell but was one of about 1,000 men to join the 142nd Overseas Battalion at London, Ontario. Enlisting on December 27, 1915 in London, he would serve with that battalion until November 1916. Arriving in England on November 11, 1916, he served with the 23rd and 4th Reserve Battalions at Dibgate and West Sandling, respectively, before being transferred to fight with the 18th Battalion on April 13, 1917, a Friday. One wonders if Private Campbell thought this date auspicious or a sign of another type of fate.
Arriving “in the field” with the 18th Battalion on May 5, 1917, Private Campbell joined the Battalion as it served in the at Paynesly Tunnel, near Neuville-St.-Vast, as the Battalion had just relieved the 29th Battalion and took its place in Divisional Reserve. He was one of 22 other ranks to arrive as “reinforcements.”
Only 4-days would pass when, according to his service records, he was wounded accidentally.
During those 4-days the Battalion had a higher-than-average engagement with the Germans:
On the night of May 5 and 6, the Battalion moved from reserve positions to the front-lines at Mont Foret Quarries relieving the 24th Battalion, CEF. During that day Lieutenant V.M. Eastwood had taken one each of the company officers on a tour of the position and this group of men was subject to “heavy shell fire.” The results of this reconnaissance let to the wounding of Lieutenant G.V. Irwin.
The next day, May 7, the Battalion was heavily shelled with the result that 5 men were killed and 13 wounded. To make their tour worse, the Germans shelled the railway supplying the Battalion with rations with gas-shells, thereby, interdicting their food supplies so that the front-line troops had to use hard rations. The supply train could reach close enough that the reserve line companies could get their rations.
The Germans initiated a counterattack on May 8, on the flank of the units holding the line for the 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion. Though the 18th Battalion was not directly subject to the attack it suffered from heavy German shelling. The 19th Battalion, to the right of the 18th, and adjacent to the unit being attacked, the Gloucester Regiment, was subject to such intense bombardment that Headquarters of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, to which the 18th and 19th Battalions belonged, reported to the 18th Battalion that they had lost touch with the 19th Battalion and required the 18th to send a runner to determine the status of the 19th Battalion and return with the required information for Headquarters.[i] Lieutenant Eastwood would make the same trip later to maintain communications between Headquarters and the 19th Battalion.[ii]
After three days of unremitting action, the 18th Battalion moved “A” and “B” companies to the front-line with “C” in support and “D” in reserve on the night of May 8 and 9.
The next day the Battalion was still having trouble maintaining contact with the 19th Battalion requiring Lieutenant J. McAmmond to the use of advances posts at to locations. A pigeon was used to communicate with Brigade. Once released it covered the 6-miles to its pigeon loft in 25-minutes, the message having been received successfully.
It was in this context that Private Campbell would be injured accidentally, and what may have transpired could have affected his military service and post-war future depending on the outcome of the resulting courts martial.
In the words of Private Campbell, as he reported in his witness statement dated May 12, 1917:
“I had taken out the magazine of my rifle, and pulled back the bolt. As no cartridge was ejected from the barrel I took for granted that the gun was empty and shoved the bolt in, pulling the trigger. The gun went off wounding me in the left foot. I was intending to clean my rifle at the time of the accident occurred.”[iii]
If the “accident” had been in relation to self-inflicting a would, then Private Campbell could have been in a lot of trouble. The wheels of military bureaucracy turned ever slowly, with Private Campbell awaiting an outcome that could affect his life when the Headquarters, 1st Army reported by letter that he was to be, “Released from arrest “without prejudice,” as it is not proposed to bring him to trial, there being insufficient evidence available. Classified “Wounded (negligently self-inflicted).”
The military authorities could not prove that the wounding was deliberate, but it was holding its cards close at hand in case any new information would lead to a conviction. As his service records record no other witness statements, nor any other information relating to his wounding, Private Campbell was able to return to duty after his recuperation.
Private Campbell’s service record is not clear of the date of return to service to the 18th Battalion. He appears to have returned to active duty sometime after July 13, 1917, as he was later wounded November 2 or 3, 1917 with a GSW to the scalp. This would be his last experience serving with the 18th Battalion as he is invalided to England further medical care. Other medical issues arise and he is not returned to active combat service.
It appears that, up until his accident, Private Thompson was a model soldier. There is no record of demerits prior to going overseas, but once he is in England, especially after his second wounding, there are several minor instances of being Absent Without Leave until he returns to Canada and is discharged at London, Ontario on July 12, 1919, where he proposes to live at 98 Edward Street, London, Ontario, with his mother.
The next turn in his life is quite at departure from being a clerk.
In August 1919, Sterling Campbell returned to Detroit, Michigan with the intent on immigrating to the United States. Back in 1915 he was residing in Detroit with his mother when he enlisted. From a news clipping from 1934 it appears he was a university student, though he listed his trade or calling at the time of his enlistment as a clerk.
But he had other dreams and is recorded to have moved to San Diego in 1921 and then became a movie extra for $7.00 a day in 1924. From there his role changed and he became a technical resource for the movie industry, leveraging his military experience and some other skills he appears to have picked up after the war. He became a second unit director and an aviation consultant.
The next date we find Sterling Campbell is as a second unit director (uncredited) for the Cecille B. DeMille 1926 motion picture, The Volga Boatman. From this picture Campbell would be 18 productions, including All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)[iv] as a military advisor, and an aviation technical advisor to Wings (1927), Hells Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930), and others.
One coincidence of note occurred when he was sourcing uniforms for film, The Informer (1935), in which his haversack from his service with the 18th Battalion was used as a prop. This item clearly indicating his name and company (“A” Company) and battalion was found by quite by chance when Campbell was tasked with collecting uniforms for this movie. The haversack is claimed to appear in the movie with the audience being able to discern the text on the haversack clearly.
But Campbell’s success in the movies waned and by the mid-1930s he had not been active as a technical consultant or extra. Of note is an interesting excerpt from the Oakland Tribune, dated July 1, 1934. Under the byline “Most Interesting People in the Movies – The Extras” the page gives a series of paragraphs outlining briefly the background of people involved in the movie industry, some are tales of woe, such as Betty Blythe, a once famous star reduced to being an “extra girl” taking on “small bits.”
What of interest is Sterling Campbell is featured in this same article:
“Nearly 20 years ago Sterling Campbell left the University of Michigan to join the British flying corps. Later, when the United States entered the war, he was transferred to the American forces, where he covered himself with glory and came home a hero.
However, Campbell learned, as have thousands of others, that war-time glory fades. Some years ago he held an important post in Hollywood as a technical adviser on numerous air pictures. Today he is one of many unnoticed extras, a slender curly-haired figure with a quiet smile and a limp which testifies to one enemy bullet that found its mark.”
Though some of the details cannot be corroborated, such as his attendance at the University of Michigan, this news clipping paints a rather fantastical biography of Campbell’s war service. He served dutifully with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces as a member of the infantry, being wounded once in action, but the claim of serving with the British Flying Corps and the subsequent service with the American forces cannot be borne out from the documentary evidence. This man simply could not have served in any military aviation capacity to which this news clipping claims.
It can be confirmed from his attestation papers he was living in Detroit, or claims to be, but he does list his trade as a clerk, and not a student, as some enlistees did. He is the correct age to be a student, so it is possible that he was attending to the University of Michigan in some capacity. His service record simply does not bear out the claim to have served with the Royal Flying Corps, nor American forces. His service record accounts for his whereabouts touching on the significant aspects of his service. There simply no time that cannot be accounted for as he was present in England after his wounding in 1917 until he was released to return to Canada in 1919. Any secondment to the Royal Flying Corps would have been noted and there is no indication that this transpired. We know he immigrated to the United States in August of 1919 and it is not until 1924 that we can determine with some credibility his whereabouts and actions.
The article’s timing is interesting as he was active from 1926 until 1930 and then there is no record, according to the Internet Movie Database, of any movie related activity. This article and his own self-promotion may have spurred interest in him as a technical resource as he becomes active again in 1935 with 8 movie credits to his name after 1935.
Campbell had unaccredited roles in these films as an extra.
How did Campbell become involved in some of the most iconic aviation war films of the early sound era? How did he amass the expertise to consult about aviation relating to the Great War? He is specifically detailed as the “technical director: flight sequences” in the movie Wings. Somehow, he extrapolated his experiences with his military service with that of the organization, tactics and maneuvers of military aircraft during the Great War. It is possible that he had learned to fly sometime prior to his involvement with the movie industry and that, as a technical director he would consult other aviation experts and resources to obtain the results that were planned for each aerial sequence that was shot. Whatever the case, he had to have been an effective resource and manager as he worked on several important and popular aviation films.
Campbell is credited for coordinating aerial stunts for these films.
It is interesting to note the way he incorporates his limp into the narrative by explaining it away as the result of enemy action. His left-foot was hurt due to the accidental discharge of his rifle and his would later in his service was to his scalp.
Campbell is credited as military advisor for those films.
His aviation background appears to be solid and he goes on to re-enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, only to be seconded back to Hollywood, it appears, to be involved in the wide-ranging activities of motion picture production used for training films by the United States Army, Air Corps, and other military units of the American Armed Forces.
Campbell is credited with 2nd Unit or Assistant Director roles for these movies.
Sterling Carl Campbell is mentioned in a news reel and there is but a momentary glimpse of the man. He is in RCAF uniform as an officer. Somehow, he was able to enlist and serve his country again. His experiences as an aviation consultant, with perhaps being a pilot, contributed to his acceptance with the air force.
Campbell directed this movie released in 1947.
Campbell would move back to Canada and direct a movie, Bush Pilot (1947), which appears to be obscure and is available for viewing at YouTube. He married Margaret Baird Campbell, and had three children. He passed away at Toronto in 1990.
Given his start as a young man, a former clerk, or university student, and then a soldier, he looked to south of the border for opportunities and became involved with the movie industry contributing to several iconic military aviation films and one of the most influential post Great War films produced. In Hollywood everything was big. Perhaps Private Campbell, late of Detroit, by way of Woodstock and London, Ontario needed to be bigger than life in order to impress and win the confidence of the producers of popular films during the late 1920s to 1944.
This is another connection with Hollywood for a member of the 18th Battalion. There have been several soldiers with tangential relations with the cinema. One man was an expert witness to a murder trial. One man had a daughter that helped form the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) and actively promoted Leonard DiCaprio. Another man opened a manufactory in Los Angeles and had a silent film star promote his firm. Another solder embellished his military experience with the 18th and had broad ranging military career serving in China (Boxer Rebellion) and South Africa during the Boer War.
In this case we have a man that directly shaped our culture through the popular media of film. Regardless of the latitude he took to promote himself, his service is not diminished by his apparent exaggeration (one does not know if it was the newspaper column author that used a bit of license to spice up the article) as he did serve faithfully and put his life at risk. He would not be the first member of the 18th Battalion to embellish or exaggerate his service experiences. His devotion to duty extended to his volunteer service with the RCAF. He was certainly an interesting man who had a farther reaching impact on the world that one would have suspected when the photograph was taken during the Great War.
[i] Corporal Thomas Edmund Randall would earn the Military Medal for this action. The citation reads, “East of Vimy on the morning of May 9th, 1917. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in action. During the morning of the 9th of May the enemy made a most violent attack on the Battalion to our right. No communication being possible between Bn. H.Q. of the attacked Bn. and Flank Battalions or Brigade, this N.C.O. was sent out to gather whatever information possible. He proceeded through intense shell-fire to H.Q. of the attacked Battalion and thence forward, returning with the most valuable information. During the operation he made several such reconnaissances working all the time under the most difficult conditions owing to the prevalence of enemy gas and severe shell-fire. (A.F.W. 3121. 15-5-17)”
[ii] May 8, 1917 resulted in four more men of the 18th being killed in action. Three of these men are commemorated on the Vimy Memorial.
[iii] Per service record of Private Sterling Carl Campbell, reg. no. 823416.
[iv] Campbell was involved with many important films, but, in the author’s estimation, no more important than the influence that All Quiet on the Western Front had on cinematic culture. It also had a large impact of the politics of Wiemar Germany as the German Nazis Part vilified and worked to have the book on which the movie is based, and the movie banned. For more information on this aspect of film history refer to this article.