Thursday, 29 January 2015


"I was trying to get a fire going in a bucket by swinging it to and fro, to thaw us out a bit, when Hamilton Gault roared, 'Roffey, I know bloody well that Jerry knows we are here but you don't need to advertise the fact!' "

By the end of January the Patricias had been initiated into the horrors of a new warfare. Surviving members of the Regiment would remember that first tour in the trenches as one their worst experiences of the war. It was not only exhausting but put many out of commission with foot rot and sickness.

The rain had turned to sleet and snow and the rudimentary trenches were constantly caving in under the continual onslaught of shelling and harsh weather. A series of brooks in front of the trenches prevented the men from digging any deeper as drainage was impossible. There were no sand bags to build a parapet and it was not uncommon for soldiers to be waist deep in water. Adding insult to injury, the Germans were able to drain their trenches toward the British line. The unburied dead lay all around them and the area was infested with rats.  

"If only there might be a touch of Canadian frost to freeze this mud! If only one might get out and run up and down the road to get warm! But that might not be. The trench was but three feet high. One-half of it was mud and the other half water. There was no chance of making the trench deeper; had the boys attempted that, they would have been drowned in more mud. The water was always pouring into it from all sides and there was nothing to bail it out with. If the trench had been built up equally on both sides, it would have been a case of drown or be shot....For now I realized the depths of misery in the world - and realized that the misery was man-made!”

Quoted from the book, "Mopping Up", written by Lieutenant Jack Monroe PPCLI

This photo from PPCLI Archives is very likely a staged scene. The early trenches encountered by the Patricias would have been not so dissimilar to this ditch.
A pattern of two or three days in the line, rotating with two or three days rest was established for the first month. Unaccustomed to the reality of trench life, the first company of men to experience their rotation of 72 hours were in such a state of shock and exhaustion by the end they had to be lifted out of the trenches as they were too weak to pull their feet out of the mud. At one point the Company Commander had called for relief stating that his men were “nearly perished from cold and hunger”. He received only vague reassurance that relief would come by morning but in fact relief didn’t arrive for two more days. The Regiment had suffered only three killed and seven wounded on their first rotation but two additional men died simply from cold and exposure. With swollen feet and dysentery, 20 of 150 were sent directly to hospital. 

The appalling conditions in the Ypres Salient during that first winter were unparalleled throughout the rest of the war. At no other time in history had anyone waged war in the sodden fields of Belgium in January. Armies in previous centuries understood the wisdom of wintering in safe quarters until spring brought drier ground. Even with diligent foresight it would have been difficult to properly equip soldiers of that era to withstand the miserable conditions that winter. However, the inadequate equipment issued to the Canadian soldiers in 1914 made matters worse and left the Patricias in a critical situation by the end of the first month in the line. With the boot shortage and many men having worn through the soles of their boots completely, the army found itself overwhelmed with the new problem of “trench foot”. Colonial forces were among the hardest hit. 

The Canadian Defence Minister had been in charge of procuring equipment contracts for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many of Sir Sam Hughes’ decisions, though, were not only politically controversial but outright disastrous for the men at the front lines. The Ross rifle, the MacAdam Shield Shovel, their boots and webbing, and the Colt machine gun were all Canadian items which lacked in quality and functionality and compromised the safety and effectiveness of soldiers on the line. All were ultimately replaced or abandoned.

The Patricias suffered 70 battle casualties in the first six weeks of warfare. The battalion was, on average, 150 men under strength in those first few weeks due to exposure and many hundreds more due to sickness.