Adamson understood the conditions he would be facing on the front line and was preparing himself for the trials ahead. When he arrived in France with his draft of reinforcements, the 27th Division was still occupying the trench systems east of St. Eloi and engaged in the exhausting task of holding a dominant land feature dubbed "The Mound". Rising up 20 feet high and 70 feet long on the western side of the road from St. Eloi to Warnton, the clay mound presented one of the few opportunities for the Division to control high ground. As such it was heavily shelled and became increasingly difficult to hold.
|Portrait of Agar Adamson|
The trench systems north and east of St. Eloi extended from the front of the Mound. Ralph Hodder-Williams describes the area in his history of the Regiment, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919:
"Across this road two trenches, 19 and 20, continued the line in a north-easterly direction; thence the line bent back sharply in front of Shelley Farm through trenches 21, 22 and 23, to conform to the German position, which paralleled the St. Eloi - Hollebeke road with its front line north, and the main system immediately south, of this road. The two lines were extremely close at this curve, and the interest of the Germans in the Mound, from which they would be able to overlook the whole southern defences of Ypres, made an early struggle for its possession certain. The outlook was not encouraging. The Germans, as was proved later, were fairly well off for trenches, but the condition of the British line here was even worse than on the right. The defences were very inadequate - low, untraversed, not even bullet-proof. Trenches 19 and 21 were particularly bad, in many places filled above the knee with slush and filth; their garrisons had to occupy such dry spots as they could find by cutting one-man recesses into the parapet. Buried in the ditches lay French, German and British dead, and there were many corpses protruding from the crumbling parapet. Movement by day was impossible, as the German snipers commanded the whole area from high ground beyond trench 22…. The whole position east of St. Eloi was plainly insecure.”
Adamson's arrival at the front would coincide with the Regiment's most aggressive action to date. As he became immersed in the appalling conditions of trench life, Agar's letters to Mabel transitioned from jovial correspondence to a powerful chronicle of the Canadian experience in the Great War.
|Portrait of Agar Adamson|
My dear Mabel,
I am censoring my own letters and I am therefore in honour bound not to break the rule about places, numbers, etc., so I must refrain from saying so. We left Rouen at 6.p.m. and arrived at the "Racehead", N. SodMoring yesterday 10 a.m. which means, as far as the Railway at present goes to the front, we then marched 6 miles in a fog, no rain, the roads and mid, notwithstanding every effort at draining are indescribable, worse than the worst at Salisbury. We heard the artillery all the way up on the march in the distance. The journey in the train which was a quick one, was very comfortable - 3 of us in a 1st class carriage, one sleeping on the floor. We had our Wolsey valises with us.
It was a bit cold in the early morning and very draughty. We arrived here (Gray knows its name) and found the Regiment had come out of the trenches the night before for 6 days rest. Their casualties had been small; 4 killed, 4 wounded, but they were in the eastern trenches of the line. Next time it is our turn for the worst ones. Everything is a case of take turns at the soft and the hard.
.... The Regiment is full of buck and very cheerful the men are looking splendid. No 2 is still the strongest Company. The men seemed very glad to see me, as I went to see them. The draft has now been split up with the different companies and the old lot will soon knock them into shape. The officer of each Co. mess together in their billets and some of them do themselves very well; Pelly and Ward particularly, as they get all kinds of things sent them from home. Although the rations seem to be quite good. When the Regiment came out of the trenches Niven had got hold of a brougham and put 4 horses into it, two postillions riding, two men on the box with German helmets and drawn swords, tow men standing up behind with fixed bayonets and inside a tired man togged up as a German. The servants and grooms acted as outriders. They drove in the middle of the Regiment and created a great sensation. General Snow turned out with all his staff and was much amused. The men told the population that it was the Kaiser inside and all the children and old women hissed him.
... All the officers are looking very fit, except Minchin who I think will now go to the Flying Corps. He is not strong enough for this work. Ward and Pelly who I thought might waste are better and stronger than ever they were. McKinery is at Tidworth. He writes that James is leaving in a few days. Gault is doing wonderful work and the men adore him.
....The trenches we are to fill on the next go are bad ones I hear and only 30 yards from the Prussian Guards, who have sapped to within 18 yards. I am taking Captain Carr who has been in command of No. 2 for some time with me, as he has been in there before and the whole game will be new to me. The 30 and 18 yards are actual facts, although it is hard to believe. The only thing I cannot understand is how any human being can stay awake for 48 hours, but I will have to find this out by experience and tell you all about it, when it is over.
Goodbye old girl, thank you for your very nice letter. Don't worry about me. Lots of hardships are due me after so many years of undeserved comforts and there are a great many men and officers here who must find it harder to stand than I will and who have been at it for nearly two months. Ever thine,
St. Omer, 25th Feb. 1915
My dear Mabel,
... I have taken over No. 2 Company which is now 145 strong, the strongest in the Regiment still. Martinette and the other two risen from the ranks, went to England today on 6 days to buy kit.
Captain Carr's blistered heel has now festered and he will not be able to go into the trenches this time, so they have given me Donald Cameron of No 3 Coy., a very nice chap, and unless the 6 officers I left at Rouen who up, the two of us will have to handle the Company alone in the trenches.
This afternoon we did some wire entanglements and the men thoroughly understood it. We also went through instructions (the N.C.O.s and officers) in bomb throwing. You hold the bomb (which has a handle and looks like a Queen Anne milk jug) in your left hand, pressing the ignition button with your right hand, passing the bomb to your right hand and then throwing it. It has to be done very quickly, as it goes off in 6 seconds after the button is pressed and burst in a circle, bursting backwards as far as forwards. 30 yards is a good throw. We also have special pistols that throw up flares. It has been raining all day. I also had instructions in the most useful working of the periscope. It is a very cover double mirror reflecting instrument, but it is impossible to judge the distance the object you in the bottom, is away. Our big guns are quite close to us and wonderfully concealed. The 16-pounders are further away and are dug-in and are most difficult to see. The firing keeps up all day and at times much more rapid than at others. Snowing hard since 5 p.m. and very strong moon.