"The King's Royal Rifles relieved us. Back to Westoutre we went for an eight-day rest. Then we were ordered to stand to, while rumours flew thick and fast. Early in the afternoon of the second day in the rest area we received orders to march. It was ten miles to St. Eloi. We made it just before dark. As we passed through Voormezeele we came upon a lot of panic stricken troops. All we could get out of any of them was that there were millions of Germans everywhere, killing everybody. We opened out in extended formation. We fixed bayonets, as we could not fire without doing damage to our own troops, and moved forward to the ruins of St. Eloi. Now we had nothing but the enemy in front of us. We planted our machine guns and started to work. It was Germans at one end of the street and Princess Pats at the other.”
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives
Between March 10th and 12th, 1915, the first organized set-piece attack was executed by the British Army in the village of Neuve Chapelle. In spite of the fact they were unable to exploit their success in the attack, many valuable lessons were learned but at a cost of 12,000 casualties.
On March 12th the Patricias were settling in for much needed rest. Just as they were arranging to send everyone off to bathe and issue new underclothes the order came in that they were on half hour notice to return to the front. Ablutions were cancelled. The men were ordered to "sleep in equipment" on the night of the 13th.
The enemy, having held off Sir Douglas Haig's First Army in Neuve Chapelle some 25 miles south, was on the offensive. On the afternoon of March 14th the Germans attempted to gain control of the Mound at St. Eloi. A well planned infantry attack with a heavy artillery barrage succeeded in penetrating the British front line trenches, seizing an important crossroads and gaining the high ground. The Mound and front line trenches, numbers from 14 to 20, were under German control.
A swift counter attack was critical to regain lost ground before the enemy could reorganize and consolidate gains. As the fighting raged, rumours circulated that German troops were advancing in large numbers to strengthen their newly captured position on the Mound. The streets in Voormezeele were full of stragglers from the battle fields, creating panic with "alarmist reports" according to Farquhar’s report in the war diary.
On March 14th at 7 p.m. the 80th Brigade, or the famed “Stonewall Brigade”, to which the Pats were attached was called up and marched to the front. A rapid advance through the dangerous territory between Voormezeele and St. Eloi was imperative if they were to launch a surprise attack before daybreak. The 82nd Brigade had attempted a counter attack at midnight but failed to retake the line. Farquhar had assessed various strategies of attack and concluded the most effective route of advance would be from the extreme left flank of the Mound. The Rifle Brigade attacked from the right but was unsuccessful in regaining the key positions dominated by Germans. The Mound was now garrisoned with machine guns. A valiant effort by the Patricias against the sweeping machine gun fire also failed to recover the position. It became clear that any further attempts to recover the Mound would be madness and the attack was called off. At 8 a.m. on the 15th the Battalion was withdrawn to Voormezeele and then Dickebusch. The Patricias would never occupy the Mound again. By the end of the month Regiment had been relocated.
Dickebusch, 16 March 1915
My dear Mabel,
On the morning of the 14th at Westoutre, we got a half hour stand-by order, then at 5:00 we got a 5 minute standby order and at 7p.m. we go the order to march which we did to as near St Eloi as we can get, as lately it has been so badly shelled that few houses give any shelter. When we got there, we found out the Germans had taken 6 or our trenches and "the Mound", the commanding position we prided ourselves on. At about 3 in the morning we were in position. My Company was divided into two parts as the attacking party, the remainder of the regiment to act as support. Our job was to re-take the Mound and trenches, 19 and 19A. A place called the Breastworks, consisting of sandbag parapets 150 yards from the Mound, was occupied by two officers and 100 men of the Leicesters. The Rifle Brigade, who were in a trench on the right of the Mound, were also to join in the attack if I failed. I took two platoons, 5 and 6, with me with Martin and Harvey, leaving poor Cameron with Platoons 7, 8, behind a ditch. When we were just ready to attack the Mound, we got an order to let the R.B. do it - they lost 150 men, 7 officers killed and failed to take the mound; daylight was coming on. I remained with 5 & 6 with 2 officers in the breastworks and 100 of the Leicesters. Cameron was shot through the neck and killed instantly and three men wounded coming up to fill breastworks. The remainder of the regiment then retired to Westoutre, a Maxim gun opened fire on them killing 10 and wounding 20. Some of the new men got into a panic, and it was some hours before they could be got in hand.
At daybreak I found myself with 50 men and 2 officers and 100 Leicesters, plus 2 officers; when I came out the next morning, I had lost 3 men killed, 8 wounded; the Leicesters lost both their officers, 10 men killed, 21 wounded. We all had a good many men suffering from shock and in such a nervous state, they had to be led by the hand. I had a small 3/-periscope on the end of a bayonet which was of the greatest use to me. I took over 3 compartments in the breastworks, two at one end and one at the other and settled down for the day, to see what it would bring forth. The conditions of our trench was terrible, full of dead bodies, more than 21 just beside where I placed myself for the better management of a trench and within 3 feet of me was a good looking, 2nd Lieutenant of the Royal Irish Fusiliers shot through the head. We closed his eye and buried him when night came on. He had nothing to identify him by, beyond the Regimental buttons.
In front of us and between the enemy and us, about 150 yards, the ground was strewn with dead and unfortunately, many wounded English for whom nothing could be done and those not being able to crawl out at night have to die either of exhaustion or hunger. It seems too awful to think of, but nothing can be done. Even at night you would not have time between flares to get a man away and the Germans fire on all positions. One poor chap in a ditch, made a signal to us that he was alive, we signalled we would try and get him out at night, but conditions changed and we had to leave him.…We have now only 5 of the original officers. The Mound has to be taken and we are now off to talk the thing out with the C.O. and work out a plan of attack. There is some talk of a general advance.
… Nothing is known of Captain Colquhoun except he is missing. The K.R.R.C. refute having said they found his body in the trenches. ….I am quite fit, but I feel my 49 years and would gladly knock off 20 of them. Everybody is very good to me. I think they realize that youth is a big asset. I am the oldest officer except for Wake who is the Quartermaster. The C.O. is only 40. Please keep the photos or film I enclose in another letter. Always thine.
Lieutenant Charles Stewart critically wounded not expected to survive, March 14th, 1915
Lieutenant P.E. Lane wounded March 14th, 1915
Lieutenant Donald Ewen Cameron, killed in action, March 15th, 1915
Major James S. Ward died of wounds March 1917th, 1915.
On the night of March 19th/20th Colonel Farquhar was struck through the chest by a bullet while handing over command of the front to the relieving battalion. He was rushed back to the dressing-station in Voormezeele but the wound was fatal and he died three hours later. The following night he was buried under cover of darkness in the Regimental Cemetery outside Voormezeele that he himself had petitioned for. The surrounding fields were under constant fire but the ceremony was conducted in spite the high risk. Only forty of all ranks were given permission to attend and the higher ranking officers were ushered through the cemetery to pay their respects in small groups of two of three.
|Regimental Cemetery at Voormezeele, 1915|
The loss of the Regiment's beloved Colonel was a severe blow to the men. As the co-founder of the PPCLI, Lt Colonel Francis Farqhuar had been among the greatest of commanders who chose to lead his men in the field, inspiring them daily with his own courage, grace and good cheer in the face of constant hardship.
|Lt. Col Francis Farquhar's headstone, Vooremezeele Cemetery|