Sunday, 19 April 2015


The differences in approach to trench warfare were evident when the Canadians moved into new positions previously occupied by the French. Agar Adamson wrote to Mabel, surprised by the contrast, "It appears the French, who have been here for three months, had a pact with the Germans to live and let live, and did very little firing. When a Staff Officer of the Division came to look over the trenches, he found the French Captain in a very comfortable dugout 400 yards behind, he had never been in the advance trenches and had to get a guide to show him the way. Very different to our system, as yesterday afternoon Buller brought General Smith, a new Brigadier in the afternoon all through the 3 trenches"

British and Canadian officers were harshly critical of the French trench systems in 1915 which were incomplete, shallow and poorly protected. The French officers, relying heavily on their quick firing 75 mm guns, focused less on holding the line than preparing their infantry reserves for counterattack. Whereas the British defensive doctrine was to fully occupy and hold the line at all costs. As such, British criterion for trench design were of a much more rigorous standard than the French. The French routinely dug only two and a half feet down and were content with just one sandbag of depth for the parapet. Also frustrating were the lack of loopholes in the parapets which were essential for viewing and firing without exposing their heads to sniper fire. In spite of the handful of men killed and wounded each day in the line in early April, casualties were considered to have been light in comparison to the relentless and heavy casualties the Regiment suffered at St. Eloi. Many of these losses were due to a lack of diligence at the parapet.

P30(480)-1, PPCLI Originals wounded at Base, Sergeants with Drill Canes c. 1915, courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives

Although the decisive action at Vimy Ridge two years later would be credited with launching the birth of our nation, in the spring of 1915 a burgeoning sense of nationalism was emerging among the men. While enduring the unending horrors in the mud of St. Eloi the men had longed for the comforts of home. In quiet moments they escaped into their memories, finding solace in the tranquility of their homeland. So many of these men had been Englishmen living in Canada who, before the war, had not thought themselves as separate from their English countrymen. Once back in Europe, however, it became apparent they had become something other. The lure of the vast wilderness transformed adventurers and aristocrats alike. The easy style and informality of their new lives in Canada had changed their perspectives, even in higher societies. They were different now and a national pride was beginning to emerge. 

There are many stories of men whispering of Canada, of their love of the land, when they took their last breaths. Jack Munroe in his book, ‘Mopping Up’, describes his best friend Rob’s last words, the words he says of “a poet and a patriot; the words of a brooding spirit that had loved its land, and for that land had yielded up the supreme sacrifice”.

"I wish I was back in good old Canada now! Oh, I love the snow! Any place, any spot; from the Hudson Bay to the Great Lakes; from Prince Rupert to the Straits of Canso, would do me tonight. I'm sick of mud!"  No sooner had he expressed this nostalgic sentiment of home that an explosion mortally wounded his friend. With his last faint breath, “Canada....Canada....Canada! my love....Canada! …. Oh, God....Great Spirit of soul....give it back to Canada....let it rest peace, in purity....under the snow!"  

As he lay motionless Jack laments, "his spirit had fled in quest of the Northern Lights; to the silence and peace and purity of the snows."

In the months since leaving Salisbury Plain, the Patricias had not encountered any other Canadian units. As they were preparing in mid April to once again take up positions in the trenches of Polygon Wood, the Regiment were greeted and joshed by another battalion marching through the streets of Ypres. The PPCLI insignia inspired goading, clearly in admiration of the illustrious Patricias. As the men recognized the familiar accent and the cheerful, carefree manner in which these men in kilts conducted themselves their identity became unmistakable. It was a battalion of Canadians that taunted them. Every man instantly broke ranks and rushed to meet each other, against the stern orders of their officers. The mob of yelling and laughing Canucks, half in kilts and half in khaki, enjoyed their fellowship until they were ushered back to order. When darkness fell the Regiment marched again into the trenches of Polygon Wood directly in front of Ypres, along with the rest of the 80th Brigade and the 27th and 28th Divisions. To their left was the Canadian Division, including their new friends from the Scottish Regiment, deployed to the St. Julien sector. To the left of the Canadians were the French 45th Algerian Division. 

There were rumours the Germans would be launching an attack. Adamson wrote, “A prisoner that had been captured had given the information that we were going to be attacked, that gas in tubes was going to be used, that troops were massed in front of us for the attack. We are now supplied with fans and cotton wool soaked in something to revive us, if we are overpowered with the gas.” 

The Ypres Salient on 21 April 1915, showing unit dispositions