Thursday 2 June 2016

Sanctuary Wood June 2nd, 1916

On May 31st we relieved the 49th Battalion at Maple Copse. Our Company (number 4) was in support. The first day of June was a beautiful day. Like many, Lowell’s poem, “Oh, what is so rare as a day in June” popped up into my head. We spent the day de-lousing, looking at the fritzy balloon engaged in making observations, and admired the scenery. Maple Copse was very beautiful, and not a tree had been touched with a shell. We reflected, however, that the battle of Bellewaerde Ridge had been fought a year ago not far from this spot, just above Bellewaerde Lake. We went on a working party on the evening of June 1st, and came back dog tired. Hackett and I found ourselves a nice machine-gun emplacement well above the level of the trenches. I cannot remember who the others were, but many of our old company (1st University) were there or near there.
P.H. Ferguson
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives

Men of the 1st University Company, PPCLI
Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives
At the end of May, 1916, the Regiment, now composed mainly of reinforcements and men from the University Companies, marched inevitably toward their fate as the Originals had a year before. From the Brigade Reserve they advanced 9 miles through the cold night to Sanctuary Wood where they took their positions in the trenches on June 1st. About 300 metres south of the Menin Road, the Patrica’s were defending a portion of the line of equal strategic importance in the spring of 1916 as Bellewaerde Ridge had been in the spring of 1915. The enemy were so close the Patricia’s could hear them working vigorously on their own defences. 

For weeks, German High Command had been planning an attack in the Ypres sector. Historians still speculate on the underlying motivation for the attack but there is little doubt about their immediate objective. Three small hills including Mount Sorrel and the critical “Observatory Ridge” rose at the southern end of Sanctuary Wood. They were the only high features held by the Canadian 3rd Division in their position along the eastern edge of the Ypres Salient. The Germans held the advantage over the rest of the line. If the German army could secure the remaining high ground, they would dominate the entire front in this sector within easy reach of Ypres. The Patricia’s marched into a position in Sanctuary Wood which blocked the advance on these features. 

In preparation for their planned assault, the enemy steadily escalated the intensity of bombardments and by the end of May the Canadians were being relentlessly harassed by heavy artillery fire. From their positions overlooking the Canadians, German gunners were able to target virtually every battery position, and all the support and reserve trenches along the front lines. A particularly lethal strongpoint, dubbed the "Bird-cage”, a fort in the grounds of Stirling Castle, allowed them to volley shells across the entire span of the front. 

Canadian gunners had a difficult time matching the strength of the enemy artillery. Surplus Allied guns had been moved south in preparation for the coming Somme offensive, weakening their defensive capabilities in the Salient. Conversely, German command had stepped up their fire power in this sector by covertly moving in a menacing array of heavy guns and trench mortars, including the Big Berthas. The only superior weapon the men had to use against the Germans were the Lewis guns that had been issued to Canadian Infantry battalions in May. They were so lethal, an enemy soldier yelled out across No Man's Land : "Where in hell did you get all the machine guns?”. 

As the Regiment moved back into the line, so did the German 121st, 125th and 157th Regiments, trained, rested and ready for the assault. With the flurry of activity in opposing trenches it was clear an attack was looming but the Patricia’s did not realize it was imminent. 

PPCLI positions at Sanctuary Wood, June 2, 1916.
Click to enlarge.
The Regiment manned a section of trench about a kilometre long, from a position named, “the Appendix” to a junction at a main communications trench called, “Warrington Avenue”. The Appendix ran along a swampy wood known as “the Gap”. Warrington Avenue was a well defended trench and a continuation of the R. Line. If it were to fall into enemy hands it was generally thought the rest of the front would quickly collapse. To the north of the Gap, on their left flank, were the Royal Canadian Regiment between Hooge and the Hooge Chateau. On their right flank were the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. 

In the morning hours of June 2nd, the light shelling was quite routine. By 9:00 am the artillery raining down on Canadian positions had intensified dramatically. By 10:00 it was evident they were under full scale attack. 

PPCLI War Diaries 
2-6-16  At 8:30 a.m. the enemy began shelling our front line and supports. This gradually increased to an intense bombardment from H.E. shells and trench mortars. The bombardment lasted for five hours when it was lifted and an infantry attack followed. The enemy succeeded in capturing the front line of our right company No 1. The garrison having been almost annihilated. Our left company No 2 succeeded in holding their trench and stopped an enemy bombing attack. Our Supports held, on the right, the greater part of Warrington avenue and Lovers Lane to Border lane, and on the left, the “R” series of trenches. Our casualties were heavy. In the evening the enemy evidently suspected a counter attack as they opened up rapid machine gun and rifle fire and an intense barrage in our rear. Water and food supply low. 

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
The Defence of Sanctuary Wood
Painted by Capt. Kenneth Forbes, ca. 1917

Saturday 7 May 2016


Although warfare throughout the winter and spring of 1916 was more moderate than the previous year in the trenches, casualties were sustained at a steady rate and the fear of gas was constant. Talbot Papineau wrote to his mother, Caroline, about the continuous threat of a sudden gas attack, “It’s like a bad boy walking behind you with a hard snowball, always ready to throw, but not throwing”. 

Two men were assigned watch each day with a gong to sound in the event of a gas attack. One man stood by at night to launch a signal rocket. There was also a man dedicated to wind reports sent every two hours by wire to Headquarters.  Agar Adamson described the protocol to Mabel: 

"All ranks have to be in constant readiness for gas wearing their helmets around the neck, ready to put them on at the sound of the gas alarm which consists of gongs and caxton horns. Special sentries are placed on these alarms also on dugouts, where men are sleeping, whenever the wind is in the dangerous direction, this is called gas alert and the area covered is for four miles back. Gas alarm is when the gas is discovered, if at night, as well as the gongs, there is a rocket signal." 

As the Regiment moved closer to Ypres in early spring the action escalated considerably. Snipers were very active and artillery rounds rained down at regular intervals. In mid April the Patricia’s moved to Hooge, the main defensive position along the Menin road blocking the German access to Ypres. It was one of the most hazardous sectors of the line. The Regiment suffered over sixty casualties during the week of fighting at Hooge, more than had been lost in the entire last six months.

Hamilton Gault’s leadership during this period was fondly remembered by many as he lifted failing spirits with nightly tours through the lines. At a time when even the slightest movement was suicidal and the enemy were only yards away, Gault crawled through the trenches each night, at great peril to himself, greeting the men with laughter and jokes. 

For Gault’s part, the nightly visits with the men no doubt lifted his own spirits as well. He had just returned from leave in Montreal where his legal proceedings had gone badly; the Divorce Committee of the Senate refused to give recommendation for the divorce. As second-in-command, however, there were plenty of responsibilities to keep his mind off his troubles. In a letter to Percival Campbell he described his rounds:

“We usually chuck bombs at each other every other night and sniping is altogether too active. However, we hope to get things put right before long and to oust Fritz from the fire supremacy which he seems to have enjoyed for so long. Visiting rounds is not a continual picnic in this part of the world for I usually get sniped at in the brilliant moonlight nights we have recently had, and the other evening they turned a machine gun loose when your little nephew promptly, though perhaps not elegantly or bravely, took to a ‘Johnson Hole’ - If you know of a better ‘ole, what I says is go to it.”

The introduction of the Brody helmet to the Commonwealth uniform in early 1916 offered welcome protection even if uncomfortable at first. Early complaints of the steel helmets being heavy, cold and hard on the head soon gave way to gratitude when the benefits far outweighed the discomfort. 

A memo circulated from the Surgeon General, 2nd Army, presented early observations on the effectiveness of helmets in the field:  

The following notes of the protection afforded by Steel Helmets in use during the recent fighting, are forwarded for your information:

Officers and men alike spoke with the greatest enthusiasm of the helmets. They said that they had protected them, especially from the fire of trench mortars and shrapnel bullets, and that small pieces of shells and bombs, as well as gravel, could be heard rattling on the helmets, and falling harmless.

Examination of the helmets themselves fully confirmed these statements, for of those examined nearly 40 showed evidence of being hit.

In some the metal had only lightly been excoriated. In others it had been definitely bulged inwards. In a few it had been perforated.

Here are 6 typical cases:

1. A shrapnel bullet perforated the helmet, but only made a small cut in the scalp. It would have perforated the skull.
2. A piece of shell perforated the brim of a helmet and lodged in the eyebrow. It would have destroyed the eye.
3. One helmet shows three large bulges or depressions each as big as a small teaspoon. At each bulge there would have been a wound, but the man was unwounded in the head.
4. A private of the Gordons was struck down by a heavy blow from a clubbed rifle, but he killed the German with the bayonet and brought in a Mauser rifle. His helmet has a great dent in it and saved him from a fractured skull. It also showed evidence of three other impacts of missiles.
5. A man had the front of his helmet torn open by the nose of a 6" shell, which tore a large hole in the helmet but only caused a very slight wound.

It is evidence that the helmets had saved lives and have prevented many wounds, both slight and serious. I find that 960 wounded were admitted to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station in the 24 hours commencing at noon March 2nd. Of these only four men were shot in the brain and three others had only slight fractures of the skull without injury to the brain. This is very greatly below the general average of nearly 3% of fractured skulls in any given number of wounded, for at this latter rate the number of fractured skulls in the 960 should have been about 30 instead of 7.

There has also been in the recent fighting a very great diminution of wounds of the scalp and face, which must, it is considered, be attributed to the use of the helmets.

Sgt. R. Porter, Surgeon General
Director of Medical Services Second Army H.Q. 2nd Army
7th March 1916.                  

Canadian Troops with Brody Helmets Posing for a Combat Photographer 

On May 7th, the Patricia’s relieved the 49th Battalion in Sanctuary Wood, 1.5 kilometres southeast of their earlier position at Hooge and 2 kilometres southwest of Bellewaerde Ridge where the Battalion had been decimated exactly a year before. May 1916 was a relatively quiet month on the Western Front. The thick lush foliage of Sanctuary Wood provided a pleasant refuge from the hot sun and, concealed from the enemy, Sanctuary Wood seemed a perfect reprieve from the horrors of Hooge. 

Friday 8 April 2016


The Patricia's spent a relatively quiet winter of 1916 adjusting to their new Canadian comrades and the different culture they now found themselves in. Officially formed on December 22nd, 2015, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade (3rd Canadian Division), comprised of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Royal Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. 

It was a natural transition and the profound regret the men first felt when leaving the 80th Brigade soon gave way to a sense of belonging with what would become known as the "Fighting Seventh". Nevertheless, the differences between the British and Canadian organizational structures occasionally grated on the men. 

Agar Adamson wrote to his wife, Mabel, "We are all very shy of food. I had nothing to eat yesterday for 14 hours, but shrimp paste and today my first meal was at noon. Rations are bound to go wrong sometimes, wagons get ditched in the dark or the roads made impassable from shelling or a General's motor car is given right of way, he being 4 or 5 hours late, all traffic is held up. The Regiment by that time has probably moved on, their turn for the road gone by, another Regiment having the right of way, thus these little difficulties come our way in our disorganized C.E.F."

The Patricia's spent another cold and snowy winter at the southern end of the Ypres Salient, just miles from where they first experienced trench warfare a year prior. Reinforced now by members of the 3rd, 4th and 5th University Companies, however, there were far more new faces than old. The Kemmel sector was quieter in the winter of 2016, attracting only minimal shelling from the German army which allowed the new recruits an opportunity to settle assimilate. 

LCol Herbert C. Buller was once again in command of the Regiment having returned from convalescence mid December 1915. Although missing one eye from his injury in May, just prior to the battle of Frezenberg, Buller was "actively engaged, crawling in and out of trenches studying the ground", Adamson reported, "the CO walks as fast as most run". 

Adamson reflected further on the move to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, "The Canadian Infantry establishment only allows two Majors to each Regiment. After months as a Major he also loses the difference in pay, Stanley Jones has to remain a Captain til something happens to Gray and me. We always paid our men 10 francs a week, the Canadian order only allows 20 francs a month paid every fortnight. The British Army pay extra to Company Cooks, the Canadians do not allow it. The Canadians insist upon a band remaining intact as a band. The British Army have no bands in the field, but use the men as stretcher bearers. We have to start in and train stretcher bearers which is a very important unit and should work together and be friends. All our Division except ourselves have Ross Rifles. A youth of a staff officer who until six months ago, was a clerk in a dry goods establishment, sends the following chit: 

To O.C. P.P.C.L.I.
Please report by noon tomorrow, why your unit should be armed with a different pattern rifle to that supplied to other units of the Division and state the following: 
A. Merit of your rifle.
B. Defects of the Ross rifle - if any.
C. How long you have been supplied with your present weapon.
D. Do you use the same ammunition as the Ross. (every idiot knows it does)
E. The weight of your rifle.
F. How many rounds of ammunition does it carry.
N.B. This return to be rendered in triplicate, each sheet of paper to be a different colour and numbered SR1, SR2, SR3 respectively. 

This communication is being sent to the Army Commander and no doubt the sound man will find himself a Regimental Office very shortly if he does not return to his dry goods. 

So you see we have our difficulties in your great Canadian Army, but we are not worrying. I feel if we play the game to the best of our ability and with only our end in view, it is all any of us can do and that we will come out on top in the end." 

Although an accurate and effective sniping weapon, the much maligned Ross Rifle, was a disaster for the Canadian infantry. One Canadian officer wrote after the battles at Ypres, "It is nothing short of murder to send men against the enemy with such a weapon". Soldiers commonly picked up Lee Enfields from their fallen British comrades in spite of orders to the contrary. The Patricia's were fortunate not to have been saddled with the Ross, nicknamed "the Canadian Club" for all its defects and they were not about to turn in their Lee Enfields now. 

Prime Minister Robert Borden, undated
Prime Minister Borden, had been greatly moved by the losses at Ypres. In the summer of 1915 he exhausted himself touring 52 different hospitals, determined to speak personally to each wounded Canadian soldier. In his memoirs Borden wrote of the visits which had impacted him greatly;

“I was inspired by the astonishing courage with which my fellow countrymen bore their sufferings, inspired also by the warmth of their reception, by their attempt to rise in their beds to greet me. In many cases, it was difficult to restrain my tears when I knew that some boy, brave to the very last, could not recover.”

He returned home with a new resolve and began to change his perspective on how Canadian soldiers were equipped among other concerns. Investigations into the effectiveness of the Ross Rifle led to an eventual switch to the Lee Enfield and, by June of 1916, the Enfield had become standard issue.

In January 1916, Borden wrote a letter to the Canadian High Commissioner to London, Sir George Perley. Upset with a lack of communication from High Command in England and how the British were carrying out the war, Borden began to fervently assert Canada’s interests: “It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata.” He felt Canada’s contributions were being taken for granted and demanded more autonomy on the front and ultimately within the British Empire. His persistence in lobbying for independence for the Canadian Corps progressed into lobbying for sovereignty for Canada at the end of the war. Some historians claim Borden's greatest legacy is as father of our independent nation.

Sunday 8 November 2015


Hamilton Gault had recovered in time to join the Battalion in mid October just as 80th Brigade marched out of the line and into Morcourt. When the Patricias arrived they found Gault waiting for them with several replacement officers from England, including two of the organizers of the University Companies, George McDonald and Percival Molson and an old friend from Montreal Philip Mackenzie. With Pelly as CO, Gault assumed his appointment of senior major.

Although the men were all very much aware of Gault's troubles at home no one dared discuss it with him. There were differing opinions on the matter as well. Agar Adamson expressed his perspective to Mabel, "I am surprised that Gault's affairs had gone so far, but I always felt confident that something was up, but thought she would cover up her tricks. She had a very bad temper. Gault is very cheery and hard working and shows no sign of secret stress, but he has always been very secretive and self-contained. The Washinton Stevens were always a rotten lot." 

A few days later he continued with his judgement of the situation, "Marin, Cornish and I are of the opinion that some one ought to wring Bainsmith's ugly little neck, it is quite evident that Gault is undergoing a heavy strain, and that cheerfulness on his part is an effort and he prefers to be alone, but we keep him going and try to cheer him up."

Talbot Papineau on the other hand felt the whole incident had been overblown. In a reply to his mother, who had been appalled by Marguerite's behaviour, Papineau dismissed the gossip, "You are all wrong about Marguerite Gault. I don't believe a word of the accusation against her. I know all about her innocent little flirtation. It was nothing more. I shall hope to speak to Hamilton about it some day."

Talbot Mercer Papineau with his dog Bobs in 1915

Meanwhile, rumours of change within the Division were still circulating but no news was trickling down from the powers that be. There was much speculation with the men as to what their fate would be. Adamson was holding onto hope the Regiment would be allowed to stay with their comrades in the 80th Brigade, "The Canadian question has again come up and there is no doubt they want us, but won't go about it the right way. We are still taking the same old line of argument. We will all be better soldiers by sticking where we are and we are a very happy family in the Division we have always belonged to." 

In another letter his aggravation was clear, "I see that Max Aitken is wiring to the Canadian papers that it is the wish of the men of the Regiment to do so, he is annoyed that this change was not made when he suggested it and has been hammering away at it, through his underground channels."

Sir John French, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, worked on the Regiment's behalf to keep the Patricias in the Brigade but other factors were developing that made this impossible. On November 5th, 2015, Adamson wrote to Mabel, "It is pretty well settled that we are out of the old Brigade, but the General may still be able to keep us with the Division. No News."

Adamsons' optimism would soon be stifled, however. The Division would be reorganized and sent to Salonika, Serbia and its brigades would be reduced to a more feasible strength of four battalions each. The news came as a surprise to the men but plans had been evolving for quite some time. In a gesture of great respect for the Regiment, General Headquarters allowed the Patricias the opportunity to decide their own future. They were given the choice to join another British brigade or the new 3rd Canadian Division which would be formed in the next month and organized in the field early in the new year.

Gault and Pelly in consultation with Buller considered the current state of the Regiment carefully in making their decision. PPCLI had a more Canadian culture than it had previously as many of the new recruits from the University Companies were born in Canada. Also, there was significant pressure from the Canadian Military to make the move to the Canadian Corps. Given the difficulties they had faced finding replacements as a Canadian unit in a British Division, their decision was clear. They chose the 3rd Canadian Division.

War Diary Entry:

Mon, Nov 8, 1915 FERRIERES, FRANCE
FERRIERES 8.11.15 Today marks an epoch in the history of the regiment as they have left the 27th Division and gone to FLIXECOURT. the companies fell in at 8:15 a.m. and marched to the battalion parade ground where they formed up in mass to hear the parting words of the Brigadier (Brigadier General SMITH). The divisional band came to play us off and afterwards led us quite a distance as we marched away from the 27th Division of which we had so happily formed a part during the last 10 months. Among the officers and men there was a very marked feeling that this parade meant the loss of old friends with whose viewpoint and traditions they had been in absolute accord.  

General Smith, in his farewell said it was a day he had never wished to see. The 80th Brigade had been unique, he said, in having five units to compose it and in having remained unchanged since its inception. Also he considered it unique in having preserved such a perfect harmony between its parts. Although he had not had pleasure of commanding it from the first he had had that honour during the most critical periods of its existence, especially those terrible days - the Second Battle of Ypres - when agains tremendous odds the brigade had stood firm and Princess Patricias' Canadian Light Infantry by their dogged resistance had made a reputation that would never die in the Annals of the British Army. He  — this day breaking up a brigade which was unique in that from the first it had five battalions, had suffered no changes in composition, and had preserved such perfect harmony between its parts. He had hoped that some day it would have been his lot to command the same Brigade when it would encounter the enemy under more equal conditions. Then he was confident what the result would have been, and the old Brigade would have given such an account of itself that the memory of those who had fallen so gallantly at Ypres would have been amply avenged. This hope would never now be realized and the regiment was going from him and the 80th Brigade for good. He felt it a very keen loss but he was sure whoever might be their commander, or comrades, and whatever might be the line, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry would be worthy of their past records and the best traditions of the 80th Brigade. He wished them all good fortune and Godspeed whatever their lot might be. 

Major Gault in reply thanked General Smith for the way he had spoke of the regiment and on its behalf expressed the appreciation felt. He reminded him of how proud we had all been to form a part of the 80th Brigde and how cordial had been our relations with all since the start. Whatever our lot might be, it would be our most earnest endeavour to live up to the opinions which the General had expressed and to bear with us unimpaired the traditions upon which the 80th Brigade had so nobly stood. He wished on behalf of himself, the officers, non-commissioned officers and men to wish General Smith, the 80th Brigade and the 27th Division the most cordial wishes for all good fortune and to assure him that their memory would always be fresh in our minds. Three cheers were then given for General Smith, the band played " Auld Lang Syne," and the Regiment started on its way. Along the road there were many heartfelt greetings and good luck wishes from men of the 80th Brigade. 

It would be very difficult for one who has been with the Regiment for several months back to appreciate the importance of this change. Those who had the honour of sharing in the great days last spring feel a loss almost irreparable, while the sympathetic bond which united all in the 80th Brigade will probably never be replaced be our new associations ever so happy. Tonight the past lies behind in the detached light of history and before us lies a new arena in which the traditions and all the glory that was Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry must again be established and maintained. 

"...Hamilton Gault mounted on his chestnut horse on a hill not far from Flixecourt where we were to act as a model training battalion for the 1st Army. It was a very sad occasion. The 80th Brigade were to go to Salonika in the far east. We were the fifth battalion. Besides Ottawa wanted us back with the Canadians, for the supply lines could not service us there. So Hammie Gault chose that picturesque spot on a hill overlooking the expansive valley. The trees were turning to red and gold, blending so beautifully with Hammie on his chestnut charger. There was a gentle breeze that caused a slight rustle among the leaves that autumn day, and as the sun cast it warm rays across this field of sorrow, it seemed to say 'Cheer up, there are better days ahead.' And I doubt if there was a single man in that assembly that did not feel as I did - a parting with comrades so true and so steadfast. Brigadier General Smith bid us farewell, and the band of the 80th brigade played us all the way to Flixecourt..." 

Private P. Howard Ferguson 
(A member of the first university company since July)
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives 

Monday 19 October 2015


After a restful month of September the Patricias took over a section of the line in the region of the Somme. Trenches and dugouts wove through the village of Frise with one of the more dangerous parts of the line only 15 feet from the enemy. They understood they would be there indefinitely.

They set up Headquarters in the cellar of one of the houses mostly still intact. Agar Adamson, newly promoted to Major and second in command, described their new surroundings, "For continued discomfort, this is the worst place the Battalion has been in yet, as we cannot take our clothes off at any time, although we sleep in beds made by our Pioneers, we cannot take our boots off, as at any moment, we may be rushed. I fancy that unless we push forward our tour of the trenches will be 30 days." He continued, "The rats are everywhere, even the actual trenches are awful. They devoured all the leather off Martin's haversack in one night. Last night Pelly and I and our artillery Major hardly slept a wink all night on account of our rat insisting upon getting through the cellar door. Boots had no effect. So Pelly, in keeping with his quiet manner, got up and opened the door, and the rat, to show its gratitude, remained quiet for the rest of the night....The water here, is very bad and is condemned by the Sanitary Authorities. The village is full of wells all marked by the French "suspected of having been poisoned by the Huns"

Relatively light but consistent shelling and sniping was a strain on the mens nerves. Steadily rising flood waters from the canal contributed to their distress. They were just one Battalion where there should have been three, defending the most weakly held part of the line. For now the Germans were heavily engaged in battles northward but gas and artillery continued to be a constant threat. They had devised a system where each platoon would bang on a flat iron gong if gas was detected. It was mandatory that every soldier carry two different styles of primitive gas helmets at all times. One was sewn into their oilskin pocket and the other was slung over the shoulder.

Mandatory flannel gas masks issued by the British in 1915 

A tremendous sense of loss still weighed heavily on the old originals. There had been plenty of time for introspection and bitter analysis. In a letter to a friend in Toronto, Adamson reflected, "Ypres was held purely for sentimental reasons. General Smith-Dorrien wanted to fall back on the canal and even if necessary not to hold the town. [General] French insisted upon our remaining in the exposed position, and Smith-Dorrien is in England having been relieved of his command. It is and always will be a question if we did not pay too big a price."

In a letter to her mother, Mabel further emphasized Agar's low spirits,"Agar takes a very pessimistic view. The Government and the 'High Commands' are muddling things so dreadfully. The waste of life and material is awful and most soldiers think they are losing four men to the German's one. It is simply a question of time until you get hit. We trust to pluck and luck, while the Germans trust to science and munitions with able leadership." 

They were also adjusting to the new culture of men in the Regiment while grieving the loss of the old. Even with the reinforcement of the University Companies, the Battalion was short twelve officers. There had been no word from Hamilton Gault at all and only one staff officer from the old lot was still with them. Adamson lamented to Mabel, "I find a great change in the Regiment and the new N.C.O.s of the two McGill Companies are sadly wanting in experience and in some cases may be a positive danger. It is not fair to break them and all we can do is to try them out. I also find a great change along the same lines in the other Regiments of the Brigade. Martin, before we moved from the last place, got No 2 Company together for me to say a few words to and I am afraid I made a bit of a mess of speech making but it was very nice to find all the old men seemed very glad to see one back. They are all very fond of their old officer."

The gloom had settled in at home as well. The devastating impact of months of loss and tragedy was taking its toll. Women in mourning clothes were now a common site on Canadian streets and many chose to wear black out of sympathy for friends who were suffering. Zeppelin raids were killing civilians in London and the British were still reeling from the sinking of the Lusitania which had been torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on May 7th, 1915. This tragedy affected Hamilton Gault's family personally. Marguerite's mother and her brother Chattan's two little girls and their nurse were on the ship and did not survive the sinking. 

Although the calamities of war brought many together, Hamilton and Marguerite's relationship had been irreparably fractured with the events of May 7th and May 8th. Each of their lives had been torn apart on two successive days and neither was in a position to comfort the other. Emotionally, they had been unavailable to each other in their time of greatest need.

In mid-summer, Gault convalesced with Marguerite and her sister at Lydeard House near the town of Taunton. They had been joined by a fellow Patricia, Bruce Bainsmith, also recovering from serious wounds inflicted at Polygon Wood. The charming and handsome Bainsmith attracted the vulnerable Marguerite's affections and on July 24th Gault discovered them in each other's arms. Although Marguerite denied it, Gault was convinced she had been unfaithful. Enraged and in no mood for forgiveness, the marriage was over. The legalities of a divorce would have to be conducted at another time but the scandal had blown wide open with great speculation as to the legitimacy of Gault's accusations. 

There was uncertainty among the Patricias in France as well. By now they had heard of the demise of Gault's marriage which prompted discussions of suspicions and their own feelings of betrayal. They were also unsettled by rumours of change in the composition of the Division with reports of insubordination and poor discipline in the new army up north. Even the Brigadier was not informed as to the changes that were taking place. On October 16th they received orders from the Division and 80th Brigade was suddenly and mysteriously relieved from its position. 

Wednesday 30 September 2015


The Patricias were given the respite they needed over the summer of 1915 with the most peaceful period of the war on the Western Front. The priority now was on re-establishing the Regiment. After the devastating losses in May 1915 many feared the Regiment would be disbanded. 

Major Raymond Pelly, returned from sick leave on May 18th, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and took over command from Lieutenant Niven. Pelly was the third member of the Governor General's staff to command the Patricia's. He now faced a critical situation. If the Regiment was to survive there would need to be a reliable and steady source of reinforcements. 

When the Regiment was founded it was made clear to Hamilton Gault and Francis Farquhar there would be no provision from the Canadian Government for reinforcements for PPCLI. As a privately raised regiment the Patricias were responsible for acquiring their own replacements for casualties. Prime Minister Borden was not particularly interested in depleting his own supply of men needed for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

At the outset, the issue of reinforcements wasn't of great concern. The common sentiment was that the war would last no more than a few months. They certainly hadn't anticipated the horror that awaited them. With heavy losses throughout the winter and spring of 1915 though, came a constant anxiety about the Regiment's future. At times, small drafts of men from various Canadian sources had been brought in to help with numbers but they had been difficult to obtain and it was unlikely they would receive enough support from the Canadian government to sustain the Regiment. The Canadian Divisions were also in dire need of additional troops as casualties exceeded six thousand after the Second Battle of Ypres.

The initial response in Canada to the losses at Ypres was a dramatic surge of patriotism. Talbot Papineau wrote,  "...what a glorious history they will have made for Canada. These may be the birth pangs of our nationality." A striking change in the style of recruiting posters appeared, evolving from the Imperial Lion of 1914 to the posters of the summer of 1915 appealing to Canadian pride. The primary concern for the Canadian government now was to bring in enough new recruits to maintain the First Division at full strength and prepare a third division for deployment.

Canadian Recruiting Poster 1914 
Canadian Recruiting Poster 1915 

Lt. Col. Pelly's objective during the summer of 1915 was to reorganize the battalion. Many of the lightly wounded had been able to return to the Regiment at the end of May and with an additional 450 soldiers brought in from other Canadian battalions in England the Patricias were becoming a robust unit again. Meanwhile, an important idea had been developing with some of Hamilton Gault's friends from Montreal to resolve the Regiment's critical problem of reinforcements.

Three prominent Montreal businessmen, all alumni of McGill University, George C. McDonald, George Selkirk Currie and Percival Molson, drafted a unique proposal for Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes. Contrived in April 1915, the proposal detailed a plan to recruit an infantry company from university men and their friends specifically with the goal of reinforcing the Patricias. The idea was approved. The Student's Union at McGill became the main mobilization centre and, as such, the 'University Companies PPCLI Reinforcements' were often referred to as the 'McGill Companies'. Universities from across Canada, however, answered the call and supported the initiative with undergraduates, graduates and even professors. By July 1915 the first of the University Companies arrived in France and joined the Patricias at rest in the quiet sector of Armentieres. With another company arriving shortly after, the Regiment was back up to full strength by the first of September. The response to join was so enthusiastic that by October 1916 over 1300 men in six consecutive companies had joined the Regiment. This brilliant scheme had saved the Regiment from collapse. 

2nd University Company C.E.F. Reinforcements P.P.C.L.I. (Click to enlarge) 

P30(138.1)-1 Armentiers (1915) Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives

Sunday 6 September 2015


"Lousy, lousy; awfully, frightened lousy!
I want to go over the sea
Where Allemand can't get me!
The Johnsons and whiz-bangs, they whistle and roar
I don't want to go to the trench any more
Oh my! I don't want to die!
I want to go home!"

This famous First World War trench song has been attributed to an anonymous author but in Jack Munroes' book, "Mopping Up", he identifies the song writer as Corporal Cooper of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. It was written on January 19th, 1915 and first sung at a soldiers' concert in a barn loft 200 yards from Westoutre.

According to Munroe, the troops sang this song with fervour as they marched into the line at Bellewaerde Ridge on May 7th, 1915 for the climax of the Second Battle of Ypres. 

The quiet summer of 1915 allowed Patricias to recover and reorganize in preparation for the inevitable rigours of battle to come. The bloody battle of May 8th, 1915 had been a test of courage and dedication during which the Patricias forged a legacy of heroics in their stand against the enemy. The German Army's tremendous effort to break through to Ypres and charge ahead to Calais brought the heaviest barrage ever recorded in history to that date. The remnants of men who'd survived the artillery assault managed to hold off the enemy charge with mostly just rifle fire. The Patricias prevailed with their incredible feat of bravery but the last of the Originals had been thoroughly shattered when the Germans finally retreated late that afternoon. The Second Battle of Ypres had come to an end.

Of the 650 soldiers who had entered the trenches on May 6th /7th, only four officers and 150 N.C.O.'s and men staggered off the position and withdrew under Lieutenant Hugh Niven. The official report records PPCLI casualties at 392. Four officers were killed or missing and six were wounded. Of the N.C.O.'s and other ranks 108 were killed, 197 wounded and 77 were listed as missing and presumed dead.

P30(577)-1 PPCLI Graves Ypres Salient May 9, 1915.
Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives 

Hamilton Gault had taken over command of the Regiment for the battle at Bellewaerde Ridge after Colonel Buller had been shot in the right eye on May 5th. Gault, however, was blown off his feet by a shell burst early in the battle on the 8th. He relinquished command to Agar Adamson, the senior captain, for the remainder of the battle. In spite of his grave wounds to the thigh, Gault had refused to leave and lay all day, barely conscious, at the bottom of a trench with his feet on a dead man, constantly buried in mud and dirt by shells as described by Adamson.

"I heard Agar Adamson had been hit and Hammie was badly hit and only semi-conscious for the rest of the day. I attended to him frequently and got him propped up by doubling a dead soldier up so he was length wise in the trench. I kept wetting his lips from my water bottle but his eyes were turned right back into his head and only the whites of his eyes visible. The afternoon after a heavy attack by infantry, Hammie whispered to me 'Next time they come on, stand me up, face me the right way and give me my revolver'. THAT IS THE PPCLI SPIRIT that lives on to this day."

H.W. Niven
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives

According to legend, at some point in the afternoon a message arrived from Headquarters asking how long the Patricias could hang on. Gault, who was already wounded, reportedly sent the reply, "Til the last gun is fired and the last man is gone". 

Gault was finally removed to the dressing station at nightfall where the gravity of his wounds were determined and he was sent back to the hospital in England. Lance Corporal Leonard Heddick, a medical orderly, wrote to his parents about Gault's conduct:

"I never saw his equal for grit....He lay all day with his body torn and bleeding, and it was only at night when the stretcher bearers could approach the trench to get out the wounded that he was carried away, and then he went last, absolutely refusing to go before the worst of the other cases had been taken. He was cheerful and grinning all over when we got him in our dressing station, and kept on grinning when we pulled the blood-soaked and ragged edge of his coat and trousers and underclothing out of his torn and lacerated flesh wounds - into which, by the way, you could stick your fist. It will be months before he will be back again."

Adamson himself had sustained a painful wound to the shoulder during the battle. Even with the use of just one arm he never wavered in his determined leadership, encouraging the men with his self assurance and good cheer. He was awarded the DSO for conspicuous bravery. When at last darkness came he handed over command to Lieutenant Niven, Gault's Adjutant, and wearily made his way to the dressing station.  Gault sent Niven a note expressing his regret at having to leave him to carry on without him. Niven reflected later, "That was the kind of soldier he was, always thinking of others...his spirit invaded every man's soul that day."

The original Ric-A-Dam-Doo
Talbot Papineau had also demonstrated tremendous courage that day. The only unwounded officer of the battalion, he tirelessly rushed up and down the trench throughout the day rallying the men and helping in every way possible in the effort to hold the line. One of his most notorious contributions during the battle on May 8th was to rescue the treasured Regimental colours. The colours were placed  in battalion headquarters, a dugout originally constructed for the gunners, but that dugout was completely destroyed. Papineau came upon the colours by chance, "Our second line had become our front line", he wrote. "I found the colours lying on the parados. I wrote a note to Hugh Niven, then the senior officer remaining, asking him what I should do with them. The note was handed down the trench hand to hand and in a few moments I had his reply telling me to take charge of them. Shortly after this the colours were hit by shrapnel and a hole about 2"square made in them."

Although all the units of the 80th Brigade suffered enormous losses during the Second Battle of Ypres, the Patricias had the distinction of the longest casualty list in the Division for the period between April 22nd and May 17th with 700 of all ranks killed, wounded or missing in action. 

A letter to Adamson from the regimental surgeon, C.B. Keenan lamented,  "There is no Regiment left, only a few rifles. I do not know what the future holds for us."

 A group of PPCLI Originals after Bellewaerde Ridge, now referred to as the Battle of Frezenberg, May 1915. Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives 

Decorations awarded in the Regiment in connection with the Second Battle of Ypres: 

The Distinguished Service Order : Lt.-Col. H. C. Buller ; Capt. Agar Adamson. 

The Military Cross: Lieuts. H. W. Niven (Adjutant),  D. A. Clarke and G. C. Carvell (Transport Officer). 

The Distinguished Conduct Medal : C.S.M. G. L. McDonnell (Div. H.Q. Transport); Sgts. W. Jordan, S. Larkin (Bn. Transport), J. M. Macdonald and L. Scott; Cpls. E. Bowler, J. M. Christie, H. McKenzie and B. Stevens ; L/Cpl. A. G. Pearson ; Ptes. G. Bronquest, J. Bushby and G. Inkster. 

The Russian Order of St. Anne: Major A. H. Gault, D.S.O. 

The French Croix de Guerre : Cpl. H. McKenzie. 

The Russian Cross of St. George: Pte. J. Bushby. 

Mentioned in Despatches : Lt.-Col. H. C. Buller ; Capt. Agar Adamson ; Lieuts. G. C. Carvell, R. G. Crawford and N. A. Edwards; C.Q.M. Sgts. A. Cordery and S. Godfrey; Sgt. M. Allan ; Ptes. A. S. Fleming and J. M. McAllister.