Origin and Organisation 1914
On the 3rd August 1914, the day before war was declared, Mr Andrew Hamilton Gault of Montreal arrived in Ottawa and went to the Canadian Ministry of Militia and Defence. He met Sam Hughes, the Minister and put to him his proposal for the raising of a unit to send over to Europe. Gault said he was prepared to spend 100,000 dollars to raise and equip a regiment of cavalry, his preferred arm of the service, but Hughes, while keen to take up his offer, expressed the need for an infantry unit. Gault agreed, and before leaving Ottawa met Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Farquhar who offered his help with the recruitment and planning.
In 1914 there was only a small permanent Canadian army of around 3,000 men. They made up a few squadrons of cavalry, a battalion of infantry and some artillery. The bulk of Canada’s land forces consisted of part-time militia, well organised but under strength. On the evening of 5 Aug, Farquhar and Gault met to plan how they were going to recruit for the new regiment. They needed men who had previous experience of active service so that less time need be spent in training. Adverts were placed in newspapers, at veterans associations and police forces. They would have to be less than 35 years old, physically fit, and if belonging to a militia unit, they would need the permission of their CO. As to the Commanding Officer of the new regiment, Colonel Farquhar offered himself and was immediately accepted by Gault. He was an officer in the Coldstream Guards and was at that time working as military secretary to the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. Hamilton Gault would be senior major, second-in-command.
Farquhar came up with the idea of calling the regiment Princess Patricia’s, and sought her permission to name the regiment after her and appoint her as Colonel-in-Chief. She readily accepted and offered to embroider the Colour and design the cap badge. On 8 Aug the War Office in London gave their authority, and on 10 Aug 1914 the charter was signed by Colonel Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, and Mr A Hamilton Gault who was to provide 100,000 dollars. This is recognised at the founding day of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The light infantry aspect was Gault’s idea to give the unit a more irregular role. Mobilisation began the following day at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa, which was put at the regiment’s disposal. Recruits poured in from all parts of Canada; prospectors, trappers, guides, cow-punchers, prize-fighters, farmers, professional and business men. The Legion of Frontiersmen joined up in a body. The Edmonton Police Pipe band volunteered to see the regiment off to war and were recruited by Lt-Col Farquhar to accompany the Patricias to France where they acted as the band and stretcher-bearers. Out of the 3,000 men who applied, it was decided to limit the strength of the regiment to 1,100. Ninety per cent of these were men born in Britain, the rest were Canadian born. Out of these, 65 per cent were English, 15 per cent Scots and 10 per cent Irish. A high proportion were old soldiers; almost all the British Army regiments were represented as well as the Royal Navy. Nearly 500 of them had seen war service.
The Princess completed the hand-embroidery of the Colour in time for its presentation to the regiment after Church Parade in Lansdowne Park on 23 Aug. It was at first only a Camp Colour, later being raised to the status of Regimental Colour worthy of consecration. On the 28th the regiment went by train to Montreal, marching through the city, watched by cheering crowds, to embark on SS Megantic. They set sail the next day down the St Lawrence but got as far as Quebec where, to the bitter disappointment of all on board, they were ordered by the Admiralty to remain until a protected convoy could be organised. The men stayed in Levis Camp where they trained in trench-digging, night operations and outpost duty. They re-embarked on 27 Sep, this time on the SS Royal George. The troopship, along with others carrying 30,000 Canadian troops, reached Plymouth on 14 Oct and they entrained for Salisbury Plain. They were quartered at Bustard Camp for the next month and told that they would be brigaded (80th) in the 27th Division of the BEF. The other battalions in their brigade were the 3rd and 4th Battalion KRRC, the 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade, and the 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. All these battalions had been stationed in India.
The Canadian contingent required training before being exposed to enemy fire, but the Patricias were already trained soldiers so were sent early into the theatre of war. Orders were received on 14 Nov and the regiment left Bustard Camp on the 16th to go to Morn Hill, Winchester where they were joined by the rest of 80th Brigade. They trained there during early December, in cold and wet conditions, and, at the insistence of Col Farquhar, were issued with Lee-Enfield rifles to replace their less popular Ross rifles. On 16 Dec 1914 they were inspected by King George V and Lord Kitchener. When Lord K saw the medal ribbons as he passed along the ranks of the Patricias, he remarked, ‘Now I know where all my old soldiers have got to.’ On 20 Dec the brigade marched from Winchester to Southampton docks in 6 hours. The regiment, consisting of 27 officers and 956 other ranks, embarked on the Cardiganshire and sailed out of the Solent under destroyer escort to Le Havre. They had a 24 hour cramped train journey to St Omer and a whole night of marching before they reached their billet at Blaringhem at dawn on 24 Dec 1914. The rest of December was spent digging trenches and constructing the defensive line at Hazebrouck. Col Farquhar wrote in a letter that this period was spent, ‘improving our linguistic talents and finding the process rather a cold one.’ It is not clear if linguistic talents meant French …or swearing.
First World War: Initial Deployments
Vierstraat, Jan 1915
From January to March 1915 the Patricias fought at St Eloi near Ypres. The 27th Division were to relieve French troops and hold the line running from St Eloi to the Vierstraat-Wytschaete road. The Patricias were in trenches in the right sector, near Vierstraat, in low ground near streams which made drainage almost impossible. The weather was unusually wet with rain turning to sleet and snow as January advanced. The trenches were shallow and poorly protected by a few sandbags. The men stood knee-deep in mud and many suffered from trench-foot. On their first morning they came under fire from artillery during an hour-long bombardment. The Germans were better positioned, being on high ground that was easier to drain and having superior trench defences. They sniped at the Patricias who lost two lance-corporals on the first day and an officer on the second. Captain Newton lost his way in the dark and approached his own lines through no-man’s land. The sentry challenged him but he failed to respond and was shot.
The German snipers were a problem that had to be dealt with, so Col Farquhar detailed Lieutenant W G Colquhoun to form a corps d’elite of marksmen to eliminate enemy snipers. Corporal Christie was put in charge of this group, who within 2 days had accounted for 17 Germans. Thus the foundations were laid for the sniping section that became a permanent part of the PPCLI.
Shelley Farm, Feb 1915
In February 1915 the 27th Division extended it’s frontage east and north of St Eloi, focusing on a ridge on the west side of the road from St Eloi to Warneton, called The Mound, which was hotly contested. Battalion HQ was at Shelley Farm but the trenches, taken over from the French were in a terrible condition, requiring constant hard work to avoid having to stand in deep mud, and the removal of corpses. German snipers made movement difficult in daylight. The battalion wasn’t heavily engaged in February but there were still casualties amounting to 70 with a high proportion of killed to wounded. Three officers had been killed and two wounded. Sickness also took its toll and the Patricias were 400 under strength. The problem was that there was a limited supply of reinforcements because the Canadian government was raising battalions for the CEF. Colonel Farquhar kept up the number of officers by promoting men from the ranks, and by July 1915, drafts arrived from the University Companies PPCLI Reinforcements. Later on the Patricias joined the Canadian Corps and recruits were brought in from the general Canadian reserve.
The First Raid, 28 Feb 1915
On 21 Feb the battalion was withdrawn for a week’s rest at Westoutre, but returned on 27 Feb in very cold weather. They took over trenches to the left of the Mound, facing an enemy busily engaged in sapping towards their position. On the evening of 27 Feb, Col Farquhar organised an attack on the earthworks using less than 100 men, mainly from no.4 Company. Lt Colquhoun made a successful reconnaissance of the ground and plans had to be changed following his report that a trench intended to be used and held, was full of water. Colquhoun was sent out on a second, more difficult recce, this time with Major Gault. They split up at one point, Gault going to the left and finding a favourable gap to exploit, but Colquhoun, scouting out on the right, was captured. The assault was led by Lieut Colville Crabbe, the force being split into 3 groups of 25 men. The first group was to assault the sap and clear it, the second was to protect the rear and cover the assault party’s withdrawal. The third group was to dash in and break down the enemy parapet.
They moved out from Shelley Farm just before dawn on 28 Feb led by the snipers. The assault group, under Lieut Crabbe took the Germans completely by surprise when they rushed the sap trench. Lt Papineau led the bombing section which ran along the top of the trench to clear any opposition with grenades. Eighty yard of trench were cleared before a barricade of sandbags was reached. The Germans put up a strong resistance here, and Corporal Ross, the leader of the snipers, was killed. The support party and parapet demolition party followed up, now exposed to fire from the fully alert enemy. The sap was a well constructed and dry trench with steel loopholes, much better than the battalion trenches, so Farquhar was reluctant to abandon it, but the raid was regarded by his brigade commander as a reconnaissance in force and the sap hd to be evacuated. This was carried out successfully under fire as dawn was breaking, involving acts of heroism by men helping the wounded. Major Gault was wounded in the wrist helping a man under heavy fire. Lt Crabbe was also wounded, and his men suffered 20 casualties. The raid had the effect of raising the morale of the Patricias who had not been engaged in a ‘proper’ action until then. But it also stirred up the Germans.
German Counter-Attack, 1 Mar 1915
One of the trenches held by the battalion, Trench 21, was heavily bombed by the Germans in retaliation, so that 75 per cent of the occupants were incapacitated. No.2 Company were behind sandbags in front of an unoccupied trench that was full of water and corpses. They were effectively cut off and unsupported by artillery fire. The position was partially destroyed and had to be abandoned, but was reoccupied later in the evening. Unfortunately, this withdrawal led to rumours that the PPCLI had abandoned their whole position in Trenches 21 and 22.
The Mound, 14-15 Mar 1915
The Germans captured the Mound on the afternoon of 14 Mar as a preliminary to the general attack on Ypres planned for April. Not only the Mound but trenches stretching either side of it for 750 yards were lost in a strong infantry attack. The 82nd and 80th Brigades prepared to counter-attack. The Patricias were ordered to assist 4/Rifle Brigade in the 80th Brigade counter-attack. This was supposed to co-ordinate with the 82nd Brigade but because of a delay in the receipt of orders and lack of accurate intelligence, the 80th were 2 hours behind, so the 82nd’s attack failed.
Col Farquhar received his orders 3 hours before daylight and marched his battalion from Voormezeele at 3am across country to approach the Mound from the left flank. The Rifle Brigade moved along the St Eloi road and were able to make faster progress, to attack the right flank of the Mound. They did not wait for the Patricias and attacked independently. Farquhar sent no.2 Company commanded by the adjutant, Capt Buller, to enter the breastworks behind trenches 20 19A and 19. They reached their objective 20 mins before daylight and found the remnants of the Royal Irish Rifles with a single officer. From them they learned that an attack in force was out of the question. The mound was occupied by German machine-gunners so that the area below the Mound was a killing ground. Artillery fire failed to have any effect on the enemy who had consolidated the position. An attempt was made to reach Trench 19 by Lieut Cameron and 2 scouts but Cameron was shot dead. No.2 Coy under Capt Agar Adamson held on at the breastworks with the Royal Irish Rifles for the next 48 hours. The artillery continued to bombard the Mound, and unfortunately killed several of the Patricias. When it was conceded that the planned attack was futile the battalion withdrew through Dickebusch, leaving no.2 Coy who were unable to move. The 80th and 82nd Brigades had regained some of the trenches but lost 40 officers and nearly 700 men in the actions of 15 March.
The Death of Colonel Farquhar, 20 Mar 1915
The Patricias remained a few more days in the area of St Eloi after the action of 15 March. They were relived on the night of 19/20 Mar. As Francis Farquhar was showing around the CO of the relieving unit he was hit by a chance bullet and mortally wounded. He was carried to Voormezeele and died before morning. He was buried in the regimental cemetery just north of the village. It was too dangerous to allow more than 40 all ranks to attend the funeral. Major Gault was still in England recovering from wounds so Capt Buller was promoted to command the Patricias. The battalion withdrew further to Poperinghe on 23 March. They had held the line on a difficult front for less than 3 months, having 238 casualties apart from those removed by sickness. Seventeen out of 27 officers had been lost, of which 6 were killed. Major Gault had won the DSO, and the Military Cross had been awarded to Lieutenants Colquhoun, Crabbe and Papineau. The DCM was awarded to Sgt Patterson, Cpls Hacking and Wolstenholme, Lance Cpl Nourse and Piper Robertson who all took part in the raid on 28 Feb.
Second Battle of Ypres, 1915
The German offensives in the area of Ypres in April and May 1915 were withstood by Canadian and British battalions. The 1st Canadian Division suffered the terrible gas attacks on Gravenstafel Ridge and St Julien between 22 and 27 April but managed to thwart the enemy. The 27th Division which consisted of the PPCLI and British battalions, bore the brunt of the second offensive eleven days later in the battles of Frezenberg and Bellewaerde Ridge. On 9 April 1915 the Patricias occupied trenches on the south side of Polygon Wood which at that time still had leafy trees. The front line was in the open but the support line was in the wood itself. The trenches were a great improvement on those at St Eloi and the weather was much warmer, so morale was high. There were a few bursts of intense enemy shelling which caused about 5 casualties a day. On 12 April they were resting at Vlamertinghe when a Zeppelin dropped 6 great bombs, 2 of which fell near the camp. The men fired their rifles at it and some threw stones. In all the Patricias garrisoned the trenches at Polygon Wood three times, the last time saw the second German offensive which kept them there for 12 days without relief.
First World War: Frezenberg/Bellewaerde Ridge, 8 May 1915
Withdrawal from Polygon Wood
he bombardments from 20th April onwards meant that the PPCLI were unable to move, and their transport had to be evacuated to Busseboom. By the end of the month they suffered more than 80 casualties. The bombardment eased off after 27 April and the 80th Brigade were able to withdraw from Polygon Wood to Bellewaerde Ridge. There was some confusion in the orders concerning the exact position of the new trench defences and much digging and re-digging was carried out. Three Divisions had to be moved to the new line that formed a pointed salient around the east side of Ypres. The withdrawal on 3 May was made in stages so that the Germans were unaware of what was going on until first light on 4 May. The trenches were shallow and unsatisfactory so were poor protection against the impending bombardment. The initial probing by the enemy advance-guard established machine-guns positions and then at around 7am the artillery ranged their guns on the new trenches and began shelling heavily. This went on all day until the Patricia’s were relieved at 10pm. They had suffered 122 casualties.
Moving into Trenches on the Ridge
They were moved back in the early hours of 5 May to the point where the railway crossed the Menin road, later called Hellfire Corner. It was here that Colonel Buller was struck by a shell splinter that cost him one of his eyes. During the withdrawal the Patricias were reinforced by a draft of fresh recruits. With them was Major Hamilton Gault returning from sick leave, and able to assume command after Buller’s injury. The battalion was still under strength on 6 May, 14 officers (mostly junior subalterns) and 600 men, when they relieved the Shropshire LI on Bellewaerde Ridge. The German shellfire continued all day and on 7 May, causing them 17 casualties. But the battle of Bellewaerde Ridge really began early on 8 May. This battle is remembered by the PPCLI as the Battle of Frezenberg, but the official history of the regiment in WW1 calls it Bellewaerde Ridge, where in fact, the fight too place.
The Battle Begins
The Patricias held a 600 yard stretch on the extreme left of the Division, in front of Bellewaerde Lake, with two companies in the front line and two companies in the support line. The KRRC were on their right and 1/KOYLI of the 83rd Brigade on their left. About an hour after dawn the shelling began, and increased in intensity so that ‘the whole world seemed alive and rocking with the flashing and crashing of bursting shells’. An imminent attack seemed certain but by 8am there was still no sign of enemy infantry. The shelling caused a great deal of damage, and casualties. The front line was soon reduced to 160 men and two machine-guns. Major Gault regarded it as the most intense shelling of trenches in the whole war. When a lull in the bombardment occurred the machine guns swept the trenches and Germans began to swarm out of their lines.
The Front Line Partially Captured
The Patricias were able to muster enough rifle fire to cause the attackers to take cover behind hedges and walls. Unfortunately some enemy machine-guns took up positions that could enfilade not only the front trenches but the support line as well. Most of the front line fell back in small parties to the support line leaving only part of no.2 Coy. At 9am the firing ceased and the enemy infantry advanced. The small group still in the front trench were able to halt this advance with concentrated rifle fire. The rest of the front line trench, however, was soon occupied after the Germans stormed in, bayoneting the wounded. The enemy were now able to enfilade the remains of no.2 Coy. These few men were temporarily stalled when white flags appeared but it transpired that these were markers to show the German artillery the extent of the advance. The support line soon came under a heavy bombardment in which four officers were incapacitated including Major Gault who was severely wounded. Agar Adamson took over command.
Heroism of the Rearguard
The remaining men in the front line had to be evacuated to the support trench. The officer in command on this remnant, Captain Dennison ordered Lieutenant Clarke to take back the bulk of he party while he and Lieut Lane provided covering fire with a handful of men. This rearguard of brave men had little hope of survival, and indeed Dennison and Lane were never seen again. They kept up an effective fire on the enemy massed behind a hedge until they ran out of ammunition. A few men survived after crawling along the shallow communication trench. This retirement was covered by individual brave actions on the part of Sergeant Jordan and Lance-Corporal Christie. Acts of bravery were carried out by Sgt Scott, L-Cpl Pearson and Private Bushby who assisted the wounded from an enemy occupied trench. Two Germans were attempting to bayonet a man who was half buried but Bushby kept them at bay.
Reinforced by the Rifle Brigade
After 10am, by which time the front trenches had been abandoned, there was the very welcome arrival of two companies of 4 Rifle Brigade. These ‘angels’ were cheered by the Patricias as they came up, laden with ammunition and even machine-guns. A counter-attack was led by Captain Adamson, although wounded. The officer in command of the RB sent back a report that more reinforcments were needed and that 75 per cent of the Patricias were casualties. But it was becoming clear to the men left to defend Bellewaerde Ridge that they were now isolated. The 83rd Brigade on their left had been pushed back leaving a large gap in the line, and the communications in their rear were cut.
The respite was short lived as the enemy artillery poured an accurate fire on the defenders. The machine guns were buried several times but dug out and put back into action. Corporal Dover of no.4 Coy was single-handedly firing one gun until it was hit causing him to lose an arm and a leg. He was heroically rescued some hours later but was killed by a sniper as he was carried out. RSM Fraser, one of the first to enlist, was killed as he put himself in danger to direct the firing and hand out ammunition. Every officer and man performed superhuman acts of valour to keep the defence of the Ridge going. The medical orderlies were working under impossible conditions as the wounded could not be evacuated.
The German Withdrawal
The defence of the Ridge was watched by the Shropshires who were in support. In the heat of the fight their commander reported that not one man of the Patricias had withdrawn from the line. The pressure of the enemy attack eased off slowly and the Shropshires were able to come up to help. The 4KRRC had suffered badly on the battalion’s left but held their ground. Support was provided by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 3 KRRC as well as the Shropshires. At about 4pm the 28th Division counter-attacked in force, and although 3Middlesex were held up there was a gradual restoration of contact between the 28th and 27th Divisions. By 5pm the bombardment had ceased and the attacks slackened so that the Germans fell back leaving their dead and wounded.
The Patricias Relieved
During the hours of darkness the exhausted survivors of the Patricias were relieved by 3KRRC. Agar Adamson and many wounded men were stretchered out. Lieutenant Niven, the adjutant, was now in command of 3 officers and 150 men. they were withdrawn to the eastern limits of the city of Ypres. On 10 May they were employed in digging and carrying ammunition, and on 12 May moved back to Busseboom. There they were formed into a composite battalion with the survivors of 4KRRC and on 14 May reoccupied the line near Hooge Chateau.
Casualties at Frezenberg
The casualty figures for the battle of Frezenberg and Bellewaerde Ridge were 4 officers killed, 6 wounded. Of the NCOs and men, 108 were killed, 197 wounded and 77 missing. The number of men who ended up as POWs was very small so most of the 77 missing men were presumed killed. The KRRC and Rifle Brigade also suffered very severely but the Patricias had the longest casualty list for the Second Battle of Ypres between 22 April and 17 May: 700 all ranks were killed, wounded or missing in action.