Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry – February 28th To November 27th, 1915

IMMEDIATELY after the audacious assault upon the 23rd Bavarians, on February 28th, 1915,1 the enemy began a bombardment of the position held by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry with heavy artillery, the usual preliminary to a counter-attack. However, the German commander was evidently not strong enough in either men or guns to make an effective reprisal and only No. 3 Company of the Princess Patricia’s had casualties to report. The day passed without further noteworthy incident. Dawn of the 1st of March initiated a week of severe fighting, and the battle-line south of the village of St. Eloi ebbed and flowed until the 6th, when the firing-line trenches then occupied by the battalion were actually vacated to permit of intense concentrated artillery fire being directed on the nearest enemy trenches. This had such satisfactory results that the German front line was rendered practically untenable, excepting for individual snipers.

On the 11th of March the battalion again returned to Westoutre for a well-earned tour of rest, and during their absence the Germans made a most determined assault on the slight eminence now known definitely as the ” Mound of Death.” To such threatening proportions did this attack extend that General Snow, commander of the 27th Division, deemed it necessary to call upon his divisional reserve, and the consequence was that the Princess Patricia’s found themselves, on the 14th of March, en route for the firing-line positions they had quitted only a few days before.

This much disputed ” Mound of Death ” was an insignificant elevation some forty or fifty feet high and probably of artificial origin. During the period of bit-ter warfare which followed after the French line regiments had dug themselves in at this point in October, 1914, this mound attained a strategic value out of all proportion to its size. It is situated just south-east of the point where the Ypres-Messines and the Voormezeele-Warneton roads cross; and was the scene of long-protracted fighting, so that its soil is now consecrated for all time by its baptism of British, French, and Canadian blood.

On the way from Westoutre the Princess Patricia’s were joined by the King’s Royal Rifles at Zevecoten, and both battalions proceeded to the firing line via Voormezeele. Before daybreak, on the 15th of March, a British attack on the ” Mound ” was launched, a battalion of the Rifle Brigade making the actual assault; and then, just as the day was breaking, Lieut.-Colonel Farquhar despatched No. 2 Company of his regiment to reinforce the fighting line. But the enemy proved too strong. The attacking force met with a terrible blast of machine-gun fire, which simply mowed men down, and against which all the heroism in the world could not have made progress. The regiment evacuated its dead and wounded from an untenable position and retired on Dickebusch, leaving only half a company to hold a captured position lying immediately to the west of the point in dispute. A tragedy which touched the heart of every member of the ” Princess Pat’s ” caused the end of this extra tour of duty in the firing line to become forever memorable in the history of the regiment.

On the 20th of March, preparatory to his regiment again returning to Westoutre to complete their interrupted period of rest, Lieut.-Colonel Farquhar went over the ground with the commanding officer of the King’s Royal Rifles, which regiment was to take over the position. While explaining the lie of the land and the actual position of the enemy the commanding officer of the Princess Patricia’s unwittingly exposed himself to an enemy sniper and was struck in the head, receiving a mortal wound. Major Keenan, the Medical Officer of the battalion, was immediately summoned, but Colonel Farquhar was beyond human aid. He, however, recovered consciousness sufficiently to express the desire to Major Keenan and Captain H. C. Buller, the Adjutant, that his body should not be trans-ported overseas, but that he should be buried with the boys he loved so well. His loss was a heavy blow to the regiment he had brought by precept and example to a state of efficiency second to none in the British Army, and, therefore, in the world — a claim it was to justify a few months later in the tragic days early in May, after which the Press of the world rang with the story of the ” imperishable glory of the Princess Pat’s.” A strict disciplinarian, Colonel Farquhar made the iron hand felt through the velvet glove; but his men were quick to recognize in him the soldier born to command, a man worthy of respect, a strong buttress in the hour of stress when things were going wrong, a leader whom it was always well to follow, and one who would scorn to order them to go where he would not go himself, a man always animated by the highest traditions of the army he loved so well — in short, a soldier and a gentleman. His body was laid to rest in the small burial-ground deeded to the regiment in perpetuity, and which adjoined the battered church of Voormezeele. There his last wish is realized, for he lies ” buried with the boys.”

The command now devolved by seniority upon Major Andrew Hamilton Gault, D. S. O., but as this officer, at the time, was convalescing in England — from the wound received in the right fore-arm during the attack upon the 23rd Bavarians on the 28th of February — Captain H. C. Buller took over instead.

The tour of duty which ended with the death of Colonel Farquhar proved to be the last that the Princess Pat’s spent in the trenches to the south-east of St. Eloi; for, after the usual rest period spent in and around the village of Westoutre, April 9th found the 27th Division posted in lines lying almost due east of the ancient city of Ypres, in the neighbourhood of the Polygon Wood. While doing duty in this position, rest periods found the regiment in billets in the city itself, and the bulk of the men housed in the immense infantry bar-rack there. These quarters had to be vacated on the 26th of April; for a furious bombardment by heavy German artillery drove the battalion into bivouac quarters in the fields near Ouderdom, some eight miles to the west. Immediately to the north of the 27th Di-vision the line was held by the 1st Canadian Division, which had at last been called upon to take its place at the front sandwiched in between Imperial troops and a French colonial division, which included Turcos and Zouaves.

Early in May the old firing-line trenches were abandoned, and the retirai to a new line of trenches some distance in the rear was so cleverly effected that the enemy were not aware that any such movement had taken place. On the 4th of May enemy batteries opened a heavy artillery fire followed by an impetuous infantry attack. The Germans were repulsed; but the Princess Patricia’s suffered heavy casualties. On the following day the Commanding Officer was so severely wounded by a shell splinter that he subsequently lost an eye and was invalided to England for several months. Fortunately, Major Gault had returned to duty in the nick of time to take over the command. But the battalion was now considerably reduced in strength ; even with the additional men brought over from the Battalion Depot by Major Gault the roll-call showed a total of under 650 rifles.

Trench routine at this critical time could not be carried out to schedule. The men were out of the trenches on the 5th of May, but were back in again on the 7th. On the 8th, at 5.30 in the morning, the German guns opened the heaviest bombardment experienced by any troops since the commencement of hostilities. Artillery of every conceivable calibre was called into action, and the concentrated fire on a restricted area speedily reduced the elaborate telephone equipment between the trenches and the headquarters dug-outs to a handful of scrap. Grooms, orderlies, signallers every ” employed ” man in the battalion were hurriedly ordered up to the firing line. As dawn broke the Germans essayed a bayonet attack; but sharp, accurate rifle-fire drove them back under cover. At 7 a. m. Major Gault was wounded in action for the second time, and in the fierce struggle in progress it was impossible to have him carried to the rear. Intense agony from multiple shrapnel wounds was endured without complaint for ten hours, when the approach of darkness made it possible to remove this gallant officer within reach of medical aid. By 9 a. m. all field and company officers were either dead or disabled, and the command devolved upon Lieutenant Hugh Niven, who a few months before had been a private in the ranks. The intensity of the barrage fire rendered it impossible to communicate with the rear by messenger, so that the higher command had no accurate knowledge of what the actual conditions were; nor could Lieutenant Niven learn the wishes of his brigadier.

The situation seemed hopeless — poisonous gas was drifting across from the enemy lines, and a bayonet attack was bound to follow the intensive artillery preparation. Ammunition for rifles and machine guns was perilously low and, to put the climax to the critical situation of the Princess Patricia’s on this fatal morning, touch with supporting regiments to the north and south was lost. Niven and his handful of survivors were in a desperate plight, but no thought of surrender entered their minds ; a determination to ” carry on ” to the bitter end permeated all ranks. Towards noon a tenuous contact was established with the King’s Royal Rifles on the right. Once more the enemy advanced machine guns to within eighty yards of the position. An attack with the bayonet developed, but the attackers were compelled to fall back again under cover.

Early in the afternoon Niven established contact with the Shropshire Light Infantry on his left rear; but a new danger threatened the hopeless remnant. During the last bayonet attack numbers of enemy marksmen had, in their retirai, secured crater positions on No Man’s Land, and were now sniping freely, so freely, indeed, as practically to bring the regiment under a heavy enfilade fire. The two machine guns of the battalion had been buried, but after hours of labour they were disinterred by the regimental machine-gunners, and with them an effort was made to clean out these nests of snipers by machine-gun fire. This brought forth an immediate reply from the enemy artillery, and a veritable avalanche of high-explosive shells once more buried the machine guns and their crews. Many of the men were only slightly wounded, but were buried alive.

The enemy at this point developed uncanny precision with his high-explosive shell-fire. No sooner did one of the Princess Patricia’s machine guns open fire than its location was spotted by the enemy, and it repeatedly happened that both gun and crew disappeared together with the trench, parapet, and parados. Every individual in the regiment proved himself a hero, but special mention must be made of Corporal Dover of No. 4 Company, who disinterred his gun on three different occasions, took it apart, cleaned it, and brought it into action, and thrice succeeded in opening a destructive fire on the charging enemy. Dover was the survivor of many gun crews; but his last stand cost him both a leg and an arm, and late that same day this heroic soldier extricated his maimed and broken body from the surrounding debris and trailed his mutilated limbs across the intervening ground towards the former support trench, which was now in use as a firing line. His moans attracted the attention of some men of the Shropshire Light Infantry, and two gallant fellows came out of their trench and carried the wounded man to the parapet. He was then recognized, but, as he was being passed up to the arms of comrades waiting to receive him into comparative safety, a chance bullet, aimed in the darkness, passed through his brain and wrote finis to his story.

The left half of the trench was now obliterated, and soon a blast from a high-explosive shell caused the right half to collapse in the same manner, and the survivors were forced to make their way painfully towards the support line. The dead and wounded were perforce abandoned. At 1.30 p. m. a cheer from the battered remnant of the battalion announced the arrival of a handful of men from the King’s Royal Rifles, who brought with them a fresh supply of ammunition and another machine gun. The enemy were now established in the Princess Patricia’s former firing line — not in the abandoned trenches, but in the obliterated trenches : and that is as far as they ever did get on their way to Calais at this particular point.

When dusk fell the Princess Pat’s quota of 635 rifles had been reduced to 153, but the 153 were still unbeaten and a chapter of imperishable glory had been written into the battle story of the Empire. The eventful day closed for the gallant remnant of a once proud regiment with an impromptu burial service over such dead and mutilated bodies as could be collected in a partially obliterated support trench. After the ceremony the worn-out defenders trailed their way wearily back to their open bivouac in the vicinity of the village of Ouderdom, leaving the position in the hands of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles.

The 10th of May found the few survivors acting on ammunition fatigue to the firing line, and also furnishing a pioneer squad constructing new support trenches. Both operations entailed further casualties. On the 13th of the month came a call for help from the old tried friends of the 4th Rifle Brigade. The call was gallantly answered, and this tour of duty finished for the time being the active service of the Princess Patricia’s in the Ypres salient. Later —in June, 1916, — on practically the same ground but under a different command, the same regiment, acting as a unit of the 7th Canadian Brigade, 3rd Division Canadian Expeditionary Force, was to repeat history and emerge from a similar struggle with its effective strength reduced to 210.

Early in June, 1915, army corps orders were issued transferring the 27th (Imperial) Division from the Ypres salient to the vicinity of Armentières. The ground was covered in a series of short route marches, with halts at Dranoutre and Steenwerck. The weather was delightful, and all ranks benefited by the change of locality. Since the Germans had been driven out of Armentières by British cavalry in the retreat consequent upon the Battle of the Marne, this sec-tor of the line had enjoyed a period of comparative rest, and, until the 27th Division left the neighbourhood in September, the same condition of affairs was maintained. The city bore many evidences of having come under the storm of war — an occasional roofless house, shell-splintered pavement, gaps in the rows of houses where incendiary fires had burned out or been extinguished; but many of the inhabitants were still in residence, and the enemy artillery only shelled in occasional outbursts. The trenches were in the neighbourhood of L’Epinette, almost due west of Armentières, and, when the Princess Patricia’s were on firing-line duty, billets were located in schools and houses in Armentières, while rest billets were in farms around the village of Erquinhem-à-Lys, a mile or two to the west.

In August, 1915, the regiment celebrated its first anniversary as a unit, and athletic sports were held on level, low-lying fields on the banks of the Lys. A second draft of university men, some five hundred strong, had now been taken on the strength, and the survivors of the original regiment were allowed to return to the British Isles on six- and seven-day furlough — the fur-lough dating from the day of their arrival in England. On account of the exigencies of war, men departing on furlough took with them their entire kit and arms, al-though ammunition pouches were understood to be emptied at the port of embarkation.

It is worthy of note that at this time the French peasantry — that is, the old men, the cripples, the women, and the children — harvested their season’s crop even up to the support-line trenches and well within range of enemy snipers and machine gunners.

The trenches, themselves, were a vast improvement on what the division had left behind them in the Ypres salient. Communication could be made at all hours of the day; dug-outs were roomy and comfortable; and duck-boards kept the firing line dry underfoot. Sections of the roadway exposed to enemy rifle-fire were carefully camouflaged by means of screens made of jute supported on fence-poles, and this precaution undoubtedly kept the casualty lists low, particularly in the case of rationing parties going forward after nightfall. During its stay in Erquinhem the regiment was visited by Field-Marshal Sir John French, and also by Prince Arthur of Connaught, who brought personal greetings from his sister, the Princess Patricia, to her own regiment, whose operations she followed with the keenest interest.

In the middle of September, 1915, Army orders transferred the 27th Division to the Third Army Corps, and the ” Princess Pat’s ” left Armentières with regret, carrying with them many pleasant memories of the warm-hearted French population with whom they had neighboured for several months. A night march brought them to Pradelles, near Hazebrouck, where a halt of several days’ duration was called and the billets established in the village. From Pradelles the regiment proceeded to Hazebrouck, where it entrained for Picardy, via Abbeville and Amiens, detraining at the wayside station of Guillaucourt. A subsequent series of short route marches brought it to a hut bivouac on the Somme canal, a few miles south-west of Bray, which town was then the headquarters of the Third Army under General Sir Charles Monro. The 80th Brigade, to which the regiment was attached, was under the immediate command of Brigadier-General Smith of the Lincolns.

The Princess Patricia’s went into front-line trenches lying south of the Somme river in the neighbourhood of Frise, with supports at Eclusier-Vaux and reserve at Cappy. This position was the second that the 27th Division had taken over from the French infantry of the line. The trenches were excellent ; the marly sub-soil of Picardy being peculiarly adapted for the construction of fortified earthworks. The usual tours of duty and routine were gone through without anything special to record until orders were issued which transferred the Imperial units of the division for service on the Eastern front. On this transfer being effected, the opportunity was taken to detach the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from their Imperial comrades, and the regiment bade farewell to their good friends of many a blood-stained field. Opportunity was given for the O. C. Division to issue valedictory orders, and the following appeared: —

” On the departure of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the G. 0. C. takes this opportunity of placing on record his keen appreciation of the splendid services rendered by this battalion to the 80th Brigade.

” This battalion joined the brigade on its formation at Winchester in November, 1914, and has remained with it ever since.

The gallantry of the P. P. C. L. I. during the fighting at St. Eloi and later during the Second Battle of Ypres when the battalion hung on to its trenches with unparalleled tenacity and lost over seventy-five per cent. of its effectiveness, has won for it not only the admiration of the army, but when the history of the war comes to be written, will earn for the regiment a reputation which will stand among the highest in the records of the exploits of the British Army.

The G. O. C. in bidding them farewell and ex-pressing the deepest regret at their departure, knows that he is not only voicing the sentiments of himself and his Staff, but also those of the whole of their comrades in the 80th Brigade.”

The Princess Patricia’s moved westwards by line of route through Amiens to Flexicourt, at which place they were located for several weeks, acting as an instructional battalion to new drafts which were sent out from Britain to reinforce the Third Army. On November 27th, 1915, the regiment joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 7th Brigade (Brigadier-General Macdonnell), and Colonel H. C. Buller having recovered from his wounds of May 4th, though having sustained the loss of an eye, resumed command. The history of the battalion is henceforth merged in the story of the 7th Brigade.

Associated with the Princess Patricia’s in the 7th Brigade were the Royal Canadian Regiment (Lieut.-Colonel C. H. Hill, D. S. O.), the 42nd Highlanders of Canada (Lieut.-Colonel G. S. Cantlie), and the 49th (Edmonton) Battalion (Lieut.-Colonel W. A. Griesbach). Early in the New Year the 7th and 8th Brigades were officially gazetted to form the new 3rd Division under command of Major-General Mercer.