There were some other Canadians present in the Ypres salient while the Canadian division was being ground fine some hardly assimilated Canadians, not militia bred but mostly reservists of the British Army. They were recruited, as we have seen,’ in a battalion named after a royal and fair lady, the Princess Patricia.
Why they were called light infantry is one of the mysteries. Later on in the history of the battalion, when the lightness was chiefly in their hearts, the men were amused at a concert, given in the shadow of Vimy Ridge, by a faithful picture of one of themselves, who with his steel helmet, his rifle, bayonet and ammunition, his haversack, water-bottle, entrenching tool and P. H. helmet, with a box respirator pouting from his chest and a pack like a packing-box on his back, walked across the stage and soliloquized : ” They call me a light infantryman. I wonder what a heavy infantryman would look like.”
The battalion, P. P. C. L. I., Princess Pat’s, Pip-Pips, or P. P.’s, as they were variously called, had been doing a tour of duty in the salient as a component part of the 27th (Imperial) Division and the 80th Brigade. In the previous month they had established a reputation for staunchness at St. Eloi; and in the same month had lost their commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel Farquhar, an accomplished soldier who combined two things that do not always go together, popularity with his men and their entire confidence.’
The position of the P. P. C. L. I. lay in what became famous as the Polygon Wood, with the race-track between them and battalion headquarters. Their trenches were not ill-found in defensive devices. For an ingenious lieutenant, Vanderberg, kept the pioneers busy making novel forms of rifle-batteries. Nor were they lacking in such protection and comfort as ” old-timers ” like the Pip-Pips could devise.
Here in Polygon Wood from April 20th until the night of May 3rd they kept a trench vigil, getting the spray of the storm that was passing over Hill 60 and St. Julien. Then the British line retracted three miles towards Ypres, and the P. P.’s, going with the rest, occupied a new line in the open a hundred yards in front of Bellewaarde Wood.
This new line was a sketch and consisted of a shallow trench which the brigade had dug in one night, with some gun-pits of an abandoned artillery emplacement turned into battalion headquarters and officers’ dug-outs. The scantiness of protection was of course not a matter of importance; for following previous experience the Germans were not due to attack for three or four days. So the ordinary routine of working parties and trench improvement was proceeding when dawn broke on May 4th. Both sides in sight of one another and unmolested were methodically beavering along with shovel and sand-bag.
About 5 a. m. on the 4th some pioneers and others were about nine hundred yards in front of the line and busily at work cutting down the hedges that lined the roads through Westhoek when they saw a red-tinted cloud that was not the sunrise. To their amazement, upon the ridge that sweeps from Hill 60 by Veldhoek to Passchendaele, and coming through the wood that lies this side of the Polygon, they saw not groups or platoons but whole battalions of red-shirted troops. These were some of the Prussian Guards who had laid aside their tunics and were gathering for the rough work.
Between 8 and 9 a. m. it began and all working par-ties scuttled to cover. The preparation was one-sided and peculiarly effective. The severity of the bombardment in front was never relaxed all day except to permit the alternation of infantry attacks. These at-tacks, not in themselves formidable to steady riflemen like the P. P.’s, nevertheless forced them to keep the front line filled up, only to be depleted by a cruelly effective enfilade by the German heavies. By night the casualties had mounted up to some two hundred and the worried and exhausted survivors were relieved by the Shropshires.
The following day, May 5th, although passed in the reserve trenches, a spot with more hopes of survivorship than the front line, but still not quite to be recommended for nervous cases, brought another change of commanding officer.
The next two days were, with fatigues and casualties, ” normal,'” and then came the 8th of May. The battalion had taken their old line of trenches in front of Bellewaarde Wood on the night of the 7th. On their right were the 4th King’s Royal Rifles, and on their left the 83rd Brigade, who were the right flanking brigade of the 28th Division.
The Germans had been gathering both guns and men, determined this time to break through. Their artillery had things much in hand and superbly disregarded the solitary British field-piece that from somewhere in the rear kept up a running and inadequate protest. By 8 a. m. the bombardment was at its height. Up on the slope of the ridge our men could see a six-gun battery deploying ceremoniously and the horses trotting off. This was done with impunity, for already the British small-arm ammunition was being howled down by whiz-bang and shrapnel until raising the head above the parapet became an infrequent act of futile enthusiasm. The difference made by this nearer battery was that now the shell-bang came before the warning whiz.
The storms of shells and gas came like heavy thunder showers on the whole British line and were intermitted only to allow the advance of three most ponderous and determined infantry assaults. These fell with terrific effect upon the 83rd Brigade, next on the left of the 80th. This brigade, composed of North of England battalions, held their ground until they became the merest torso of a brigade. When eventually their relics were pushed back the left flank of the 80th was left in the air and that flank was being held by the P. P. C. L. I.
There are many fragmentary stories of what happened between the night of the 7th, when the battalion roll stood at 635, and 6 p. m. on the 8th, when, numbering from right to left, 153 made answer.
The front line was literally blown in, a last memory of its holding being Lieutenant Edwards standing on the parapet blazing with his revolver at the waves of Prussians.
To the history of this day, if it ever comes to be written as it should, corporals 1 will contribute as much as commissioned officers,’ while the exploits of some of the lieutenants such as Niven, Papineau, and Vanderberg will read like that chapter of the Three Musketeers which tells us of the Bastion of St. Gervais. The story awaits a Canadian Dumas.
The front trench being gone, there remained the support trench, and this the P. P.’s held until sunset, when they were relieved by the 3rd King’s Royal Rifles. While in the support trench they observed the methodical procedure of the Prussians. They first planted a row of flags on the site of the front line which our men not then being instructed in German methods of signalling to the artillery at first took for battalion colours. Also they saw them erecting shrapnel screens, nets of chain about six feet high be-hind which they made a new parapet of what was left of the old parados.
The observation was not tranquil for either side, For the full vehemence of the German barrage was lifted above the signal flags and fell on the support trenches. Everybody had to help in the holding. Captain Agar Adamson’ was assisting Battalion Sergeant-Major Fraser (a splendid old soldier) to hand out ammunition. Himself wounded and having lost his glasses, he did not notice that his dry remarks, delivered with that drollery which in another walk of life would have made him an eminent comedian, were being lost on Fraser, who, though still standing erect, had gone on score to a sniper.
They held that support trench with the aid of a slim detachment from the Rifle Brigade which reached them about 4 o’clock ; and the relieving battalion, arriving after dusk, were astounded at what they saw when they took over. For two pioneers, Leith and his chum Bill Ashton, had been detailed to collect disks. When this was done ninety-eight bodies were laid out in rows of sixes. The pioneers were asked by the relieving force, ” What kind of a time did you have? ” In reply Leith pointed to this bivouac. The new-corners had first to stir the silent ones before they would believe in the nature of their sleep ; so greatly did the casualties exceed what men were accustomed to see in a trench still held.
Daylight on May 9th found the 153 Princess Pat’s in the now deserted city of Ypres. The inhabitants had not waited to disgarnish their shops and restaurants. Everything was abandoned boots, shoes, watches, and jewelry. The big white café, situated in the square, just beyond the Cloth Hall, with its cellar and appointments, lay at the disposal of guests who, having passed through the full cascade of bombardment, were now little disturbed by its spray. The abandoned jewelry scarcely tempted them; but the sparkle of dry champagne helped to mellow the glorious ruin of their battalion. As old Homer says : ” Then indeed it would not have been pleasant to refrain.”
No length of idleness was allowed in those days to the relics of British units. These were too few to be spared. Employed for some days in working parties, the 153 Pats were then brigaded with seventy-five of the 4th King’s Royal Rifles to form a battalion and do duty in the vicinity of the château at Hooge. Here turn and turn about they took their place until relieved by the Gordon Highlanders on the night of May 22nd-23rd.
This time they went into rest at Ouderdom. Here in a field General French reviewed the 80th Brigade and complimented them on ” holding the line and keeping your heads down and your rifles clean.”
On May 26th the P. P.’s answered a hurry call and marched from Ouderdom to the right of the road near Hooge to assist the Gordons against a gas attack. Their chief memory of this, their last tour of duty in the Second Battle of Ypres, was that they lost some men on the way thither through inexperience. For having left Ypres through the Lille Gate, they were marching along the Roulers railway and had attained the crossing of the St. Jean-Zillebeke road when a ” bunch of green officers ” smoking cigarettes brought down a whirl of shell-fire. But you cannot both kill your experienced officers and have them; and the lessons of economy in battalion personnel were slow to take root in British forces. It was not until 1917 that we learned to keep back a percentage of all ranks. In 1915 all the eggs went with the basket, smashing into the front line.