Account on the P.P.C.L.I., was extracted from: – OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE CANADIAN FORCES IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919. GENERAL SERIES VOL. I. FROM THE OUTBREAK OF WAR TO THE FORMATION OF THE CANADIAN CORPS AUGUST 1914–SEPTEMBER 1915.
FREZENBERG RIDGE 8TH MAY.
Map 8: Ypres 1915. British Withdrawal Night 3rd/4th May.
THE P.P.C.L.I. IN THE SALIENT–GERMAN PLANS –THE BATTLE OPENS: – 8TH MAY – BELLEWAARDE RIDGE HELD–THE P.P.C.L.I. RELIEVED – ON THE NORTHERN FRONTAGE THE P.P.C.L.I. IN THE SALIENT.
The only Canadian battalion engaged in the later phases of the Battles of Ypres, 1915, was the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. As part of the 80th Infantry Brigade (27th Division—the ninth British division to be sent to France) the regiment on the night 20th/21st December had crossed the channel in the S.S. Cardiganshire from Southampton to Le Havre. After a week near Hazebrouck it was inspected on New Year’s Day by the Commander-in-Chief, who wrote in his despatch of 2nd February, 1915: “They are a magnificent set of men and have since done excellent work in the trenches.” On the night 6th/7th January, trenches were taken over south of St. Eloi from the 53rd (French) Regiment as part of the general relief of the XVI (French) Corps by the II (British) Corps. For the next seven weeks in this water-logged sector, overlooked by the Wytschaete ridge, conditions were similar to those prevailing all along the British front during the first winter. On the night 27th/28th February a party of one hundred, commanded by Major A. Hamilton Gault, successfully raided the German trenches opposite Shelley Farm. Subsequently the battalion was involved in the confused counter-attacks which failed to recover the “Mound” captured by the enemy on 14th March. The commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel F. D. Farquhar, D.S.O., was mortally wounded during a relief six days later, and was succeeded by Lieut.-Colonel H. C. Buller, another officer of the British Regular Army who had also been on the staff of the Duke of Connaught in Ottawa.
With the other four battalions of the 80th Brigade (commanded by Br.-General W. E. B. Smith from 25th March) the Patricia’s moved up on 23rd March from the St. Eloi front to rest in Poperinghe, and first entered Ypres on 5th April when the 27th Division was again extending the British line, by relieving the French 17th Division (IX Corps). On the 9th April the battalion occupied 700 yards of the front line in Polygon Wood, adjoining the left divisional boundary and facing due south; on the right flank the line curved in a concave arc to Hill 60, a mile distant; on the left it bent sharply northwards to Molenaarelsthoek, a mile to the left rear, and the curvature was such that the right of the 1st Canadian Division at Berlin Wood was three miles directly in rear of the P.P.C.L.I. sector. The fire trenches were revetted with sandbags, they had no traverses and no fire-step; sited on a forward slope they were passably dry. The weather was fine, the enemy artillery quiet, and the lack of dugouts,— one ten by eight splinter-proof per company— was no hardship. The supports also had no cover but the wood.
After the first tour in this part of the line the Patricia’s went to rest at Vlamertinghe, and experienced bombing by a Zeppelin on 12th April, but suffered no casualties. Their second tour in line terminated on the 17th and they went back to billets in the Cavalry Barracks in Ypres. On the afternoon of the 20th these barracks, being a target for the German bombardment, were vacated; in the evening the 4/Rifle Brigade was relieved in the section of front line first occupied.
The first discharge of poison gas on the 22nd April took place five to eight miles away to the northwest; but by the 1st May, when the decision was taken to contract the salient, the trenches had been battered by repeated bombardments, some eighty casualties had been suffered, and the British line facing northwest at Fortuin was only three miles distant on the right rear. The orders for withdrawal called for the P.P.C.L.I. to occupy five hundred yards of the partly constructed rearward line running north and south above the easterly point of Bellewaarde Lake; on the right would be the 4/Rifle Brigade, and on the left one company of the 4/K.R.R.C. at the divisional boundary. The main trench here ran along a row of tall elm trees on the crest of Bellewaarde Ridge, among the roots of which the 96th Battery R.F.A., now withdrawn, had been in action, but it was decided to dig and hold a more forward line along the ridge in the open. There was little time; when therefore the Patricias came back—half at 8 p.m. on 3rd May, followed by half the remainder, and the last quarter at 3 a.m. on the 4th—two companies went into the front line, a straight shallow trench 50 to 70 yards in front of the main trench which accommodated the other two companies in support. The position was wired and communication trenches, shallow also, connected the two lines.
At 6 a.m. the first German patrols were seen advancing with machine guns and then the advanced guard came into full view moving at the double, followed by the main body deploying on the open slopes three quarters of a mile away, a magnificent military spectacle which the Canadians cheered. The German machine guns were soon in action within 200 yards, the field guns ranged on the new trenches and opened an accurate bombardment, the scene appeared to be set for an immediate assault but no attack came, and at 10 p.m. the Patricias were relieved by the 2/K.S.L.I. The battalion moved back into reserve in the G.H.Q. line at Hell Fire Corner— the intersection of the Ypres-Menin road with the Ypres-Roulers railway. The losses of the day had been 122, and on the 5th the C.O., Colonel Buller, was severely wounded; Major A. Hamilton Gault who had rejoined on the previous day, took command. On the evening of the 6th May the P.P.C.L.I., with a strength of 14 officers and less than 600 men, relieved the 2/K.S.L.I. on Bellewaarde Ridge. During the night an inter-company relief was carried out, and the morning of the 8th found the battalion disposed with No. 1 Co. (Capt. H.S. Dennison) in line on the right and No. 2 (Capt. A.S.A.M. Adamson) on the left; in the support trenches No. 3 Co. (Capt. S.H. Hill) was on the right, No. 4 (Lieut. R.G. Crawford) on the left, with posts along the road running westwards from Westhoek. The German guns had prevented much improvement of the position and the German infantry on the right front now enfiladed the ill-placed forward line from the higher ground of the main Passchendaele Ridge at less than a thousand yards.
GERMAN PLANS. — Duke Albrecht, because the advance on the 4th May was reported to have been held up by a strongly fortified and heavily manned position, decided that a new and carefully organized attack was necessary. He was eager to drive the Allied forces back across the Yser as soon as possible, and on 6th May he issued orders for his three Corps embracing the Salient: the XXVI Reserve Corps whose right was between Boesinghe and Pilckem to advance southwards and seize the high ground about Wieltje; the XXVII Reserve Corps in the center to carry out the initial and main attack westwards astride the Zonnebeke-Ypres road; the XV Corps to break through northwestwards between Bellewaarde Lake and Zillebeke Lake. The operation would begin on the 8th May.
As a preliminary measure in the elimination of the Salient, Duke Albrecht had ordered the capture of Hill 60. At 8.45 a.m. on 5th May the 30th Division (XV Corps) covered by a cloud of gas, gained a footing on the hill. The British battalions had a hard fight. At 11 a.m. another gas cloud was released, then the British reserves came up and counterattacked but could not regain the crest. All day the struggle continued; at 7 p.m. the Germans released more gas, two hours later the 1/R.W.K., 2/K.O.S.B. and 2/K.O.Y.L.I. of the 13th Brigade which had just rejoined tired and depleted from the Canadian Division were ordered to retake the hill, they gained the crest in the darkness but could not hold it. Another attempt at dawn on the 7th by the 2/K.O.Y.L.I. and bombers of the 2/R.I. Rifles and 2/Ches. also failed, and Hill 60 remained in German hands until June 1917.
THE BATTLE OPENS: 8TH MAY. — After an ominous silence in the early hours of daylight on the 8th the preparatory bombardment opened and increased in intensity. Shortly after 8 a.m. Major Gault sent a message to the 80th Brigade:– Have been heavily shelled since 7 a.m. Sections of front line made untenable by enemy’s artillery, but have still about 160 rifles in front line. German infantry has not yet appeared. Should they rush our front trenches will at once counter attack if possible, but do not propose to risk weakening my support lines. Will advise O.C. Rifle Brigade should I require support. In lulls of gun fire there is heavy fire from rifles and machine guns. Please send me two M.Gs. if possible. I have only two left in front line. None in support. To the Patricias “the whole world seemed alive and rocking with the flashing and crashing of bursting shells.” The minutes passed, and then another hour: still the expected German infantry did not appear. A second message from Major Gault read:– Should this continue all day, would like support this evening in case of heavy night attack. Most of my wire gone. At last, after two and a half hours of bombardment, the German infantry were seen swarming out of their lines. There were still enough defenders in the Patricias’ front trench to stop the onrush with rifle fire, but several of the enemy’s machine gun crews worked their way forward to the hedges and ruined buildings between the opposing lines. After a final burst of the most intense shell fire, which obliterated much of the front line and rendered the rest untenable, there was a sudden silence, and the Germans charged. They gained a footing on the right where Captain Dennison and a small party had remained to cover withdrawal of No. 1 Co.; No. 2 Co. on the left had a better field of fire and beat off the assault. The German infantry set up their artillery flags, and their field guns in response engaged the main line in rear. Meanwhile Major Gault, wounded early in the day, was hit again so severely that he could not move so he handed over to Captain Hill who carried on until Captain Adamson arrived from the line to take command. No. 2 Co. was now outflanked on the right, and on the left troops of the adjoining division were seen to be falling back, a withdrawal to the support line was therefore ordered and successfully carried out; conspicuous in the handling of this movement were Sergt. L. Scott and Lance Corporal A. G. Pearson. It was now about 10 a.m.; save for a few posts the front line had been abandoned and the main line along the Bellewaarde Ridge was being held. A company of the supporting 4/R.B., laden with welcome ammunition, was brought up during a lull in the bombardment; they set up their machine guns on the parapet whereupon the German snipers picked off the crews and put the guns out of action. Captain Adamson, although wounded, led a party forward and temporarily eased the pressure on the left flank.
All day the battle raged on the front between Bellewaarde Ridge and Mouse Trap Farm. The Germans on their third attempt had taken Frezenberg by 10 a.m., but were held up four hundred yards west of it. Having thus forced an entry on the front of the 83rd Brigade they proceeded to roll up the line of the 84th and 80th Brigades to the north and south. The 12/London counter-attacked below Wieltje and delayed their progress. Soon after 11 a.m. the 3/Mon. and 2/King’s Own in the line opposite Frezenberg, mistaking an order for the advancing reserves to stop at the G.H.Q. trenches, fell back to that line a mile and a half behind their first position and the Germans entered Verlorenhoek. The error was discovered and about noon they went forward again; at nightfall only two officers and 69 men out of six companies answered the roll call. The 2/E. York and the 5/King’s Own, ordered from reserve to counterattack and regain the lost trenches at Frezenberg, were but 550 strong and because of the German shelling could only establish themselves a thousand yards east of the G.H.Q. line. Shortly before 3 p.m. the battalions of the 85th Brigade ordered up to Potijze from divisional reserve were directed to counter-attack astride the Ypres-Roulers railway; the 3/Middlesex and 1/Y. & L., then the 2/E. Surrey and about 5 p.m. the 3/Royal Fusiliers advanced persistently under the heavy shelling until at 8 p.m. they reached a line running southwards from, but not including, Verlorenhoek.
BELLEWAARDE RIDGE HELD. — The position from mid-afternoon onwards was that the Germans had opened a two mile breach in the point of the Salient, centering on Verlorenhoek, the 28th British Division was fighting desperately to hold them back; at the northern shoulder of the gap near Mouse Trap Farm the 2/N.F. were still in position, at the southern end the P.P.C.L.I. stood firm on Bellewaarde Ridge. News of the course of the fighting on the left reached the 80th Brigade and the 27th Division, it was meagre and contradictory and confusing, as is usual when telephone wires are cut and the whole forward area is shrouded in smoke and dust and swept by fire. The Patricia’s reinforced by the 4/R.B. were holding their main trench line with a refused flank running westwards along the Westhoek road; somewhere in front remnants of the 1/K.O.Y.L.I., under Captain H. Mallinson, and B Co. 3/Mon. were still fighting, intermittent touch with the latter was maintained for a time and then lost. For six hours the Patricia’s endured one bombardment after another—the C.O. of the 2/K.S.L.I. reported in the heat of the fight that not one man from the Patricias was coming back. By four o’clock the German infantry seemed to have had enough and within an hour were fully occupied with the 85th Brigade counter-attack which effectively turned the tide for the day. When news came that the line to the north was broken, the 2/K.S.L.I. were sent to extend the refused flank northwestwards to the railway; later the 1/A. & S.H. and two companies 9/A. & S.H. reinforced them, and the 3/K.R.R.C. was moved into support at the railway. Here touch was gained with the counter-attacking battalions of the 85th Brigade and a line, tenuous because most of the battalions were reduced to less than 200, and some to under 100, was established across the gap. After sunset the 10th Brigade arrived from 4th Divisional reserve on loan to the 84th Brigade, they were under orders to counter-attack southeastwards from Mouse Trap Farm, but it was too late to do more than make a short advance. This was however sufficient to clear the enemy from the eastern end of the St. Jean Ridge and so shook the Germans that they abandoned their most advanced positions, and falling on the defensive, contented themselves with the gain of the first British line of trenches.
THE P.P.C.L.I. RELIEVED. — When the Patricias were relieved by the 3/K.R.R.C. at 11.30 p.m. on 8th May, all the senior officers had become casualties: a subaltern, Lieut. H. W. Niven, was in command and the trench strength of the battalion was 4 officers and 150 men. The casualties for the 8th May were including four officers dead, six wounded and 108 other ranks killed. Their Divisional Commander (General Snow) reported of them—“No regiment could have fought with greater determination or endurance, many would have failed where they succeeded.” For the next week they formed a composite unit with the 4/K.R.R.C., but were not called upon to go into the front line in the fighting which continued until the 24th May; on the 31st they moved with their brigade to a new sector at Armentières.
ON THE NORTHERN FRONTAGE. — To the left of the gap the 4th British Division held the line taken over from the 1st Canadian Division from Mouse Trap Farm to Turco Farm. In preparation for their main drive westwards, the Germans on the 6th and 7th May concentrated heavy howitzer batteries on Mouse Trap Farm, now more important than ever as a strong point in the British line. Several attempted surprise attacks against it failed. On the morning of the 8th the 12th Brigade in the trenches was subjected to heavy bombardment and about 9 a.m. the Germans were seen mustering for the assault. The British artillery on the western bank of the canal north of Ypres, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th and 12th Canadian Batteries, covered this front at about 3,500 yards range; the guns by this time had been registered and the location of the opposing field works established so that effective fire could be brought to bear on request of the infantry or advice of the F.O.O. The trench line dug by the 1st C.I.B. on the night 28th/29th April and since improved was successfully held throughout the day. After these Canadian batteries were withdrawn 700 the Germans continued to attack, and on 24th May captured Mouse Trap Farm and Bellewaarde Ridge. The opposing lines around the Ypres Salient, established at this time, remained practically unchanged for the next two years………
SUPPLY OF PERSONNEL. — The Department of Militia and Defence considered that the maintenance of the two divisions, the cavalry brigade and the other troops then at the front or about to proceed there, “was as much as Canada should undertake” and that future efforts should be concentrated on the raising and training of reinforcements. War Office anxiety as to supply of officer personnel—a matter of some concern in their own forces—led to representations being made against the inclusion of the McGill Overseas Company in a battalion which had recently been mobilized in Canada. The men comprising the company were held to be of a class eminently suitable to act as officers, such as might properly be included in an Officers’ Training Corps. The company was withdrawn from the 38th Battalion but was used as a reinforcing draft for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, to which also five other companies recruited from students at various universities were despatched. The War Office recommendation for the formation of officers’ training companies was not acted upon on the ground that there was no difficulty in obtaining officers for the C.E.F., although contingents of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps had been established at McGill and Laval. ( Montreal & Laval, Quebec).
Universities prior to the war. Medical students in the C.E.F. who had reached their final year at a university were, however, released from military service after 3rd September, 1915, so that they might complete their medical studies.