Thursday, 29 January 2015


"I was trying to get a fire going in a bucket by swinging it to and fro, to thaw us out a bit, when Hamilton Gault roared, 'Roffey, I know bloody well that Jerry knows we are here but you don't need to advertise the fact!' "

By the end of January the Patricias had been initiated into the horrors of a new warfare. Surviving members of the Regiment would remember that first tour in the trenches as one their worst experiences of the war. It was not only exhausting but put many out of commission with foot rot and sickness.

The rain had turned to sleet and snow and the rudimentary trenches were constantly caving in under the continual onslaught of shelling and harsh weather. A series of brooks in front of the trenches prevented the men from digging any deeper as drainage was impossible. There were no sand bags to build a parapet and it was not uncommon for soldiers to be waist deep in water. Adding insult to injury, the Germans were able to drain their trenches toward the British line. The unburied dead lay all around them and the area was infested with rats.  

"If only there might be a touch of Canadian frost to freeze this mud! If only one might get out and run up and down the road to get warm! But that might not be. The trench was but three feet high. One-half of it was mud and the other half water. There was no chance of making the trench deeper; had the boys attempted that, they would have been drowned in more mud. The water was always pouring into it from all sides and there was nothing to bail it out with. If the trench had been built up equally on both sides, it would have been a case of drown or be shot....For now I realized the depths of misery in the world - and realized that the misery was man-made!”

Quoted from the book, "Mopping Up", written by Lieutenant Jack Monroe PPCLI

This photo from PPCLI Archives is very likely a staged scene. The early trenches encountered by the Patricias would have been not so dissimilar to this ditch.
A pattern of two or three days in the line, rotating with two or three days rest was established for the first month. Unaccustomed to the reality of trench life, the first company of men to experience their rotation of 72 hours were in such a state of shock and exhaustion by the end they had to be lifted out of the trenches as they were too weak to pull their feet out of the mud. At one point the Company Commander had called for relief stating that his men were “nearly perished from cold and hunger”. He received only vague reassurance that relief would come by morning but in fact relief didn’t arrive for two more days. The Regiment had suffered only three killed and seven wounded on their first rotation but two additional men died simply from cold and exposure. With swollen feet and dysentery, 20 of 150 were sent directly to hospital. 

The appalling conditions in the Ypres Salient during that first winter were unparalleled throughout the rest of the war. At no other time in history had anyone waged war in the sodden fields of Belgium in January. Armies in previous centuries understood the wisdom of wintering in safe quarters until spring brought drier ground. Even with diligent foresight it would have been difficult to properly equip soldiers of that era to withstand the miserable conditions that winter. However, the inadequate equipment issued to the Canadian soldiers in 1914 made matters worse and left the Patricias in a critical situation by the end of the first month in the line. With the boot shortage and many men having worn through the soles of their boots completely, the army found itself overwhelmed with the new problem of “trench foot”. Colonial forces were among the hardest hit. 

The Canadian Defence Minister had been in charge of procuring equipment contracts for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many of Sir Sam Hughes’ decisions, though, were not only politically controversial but outright disastrous for the men at the front lines. The Ross rifle, the MacAdam Shield Shovel, their boots and webbing, and the Colt machine gun were all Canadian items which lacked in quality and functionality and compromised the safety and effectiveness of soldiers on the line. All were ultimately replaced or abandoned.

The Patricias suffered 70 battle casualties in the first six weeks of warfare. The battalion was, on average, 150 men under strength in those first few weeks due to exposure and many hundreds more due to sickness. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


The weary battalion reached their destination near Dickebusch in the early afternoon of the 6th. There they rested their worn feet in a rain soaked field until after dusk. After a hearty meal they moved forward to relieve the 53rd Regiment of the 32nd French Division at the front.

The boots issued to all Canadian soldiers had been developed from a pattern used in the Boer War and were unsuited to the harsh conditions of France and Belgium. When suggestions to strengthen the soles had been considered for use in Europe the Director General of Clothing and Equipment had reported that "the British army boot appears much too heavy for wear in Canada". With the exceptionally cold and wet winter, and only one pair available per man, the boots were never given an opportunity to dry and the stitching rotted away.

When the crisis in footwear became apparent, Lieutenant General Alderson, Commander of the Canadian Contingent, ordered that British regulation boots be issued immediately, and each unit commander was required to render a certificate "that every man is in possession of a service pair of Imperial pattern Army boots" before the Division moved to France. The Patricias would not get new boots in time for their first experience in the trenches.

War Diary Entry: 

Wed, Jan 6, 1915 METEREN, FRANCE

6.1.15 Marched from METEREN to DICKIEBUSH (DICKEBUSCH) via BAILLEUL, and LOCRE. Lack of boots much felt many men marching with no soles at all to their boots. 

2:30 pm
Arrived DICKIEBUSH and rested till 5 pm. At 4 pm Major HAMILTON (A.H.) GAULT returned to Bn with general instructions with regard to taking over the trenches from the 53rd French Regt. 63rd Brigade 32nd Division. Bn marched from X roads 1/2 mi. S.W. of DICKIEBUSH via DICKIEBUSH to road junction 1/4 mi. N.W. of VIERSTRAAT. 

When the Right Half Bn under Major GAULT took over the 2 sections on the right. The Left Half Bn marched to LA BRASSERIE & took over the remaining 2 sections. Time was lost owing to no guides having been provided by the French. Taking over completed at midnight without incident. Line held by the Bn extended 1150 yds as per attached sketch. Trenches were found to be in a very waterlogged condition: no brasiers & few dug outs: distance from GERMAN LINE 40 yds on our LEFT, 200 yds on our RIGHT. Work of bringing up ammunition to scale of 250 rds per rifle as well as rations continuing till 3 a.m. 7.1.15. 

The defensive position occupied by PPCLI on January 6th, 1915

The section of the line the Patricias were called to occupy was three miles south-west of Ypres at Vierstraat. Gault had gone ahead with an advance party, an officer and three NCO's from each company, studied the maps and was briefed by the French general. He surveyed the trenches the evening before and was appalled by the conditions his men would be facing. 

Constructed by the French in haste, this was not a sophisticated trench system. Rather the Patricias would be occupying crude ditches in the mud, too wide and too shallow to be of any protection from shellfire. There were gaps between platoon positions and there were no communication trenches leading to the rear. The enemy was less than 50 yards away in some positions and it would be impossible to move either in or out of the trenches in daylight. The Regiment would be greatly disadvantaged with the lower and very unsuitable defensive ground.

The Ypres Salient in January 1915. The dashed lines show the railway network in place at that time
Mid evening of January 6th, 1915, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry marched in close formation slowly and steadfastly into the darkness and unyielding mud toward their position in the front lines. The usual jokes and quips were, for the first time, muttered in low voices and with strained nerves as they observed the conditions around them. The reality of what they were now facing became clearer with the sight of stretcher bearers, the flashes of red in the night and the crack of bullets around them. By midnight they had taken their positions without casualties but on the second day in the line, January 8th, 1915, the Regiment lost it first two men killed in action.

Monday, 5 January 2015


The ringing in of the new year, 1915, heralded the promise of fighting with the constant roaring of guns in the distance. Although there was no relief from the steady rain and bone chilling cold, morale among the men of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was high as they took pride in facing the first hardships of war. 

On New Years Day, the entire 80th Brigade waited and stood at attention for over an hour in miserable weather for a brief inspection by Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. The Commander-in-Chief’s inspection inspired impressive remarks about the Patricias described in a dispatch a few weeks later as “this magnificent set of men”.  In a cable to Prime Minister Borden following their first tour in the trenches, Field Marshal French reported the Patricias, “fully justified the hope that their magnificent appearance inspired." In a letter to the Duke of Connaught he declared, "When I inspected them in the pouring rain I had never seen a more magnificent-looking battalion, Guards or otherwise." The admiration was warranted. Colonel Farquhar had worked hard to instill a sense of duty, discipline and pride in the men as the first representatives of Colonial troops to march forward into the front line. 

By late fall 1914, the British Regular Army had fought the Germans to a standstill in the low hills surrounding the ancient town of Ypres but at a terrible cost. As the Regiment prepared for its initiation to battle in the first week of January 1915, the British army, now greatly understrength, was struggling to hold on to their defensive position in the Ypres Salient. The French army were in an even more desperate state. The British 27th Division was ordered to support and extend the right of the British line south of Ypres. On the 5th of January the Patricias marched north into Belgium.

War Diary Entry


5.1.15 Marched from BLARINGHEM to METEREN via HAZEBROUCH-SYLVESTRECAESTRE and FLETRE. Bn formed the Brigade Advanced Guard. Bn much handicapped from want of boots. 

"(January 5) ...orders were issued to pack all kits for full marching order. All blankets and equipment and quartermasters' stores were piled in the transports and limbers. 

One may imagine the feverish excitement that spread at this prospect of real contact with the enemy. 'Be ready for the firing line'; so read the orders of the day, and everyone was anxious to have that 'whack'.  As rumours had it, (we) were to relieve the French somewhere.

So at 8:30 A.M Canada's foremost battalion was in the road, waiting the order to march. The first day's march covered about fifteen miles. There were but a few short stops, of about ten minutes each. 

It was rather a hard trial on the feet, for the Pats had grown used to turf. The cobblestones seemed uncommonly hard. The boys could scarcely withstand the first day's forced march, and some of them wore the soles of their shoes even with the foot. 

...But the Canucks were game, and brought up the rear of the 80th Brigade with the 'swanky' swing they were famous for. They never dropped a yard in the pace set the K.R.R.'s in front of them. They were more than equal to the stern test!"

Quoted from the book, "Mopping Up", written by Lieutenant Jack Monroe PPCLI

PPCLI Troops at rest