Monday, 27 April 2015


In their first combat assignment on a European battlefield, it was up to the Canadians to defend the gaping left flank of the Ypres Salient after the gas attack on April 22nd. Through the valiant efforts of the 13th Battalion, the Canadian Black Watch, they managed to hold their ground until a counter attack was launched on Kitchener’s Wood late on the 22nd. Led by the uninitiated but determined 10th and 16th Battalions, the Canadians made substantial gains in spite of heavy casualties. Positions were consolidated on the 23rd but at dawn on the 24th another green cloud of poison gas seeped across the German lines. This time it was aimed directly at the Canadians. 

The cotton-gauze masks issued to the soldiers were only moderately effective and did little to protect their eyes. They bravely fought through burning lungs, intense machine-gun fire and Ross Rifles that jammed continuously to hold off the intense attack until reinforcements arrived. Tragically, the 10th Battalion, perpetuated by the Calgary Highlanders, was all but wiped out. 

Throughout the battle in the Canadian sector, Patricias prepared for an attack. With massive shelling and reports of breakthrough on both flanks it seemed a German charge was imminent. The Regiment, held down by continuous waves of artillery, cursed the poorly constructed trenches that had been such low priority for the French. 

On the 24th, Lt. Col Buller informed the officers of the second gas attack on the Canadians. While the men could smell the chlorine they were fortunately not affected by it. As a precaution, however, they were told to use flannel strips or fill their socks with earth and hold them over their mouths. If it became necessary they were to soak them in baking soda or with their own urine - the latter remedy was not met with pleasant remarks.  

Allied troops protect themselves during the 2nd battle of Ypres

With every reserve battalion in the British 5th Corps engaged there was no possibility of relief for the Patricias for days. Their situation could have been much worse without the dedicated support of the transport units who never faltered in their commitment to deliver rations to the men under heavy fire and in spite of heavy casualties. 

By April 27th, due mainly to the outstanding tenacity of the Canadians, the German attempt to capture Ypres from the north had failed. 

The Canadian Division suffered 6035 casualties in just 48 hours, with more than 2000 killed. It was during 2nd Ypres that John McCrae was inspired to write the poem In Flanders Fields. 

Poperinghe, Monday, April 26th, 1915

My dear Mabel,

After 4 nights in the trench, my Company came out at night and went into dugouts in the early morning, was shelled out, lost 9 men wounded. 1 killed in one hut. We went into rest works and were shelled out again. We now sleep out and live out in the woods scattered in little parties. The Germans have advanced on our right and left, in one place 3 miles. We have orders to make a bolt if cut off. Only a Regiment and a half here where we had a Brigade. So far our killed are small but our wounded list large.

The Canadian Division, who behaved very well, is wiped out and gone to Boulogne to await reinforcement. In one day 7000 passed through the distributing station wounded. We have lost most of our transport. Food is very shy. Ogilvie and Bainsmith hit. The latter is sticking it out. Ypres is destroyed and burned. The Germans came in thousands, using burning oil and gases. The French Turco Division broke up and the Canadians counter-attacked trying to hold the ground of 2 Divisions. The 10th Battn. lost all but 3 officers and 160 men. Two British Regiments are quite wiped out. The German Artillery is smashing ours at every point. I believe we are surrounded by spies.

I will try and get this out tonight with wounded men. The Ambulance arrangements have broken down. We are rushing in thousands of untried troops which in mean numbers may save the game but a big retirement seems certain. Ever your loving boy,


PPCLI casualites during the month of April were 15 killed, 78 wounded and 1 missing.  

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


Major Keenan, the Regimental Medical Officer, was sure he heard the engines of a Zepplin approaching in the late evening of April 12th but the other officers were skeptical. Within a few minutes, though, six massive bombs dropped, some just missing the Patricias' rest camps. A direct hit would have wiped them out entirely. Luckily there was no damage except for the gaping holes in the earth larger than anyone had ever seen before. It was a forecast of things to come.

German artillery and aerial bombing began to intensify mid month. The enemy had brought in their long range heavy guns, the largest mobile artillery pieces in use by any army at the time. These 42 cm howitzers had demonstrated such destructive force at the outset of the war they earned the nickname Dicke Bertha, or Big Bertha, by the German Army. The shells weighed up to 1785 pounds and could project over a distance of almost six miles. Reports from solders say the shells were visible to the eye and sounded like a freight train hurtling through the air. The delayed action fuse could penetrate up to 40 feet of concrete and earth before exploding. The guns were disassembled for transport and reassembled in six hours, requiring a crew of 240 to service and man each gun. Hiding in the forest north of Ypres on April 18th was a Big Bertha Howitzer poised to systematically demolish one of the most beautiful ancient cities in Flanders. 

One of the first Big Berthas being prepared to fire

Ypres was bombarded relentlessly throughout April 18th, 19th and 20th. Hundreds of civilians and British troops were killed and wounded in the shelling and it became immediately too dangerous to stay. On the 20th the shelling was so severe the barracks had to be moved outside the city walls. The billeting accommodations in the Cloth Hall were evacuated. 

Adamson wrote to Mabel, “….a very heavy bombardment of the town: a shell fell in my billet backyard, killing two horses and one in the front, littering the whole room and scattering the lacemaking. About one o’clock they commenced firing 15 inch shells knocking down a large part of the town; the large square was littered with debris, and dead and wounded civilians, a great many women and children were killed and wounded. The whole town was a continuous stream of stretcher bearers carrying their loads. Brigade H.Q. badly shelled and moved to infantry barracks. At 4 p.m. we got an order to remove our men from the Infantry Barracks, where they were closely packed with Divisional troops. We took them to a vacant field outside the town and scattered them and watched the shelling of the town. Had it not meant so much to so many people, it would have been a magnificent sight.” 

Patircias worked around the clock helping the wounded and digging civilians out of the rubble. At night they brought food and water as shops were forced to close when the townspeople escaped to safety. Sewer and sanitation systems were destroyed quickly compromising living conditions. Fighting on the front lines had intensified as well and the men were given warning to stay in the Polygon Wood trenches and there they remained, without relief, for the next twelve days. 

Ruins at Ypres 

There had been rumours and warnings of a gas attack but there was a general belief among Allies the Germans wouldn’t use this deadly weapon in the west as the Hague Conventions of 1907 prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons." The Germans had already used gas to great effect on the Eastern Front and the salient presented a perfect target for their next trial with chemical weapons to weaken Allied defences. Gas cylinders with simple hose extensions were installed opposite the French positions in early April. 

On April 22nd, at 5:00 pm, following a heavy bombardment, 168 tons of chlorine gas was released along a four mile front against two French divisions in the northern sector of the Ypres Salient. Canadians to the right witnessed a large yellow-green cloud sifting down from the sky, forcing French troops to flee from their positions. 

German troops penetrated a 4000 yard hole in the line, and advanced through masses of victims. Locals still living in nearby villages and farms were trapped by the toxic fumes with poison gas burning their eyes and lungs, causing respiratory distress and blindness. The Canadian Division was in disarray with telephone lines cut during the severe shelling. Their left flank was wide open yet, inexplicably, German forces halted after a 3,000 yard push into the French position.

Five miles down the line, Patricias, fortunately, were unharmed from the gas as they had not been issued adequate protection. They had been advised to prepare for attack. The Second Battle of Ypres had begun. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015


The differences in approach to trench warfare were evident when the Canadians moved into new positions previously occupied by the French. Agar Adamson wrote to Mabel, surprised by the contrast, "It appears the French, who have been here for three months, had a pact with the Germans to live and let live, and did very little firing. When a Staff Officer of the Division came to look over the trenches, he found the French Captain in a very comfortable dugout 400 yards behind, he had never been in the advance trenches and had to get a guide to show him the way. Very different to our system, as yesterday afternoon Buller brought General Smith, a new Brigadier in the afternoon all through the 3 trenches"

British and Canadian officers were harshly critical of the French trench systems in 1915 which were incomplete, shallow and poorly protected. The French officers, relying heavily on their quick firing 75 mm guns, focused less on holding the line than preparing their infantry reserves for counterattack. Whereas the British defensive doctrine was to fully occupy and hold the line at all costs. As such, British criterion for trench design were of a much more rigorous standard than the French. The French routinely dug only two and a half feet down and were content with just one sandbag of depth for the parapet. Also frustrating were the lack of loopholes in the parapets which were essential for viewing and firing without exposing their heads to sniper fire. In spite of the handful of men killed and wounded each day in the line in early April, casualties were considered to have been light in comparison to the relentless and heavy casualties the Regiment suffered at St. Eloi. Many of these losses were due to a lack of diligence at the parapet.

P30(480)-1, PPCLI Originals wounded at Base, Sergeants with Drill Canes c. 1915, courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives

Although the decisive action at Vimy Ridge two years later would be credited with launching the birth of our nation, in the spring of 1915 a burgeoning sense of nationalism was emerging among the men. While enduring the unending horrors in the mud of St. Eloi the men had longed for the comforts of home. In quiet moments they escaped into their memories, finding solace in the tranquility of their homeland. So many of these men had been Englishmen living in Canada who, before the war, had not thought themselves as separate from their English countrymen. Once back in Europe, however, it became apparent they had become something other. The lure of the vast wilderness transformed adventurers and aristocrats alike. The easy style and informality of their new lives in Canada had changed their perspectives, even in higher societies. They were different now and a national pride was beginning to emerge. 

There are many stories of men whispering of Canada, of their love of the land, when they took their last breaths. Jack Munroe in his book, ‘Mopping Up’, describes his best friend Rob’s last words, the words he says of “a poet and a patriot; the words of a brooding spirit that had loved its land, and for that land had yielded up the supreme sacrifice”.

"I wish I was back in good old Canada now! Oh, I love the snow! Any place, any spot; from the Hudson Bay to the Great Lakes; from Prince Rupert to the Straits of Canso, would do me tonight. I'm sick of mud!"  No sooner had he expressed this nostalgic sentiment of home that an explosion mortally wounded his friend. With his last faint breath, “Canada....Canada....Canada! my love....Canada! …. Oh, God....Great Spirit of soul....give it back to Canada....let it rest peace, in purity....under the snow!"  

As he lay motionless Jack laments, "his spirit had fled in quest of the Northern Lights; to the silence and peace and purity of the snows."

In the months since leaving Salisbury Plain, the Patricias had not encountered any other Canadian units. As they were preparing in mid April to once again take up positions in the trenches of Polygon Wood, the Regiment were greeted and joshed by another battalion marching through the streets of Ypres. The PPCLI insignia inspired goading, clearly in admiration of the illustrious Patricias. As the men recognized the familiar accent and the cheerful, carefree manner in which these men in kilts conducted themselves their identity became unmistakable. It was a battalion of Canadians that taunted them. Every man instantly broke ranks and rushed to meet each other, against the stern orders of their officers. The mob of yelling and laughing Canucks, half in kilts and half in khaki, enjoyed their fellowship until they were ushered back to order. When darkness fell the Regiment marched again into the trenches of Polygon Wood directly in front of Ypres, along with the rest of the 80th Brigade and the 27th and 28th Divisions. To their left was the Canadian Division, including their new friends from the Scottish Regiment, deployed to the St. Julien sector. To the left of the Canadians were the French 45th Algerian Division. 

There were rumours the Germans would be launching an attack. Adamson wrote, “A prisoner that had been captured had given the information that we were going to be attacked, that gas in tubes was going to be used, that troops were massed in front of us for the attack. We are now supplied with fans and cotton wool soaked in something to revive us, if we are overpowered with the gas.” 

The Ypres Salient on 21 April 1915, showing unit dispositions

Friday, 10 April 2015


Hamilton Gault had tried desperately to get back to his Regiment upon news of Farquhar's death but was under strict medical supervision and, much to his great disappointment, was not given permission to leave. As second in command, Gault was in line to replace the CO and command his beloved Regiment but the opportunity had been denied him. It was now up to Lieutenant-Colonel "Teta" Buller, Farquhar's lifelong friend and fellow member of the Vice Regal contingent from Ottawa, to follow in his legendary footsteps and he did so with stoic and courageous determination. 

Lieutenant-Colonel H.C. "Teta" Buller, D.S.O. 
Herbert Cecil Buller was the son of a British Admiral and aspired to be a career soldier from an early age. At 19 years of age he joined the Rifle Brigade and 29 had been promoted to Captain. At the time the Regiment was formed in August 1914, Buller was one of three British regular officers appointed to the PPCLI from the personal staff of the Governor General, The Duke of Connaught. As the Regiment's first Adjutant he supervised the crucial task of selecting the original battalion. 

A quiet period followed the harrowing events at St. Eloi at the end of March. The men settled into an interval of rest and, for the first time since arriving on the continent, the sun was warm and spring was in the air. So promising was the change of seasons that Adamson sent the matted and dirty shreds of his fur coat and waders back to Mabel.

On April 5th the Patricias arrived in Ypres and were assigned to billets in a large schoolhouse where hot baths and the first change of clothes in a month were a welcome relief. The officers were billeted in a Ladies University which provided some amusement evident in Adamson's letter to Mable describing the assortment of fine ladies clothing and undergarments hastily left behind. 

The city of Ypres was a thriving British and French garrison town in the spring of 1915. A popular tourist attraction and an important strategic landmark, it was also the target of determined German efforts to capture it over the next three years. Critical to the British hold on this sector of the Western Front, the Germans launched a major offensive against Ypres in November of 1914. The town was still relatively intact after the unsuccessful attack although some important landmarks had suffered massive damage. Undeterred, most of the 18,000 civilians continued to live in and around the town in spite of having lost over 250 people killed in the bombardment. The German shelling began to intensify in the area again come spring and in the early morning on April 6th, Germans shelled Ypres directly, killing and wounding 51 Royal Scots and several civilians.

When the Patricias occupied the town just the day before it was still bustling with markets and stores conducting business, almost oblivious to the war raging nearby. But the situation was quickly becoming more dangerous for the local people.

The Cloth Hall burning after a direct hit, Ypres, November 1914

Although the town was still functioning well, the destruction from the November shelling was a constant reminder of the possibility of another attack. The railway station and St. Martin's Cathedral had been badly damaged, among many other buildings, but the historic 14th century Cloth Hall had taken a direct hit. Famous for its gothic architecture, the Cloth Hall had been the original inspiration for the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. One of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages, it was the main market and warehouse for the prosperous Flemish textile industry. Though the roof of the Cloth Hall had been demolished the walls were still standing and was being used to billet up to 1,500 men.

On April 7th the battalion again marched off for the trenches. Positioned in support trenches north-east of Hooge along the southern edge of Polygon Wood, this new location allowed the Patricias a brief respite from the appalling conditions of their previous duties. The trenches were fairly dry and with well sandbagged parapets. LtCol Buller described them as "paradise after St. Eloi."  The landscape surrounding Ypres was not yet destroyed by war and the Patricias were able to enjoy the picturesque countryside. The men were relatively safe here behind the line and wandered over to local farmhouses and village cafes to enjoy the comforts of community. 

Soon the second battle of Ypres would begin. This densely populated region of Belgium would have to be completely evacuated. The historic cities and towns would be subjected to devastating bombardments that would render them nothing more than piles of rubble. The pastoral lands and lush woods would be obliterated and churned into putrid muddy burial grounds. In spite of enduring four years of brutal warfare, remarkably, the city of Ypres never would fall into German hands.