Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sanctuary Wood June 2nd, 1916

On May 31st we relieved the 49th Battalion at Maple Copse. Our Company (number 4) was in support. The first day of June was a beautiful day. Like many, Lowell’s poem, “Oh, what is so rare as a day in June” popped up into my head. We spent the day de-lousing, looking at the fritzy balloon engaged in making observations, and admired the scenery. Maple Copse was very beautiful, and not a tree had been touched with a shell. We reflected, however, that the battle of Bellewaerde Ridge had been fought a year ago not far from this spot, just above Bellewaerde Lake. We went on a working party on the evening of June 1st, and came back dog tired. Hackett and I found ourselves a nice machine-gun emplacement well above the level of the trenches. I cannot remember who the others were, but many of our old company (1st University) were there or near there.
P.H. Ferguson
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives

Men of the 1st University Company, PPCLI
Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives
At the end of May, 1916, the Regiment, now composed mainly of reinforcements and men from the University Companies, marched inevitably toward their fate as the Originals had a year before. From the Brigade Reserve they advanced 9 miles through the cold night to Sanctuary Wood where they took their positions in the trenches on June 1st. About 300 metres south of the Menin Road, the Patrica’s were defending a portion of the line of equal strategic importance in the spring of 1916 as Bellewaerde Ridge had been in the spring of 1915. The enemy were so close the Patricia’s could hear them working vigorously on their own defences. 

For weeks, German High Command had been planning an attack in the Ypres sector. Historians still speculate on the underlying motivation for the attack but there is little doubt about their immediate objective. Three small hills including Mount Sorrel and the critical “Observatory Ridge” rose at the southern end of Sanctuary Wood. They were the only high features held by the Canadian 3rd Division in their position along the eastern edge of the Ypres Salient. The Germans held the advantage over the rest of the line. If the German army could secure the remaining high ground, they would dominate the entire front in this sector within easy reach of Ypres. The Patricia’s marched into a position in Sanctuary Wood which blocked the advance on these features. 

In preparation for their planned assault, the enemy steadily escalated the intensity of bombardments and by the end of May the Canadians were being relentlessly harassed by heavy artillery fire. From their positions overlooking the Canadians, German gunners were able to target virtually every battery position, and all the support and reserve trenches along the front lines. A particularly lethal strongpoint, dubbed the "Bird-cage”, a fort in the grounds of Stirling Castle, allowed them to volley shells across the entire span of the front. 

Canadian gunners had a difficult time matching the strength of the enemy artillery. Surplus Allied guns had been moved south in preparation for the coming Somme offensive, weakening their defensive capabilities in the Salient. Conversely, German command had stepped up their fire power in this sector by covertly moving in a menacing array of heavy guns and trench mortars, including the Big Berthas. The only superior weapon the men had to use against the Germans were the Lewis guns that had been issued to Canadian Infantry battalions in May. They were so lethal, an enemy soldier yelled out across No Man's Land : "Where in hell did you get all the machine guns?”. 

As the Regiment moved back into the line, so did the German 121st, 125th and 157th Regiments, trained, rested and ready for the assault. With the flurry of activity in opposing trenches it was clear an attack was looming but the Patricia’s did not realize it was imminent. 

PPCLI positions at Sanctuary Wood, June 2, 1916.
Click to enlarge.
The Regiment manned a section of trench about a kilometre long, from a position named, “the Appendix” to a junction at a main communications trench called, “Warrington Avenue”. The Appendix ran along a swampy wood known as “the Gap”. Warrington Avenue was a well defended trench and a continuation of the R. Line. If it were to fall into enemy hands it was generally thought the rest of the front would quickly collapse. To the north of the Gap, on their left flank, were the Royal Canadian Regiment between Hooge and the Hooge Chateau. On their right flank were the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. 

In the morning hours of June 2nd, the light shelling was quite routine. By 9:00 am the artillery raining down on Canadian positions had intensified dramatically. By 10:00 it was evident they were under full scale attack. 

PPCLI War Diaries 
2-6-16  At 8:30 a.m. the enemy began shelling our front line and supports. This gradually increased to an intense bombardment from H.E. shells and trench mortars. The bombardment lasted for five hours when it was lifted and an infantry attack followed. The enemy succeeded in capturing the front line of our right company No 1. The garrison having been almost annihilated. Our left company No 2 succeeded in holding their trench and stopped an enemy bombing attack. Our Supports held, on the right, the greater part of Warrington avenue and Lovers Lane to Border lane, and on the left, the “R” series of trenches. Our casualties were heavy. In the evening the enemy evidently suspected a counter attack as they opened up rapid machine gun and rifle fire and an intense barrage in our rear. Water and food supply low. 

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
The Defence of Sanctuary Wood
Painted by Capt. Kenneth Forbes, ca. 1917

Saturday, 7 May 2016


Although warfare throughout the winter and spring of 1916 was more moderate than the previous year in the trenches, casualties were sustained at a steady rate and the fear of gas was constant. Talbot Papineau wrote to his mother, Caroline, about the continuous threat of a sudden gas attack, “It’s like a bad boy walking behind you with a hard snowball, always ready to throw, but not throwing”. 

Two men were assigned watch each day with a gong to sound in the event of a gas attack. One man stood by at night to launch a signal rocket. There was also a man dedicated to wind reports sent every two hours by wire to Headquarters.  Agar Adamson described the protocol to Mabel: 

"All ranks have to be in constant readiness for gas wearing their helmets around the neck, ready to put them on at the sound of the gas alarm which consists of gongs and caxton horns. Special sentries are placed on these alarms also on dugouts, where men are sleeping, whenever the wind is in the dangerous direction, this is called gas alert and the area covered is for four miles back. Gas alarm is when the gas is discovered, if at night, as well as the gongs, there is a rocket signal." 

As the Regiment moved closer to Ypres in early spring the action escalated considerably. Snipers were very active and artillery rounds rained down at regular intervals. In mid April the Patricia’s moved to Hooge, the main defensive position along the Menin road blocking the German access to Ypres. It was one of the most hazardous sectors of the line. The Regiment suffered over sixty casualties during the week of fighting at Hooge, more than had been lost in the entire last six months.

Hamilton Gault’s leadership during this period was fondly remembered by many as he lifted failing spirits with nightly tours through the lines. At a time when even the slightest movement was suicidal and the enemy were only yards away, Gault crawled through the trenches each night, at great peril to himself, greeting the men with laughter and jokes. 

For Gault’s part, the nightly visits with the men no doubt lifted his own spirits as well. He had just returned from leave in Montreal where his legal proceedings had gone badly; the Divorce Committee of the Senate refused to give recommendation for the divorce. As second-in-command, however, there were plenty of responsibilities to keep his mind off his troubles. In a letter to Percival Campbell he described his rounds:

“We usually chuck bombs at each other every other night and sniping is altogether too active. However, we hope to get things put right before long and to oust Fritz from the fire supremacy which he seems to have enjoyed for so long. Visiting rounds is not a continual picnic in this part of the world for I usually get sniped at in the brilliant moonlight nights we have recently had, and the other evening they turned a machine gun loose when your little nephew promptly, though perhaps not elegantly or bravely, took to a ‘Johnson Hole’ - If you know of a better ‘ole, what I says is go to it.”

The introduction of the Brody helmet to the Commonwealth uniform in early 1916 offered welcome protection even if uncomfortable at first. Early complaints of the steel helmets being heavy, cold and hard on the head soon gave way to gratitude when the benefits far outweighed the discomfort. 

A memo circulated from the Surgeon General, 2nd Army, presented early observations on the effectiveness of helmets in the field:  

The following notes of the protection afforded by Steel Helmets in use during the recent fighting, are forwarded for your information:

Officers and men alike spoke with the greatest enthusiasm of the helmets. They said that they had protected them, especially from the fire of trench mortars and shrapnel bullets, and that small pieces of shells and bombs, as well as gravel, could be heard rattling on the helmets, and falling harmless.

Examination of the helmets themselves fully confirmed these statements, for of those examined nearly 40 showed evidence of being hit.

In some the metal had only lightly been excoriated. In others it had been definitely bulged inwards. In a few it had been perforated.

Here are 6 typical cases:

1. A shrapnel bullet perforated the helmet, but only made a small cut in the scalp. It would have perforated the skull.
2. A piece of shell perforated the brim of a helmet and lodged in the eyebrow. It would have destroyed the eye.
3. One helmet shows three large bulges or depressions each as big as a small teaspoon. At each bulge there would have been a wound, but the man was unwounded in the head.
4. A private of the Gordons was struck down by a heavy blow from a clubbed rifle, but he killed the German with the bayonet and brought in a Mauser rifle. His helmet has a great dent in it and saved him from a fractured skull. It also showed evidence of three other impacts of missiles.
5. A man had the front of his helmet torn open by the nose of a 6" shell, which tore a large hole in the helmet but only caused a very slight wound.

It is evidence that the helmets had saved lives and have prevented many wounds, both slight and serious. I find that 960 wounded were admitted to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station in the 24 hours commencing at noon March 2nd. Of these only four men were shot in the brain and three others had only slight fractures of the skull without injury to the brain. This is very greatly below the general average of nearly 3% of fractured skulls in any given number of wounded, for at this latter rate the number of fractured skulls in the 960 should have been about 30 instead of 7.

There has also been in the recent fighting a very great diminution of wounds of the scalp and face, which must, it is considered, be attributed to the use of the helmets.

Sgt. R. Porter, Surgeon General
Director of Medical Services Second Army H.Q. 2nd Army
7th March 1916.                  

Canadian Troops with Brody Helmets Posing for a Combat Photographer 

On May 7th, the Patricia’s relieved the 49th Battalion in Sanctuary Wood, 1.5 kilometres southeast of their earlier position at Hooge and 2 kilometres southwest of Bellewaerde Ridge where the Battalion had been decimated exactly a year before. May 1916 was a relatively quiet month on the Western Front. The thick lush foliage of Sanctuary Wood provided a pleasant refuge from the hot sun and, concealed from the enemy, Sanctuary Wood seemed a perfect reprieve from the horrors of Hooge. 

Friday, 8 April 2016


The Patricia's spent a relatively quiet winter of 1916 adjusting to their new Canadian comrades and the different culture they now found themselves in. Officially formed on December 22nd, 2015, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade (3rd Canadian Division), comprised of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Royal Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. 

It was a natural transition and the profound regret the men first felt when leaving the 80th Brigade soon gave way to a sense of belonging with what would become known as the "Fighting Seventh". Nevertheless, the differences between the British and Canadian organizational structures occasionally grated on the men. 

Agar Adamson wrote to his wife, Mabel, "We are all very shy of food. I had nothing to eat yesterday for 14 hours, but shrimp paste and today my first meal was at noon. Rations are bound to go wrong sometimes, wagons get ditched in the dark or the roads made impassable from shelling or a General's motor car is given right of way, he being 4 or 5 hours late, all traffic is held up. The Regiment by that time has probably moved on, their turn for the road gone by, another Regiment having the right of way, thus these little difficulties come our way in our disorganized C.E.F."

The Patricia's spent another cold and snowy winter at the southern end of the Ypres Salient, just miles from where they first experienced trench warfare a year prior. Reinforced now by members of the 3rd, 4th and 5th University Companies, however, there were far more new faces than old. The Kemmel sector was quieter in the winter of 2016, attracting only minimal shelling from the German army which allowed the new recruits an opportunity to settle assimilate. 

LCol Herbert C. Buller was once again in command of the Regiment having returned from convalescence mid December 1915. Although missing one eye from his injury in May, just prior to the battle of Frezenberg, Buller was "actively engaged, crawling in and out of trenches studying the ground", Adamson reported, "the CO walks as fast as most run". 

Adamson reflected further on the move to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, "The Canadian Infantry establishment only allows two Majors to each Regiment. After months as a Major he also loses the difference in pay, Stanley Jones has to remain a Captain til something happens to Gray and me. We always paid our men 10 francs a week, the Canadian order only allows 20 francs a month paid every fortnight. The British Army pay extra to Company Cooks, the Canadians do not allow it. The Canadians insist upon a band remaining intact as a band. The British Army have no bands in the field, but use the men as stretcher bearers. We have to start in and train stretcher bearers which is a very important unit and should work together and be friends. All our Division except ourselves have Ross Rifles. A youth of a staff officer who until six months ago, was a clerk in a dry goods establishment, sends the following chit: 

To O.C. P.P.C.L.I.
Please report by noon tomorrow, why your unit should be armed with a different pattern rifle to that supplied to other units of the Division and state the following: 
A. Merit of your rifle.
B. Defects of the Ross rifle - if any.
C. How long you have been supplied with your present weapon.
D. Do you use the same ammunition as the Ross. (every idiot knows it does)
E. The weight of your rifle.
F. How many rounds of ammunition does it carry.
N.B. This return to be rendered in triplicate, each sheet of paper to be a different colour and numbered SR1, SR2, SR3 respectively. 

This communication is being sent to the Army Commander and no doubt the sound man will find himself a Regimental Office very shortly if he does not return to his dry goods. 

So you see we have our difficulties in your great Canadian Army, but we are not worrying. I feel if we play the game to the best of our ability and with only our end in view, it is all any of us can do and that we will come out on top in the end." 

Although an accurate and effective sniping weapon, the much maligned Ross Rifle, was a disaster for the Canadian infantry. One Canadian officer wrote after the battles at Ypres, "It is nothing short of murder to send men against the enemy with such a weapon". Soldiers commonly picked up Lee Enfields from their fallen British comrades in spite of orders to the contrary. The Patricia's were fortunate not to have been saddled with the Ross, nicknamed "the Canadian Club" for all its defects and they were not about to turn in their Lee Enfields now. 

Prime Minister Robert Borden, undated
Prime Minister Borden, had been greatly moved by the losses at Ypres. In the summer of 1915 he exhausted himself touring 52 different hospitals, determined to speak personally to each wounded Canadian soldier. In his memoirs Borden wrote of the visits which had impacted him greatly;

“I was inspired by the astonishing courage with which my fellow countrymen bore their sufferings, inspired also by the warmth of their reception, by their attempt to rise in their beds to greet me. In many cases, it was difficult to restrain my tears when I knew that some boy, brave to the very last, could not recover.”

He returned home with a new resolve and began to change his perspective on how Canadian soldiers were equipped among other concerns. Investigations into the effectiveness of the Ross Rifle led to an eventual switch to the Lee Enfield and, by June of 1916, the Enfield had become standard issue.

In January 1916, Borden wrote a letter to the Canadian High Commissioner to London, Sir George Perley. Upset with a lack of communication from High Command in England and how the British were carrying out the war, Borden began to fervently assert Canada’s interests: “It can hardly be expected that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willingly accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata.” He felt Canada’s contributions were being taken for granted and demanded more autonomy on the front and ultimately within the British Empire. His persistence in lobbying for independence for the Canadian Corps progressed into lobbying for sovereignty for Canada at the end of the war. Some historians claim Borden's greatest legacy is as father of our independent nation.