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.