Birth of a Regiment

 

The Hundred Days

Preparation

During the bloody battle at Passchendaele in the fall of 1917 the Regiment was once again reduced to a tattered remnant badly in need of rebuilding.  There followed a period of relative respite as the Patricia’s and the rest of the Canadian Corps were held back to prepare for the final allied offensive of the war. During the great German advance in the spring 1918 the Patricia’s were on the sidelines of the main action. The mauling taken by the British Divisions committed to stop the German advance left the powerful Canadian Corps to take the lead in what has become known as the Hundred Days from August 1918 to the end of the war. During the opening battles of August 8th and 9th, the Patricia’s and the 7th Brigade played a largely a supporting role. The 7th Brigade was held in reserve for the attack by the 3rd Division and the Patricia’s were the reserve for the 7th Brigade. It was not until August 12th to 15th that the PPCLI was fully committed in a bloody but subsidiary action around the village of Parvillers. It was there that Sergeant Robert Spall became the Patricia’s third and last Victoria Cross winner. Later in August after a short rest, the Patricia’s would be committed at Jigsaw Wood. Once again, casualties were heavy. Five officers were killed and two others died of wounds within the week. 47 other ranks fell in the same action. No 1 company had to be completely rebuilt having lost all its officers. Ten Broke’es No.2 company was little better of with only two NCOs uninjured. The next major action for the Patricia’s would not come until September in the Battle of the Canal du Nord near the village of Tilloy. It was to be their the last major battle before the final advance to Mons and the end of the war.

By the summer of 1918, the pressing economic difficulties at home brought on by the allied blockade, the arrival of American troops on the western front and the failure of the spring offensive had convinced many in Germany that victory was now beyond their reach. The Canadian Corps had trained for a very different type of battle. The tanks that had first seen action on the Somme in September 1916 had not been used by by Canadians at either Vimy or Passchendaele as the terrain was not suitable. Although they were prone to breakdown and very hard on their crews, they were at least now available in substantial numbers. The terrain over which the battles of the hundred days would be fought was much better suited to their use. Despite the great advantage they offered in supporting infantry in the attack, they were still far from being a war winning weapon. Beyond the initial attack, their effectiveness deteriorated rapidly as both crews and vehicle wore down. Nevertheless the mass use of tanks in the opening stages of the Hundred Days battles played a large part in shattering the morale of the German defenders. In addition, communication, aerial reconnaissance, and much improved motor transport made it possible to move the artillery forward once the initial breach in the defensive line had been opened. Sound ranging and flash spotting combined with overall air superiority meant that the allied guns could identify and suppress most German batteries at the outset of an attack with a combination of gas and high explosive shells. Logistic support had improved as well. Troops now moved forward in fighting order loaded with basic ammunition, emergency rations and a spade for quickly digging in. No longer was there a need for the infantry to be the primary beast of burden.

The Battalion during the Hundred Days

As for the Patricia’s, they had a large number of relative newcomers to integrate into the battalion. Some fifteen originals including Regimental Sergeant Major Jordan had been sent on long term leave.  At thirty seven, Jordon, and many others like him had been worn down by life in the trenches and the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Almost four hundred new men had joined the battalion between January 1918 and the opening of the battle on August 8th. In late August yet another group of reinforcements arrived and for the first time conscripts were included. Although only thirty in total, they provided a badly needed infusion of troops at a critical time. As virtually all would have reinforced the rifle companies, conscripts made up almost ten percent of the fighting strength of the battalion during the final advance to Mons.

The make up of the regiment continued to evolve. The percentage of Patricia’s born in Canada continued to rise as the new comers poured in. A decline in the percentage of students and teachers marked the losses from the University Companies. Only 8% of those on strength in August 1918 were originals who had landed with the Regiment in December 1914.

Three of the four company commanders were officers who have been commissioned from the ranks. Although the Commanding officer was still an original, he was of a far different stripe than his predecessors. Adamson would clearly fit the model of the gentleman officer. Independently wealthy, accustomed to the upper circles of Canadian society, he was comfortable in the presence of royalty and at ease in British society. Charlie Stewart was the son of a Militia Colonel, but he was cut from a very different cloth. Standing almost 6ft 2 in, he was a big man and an accomplished athlete who thought nothing of playing football with the troops. As a young man, he had served in the Yukon with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and later ran scows down the Yukon River. Hugh Niven, who joined the Regiment with him in 1914 described him as “an army in himself”. Although popular with the troops and his officers, Stewart’s rough manner was not to everyone’s taste. Both Gault and Adamson had some reservation about whether he was dignified enough for the position of Commanding Officer.[i] It marked a turning point when Stewart was confirmed as Commanding Officer. When Stewart was killed at Canal du Nord, he was replaced by Alfred Pearson who joined the Regiment as a private shortly before the Battle of Frezenberg. Wounded three times and awarded the Military Cross for valour, the former shipping agent from Winnipeg was the epitome of an officer who had proven himself in battle. After the armistice, he surrendered his acting rank to allow Gault the honour of taking the Regiment home.

But a Regiment is not simply a question of demographics. As the Regiment matured, the customs and traditionsdesigned to set it apart had also been developed. Regimental music, badges, the treatment of the regimental colour and the activities behind the line all helped to build a sense of individuality to which newcomers quickly adapted. Perhaps the most lasting tradition was the attitude of the Regiment toward education and what is required to make an effective officer. The practice of commissioning from the ranks was well established as the dominant method of officer selection. Before 1914 the practice was reserved for very experienced Senior NCOs or Warrant Officers appointed to support positions like Quartermaster or Bandmaster.[ii] For those who arrived in the Regiment as commissioned officers, there was a period of testing where their peers and the NCOs would pass judgement on their fitness to command. Not all succeeded. Gone was any pretense that social position or education made a person fit to command. Writing to his wife Mabel in early 1917, Agar Adamson, put it this way:

“I have twenty commissions to suggest today and find it very difficult to choose. …I have decided to go on guts and not gamble manners so we will probably have some queer fish but the side will be stronger for it.”[iii]

[i]N Christie ed.,Letters of Agar Adamson 1914 to 1919,336
[ii]R C Fetherstonhaugh,The Royal Canadian Regiment 1883-1933,only 2 pre-war RCR officers are noted as formerly in the ranks 420-421
[iii]N Christie ed.,Letters of Agar Adamson 1914 to 1919,252

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