The Battle of Frezenberg in early May of 1915 is without question the most celebrated of all the battle honours borne on the Patricia’s Regimental Colour. Historians have recorded the action as “the Death of the Originals” or speak of the “ghosts of Bellewaerde Ridge”. Before considering the battle itself it is perhaps useful to put such characterizations in context. All commanding officers and RSMs throughout the war were originals with the exception of Pearson who joined the battalion in the field at the beginning of March 1915. Originals continued to play an important role in the Regiment until the early stages of World War Two. Hugh Niven who commanded the remnants of the battalion as a Lieutenant on May 8th would serve as Commanding Officer from 1932 to 1937. Shorty Colquhoun who was taken prisoner at St Eloi was in command when the regiment went overseas in 1939. Along with Hamilton Gault, all would have a profound influence on the Regiment for more than forty years after Frezenberg.
It is equally misleading to think of Frezenberg as the stand of the originals alone. Four hundred eighteen soldiers who were on strength of the regiment at the time of the battle joined in the spring of 1915 and more than two hundred had joined within two months before the battle. Five of the twelve men who joined the battalion on April 30th just days before the battle would be counted among the dead.
The Patricia’s had been in the Ypres salient since early April and moved into the line at Polygon Wood on April 9th. In the spring of 1915, woods were still well-treed. Bellewaerde Ridge to the rear was only about 20 feet above the undulating plain. Had there been time to fully prepare, even this modest rise could have provided a solid position to defend against any attack from the east or north. The Frezenberg action was part of the much larger Second Battle of Ypres. The Battle had opened on April 22nd with the German gas attack on Gravenstafel Ridge and St Julien during which the 1st Canadian Division bore the brunt of the attack. Although the German advance was stopped, its limited success left a large bulge in the allied line around Polygon Wood where the Patricia’s as part of the 27th Division were holding the line. To straighten the line, the Division was ordered to withdraw to a new line to the west of Hooge on the night of 3-4 May. [i]
By early May, the Patricia’s had already been in the line for twelve days and suffered seventy-five casualties. Although every spare man had been used to construct the new line, numerous alterations in the plan for the defence meant the much of the effort was wasted. In the end, the Bellewaerde Ridge position was still far from complete. Shortly after dark on May 3rd, the support companies under Agar Adamson withdrew quietly to the Bellewaerde Ridge position and the front line trenches began to thin out. By midnight only a small rear guard of about a dozen remained in the position. The men moved along the trench line firing sporadically to give the impression that the position was still full occupied. By 3:00 am, the entire battalion had been withdrawn without casualties. The response by the enemy the following morning when they discovered the ruse was rapid and aggressive. On May 5th the Germans quickly closed up to the new line and once again brought their artillery into play with devastating effect. By the time the Patricia’s were relieved by the Shropshires on the night of May 4th, twenty six men had been killed. As they withdrew to a support position on the GHQ line on the Menin Road, Lt-Col Buller was struck in the eye by a shell fragment, taking him out of action. Fortunately, Major Hamilton Gault returned to duty at the same time with a reinforcing draft of 47 men. He quickly assumed command and on the evening of May 6th led the battalion forward to relieve the Shropshires in the Bellewaerde Ridge position. The Patricia’s held the left flank of their brigade with the 3rd Monmouth Regiment of the 83rd Brigade to their north and the 4th Kings Royal Rifle Corps to their south.[ii]
[i]Ralph Hodder-Williams,Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Vol 1, 46-76
[ii]Ralph Hodder-Williams,With the Patricia’s Holding the Line, 14-39
[iii]N.M. Christie ed.,Letters of Agar Adamson 1914 to 1919 from a letter to his wife Mabel written at Bellewaerde Ridge 6pm 7th May 1915, 73 Note that Hodder-Williams reports the number as 14 officers and 600 men. The term “fighting” in Adamson’s letter means that he was likely referring to only those in the rifle companies and combat elements of the unit while Hodder-Williams was including those in support as well.
[iv]Ralph Hodder-Williams, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Vol 1,71
Writing to his wife on the eve of the main battle, Agar Adamson, described the conditions:
“We moved up last night from our support dugouts having been fairly well shelled. Gow (Lieut.) shot badly, was alive when we left, 4 men killed, 9 wounded, 2 went mad, 6 in what is called ‘in a state of collapse’, having been shelled all day and having to remain underground all day.” After thanking his wife for sending baseball bats, he concludes “We now have 400 fighting men and 7 officers. …. It seems certain that this line cannot be held and we are only making a bluff at it.” [iii]
The bombardment preceding the attack opened early on the morning of May 8th with the artillery fire reaching a crescendo by 7:00 am. Casualties came quickly and Gault ordered every man including orderlies, signalers and pioneers into the line. As the barrage came to an end, Gault was severely wounded. He sent word that Adamson was to assume command. Shortly afterward, Capt. Harry Dennison, commanding No. 1 Company, was killed. The main assault came about 9:00 am. In the several hours of fierce fighting that followed as officers fell, NCOs stepped in to take their place. Lance Corporal A.G. Pearson, who was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the action, would end the war as acting Lt-Col in command of the Patricia’s.
Towards noon, a company of the Rifle Brigade pushed forward under fire to support the Patricia’s and resupply the battered troops with ammunition. By this time Adamson too was wounded and as night fell he was evacuated and command passed to Lt Hugh Niven. His image would be immortalized in one of Canada’s best known battle scenes painted by W.B. Wollenafter the war. By mid-afternoon a critical gap had opened between the 83rd Brigade to the north, exposing the Patricia’s left flank. There was a very real risk that the entire Divisional front might collapse should the Patricia’s also be forced back. Remarkably, the line held. Just before midnight, the battalion was relieved by the 3rd Battalion Kings Royal Rifles. The tattered remains, four officers and one hundred fifty men, withdrew to a support line in front of the ramparts of the old city wall of Ypres. The official history reports that casualties that day were 8 officers and 392 other ranks. With 4 officers and 108 other ranks killed.[iv]The real impact revealed by data now available shows a more bloody picture. In May, the Patricia’s lost 215 killed including 26 who died on May 4th and 10 who died on May 9th. Others would succumb to wounds in the days that followed. A total of 461 were struck off strength in the month. Many of those had been wounded but others were victims of what is now called operational stress injuries. Formally, the Regiment reported only 32 cases of shell shock during the entire war. An examination of the data shows numerous cases of men struck off strength to rear area units like the Canadian Labour Pool in the days following major battles. Others are simply SOS will no indication of having been wounded. We know from Agar Adamson’s blunt comments that “going mad” or being “in a state of collapse” was not uncommon after heavy shelling.
Although Frezenberg is little remembered in the general population, in the Regiment it has remained the the most celebrated of all regimental Battle Honours. Every new soldier joining the regiment will visit the museum and see a panoramic model of Bellewaerde Ridge complete with light and sound as the story of the battle unfolds. “holding up the whole damn line” has become the mantra of the Patricia soldier. For more than sixty years after the battle, survivors would attend regimental history sessions to re-tell the tale. In the 60′s cadets at the Royal Military College assigned to the Patricia’s would be introduced to the Regiment by Aurthur Potts who was wounded on May 4th as a Private Soldier. His home was a virtual miniature museum. He was later promoted from the ranks and ultimately went on to become a Major General. The story of the wounded RSM Fraser waving the Ric-a-dam-doo to rally the troops in the line has been embodied in the change of command ceremony. An outgoing commanding officer will pass the Regimental Colour to the RSM who will in-turn pass it to the incoming commanding officer symbolizing the trust the Regiment places in its soldiers. The experience of Frezenberg also burnt into the Regimental approach to training the importance of being able to step into the place of a fallen commander. Commissioning from the ranks has moved from a necessity to an essential part of the Regimental ethos. Today, every company commander and commanding officer sees it as part of their duty to identify promising soldiers who are suitable for commissioning. Examine the file of a Patricia general officer today and you are as likely to find someone who started as a private as you are a graduate of the Royal Military College. Bellewaerde Ridge marks not the death of the Originals but rather the initial birth pangs of a Regiment.
Nevertheless, by the end of the Frezenberg battles the Patricia’s were in desperate condition. In May alone the battalion had 461 men struck off strength (SOS). Of these 219 had been killed and most of the remainder injured to the extent that they were unlikely to return to duty. A small number had been taken prisoner and survived until the end of the war.