Birth of a Regiment


Historiography – Introduction

The first question any historian must answer is why the reader should proceed any further.  We ask for a commitment of both time and intellect from our readers, and that is not to be taken lightly.  With this topic, there is an even greater challenge.  The history of the First World War has been thoroughly covered and distinguished historians have written extensively about the story of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in that conflict. While there is always new trivia that can be uncovered about any subject, the real question is whether there is anything meaningful left to say?  By their very nature regimental histories fall in the more general grouping of microhistory.  The test of relevance is not simply whether an account is well written but rather whether it has anything to say to the reader about broader issues.  Does it shed light on the nature of war or society?  Does it reveal new insights about human nature, the impact of technology or how organizations change and evolve or is it simply an engaging narrative?  By altering the scale and perspective of the examination, useful microhistory should allow the reader to test the hypotheses of more general works and uncover new insights that may have relevance beyond the immediate subject.[i]

By providing a social, political and military context for the viewer, this web site will trace the evolution of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from an idea sketched out on a single sheet of paper to a military icon of our Canadian identity.  It was also the transition from a very British regiment responding to an Imperial call to arms to a regiment that was to become symbolic of Canada. Of course, what the soldier in the trenches meant by “Canadian” in 1914 was different that it was in 1918 and more importantly vastly different from how the term is understood nearly a century later.  For the Regiment, the events of 1914-1919 were every bit as dramatic as the metaphor of birth in our title.  In contrast, the changing idea of Canadian identity was more was much more gradual.

Any history about the First World War will necessarily draw on the official histories and the vast collection of associated records preserved and cataloged by governments.  The Great War represents a turning point in the historic record.  No longer is the historian challenged to seek trace evidence or sift through limited archives to try to reconstruct the image of long past events.  For the historian of the Great War, the “facts” are well established.  We know with some certainty the details of those tragic events – who fought, who died, what weapons were used, who was in command, and what orders were issued. Even the weather, the names of individual soldiers and the immediate record of events are available for our scrutiny.  We have vast stores of letters, diaries, interviews, photographs and maps. The challenge for the historian is not so much to establish the facts as to interpret them, to derive meaning from them, to understand their significance.  In some sense, the historian is like a lawyer appearing before a jury where the facts of the case are largely agreed.  The historian must muster the evidence and argue in a convincing manner that the thesis presented, the explanation of those facts, can withstand critical cross examination.  We will argue that this website provides new insights that will allow us for the first time to test some of the major myths that surround the story of Canada, and more particularly, the Patricia’s in the Great War.  We use the term “myth” not to suggest untruth, but rather to distinguish between the historical fact of an event and how those facts are remembered or characterized.  To illustrate, consider the battle of Vimy Ridge.  We know in great detail what happened – the agreed facts.  The myth or proposition that has been presented is that Canada as a nation was born on the bloody slopes of that ridge.  Brian McKenna put it this way when commenting on a recent CBC documentary on the great battle.

“I was skeptical of the idea that this country shook off its colonial past in the battlefields of World War I. Now, I feel that’s true. We have [military historian] Roman Jarymowycz saying in the film, “People don’t recognize you as a country because you know how to fish and have great lumber.” Sometimes you have to stick your head above the parapet. At Vimy and elsewhere, Canadian troops achieved great, necessary victories at an appalling cost. What they did is a part of who we are. It’s burnt into our DNA.”[ii]

This conclusion is not dependent solely on the events of the battle but is rather a hypothesis about how those events have been remembered and depicted and the impact of that myth on subsequent events. Historian’s might argue about whether the battle had great strategic significance but there is little doubt that it was generally perceived as a great Canadian victory and has been celebrated and commemorated by Canadians.  A debate today over the strategic significance of the battle might change future perceptions but it does nothing to change how the battle has been remembered and the subsequent impact of that memory.

The Body of Historical Writing

In preparing for this academic courtroom drama, it is essential that case precedents be reviewed.  Is the thesis new?  Does it challenge, support, or modify earlier work that has been argued before the courts of the academe?  In examining what has been written about Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry we are confronted with six broad groups of material.  Moving from the general to the particular, we will need to examine general histories of the war, histories that examine topics relevant to our thesis, regimental histories, battle narratives, biographies and memoires and finally, digital history.  For those who wish to examine any of these areas in more detail an annotated bibliography and links to major on-line data sources are provided (note the bibliography included as part of the website will be hyperlinked to references in the text, ordered by major grouping.  Brief comments on sources will be added to assist researchers). Bibliography

In the general history category, we include official histories and subsequent works that provide a background essential to our understanding of the PPCLI in the First World War. We will include both general histories and those that focus more narrowly on Canada and the western front. As the PPCLI served with the British Army until mid-1916, both British and Canadian works are of interest.   These general histories range from those produced in the immediate post war period to more contemporary works.

Among regimental histories, we are concerned not simply with insights into the Patricia’s but also with the approach used by historians in developing the historic argument.  Are these simply memorials or are they micro-histories that present a broader thesis based on the examination of a specific case.  Our start point of course will be the regimental histories of the PPCLI.  We will also examine regimental histories of other regiments who served with the Patricia’s in the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade.  The history of the 22nd Battalion will be considered both as it relates to the Patricia’s and for the general approach to dealing with broader social issues and the use of statistical analysis.  It was, after all, intended to be an example for how unit histories should be written.

The examination of battle narratives will be limited to a few major battles where the regiment was heavily engaged. This website is not intended to replicate the excellent work already completed by others but rather to show how the regiment evolved through using the lens of those major events as transition points.  Here the concern is not simply to understand how the PPCLI is depicted, but to also draw lessons from the changing approaches of historians over the past ninety years. 

In the memoirs and biography category, there are three books directly related to the PPCLI.  Two are drawn from collections of letters and the third is a biography of Hamilton Gault, the founder of the Regiment.  Also consider are a number of more personal memoirs and biographies striking a balance between the perspective of senior commanders and that of the common soldier.  These works are of interest both for the source material they contain and the approach to presenting the material.

Digital history is still a relatively new presentation format.  Nevertheless, a number of recent historical web sites and ebooks provide insights into the flexibility and power of the medium.  In particular, the recent digital work by Richard Overy, a historian of the Second World War is considered to see how he has handled some of the shortcomings of the printed form.

The Approach

In approaching this task, one might have proceeded by examining each category in turn but that would risk understating the impact of the social context that helps to shape the narrative.  Any history is, after all, a discourse between the reader and the historian.  Both are influenced by the time in which they live and the connection they have with the events described.  The approach adopted here will be to consider how the historiography of the Patricia’s has evolved through four periods, from the earliest account to the present day. For each era this approach examines what elements of the writing might be emulated and what weaknesses avoided.  In the conclusion the principal thesis is positioned as a unique contribution to the literature.  To supporting the analysis, is a statistical picture using a comprehensive data set for over 5000 soldier who served with the PPCLI during the war.  For most there is information on over twenty data elements including date and place of birth, place of enlistment, dates of service with the Regiment, marital status, religion, height and occupation at the time of enlistment.  The data is drawn from regimental records preserved in Volume II of the regimental history[iii], augmented by data from attestation papers held by Collections Canada supplemented by data provided by the Canadian Great War Project.  What is unique is the manner in which the database brings together data elements from multiple sources in a format that can be subjected to analysis.  For the first time, a statistical picture shows clearly how the nature of those who served in the Regiment changed over the period 1914-1919.

[i] Richard D. Brown, “Microhistory and the post-Modern Challenge” in The Journal of the Early Republic, Vol 23, No. 1, 1-20
[ii] Stephen Cole , quoting Brian McKenna in “Birth of a Nation: Brian McKenna revisits Vimy and Passchendaele in The Great War” at
[iii] Ralph Hodder-Williams, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919. Vol. Volume II – The Roll of Honour and Appendices. London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1923.

Print Friendly