Birth of a Regiment

 

Into the Line – Jan – Apr 1915

The battalion left England with 27 officers and 956 other ranks. Captain Agar Adamson and a small cadre remained in England to receive reinforcements from Canada. But there had also been other changes. The original RSM, Marsden had been replaced by Fraser and two of the original company commanders had been transferred to other units. A number of other less critical transfers also took place as other units, much in need, raided the rich pool of talent in the Patricia’s.

The battalion embarked for France aboard the Cardignanshire and landed at Havre on December 22nd. After 24 hours on a train and a lengthy march, the exhausted troops arrived at their billeting area in the early hours of December 24th. The first Christmas was filled with sorting stores and the balance of the year digging trenches and preparing to move into the line. On the night of January 6th near St. Eloi the Patricia’s moved forward with the 27th Division to relieve a French Division. The French trenches were little more than mud filled ditches and much in need of improvement. The constant damp of the next few weeks began to take a toll on men’s feet, exacerbated by the inferior quality of the Canadian boots – yet another gift from Sam Hughes. Although there were twenty-one killed that first month, another fifty were struck off strength for other reasons. The regular pattern of two or three days in the line followed by periods as brigade and divisional reserve continued for the next month. Heavy shelling and effective sniping by the Germans were taking their toll.

By late February reinforcements were becoming a serious problem. Over one hundred sixty men had been struck of strength. Taken together with temporary losses from sickness or injury the battalion was, for a short period, four hundred men understrength. With the arrival of the first reinforcements under Captain Agar Adamson, the Regiment was temporarily brought back up to 700 effectives. In February, when the First Canadian Division arrived, priorities shifted. For the Patricia’s, reinforcement became a constant struggle. Even more critical than the reinforcement challenge was the devastating impact of losses in their senior ranks. Farquhar’s response was creative. He began to commission proven leaders from the ranks and to retain them in the regiment. In the British Army, particularly in Guards Regiments, commissions from the ranks were rare. Traditionally they were reserved for long serving senior NCOs and Warrant Officers who would be either assigned to jobs in support positions like quartermaster or sent to training establishments or to other regiments. Rarely was a soldier commissioned and retained in a line company of his regiment. What had been the exception now became the norm for the Patricia’s. Five soldiers were commissioned in the first two months in France and many more were to follow.
Farquhar also introduced a number of tactical innovations. In response to effective German sniping, he created a battalion sniper section of carefully selected marksmen under the Scouting officer, Lieutenant “Shorty” Colquhoun. Shorty was a natural for the job and quickly assembled and trained his team. In one two day period, under forty year old former trapper and guide Corporal James Christie, the sniper section accounted for seventeen enemy near the Mound at St Eloi.

The second innovation was the trench raid. On the night of February 27th, a carefully organized raiding party of about a hundred men consisting of bombers and snipers quietly slipped across non-mans-land and broke into the German trench. The intent was not to hold ground but rather to disrupt enemy preparations, capture prisoners and gain information. The raid also had the important secondary impact of raising morale in the Regiment and keeping the enemy off balance. These raids were to become a standard feature of the Canadians in defence later in the war.[i]

The time in the line at St Eloi had been costly. Although deaths had been sporadic a total of 85 Patricia’s lost their lives in the first four months in the line. On most days there had been no deaths at all and only four days recorded more than five deaths. Nevertheless, the impact was profound both for their comrades in the regiment and for their families at home. Toward the end of the period during a relief by the 3rd Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Regiment, further tragedy struck when Lt-Col Francis Farquhar, fell to a snipers bullet. He died the following morning and was buried with his men in the Regimental cemetery outside Voormezeele. His death was only part of a pattern that saw virtually every senior officer in the battalion either wounded or killed during that introduction to the front.


Major McKinery’s sudden departure in early January after a day of heavy shelling marks one of the early and best known cases of what was then called shell shock. Not physically wounded, McKinery simply abandoned the field. Although he would never again serve in the regiment, McKinery did return to duty a year later and was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel by the end of the war. It might well be that this is the major “down in the deep dugout” remembered in in the words of the regimental march “Has anyone seen the Colonel”.
At the opening of the Frezenberg Battle on May 4th, Lt-Col Teta Buller was in Command. He had served with Farquhar on the staff of the Governor General and joined the regiment as Adjutant in August 1914. Hamilton Gault had recovered from his wounds at St Eloi where he won the DSO and had returned to duty as Senior Major. Both would fall before the end of the battle as would Regimental Sergeant Major Fraser.
[1] J.L. Granatstein, Hell’s Corner, 40

Print Friendly, PDF & Email