In many ways, the battle of Mount Sorrel replicates the Frezenberg battle a year earlier. The position held by the Patricia’s at Sanctuary Wood lies less than a mile south of Bellewaerde Ridge where the originals made their heroic stand. Like Frezenberg, it was a defensive battle where communication between troops in the line and those in the rear was quickly broken. Like St Eloi was to Frezenberg there was a bloody foretaste of the main event. In mid April, a particularly hard tour in the trenches around the Village of Hooge had cost the Regiment 19 killed and 41 wounded. The dead included forty-six year RSM Stuart Godfrey. As any infantryman will know, the loss of a Regimental Sergeant Major is a blow equivalent to the loss of a commanding officer.
In other respects, the battle was very different. With the addition of two Lewis guns in each platoon, the Stokes Mortar, rifle grenades and machine gun units, the infantry battalion was much more powerful than it had been in 1915. All soldiers now wore steel helmets and carried gas masks. (See Organizationfor more detail) The trench lines, although still muddy and strewn with the rotting corpses of earlier battles, were much better prepared than those at Bellewaerde Ridge.
Instead of holding the front line at all costs, the defense was held in depth. The 7th Division held a narrow front of about a mile and a half on the northern flank of the Canadian Corps. The Division, deployed with two brigades forward and one in reserve, had been holding the sector since mid March. Each brigade in turn was deployed with two battalions forward, one in immediate support and the fourth battalion held in reserve to counter attack. Although brigades rotated through the same sector, at battalion level, the forward battalions moved between the northern position around the village of Hooge and the southern position in Sanctuary Wood. Even the battalions were deployed in depth with two companies forward and two in support trenches. Thus, of the sixteen rifle companies in the 7th Brigade, only four held the front line with each covering 300 to 400 yards. With eight Lewis guns per company however, this presented more firepower than a full battalion a year earlier.
The Patricia’s also faced some formidable challenges. Unlike 1915, the Ypres salient was now a secondary front. General Haig had been concentrating his forces for a major offensive on the Somme that would open on July 1st. This meant that most of the heavy artillery, so critical in suppressing the enemy guns, was deployed on the Somme. The term Mount Sorrel creates an exaggerated impression of the rather modest rise to the south of the 7th Brigade. Nevertheless, together with the projecting spur of Observatory Ridge it was the last natural defensive position protecting Ypres. On the other side, the Germans were well aware of the growing allied strength on the Somme. Their intent in early June was to disrupt that plan by threatening a breakthrough at Ypres. The German attacking battalions had been held behind the line for rest and training from early May. With a great preponderance of artillery firepower, they had meticulously registered all critical points and artillery gun positions well in advance of the battle.
There were also dramatic differences in key command positions. The Company Commanders were all originals and two had been in command at Frezenberg. Capt Hugh Niven commanding No.2 Company had been the adjutant at Frezenberg but was the senior officer standing at the end of that battle. Lt Michael De Bay was temporarily commanding No.3 Company as Maj Agar Adamson was on leave in England. The influence of the University Companies was felt as the battle developed only at the company and platoon level.
The morning of June 2nd started with the usual routine of light shelling by the German artillery but by nine o’clock the intensity increased dramatically and by ten it was apparent that general action was imminent and reserve battalions were placed at the ready. Minutes later, all telephone lines were cut and the sole means of communication was by pigeon. Worst hit was No 1 company holding the right forward position. Major Stanley Jones was badly wounded early in the action and soon only a tiny remnant remained. One of the platoon commanders, Lt. Angus Wanklyn a young McGill student was killed about 10:30 and soon not a single remaining NCO or officer remained unwounded. Command of the small remaining group fell to Lt Hugh MacDonnell, a young lawyer and recent Queen’s graduate. After exacting a heavy toll on the advancing Germans, the small group was over-run by about 1:30 and the better prepared support trenches became the front line. The wounded Jones and MacDonnell and a small group of wounded soldiers were taken prisoner. Although well treated by their captors, Jones would die within a week. MacDonnell recovered from his wounds and was repatriated in 1917.
Although Number 2 company was in better shape, all officers were injured before noon. The three platoon commanders were all University Company reinforcements. Lt Percival Molson, one of the driving forces behind the scheme was the last to fall. Under the command of their NCOs, the remaining elements of the company held the line against a vigorous attack by German infantry accompanied by flame throwers. In the rear, No. 3 Company was also heavily hit by the opening barrage leaving only No. 4 Company relatively intact.
By noon, Gault, the senior major lay severely wounded – he would loose a leg. Colonel Buller mustered all available men to stem the tide of the enemy attack until he too fell, mortally wounded. The striking painting by Capt Kenneth Forbes captures the moment with Buller standing rallying his men. At his feet manning a machine gun is 26 year old Joseph Toyne, one of his originals who was also wounded on that day. Like Gault, he also lost a leg but survived the war. Towards the end of the day, the soldiers and adjutant, entrusted with the care of the Regimental Colour were wounded and it was carried to the rear by Lt Scott on his way to report to brigade headquarters. Although twice buried by shell fire, the now beloved Ric-a-dam-doo remained at the ramparts of Ypres in the care of a Patricia officer attached to the headquarters. Just before dawn, the last of the forward companies withdrew to the reserve line where they joined the 49th Battalion. Major Agar Adamson, who had just returned from leave in England had come forward with the 49th. He assumed command of the tattered remains of the regiment. There had been 151 killed in the battle and two thirds of those had come from the men of the University Companies. Six officers had been killed and a seventh would die of wounds within the week. Two company Sergeants Major had been killed and the RSM and a dozen sergeants wounded. The loss was every bit as devastating as the battle of the originals in 1915.
The 7th Brigade was pulled out of the line to regroup and the Patricia’s once again were faced with the challenge of integrating new arrivals into a battle weary battalion. Agar Adamson, then in command reports the reception of new arrivals:
…the remainder of the old Battn will be drawn up in three sides of a square, the Colour will be marched on and arms presented, then I have to say something to them, after that the Colour will be marched in front of the 556 new drafts, who will be in line a short distance away. They will present arms to that Colour, they will also have to have a speech. The Battn and draft will then be dismissed for five minutes and then the whole formed up into a complete regiment. On Monday we start training hard.”
Although it will no doubt seem bizarre to some, in the midst of preparing a new battalion for action, there is interspersed with hard training a variety of diversions for the troops. These included sporting events and the first appearance of the soon to be famous PPCLI Comedy Companyon June 15th. The respite from duty in the line was short lived. At the request of Adamson, Lt Col Pelly was recalled to resume command of the Battalion on August 3rd. The narrative will now leap froward to the spring of 1917. In the interim period the Patricia’s were engaged in their first major offensive on the Somme around the villages of Flers and Courcelette after several weeks of training in offensive operations. The story of the period is a picture of confusion, rapidly changing orders, and often surprising success. For their part, the Patricia’s escaped with lighter casualties than either the RCR or the 42nd Battalion. 125 died between the opening of the Somme offensive and the end of 1916. In October, the Regiment along with the rest of the Canadian Corps moved to the Vimy front. Shortly after settling into the Vimy sector, Lt Col Agar Adamson assumed command of the regiment from Pelly, becoming first Canadian officer to command the Patricia’s.