Birth of a Regiment

 

The 1930’s – Attributing Blame

By the 1930’s as it became clear that the costly war had not ushered in new age of peace and prosperity, the tone of academic and popular writing about the war took a significant turn.   Perhaps the most influential history from this period was Liddell-Hart’s critical work The Real War (originally published in 1930).  The second edition released in 1934 added an expanded section on the Somme that was savage rebuttal of Edmond’s official history. The Somme offensive is described as “the graveyard of ‘Kitchener’s Army’ – those citizen volunteers who …had formed the first national army of Britain.”[i]  Liddell Hart’s attack on Haig is brutal:

“One can hardly believe that anyone with a grain of common-sense or any grasp of past experience would have launched troops to attack by such a method unless intoxicated with confidence in the effect of the bombardment.” [ii]

The offensive was a “compound tragedy of errors” in part because of “a fog of war thickened by human frailty in facing the facts.”   Among other things, Haig is accused of over burdening the infantry, failure to properly use or exploit the tank, a misuse of artillery and lack of flexibility when faced with overwhelming casualties.

Liddell-Hart, unconstrained by any official position, had more freedom to challenge the official position set out by Haig.  Although he relies heavily on material provided by the historical section, his conclusions are much more pointed.  Liddell-Hart’s text opens by acknowledging “an unnamed source whose knowledge of sources was boundless”. [iii]  It now seems clear that the “unnamed source” was Edmonds.  In 1934, he writes to Edmonds.

“No one has given me clearer evidence of the deficiencies of our higher leaders than you have, yet you are inclined to pretend that, collectively, they were up to the problem they had to face”. [iv]

Some personal accounts of soldiers are included to add colour, but they play a minor supporting role in the primary narrative. The focus remains on senior commanders and the primary shift is to emplotment of the events in a tragic framework.  Although Liddell Hart never uses the term, the groundwork for the “Lions led by Donkeys”[v] metaphor is well established.

Liddell Hart’s narrative is strongly influenced by his own experience of the war.  At the Somme, he was a young captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.  On the first day of the offensive, he was sent forward to take command of the bloodied remains of his regiment when most of the officers had been killed or wounded in the initial assault. Later he was released from the army having suffered the after effects of poison gas. At the time he wrote his account of the war, he was working as a military correspondent for both the Daily Telegraph and the Times, highly attuned to public sentiment and in close contact with long time critics of Haig like Lloyd George.

In Canada, the debate raged not so much in the annals of history but rather in public. The clash between General Sir Arthur Currie, who commanded the Canadian Corps for much of the war and Sir Sam Hughes who was Minister of Militia and Defence for the early part of the war played itself out in newspapers, parliament and ultimately in the courts.. Hughes accused Currie of needlessly spilling precious Canadian blood during the final hundred days of the war simply to ensure his place in history.  Hughes in his turn had been attacked for bungling the initial response to mobilization and the fiasco of the Ross Rifle and other equipment failures.  (Note:  hyperlink to Ross Rifle and infantry equipment).  Colonel D. Fortesque Duguid, the Director of History in army headquarters published what was intended to be the first of an extensive multi-volume history of the war during in 1938.  It is, to say the least, a dense read that is nevertheless filled with historic gems about the early period of the war.  There is criticism aplenty of the various administrative foibles of the Canadian army from the Ross rifle[vi] that, when tested in battle “brought blasphemous despair” to trench maps printed upside down[vii] and the infamous MacAdam shovel designed by “the Minister’s lady secretary”[viii].  Duguid does not, however, indulge in any of the criticism of strategy or tactics that marks Liddell-Hart’s work.  Instead, Canadians are seen as firmly establishing themselves as”equal to the best soldiers in the world”.[ix]     The sections on the Patricia’s in the volume seem to be little more than moderately reworded extracts from the Hodder-Williams account of the regiment written a decade earlier.  One remarkable feature that is worth replicating is a colour coded calendar for January to September 1915 that shows the First Canadian Division “fighting” for only 15 days or less that 7% of the days in the theatre[x].  This pattern of brief bloody battles separated by lengthy periods of drudgery is often obscured by the historian’s focus on events that are more dramatic.

Two regimental histories of interest date from this period.  The History of the 42nd Battalion, by Lieutenant Colonel C.B. Topp, who had served as a major in the 42nd Battalion, was published in 1931 the year following Liddell-Hart’s more general history.  The “gallant forty twa” of course was also the number of the British Black Watch who fought with Wolfe at Quebec.  The designation of this battalion raised in Montreal by the Canadian Black Watch.  It is a remarkable story of one battalion’s efforts to shake off the anonymity of the numbered battalions created by Sam Hughes.  In many ways, the history of the 42nd battalion is intertwined with that of the Patricia’s.  Gault was an officer in Montreal’s Black Watch when he first floated the idea of raising a regiment.  From 1916 on, will be able to test whether the Patricia’s continued to draw recruits from Montreal or whether they were instead drawn to the well marketed 42nd (Black Watch).  The history also provides us with some arms-length observations of the Patricia’s.  On joining the 7th Brigade, Topp described the regiment in these words:

“Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the famous Canadian Battalion which had been at the front since November 1914 (sic) and whose record was already known throughout the British Army”[xi]

Topp also includes a summary war diary, casualty data, awards and decorations, and a copy of the Vimy operation order and even extracts of regimental songs.  Some of these elements we will replicate for the Patricia’s on our web site.

The history of the Royal Canadian Regiment, who served alongside the Patricia’s in the 7th Brigade for most of the war was published in the midst of this period of reflection.  Although Fetherstonhaugh briefly acknowledges the controversy concerning the battles the Somme he is largely uncritical concluding that:

“it is a tale of superb valour, of grim endurance under concentrated fire, of death …relieved only by the knowledge that the Corps was achieving without complaint a duty as stern and hazardous as modern warfare could demand.”[xii]

The supporting material and records of service appended are markedly less complete than those provided by Hodder-Williams and the narrative seems overly focussed on the movements of officers.  There is little of the soldier’s perspective beyond the rare vignette of medal winners. The text raises some interesting questions for the historian of the Patricia’s.  How is it that Canada’s senior regiment was sent to Bermuda and returned to a relatively muted reception in Halifax while the newly formed PPCLI was first in the field and returned to the nation’s Capital to be welcomed home amid all the grand ceremony the country could muster.  Certainly Royal Patronage alone is not the answer as the Duke of Connaught was Colonel-in-Chief of the RCR.

Both histories provide some data that will allow us to compare combat records.  Essentially, we will be able to demonstrate that the selection of the Patricia’s for continued service had little to do with a markedly superior battle record at least during the period with the 7th Brigade alongside these two battalions.

[i] Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart, History of the First World War. Pan Books Edition ed. London: Pan Book Ltd., 1972. 231.
[ii] Ibid., 239-243.
[iii] [iii] Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, vii
[iv] Quoted in John J. Mearsheimer, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History,58.
[v] See Jonathan F .Vance. “’Donkeys’ or ‘Lions’? Re-examining Great War Stereotypes.” in Canadian Military History 6, no.1 (Spring 1997): 125-128.
[vi] Colonel A. Fortesque Duguid, DSO. Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1919, General Series Vol. 1, Ottawa: Minister of National Defence, 1938, 524
[vii] Duguid, Official History, 463
[viii] Duguid, Official History ,79
[ix] Duguid, Official History, 421
[x] Duguid, Official History, 551
[xi] Lieut-Colonel C. Beresford Topp.  The 42nd Battalion, C.E.F. Royal Highlanders of Canada. Montreal: Gazette Printing Co., Limited, 1931, 20
[xii] Robert C. Fetherstonhaugh. The Royal Canadian Regiment 1883-1933. Fredericton, NB: Centennial Print & Litho, 1936, 246

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