Birth of a Regiment


The Earliest Accounts – The Heroic Period

During and immediately following the war there was an outpouring of historical work that in large part was intended to commemorate those who had served.  Typically these works were written by historian/soldiers who had at least some direct experience of the conflict.  Their perspectives were shaped not only by the temper of the times that sought to cast the conflict as a great victory and the war to end all wars but also by their particular position in that conflict.  For Canada, it was this early history that set in place the myth of the Canadian citizen soldier.  The image emerged of a tough straight-shooting, man shaped by the rugged nature of the country and able to quickly adapt to the changing nature of warfare.  Within this broader context, the Patricia’s emerged as the best known and most celebrated embodiment of that myth.  In our examination of the Patricia’s we will consider how the dominant myths evolved and test those myths using the large set of data we have assembled.

The British official history[i] published in nineteen volumes between 1922 and 1948 under the guidance of Sir James Edmonds reflects a meticulous but largely uncritical account of events on the western front.  In much part, Edmonds work was constrained by the early publication of official despatches by Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force for most of the War.  Edmonds, by all accounts a brilliant officer, had been a staff college classmate of Douglas Haig and served on his staff for much of the war.  His natural aversion to criticizing his superior officer was reflected in the guidance he gave to his the officers of the historical division.  In their writing they were to follow the dictum of Clausewitz that historians should be careful when judging Napoleon or Frederick to not base their judgement on anything the commander was not aware of at the time of battle.  To do so was considered a matter of historical conceit.  More specifically he directed that authors might offer some comment at the conclusion of chapters but should avoid apportioning blame.  They were to present the essential facts leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.[ii]   The work was not, however, uncritical.  This comment on the 1916 Battle of the Somme is but one example:

“that greater success was not gained was, however, as much due to faulty tactical direction from the General Staff, and the lack of experience in the higher ranks- especially in handling very large bodies of troops and carrying on semi-siege warfare of the kind forced upon them-as to the rawness in the lower ranks.”[iii]

It is worth noting however that this level of critical comment emerged in later volumes, this one from 1932, after the death of Haig.

This pattern of heroic emplotment was replicated in Canada. Immediately after the war a popular unofficial history reinforced the image of the Somme as a costly but noble effort that marked “the turn of the tide”.  Canadian soldiers marching to the front “came to understand how these people had suffered from the lust for power of the German aggressors.”[iv] The entry of the Canadians into the action on September 15th was supported by “remarkably precise barrages, which were lifted from time to time, exactly as the occasion demanded”.[v]  The narrative concludes that “More important perhaps, than the actual victory itself was the effect it had upon the moral of the German troops and their subsequent conduct.”  Haig’s brief opening analysis in his despatches is fully supported and the beginnings of the metaphor of the Canadian soldier as the embodiment of the nation can be seen.[vi]

The earliest published accounts of Canada’s part in the Great War were not official histories but rather a number of “unofficial” works and collections of articles by various authorities.[vii]   Nevertheless, these authors drew heavily on documents assembled by Canada’s official historians under Duguid.  For the Great War in particular, the process “chose to privilege the larger narrative and the grand movement of units over that of the private soldier.[viii]  Much of this work today appears almost jingoistic in it unstinting admiration for the allies and vilification of the enemy.  In describing Canadian troops on the Somme one writer pictured the bloody slaughter as the only viable option:

“The only way in which the Allies could effectively dispose of the enemy was by hand-to-hand fighting, by bomb and bayonet attack….and in hand-to-hand fighting, the Allies had a pronounced superiority.”[ix]

The few voices of dissent like that of Siegfried Sassoon, a disillusioned military cross winner and poet were lost in the overwhelming wave of patriotic fervor. The General

These, early historians had access to war diaries and official papers collected by the official historian while access to details of individual soldiers was more problematic and often depended on the good will of the Regiment.    In many cases, works were reviewed and approved by senior military officers before publication. This, of course is the challenge of any sponsored work.  Although most early accounts are striking for the heroic language they embody, they reflect the popular perception of the Patricia’s as pre-eminent among Canadian regiments.  In the multi volume Canada in the Great War, most of the text deals with issues of concern to the war as a whole.  Nevertheless, the Patricia’s are often singled out for special mention.  In each volume, the Patricia’s, unlike any other regiment are assigned their own chapter.  In the introductory comments of the final volume, we find these words:

“The example set by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the 1st Division created a military tradition for the forces that were to follow them into the field. … In a few brief months of war the citizen soldiers became the equals of the best regulars in the Allied forces.  … the Canadian Army Corps, led by a Canadian General, had at the close of the war a reputation unsurpassed by that of any army in the field.”[x]

In another early example written by Captain Harwood Steele, son of the legendary Sam Steele, the Patricia’s are again described in similar heroic language – “The glory of the Princess Patricia’s battalion was assured, its name immortal”[xi]

We see a similar highlighting of the regiment in the British official history.   As might be expected, the British version of events tends to present a somewhat less glorified version of Canadian participation than Canadian accounts.   The first question raised by this view is whether the original Patricia’s and indeed, the First Division, were really Canadian “citizen soldiers”, the farmers, ranchers and trappers of myth, or are they more properly characterized as British regulars living in Canada who had rallied to the colours on the outbreak of war.

The second issue is to tease out is the unique nature of the PPCLI.  When one is closely associated with a regiment it is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing almost everything as unique, more heroic, or more successful.  What evidence is there that the regiment was any different than those it fought beside?  If so, what elements of this unique character led to the selection of the regiment for retention in the permanent force?

The first Regimental history by Ralph Hodder-Williams also dates from this heroic period.  Like most regimental histories, it was sponsored by the regiment itself with “each section of the narrative … submitted to and approved by, the senior surviving officer of the period under review”.[xii]  While this effectively precluded any criticism or actions that might have reflected badly on the regiment, it remains a cornerstone reference today for its detailed and well documented account of events.    It is a testament to his scholarship that there has was no effort at a substantial review until 1972 when Jeffery Williams produced a condensed history that subsequently served as the primary reference for soldiers in the regiment.

Ralph Hodder-Williams was a young history professor at the University of Toronto when he joined the Patricia’s as a platoon commander, part of the Second University Company, in June 1916.  He was wounded on the Somme in September of that same year and awarded the Military Cross for valour.[xiii]  His two volume regimental history brings together both a compelling narrative and a meticulous set of data including, maps, critical documents, a war diary summary and a brief service record for every soldier who served in the regiment.  While in large part an exemplary model for a regimental history, Hodder-Williams is also the source of one of the cornerstone myths of that the regiment was made up of “prospectors, trappers, guides, cow-punchers, prize-fighters, farmers, professional and businessmen”.[xiv]  The second cornerstone myth of this original history is the idea that the stand of the regiment at Bellewaerde Ridge and the ferocious battle of May 1915 was “the grave of the ‘Originals’ and their reinforcements from the First Canadian Contingent”.  Even David Bercuson’ s history published almost eighty years later echoes the idea of the “distinctly western flavour” of the newly formed regiment and summons the “Ghosts of Bellewaerde Ridge”.[xv]  The data now available for analysis will enable us to test both these hypotheses.

Hodder-Williams’ history has a number of notable features that are worth emulating in our web site design.  The text is laid out in strict chronological form.  Marginal dates allow the reader to quickly find information about any event.  Although important, this chronological approach makes it more difficult to consider themes like changes in organization, equipment, tactics and personnel over time.  One of the benefits of the digital format is that it will permit both a chronological presentation and a thematic approach to be integrated in a coherent whole.  The great strength of the chronological narrative is that is provides a detailed account of events.  The supporting maps fold-out maps provide cover every major action and were in large part used by the other regiments of the 7th brigade as the basis for their own histories.[xvi]  While there would be little to be gained by replicating the detailed account of this original history, a summary chronological narrative must nevertheless form the backbone of the website and easy access to supporting maps is essential.  Supporting themes can then be linked to this backbone allowing the reader to shift between the two at will.  For example, if we read of Farquhar’s early concerns about the Ross rifle in 1914, we will be able examine the issue in a more detailed section focused on weapons.   In a similar manner, maps can be presented with hyperlinks to be easily accessed from any point in the narrative.

[i] Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds, History of the Great War – Military Operations France and Belgium, 1915 and 1916. London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1927 and 1932/
[ii] See Andrew Green, Writing the Great War – Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories, Frank Cass Publishers, London 2003, for a more fulsome discussion.
[iii] Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1916, Chapter XII, The Somme, 490
[iv] P. A. Errett, “The Somme Offensive.” In Canada in the Great War, Vol. VI the Turn of the Tide. Memorial Edition ed. Vol. IV, 10. Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1929. 15.
[v] Ibid., 28.
[vi] Jonathan Vance covers this subject in Death So Noble, Memory Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.
[vii] Canada in the Great War
[viii]Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors – Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2006. Cook, 52
[ix] Errett, “The Somme Offensive”, in Canada in the Great War, Vol IV, The Turn of the Tide, 17
[x] Ibid Volume 3 page 7
[xi] Captain Harwood Steele, M.C. The Canadians in France 1915-191. T. London: Fisher Unwin Ltd. 1920., 41
[xii] Ralph Hodder-Williams. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919. Volume I. London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1923., xii
[xiii] Hodder-Williams, Vol 2, 80
[xiv] Hodder-Williams Vol 1, 8
[xv] David J. Bercuson, The Patricias, the Proud History of a Fighting Regiment. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Limited 2001, 5
[xvi] Lieut Col C.B. Topp, The 42nd Battalion in the Great War, v.

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