Birth of a Regiment

 

The University Companies

The Patricia’s were not alone in their desperate need for reinforcements. The Canadian Divisions had also been badly mauled. In April 1915, six thousand reinforcements were needed every three months. In Canada, the response was to task Militia regiments with providing drafts of 250 men and five officers. These drafts were formed in battalions at full establishment before being sent to England. As the peak demand was for junior officers and troops, there was soon a glut of Canadian Majors and Lieutenant Colonels with few if any troops left to Command sitting in the Canadian concentration areas at Shorncliffe. Although reinforcements trickled in to the Patricia’s, the priority for Canada was keeping the First Division up to strength and getting a Third Division ready for deployment.

Once again, the Patricia’s reached out to their powerful friends at home for support. In early 1915, the government had authorized the formation of a company at McGill University for the 38th Battalion being formed in Ottawa. With news of the devastating losses to the Patricia’s at Frezenberg, three prominent McGill Graduates, George MacDonald, George Currie and Percival Molsonsuggested that the University companies be used to reinforce the Patricia’s. All were prominent and wealthy Montreal businessmen well known to Hamilton Gault. Molson was also well known as an athlete having competed in hockey, football and track and field.

The first two companies joined the new Canadian Officers Training Corps concentrating at Niagara-on-the-Lake for training. In short order, both had been assembled and were on their way to France. The First University Company joined the Regiment at Armentieres in late July and the second arrived little more than a month later.

Fortunately, the summer of 1915 was relatively quiet. As those recovering from injury returned and the new arrivals were absorbed, a very different regiment emerged. Some 1300 men from five University Companies joined the Regiment between July 1915 and October 1916. As a group, they were younger, better educated and more likely to be Canadian born that the originals. A full eighteen percent would ultimately become officers with most of those being commissioned from the ranks.

Those who might suggest that such reinforcement was a waste of talent show a profound lack of understanding about what is required for leadership in combat. In a group of six young men who joined together in Vancouver, three would become officers, one a Sergeant and two would remain privates. Two would not survive the war and only one would appear on the Regiment’s final parade in the spring of 1919. It is also worth remembering that Sir Arthur Currie held only a third class teaching certificate, never attended university and yet was Canada’s most celebrated commander of the war. Although over two hundred men from the University Companies were commissioned many more would serve as soldiers in the ranks throughout the war. In an era, when only 15% of males between 15 and 20 were in school, attendance at university had more to do with family position than innate talent. The training provided to those who were commissioned before joining their regiments was often sadly lacking. Most learned the essentials of leadership after they had joined their regiment in the field. Experienced NCOs mentored the new arrivals and taught them the essentials of trench warfare. Writing to his wife in September 1915, Agar Adamson painted this image:

“I find a great change in the Regiment and the new N.C.O.s of the two McGill Companies are sadly wanting in experience and in some cases may be a positive danger.”

By January 1916, time in the trenches had given the Regiment an opportunity to assess the leadership merits of the new arrivals. The Regiment was asked to find a hundred NCOs who might be commissioned to fill the needs of other regiments. Although some came from the the University Companies, many others were drawn from the ranks of the originals.

It is also instructive to consider the backgrounds of the new arrivals. Although many were students or teachers, many others had work experience in finance or office work while relatively few were tradesman. Like the originals, few described themselves as farmers or ranchers.

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