Birth of a Regiment


To the Permanent Force

On a visit to the Regiment in March 1917, Prince Arthur of Connaught advised Agar Adamson that “..the King has decided to make us a Permanent Regiment after the War.” Although Canadian planning for a post war army had been started as early as 1916, the detailed work on how the service of CEF units was to be perpetuated was not started in earnest until the appointment of the Otter Commission in early 1918. As the Committee did not render its report until early the following year, it is clear that the question of the future of the Patricia’s was not part of their agenda. How and when the decision was reached remains a mystery. That the decision came after Sam Hughes had fallen from grace is no surprise.

It is likely however a number of critical factors played a part in the decision. First, it was evident that Canada had outgrown the pre-war structure of the permanent force and that more infantry battalions would be required. Logic alone would suggest that any such expansion would best be achieved by simply increasing the number of battalions in the Royal Canadian Regiment. The multi-battalion regiment was common in the British Army and was also the model selected by Australia for expansion. Having a single regiment would improve standardization, avoid any debate with militia Regiments seeking to become part of the permanent force, but most importantly it would make both training and personnel management much simpler in a very small permanent force. Consider historian David Bercuson’s argument:

The PPCLI was an easy choice for perpetuation: it was not a numbered battalion, it drew its recruits from across the nation, it had been established under royal patronage, and it had a distinguished battle record.[i]

Remembering the Duke of Connaught was the Colonel-in-Chief of the RCR, all the same arguments could be applied to simply increasing the number of RCR battalions. The explanation for the decision must necessarily extend beyond these eminently logical points. The key distinguishing feature of the Patricia’s was the extremely high public profile. From the outset, the Regiment made every effort to make itself unique. The opening salvo in this battle for the imagination of the Canadian public was of course the decision to link the Regiment to Princess Patricia. It is difficult to overstate the impact. Where ever she went, the newspapers followed. In the public eye she was Canada’s Princess. In a remarkable and unique tribute in 1917, the government of Canada produced a one dollar bill to mark her birthday – March 17th. It was the first and only time a person other than the monarch appears on the dollar bill. Across the country, lakes parks streets and even towns were named in her honour. A wide range of other distinguishing features followed, all intended to provide added flavour or “tang” as Gault described the decision to add the term “Light” to the Regimental title. The regimental colour made by the Princess and carried into battle, the pipers who played the Regiment over the top at Vimy Ridge, the Comedy Company, the selection of popular songs as the march past of the regiment. All these features embellished the romantic story of the regiment.

The second major factor was the large number of soldiers with high public profiles in their communities. Gault and Adamson quickly come to mind. Both were comfortable dealing with senior officers, Royalty and politicians. As the Regimental song goes, the Colonel is “dining with the brigadier” There were also people like Talbot Papineau, a young lawyer, seen by many as a rising star in the political world. Percival Molson, a popular athlete, and son of the wealthy Montreal brewing company and many others from the University Companies were well known in their home communities. Groups like the Legion of Frontiersmen, the Pipe Band from Edmonton and the University Companies also raised the profile. Beyond this however, there was not only a willingness to be open with the press but also a concerted effort to keep the name of the regiment constantly in the public eye. In a telling letter written after the war, Hugh Niven, the Lieutenant who commanded the Regiment in the final stages at Frezenberg writes:

The U.S.A. sent scores of reporters over long before they sent any soldiers and the English Regiments would have nothing to do with them, so they all trecked across to the P.P.C.L.I. (we were in France & Belgium long before the other Canadians came). We bought these reporters drinks, we took them into our Mess for meals and made them feel at home, well the U.S. papers were full of the P.P.C.L.I stories long before the other Canadians came; the editors at home demanded more stories about us, and so we were the only Canadian Regiment that our country sent. …. The American press write a lot of stuff but know damn all.[ii]

The letter written in 1960 may well embellish the point, but any examination of the New York Times during the war bears out the high profile of the Patricia’s. Along with stories marking almost every major Regimental event during the war, we find human interest stories like that about Tracy Richardson, the gun-slinging American who was described as “The Machine Gunner of the Princess Pats” in a full page New York Times article in October 1915.

The selection of the Patricia’s for perpetuation was a politically easy one – but not simply because of the factors cited by Bercuson.
The PPCLI became a regiment of the Permanent Active Militia on April 1st 1919 with Gault as its Commanding Officer. In 1920, the Regiment moved west with the Headquarters and two companies at Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg and B Company at Work Point Barracks in Esquimalt. Command passed to Lieutenant Colonel C.R.E Willets, DSO from the Royal Canadian Regiment. The originals however, did not fade from the scene. After Willets, command passed in turn to Ten Broke, Niven and Colquhoun who took the Regiment overseas in 1939. All had fought with the Patricia’s at Frezenberg in May 1915.
Over the course of the war, the Patricia’s had indeed gone through a remarkable transition from the most British of all battalions raised in Canada to become a Canadian icon. It was much more than demographics, Royal connections and a heroic record of service. The Patricia’s saw themselves from the outset as a Regiment that was different than the others. It was an image they carefully cultivated, passed on to new arrivals and most of all, it was an image that caught the imagination of the Canadian public. It was an image that, to this day, influences the way the Regiment views itself and is viewed by the public.

[i]David Bercuson, The Patricia’s,132
[ii]Hugh Niven, Letter dated 5 Dec 1960, (above)
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