The Battle of Frezenberg, May 8th 1915, is the most important battle in the history of the regiment. It will set the culture and it will also force a transformation.
The best record of the battle is to be found on Birth of a Regiment and in the War Diaries. I will not give you a blow by blow account. I cannot better the two key sources. But I will try and define the meaning of the culture change and transformation that is set up by this battle. I will also do my best to show you how this culture and this transformation will be embodied in Hammie Gault..
This painting, by W B Wollen, captures the essence of all of this.
The only officer in the painting, with his hand to his mouth shouting orders, is Lieut Hugh Niven. All officers senior to him are now dead or badly wounded. Lieut. Niven is in command of the regiment.
The man coming out of the dug out, on the left and carrying a box of ammunition, is Lance Corporal A G Pearson. In the last months of the war he will be Lt Col Pearson. Niven will command the regiment after the war.
The Grenade throwers are privates McCormack and Kelly. The Machine-gunner is Corporal C. Dover with Private L. Phillips to his right. The man to his right is Private G. Candy.The wounded man sitting at bottom of trench is Sergeant John McDermott. Privates J. Kelly and McCormack were later killed in action. Corporal C. Dover lost an arm and a leg and was shot by a sniper during evacuation. Private G. Candy was awarded an MID (Mention in Dispatches) at Kemmel. Lance Corporal Pearson would be awarded a DCM and later a MC.
At the end of this day, Niven and the Pats are relieved and Niven takes barely 150 men out of the line with 4 officers. Lieutenants Talbot Papineau (MC from St Eloi), J. Van den Berg (DSO at Vimy) and D. Clarke (MC at Frezenberg).
Hammie Gault, who had taken command on May 5th, had been badly wounded at 7am on May 8th. His left leg was shot through and he had a wound in his right arm. The bullet in his leg just missed the femoral artery. If the bullet had hit it, he would have died in minutes.
If you recall, the Pats had pulled back from the line in Polygon Wood to reduce their exposure to being enfiladed by the Germans. Here is the tactical situation on the morning of May 8. They had then gone into reserve. On May 6th, the Pats had gone back into the line. It was a poor position and they could tell that the Germans were massing for an attack in force. Here is what Agar Adamson wrote to his wife.
“We moved up last night from our support dugouts having been fairly well shelled. Gow (Lieut.) shot badly, was alive when we left, 4 men killed, 9 wounded, 2 went mad, 6 in what is called ‘in a state of collapse’, having been shelled all day and having to remain underground all day.” After thanking his wife for sending baseball bats, he concludes “We now have 400 fighting men and 7 officers. …. It seems certain that this line cannot be held and we are only making a bluff at it.”
On May8th, the Germans made one last full on attempt to crush the Salient. This time from the south. Their attack began at 4am on My 8th. By the end of the day, the line held and the Pats were relieved.
But at a great cost.
What had been a force of nearly 1,000 men on the boat leaving Canada was already down at dawn May 8th to 400 and 7 officers. By the end of that day, May 8th, the regiment that Gault had raised had nearly been wiped out.
Casualties for May 8th were. Killed: Lieut. [N.A.] Edwards died of wounds Lieut [R.G.] Crawford. Missing: Lieut. [H.S.] Dennison & Lieut [P.E.] Lane. Wounded: Major [A.H.] Gault, Capt. [Agar] Adamson, Capt. [S.H.] Hill, Lieut [M.S.] De Bay Lieut [A.G.]Martin, Lieut [G.] Triggs. Other ranks 93 killed, 79 missing 203 wounded.
There were 149 fit men and 4 officers. This then drove the transformation. How was the regiment to be rebuilt? Who would step in and how would they fit into this core that had suffered so much common experience?
The answer lies with Gault himself.
As he was shipped to England, he must have wondered about the future of his regiment. He would also have heard of the death of his nephew, John Stephens and his mother in law, Mrs Stephens on the Lusitania. He must have worried also about how his wife Marguerite might be holding up after the death of her mother?
Fortunately help was in sight on the regimental front.
The issue for the regiment was reinforcements. The Canadians needed 6,000 men every three months to keep the First Division up to strength. The Canadians were also raising a further 3 divisions and were considering a 5th. The Pats seemed to have no future for they had no Canadian base.
Remember, the PPCLI was not part of the Canadian Army but part of the British Army. As such, it had no inbuilt Canadian channel of reinforcements. Neither did it have a city or a county in England. It was not truly British or Canadian. It had no geographic roots.
But it had class roots. Hammie was a prominent member of the Montreal elite and it was this tribe that came to the rescue.
Gault had raised the regiment and his tribe in Montreal gathered around to bring it back from the dead. It was all about Gault.
Principal among this tribe, was Canada's then greatest athlete and scion of the Golden Square Mile, Percival Molson. He was already a Governor of McGill. McGill had just sent its own hospital to Europe. Now with Molson's urging, McGill would become the feeder for the Pats.
The First University Company joined the Regiment at Armentieres in late July and the second arrived little more than a month later.
These were very different men from the Originals. Few had been soldiers before. Most were very well educated. There was definitely tension at first. But it worked. The culture formed at St Eloi and at Frezenberg expanded into the new men. The new men also brought with them an even higher level of thinking and adaptability creating a unique blend of toughness and thinking.
Just as Gault had embodied the founders, so Molson embodied the next wave of Pats. He lived the rest of his short life fully committed as the old originals did.
As Gault recovered in England he must have been relieved to hear of these plans and at how fast they were being implemented. But the issue of the future of the regiment was not settled. So long as it was part of there British Army, it would remain an orphan. Later this year, much to the disgust of the unit, they were forced to become part of the Canadians and worse to be part of the newest arrival, the 3rd Division. For them, it was a bit like members of the NHL having to play with high school hockey players. Things settled own later in the war but the new arrangements were not popular.
But that is for later.
Back to Gault. He had been wounded twice now. But while recovering this summer, he would receive a wound that he would never recover from.
Marguerite Stephens was not a strong woman like Lady Julia Drummond or my Aunt Marguerite. The loss of her mother on May 8th was a major blow. The loss of her nephew, aged 18 months, was another. The fact that Hammie was wounded again only 3 days after being back in the line was another blow. And the fact that what he really wanted to do was get back to his boys, was the worst blow possible.
She was very vulnerable.
This is not the face of a tender man.
Hammie went to recuperate with Marguerite to a house near Taunton. Accompanying him was Bruce Bainsmith, a wounded machine gun officer of the Pats. His junior officer. You can guess where this will go. But that is for July.
In a war that involved millions. In a war that was all about machines. The human spirit and the human heart and tribe and family still played a powerful role.