Manitoba History: A Family Memoir: The Men of #2 Company, Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, 1915
by Phillip R. Giffin
I was lucky. My parents lived in the same house for forty-five years and they were always saving things: old daguerreotypes, tintypes, letters, notes, diaries, books, magazines, albums, gowns, and uniforms. History was alive in our attic. As kids my two sisters, brother and I played with period pieces: a brass medal of Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay (1898), and my great-grandmother’s Victorian gowns.
Writing history papers in school was easy for a kid with original letters from the trenches and casualty clearing stations of World War I. Great Uncle William Gavin Johnston and his sister Annie Eliza Johnston (Argue) of Morden, Manitoba spent four years at the front, 1914-1918. William rose through the ranks from Private to Captain with the famous Princess Patricia Regiment Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI #552). Annie carried an equally impossible burden as a nurse at Gallipoli and in Flanders. Their sister Maud, my grandmother, saved all their mail.
At eighteen I left home for college, and then went to work in international sales. The family letters sat unopened for another four decades. Then, one February morning in 1993, a gorgeous winter storm settled over Mirabel Airport in Montreal. (I was traveling from California at the time.) I found a quiet corner with a fifteen foot picture window, watched the storm swirl outside and began reading an extraordinary Canadian history, Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War. 
Ms. Gwyn masterfully weaves the letters of seven Canadians into a history and a tale of the people, places, and tragedies of the Great War. Since reading her work, my grandmother’s writings and photographs of Manitoba, her brothers, sisters, and the war have become an obsession of mine. I have been researching ever since.
Take, for example, the photograph of Great Uncle Will Johnston with his mates labelled “Place Vogel, Flixecourt 1915.” My cousin Grace White in Ontario sent it to me a few years ago. Uncle Will is standing, second from the left. But who are his mates? What and where is Flixecourt? What was going through the minds of these men as the photo was taken? I had to learn more.
Fortunately, Uncle Will noted the names and regimental numbers of the men on the reverse side of the photo, so we know who they were. But what could I uncover about each of them? The place to begin is Volume II of the Regimental History of the PPCLI.  The “Nominal Roll and Record of Service” provides details about each of the men. The link that binds them is that they were all members of #2 Company PPCLI.
This is good news because #2 Company is exceptionally well documented, not only in the Regimental History, but in the collected letters of the #2 Company Commander. Lieutenant Colonel Agar Adamson wrote an extraordinary collection of letters to his wife Mabel, many of which appear in Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry and all of which have recently been published. 
Adamson was a Captain as the war began, and he was the Regimental censor. He read all outgoing mail, removing any references to locations, military formations, and unit designations—anything that might be harmful should a letter fall into enemy hands. His men were cautioned not to frighten the folks at home with their letters, and not to take pictures. Adamson was ordered to confiscate all the cameras in his Company, so there would be little photographic evidence of the carnage. Fortunately, he did not censor his own letters with the same enthusiasm, leaving an unvarnished view of the war.
The men of #2 Company PPCLI entered the mud-filled trenches of Flanders for the first time on Christmas Eve 1914. They spent a week digging a secondary line of trenches in front of Hazebrouk, France then they rotated in and out of the front lines east of Vierstraat, Holland. Eighty years later, one of Will’s letters to his Sister Susan was found in an old metal cashbox on the family farm in Oakville, Manitoba. My cousins James and Irene Blight graciously added it to the collection (which will soon reside in the PPCLI museum in Calgary):
According to the Regimental History, in their first two months with the British Expeditionary Force, the Regiment suffered 50% casualties, 140 dead and some 400 hospitalized with pneumonia, typhus, rheumatism, and trench foot. Will Johnston’s medical records indicate that he spent the last week of January 1915 in the 6th Medical Hospital Rouen with a severe case of diarrhea.
In February the Princess Pats were reinforced to full strength; they were ordered forward through the town of Voormezele, Holland and into the trenches in front of St. Eloi. Captain Adamson wrote detailed letters to his wife of the horrors endured by the men of #2 Company. 
“It is beyond my powers to describe what has happened in the last 4 days ... We went in with 28 men after crawling in the mud for about a mile.” There were no trenches, just three blasted piles of sandbags, “compartments,” for his men to hide behind. No one could move during the daylight hours even to bury the dead, as the German lines were only ten feet away in places. Within his compartment Adamson counted the bodies of twenty-five dead Germans, British, and French who had been hastily buried in recent weeks, and then disinterred by artillery fire.
At 2 AM the next morning (28 February) the Germans began flinging “hand bombs,” and filling the air with flares, mortar rounds, rifle, and Maxim gun fire. The Canadians could not show their heads above the sandbags for more than three seconds without facing certain death. At dawn the firing slackened and Adamson crawled along his lines, finding two dead and sixteen wounded. The men from #2 Company spent a second day returning rifle fire as best they could. At 5 PM eighteen replacements came forward and the injured were evacuated; one medic was killed and one wounded in the process.
Adamson and his men lay in the freezing mud for another long night. And again, just before dawn (1 March) Adamson made the rounds of his positions, finding two more killed and four wounded. They spent another day in the freezing mud, returning the German fire as best they could. That night twenty more replacements came forward and the men who had spent three days and two nights in the freezing mud fell back to the reserve line of trenches. Adamson, however, stayed in the front line with his men the entire time. At forty-eight he was the oldest officer in the Regiment, and one of the most admired because he knew what was happening to his men; he was with them.
On 2 March at 5 AM whistles blew and one hundred men of #3 Company PPCLI rose from their trenches to the left of #2 Company, struggled forward in the face of two German Maxim guns. For a few brief minutes they succeeded in clearing a section of the German trenches; but they could not hold it, and were soon chased back to their original positions. In the assault #3 Company suffered 36% casualties (eleven killed and twenty-five wounded).
Adamson and his replacements spent another long day under heavy enemy fire. Fortunately the Germans had no idea how weak they were. By nightfall only one rifle was operational, the rest were jammed with mud and debris. At 2 AM (3 March) it began to snow heavily, and calm settled over the battlefield. Adamson waited until 6:30 in the evening and then gave the signal for the men to withdraw, leaving behind everything they had brought with them. One by one they crawled one hundred yards back thorough the mud, slipping over an embankment and into a waterfilled ditch that ran some five hundred yards towards their secondary line of trenches. In places the muddy water was six feet deep and the embankment had steep sides. The men had to swim through corpses of humans and horses.
Adamson, the Regimental censor, spared his wife few details. With an eye to the censor, Will Johnston sent a much more circumscribed version of his activities to his sister Maud:
Curiously, Adamson did spare his wife some of the details of their next encounter with the enemy, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. According to the Regimental history, the attack began a week later in the predawn blackness of 14 March 1915.  For more than 30 hours the Germans rained high explosives on the Allied trenches. Then, just as everyone thought it might be ending, they set off a single monstrous explosion. Enemy sappers (miners) had dug tunnels beneath the British lines, filled them of explosives, and blown a massive crater in the British lines.
At 3 AM in the morning of 15 March, Will and his mates in #2 Company were called forward and ordered to hold the last three trenches before the German “Mound of Death” (trenches numbered 19, 19A, and 20). From their positions above, German machine guns raked the ground around them. British artillery responded, shelling the high ground and creeping down the hillsides, ever closer to the Canadian lines. Within minutes trench #19 was engulfed in explosions. Nearby the remainder of #2 Company looked on in horror as Allied artillery mistakenly pounded their friends into oblivion; not one man from trench #19 survived. Adamson wrote to his wife that the artillery fire “got quite close behind us and then over us ...”
The litany of misery chronicled in the Regimental History continues: 19 March, Colonel Farquhar the Regimental Commander was killed at Voormeezle; 22 March, while encamped at Polygon Woods the camp suddenly filled with noxious fumes, the Germans had bombarded nearby Allied lines with poison gas, at the time the PPCLI were equipped with only “20 gas veils and a few frames for fans;” 12 April, the Canadian camp was bombed by German Zeppelins; and, 22 April, the Germans began another massive artillery barrage, launching the Second Battle for Ypres.
A month later, from a hospital bed in England, Will described the fighting for the last high ground before the Belgian town of Ypres, a place called Bellewaerde Ridge:
According to the Regimental History, Will Johnston and three of his mates in the Flixecourt photo (Harold Agar, Charles Little, and Fred Pritchett) were wounded in the fighting at Bellewaerde Ridge. In August the PPCLI were pulled back from the front lines to tend to their wounds and celebrate their first anniversary as a Regiment. By then thousands of young replacements were beginning to arrive from Canada. Over the summer the wounded “Originals,” the men who had been with the Regiment during its first year, began to rejoin their Companies.
Will Johnston rejoined #2 Company at Armentieres on the Ypres front on 24 August 1915. Then, in September the Regiment boarded trains for the trip south to the village of Frise on the Somme River. It was a quiet sector where the new recruits were expected to face little more than an occasional artillery barrage. By October they were again in the front lines in front of Frise, and they were again “suffering considerable artillery fire.”
In November 1915 a handful of the “Originals” were withdrawn from the Regiment and sent to the Village of Flixecourt on the Somme where they bathed, slept on beds, and ate three hot meals a day. For two glorious weeks (8 - 22 November) Will and his mates helped train the new Canadian Third Army.
At some time during that brief respite, probably on a Sunday afternoon, the seven survivors from #2 Company PPCLI strolled into Flixecourt and wandered around the main town square, Place Vogel. One of them spotted the studio of Monsieur E. Daussy, photographer. As a lark, they all gathered in front of his painted backdrop to have their portrait taken.
Within weeks, as was the practice again and again, all seven were thrown back into battle. According to the Regimental History, Sydney Hawkbridge died at Sanctuary Wood 10 May 1916; Harold Agar was repeatedly wounded, promoted to Lieutenant, and then died at Passchendaele 30 October 1917. Robert Western’s health failed in December 1915, Charles Little’s in March 1916, Fred Pritchett’s in October 1916, and they were “SOS” (Separated from Service). Only two of the seven were still in uniform when the war ended on 11 November 1918: William Crumb and great uncle William Gavin Johnston.
Uncle Will’s military and medical records read like a history of WWI: Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Bellewaerde Ridge, the Somme, Sanctuary Wood, Courcelette, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. During the four horrible years between 1914 and 1918 he fought, was wounded, hospitalized, and returned to the front repeatedly. In the process he received battlefield promotions to Corporal, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain; he received a military medal for his actions on 16 September 1916 at Fabick Graben trench, the main German line of defence at the Battle of Courcelette (London Gazette 9 December 1916, #29854).
How would Will Johnston label that photograph taken at Flixecourt in November 1915, “Survivors of Ypres before the Somme?” What would he say about the four years of madness from 1914 to 1918? Surely he would agree that it was the worst of times, and these were Canada’s finest.
As well as the private papers of my grandmother Rachel “Maud” Johnston and her family, especially Grace White, James and Irene Blight, I have relied on the following sources for background information: Ferguson, N., The Pity of War. Perseus, New York: Basic Books, 1999; Groom, W., A Storm in Flanders - the Ypres Salient 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. New York: Grove Press, 2002.; and Keegan, J., The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Page revised: 29 June 2012Back to top of page