The 2nd. Canadian Infantry Battalion
The 2nd Battalion was formed in Valcartier, Quebec in August and September of 1914, as part of the first units to go to England. Its formation is representative of the way all the Canadian Battalions of the First Contingent came in to being. Later, more 'Order of Battle' Battalions were formed in Canada and sent overseas. After all 48 'Order of Battle' Battalions were formed, 'recruitment' Battalions that went overseas were absorbed into Reserve Infantary Battalions in England. The men of these Reserve Battalions could then be used as 'replacements' (drafts) for the Battalions doing the fighting in France.
The 2nd was mostly made up of men from Eastern Canada. However most of the officers were from Militia units in the Peterborough-Ottawa area. Because of this the 2nd Battalion's regimental name became the Eastern Ontario Regiment.
On September 22, 1914, the battalion left Quebec City on the S.S. Cassandra for England. After a brief stop in the Gaspe Basin, the large convoy, which the Cassandra was part of, arrived at Plymouth, England on October 14th. However, because of the amount of activity, in the port of Plymouth, they did not disembark until October the 25th.
The 2nd Battalion trained at Bustard Camp on the Salisbury Plain for the next 4 months. Here they trained in very wet and muddy conditions. On February 7, 1915, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to Avonmouth, England where they boarded a transport ship for the journey to St. Nazaire, France.
By February 17th the Battalion had moved up to the front near Armentieres, France where they were attached to a British unit, the North Staffordshire Regiment. Under their tutelage, the Battalion was introduced to rigors of trench duties, field engineering, the habits of the enemy and matters of like nature.
On February 19th, the 2nd Battalion entered the front line trench west of Armentieres, where they were finally faced with the realities of trench warfare. On February 20th, the Battalion suffered its first wartime casualty, when Pte. R.T. Cardew was killed when his trench shelter was destroyed by a German shell. The 2nd had bloodied itself.
By early April, the 2nd Battalion found themselves in the area of Ypres, Belgium and soon found themselves involved in the Second Battle of Ypres (the First Battle of Ypres had taken place in Oct. of 1914). It was on April 22nd the battalion first saw the horrors of German gas attacks. They were in reserve positions several kilometres behind the French line when they witnessed a large number of French Colonials (Algerians) streaming away from the front lines. These men were dropping in convulsions of vomiting. All the Canadians could get from the poor souls were the hoarsely wheezed words: "Asphyxie-asphyxie!!".
It was apparent the 2nd Battalion was headed for no ordinary fight. The Battalion was moved up to the area of St. Julien-Kitchener Woods to help stop the German advances made after the gas attacks. Over the course of the next 3 days the 2nd Battalion along with a number of Battalions, would fight in the brutal Battle of St. Julien (a part of the Second Battle of Ypres). The first Canadian Victoria Cross Of WW I was given to a man of the 13th Battalion. Although the 2nd Battalion was never gassed (15th Battalion was) they were involved in several bloody German attacks. By the time the 2nd Battalion was relieved and withdrawn, they had lost close to 400 men, 162 wounded. This was well over half of the Battalion. It was with great sorrow the Battalion left so many of their own, in 'Flanders Fields'. So ended the Second Battle of Ypres for the 2nd Battalion.
The original 2nd Battalion was virtually destroyed at Ypres. As would happen over the course of the war, new 'drafts' (replacements) would be added to the battalion as needed. In England the newcomers would be snatched from the battalions in which they enlisted and had undergone their early training, and in which they had hoped to come to France. It was a great disappointment for them to be broken up and dispersed among strangers. The task of seasoned members of the 2nd was to calm the natural resentments of the newcomers, welcome them into the ranks, impart something of their own experiences and imbue them with that "esprit du corps" which means so much to any military organization. It is said there is a very special bond between men who go into battle together, a bond that forever remains. The men who fought with 2nd Battalion, or with any battalion for that matter, would forever associate themselves with that particular battalion. A tremendous sense of pride and honour went with serving in the 2nd Battalion.
Over the course of the next 2 years the 2nd Battalion would take part in a number of military operations on the Western Front. The major engagements included the Battle of Festubert/Givenchy (France, 1915), 450 casualties (16 killed). At the Battle of St Eloi Craters (France, 1915), there were 52 casualties (16 killed). At the bloody Battle of the Somme (Sept/Oct 1916), the battalion would suffer 619 casualties (195 killed). It was during the fight at Pozieres Ridge, during the Battle of the Somme that the 2nd Battalion would win its first of two Victoria Crosses during the Great War. Corporal Leo Clarke, successfully beat back a German counter-attack after all the men in his group had been killed. Although wounded himself, Clarke carried the battle to the Germans and 'disposed' of 2 officers and 18 men. He even captured one soldier. Clarke, was killed 3 weeks later. (Note: Some of you may have seen some of "The CRB Foundation Heritage Minute". They are one minute pieces that are shown during regular Canadian TV broadcasting. One of them is set in the Great War. It tells of 3 soldiers, all from the same block on Pine St., in Winnipeg, Manitoba. All three of them win the Victoria Cross and after the war the street is renamed Valour Road in their honour. One of these men was Cpl. Leo Clarke. The other two were Sgt. Frederick Hall, 8th Battalion (Ypres 1915) and Capt. Robert Shankland, 43rd Battalion (Passchendaele 1917).
After the Battle of the Somme, the men and officers began wearing a new form of identification. At the top of their sleeves, at the shoulder, they now wore what they termed "the Somme Patch". A two inch square of red cloth indicated the 1st Canadian Division. This was surmounted by a semi-circle of green cloth, green for the 1st Brigade and the semi-circle, with its suggestion of two points for the second battalion of that brigade. (the first battalion was a circle, the third battalion was a triangle and fourth battalion was a square.) The other division had their own colour patch as well, 2nd Division-Royale Blue, 3rd Division-Navy Blue and 4th Division-Green. The colour of the surmounted patch (circle, semi-circle, triangle, square) would remain the same for each brigade regardless of division, 1st Brigade - green, 2nd Brigade - red, and 3rd Brigade - Navy Blue. The patch at once became vested with a significance that passed down into tradition. Some soldiers would even go as far as to paint a small version of the patch on their helmets. As the war progressed, the 1st Division, because the red colour of the patch and because it was the oldest of the 4 divisions became known as "The Old Red Patch".
It is also interesting to note, that prior to the Battle of the Somme, the 2nd's Commanding Officer, Colonel Swift gave approval of a design to be worn on badges and buttons. Swift furnished the Latin phrase that became the Battalion's motto: "Semper Paratus" (Always Prepared). The design, a maple leaf in silver, on the center of which was blue enamel, was the figure "2", surmounted by a crown. Below, in silver lettering on blue enamel, was the word "Battalion", while the motto, in similar lettering, formed the semi-circular base of the badge. Later, "Eastern Ontario Regiment" would be added in a horseshoe like design around the "2".
From a Canadian historical standpoint, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9-12, 1917 was of huge importance; however the 2nd Battalion played only a small role. Easter Monday the 9th was the launch of the assault on Vimy Ridge. However, on April the 6th, the 2nd Battalion had been relieved from the front lines and moved back to Camblain l'Abbe, 7.5 km west of Vimy Ridge. Two hours after the assault on Vimy Ridge began, the 2nd moved up towards the south portion of the ridge, south of the village of Thelus and west of Farbus, 400 to 500 metres behind the 4th Battalion. The 4th Battalion had taken over the attack from the 5th and 7th Battalions, who were part of the first assault on Vimy Ridge. Although the 2nd Battalion was in 'reserve' for most of the day, they relieved the 3rd Battalion late that night at Farbus Woods. The 2nd spent until the 12th of April in this position on the eastern side of Vimy Ridge, waiting for a German counter-attack that never materialized. In those five days the 2nd suffered 112 casualties (28 killed).
Canadians digging in on Vimy Ridge
The 2nd was relieved by the 8th Battalion and by April 15th they were back in Mont. St. Eloy, 6.5km west of Vimy Ridge. Mont. St. Eloy had been used for the past 2 years to hold reserve troops, establish headquarters and stock supplies for military operations in the area.
At Mont St. Eloy, on Friday April 20, 1917, a number of new 'drafts' arrived to join the 2nd Battalion. Among them was 21 year old, Pte. Ira K. Arnott, Regimental No. 214384.
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Copyright © Tom Arnott, September, 1997.
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