Friday, July 9, 1915

Trenches – Ploegsteert

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Battalion relieved by 13th Canadians.  Relief completed by 9:00 pm.  Battalion moved to reserve billets at The Piggeries.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “The Piggeries, situated in rear of Ploegsteert Wood, was a large building in which the King of the Belgians had kept a fine breed of swine.  Inside were two rows of concrete sties, providing a hard bed, but one free of rats and vermin and for that reason acceptable to the troops.  For five days the Battalion remained at the Piggeries, supplying working parties to the Engineers each day and night.  These parties, consisting of 3 officers and 150 men, worked on various forts and reserve trenches, passes to Ploegsteert affording diversions when the toil of the day, or night, was over.” [2]

This article from The Gazette of Montreal, July 6th, 1915, gives very limited news of the whereabouts of a number of Canadian soldiers who had been taken prisoner of war by the Germans. Privates Nantel and Brown mentioned in the sub-headline were both members of the 14th Battalion. The article reads in part as follows:

Canadian prisoners of war“(Canadian Associated Press) London, July 5. – The following Canadians, wounded, who are prisoners of the Germans, have just been heard from, the advices also describing the nature of their wounds.” The article continues then to name many Canadian soldiers from various infantry units, including : “E. Parker,* 14th Battalion, Montreal, (leg).” The article continued: “Private Nantel ** and Private J. Brown *** of the 14th Battalion, Montreal, were seen April 24th, seven miles behind the German lines, apparently being taken prisoners to Germany. They may, therefore, be considered alive and well, though both were suffering from gas poisoning.”

* Private Edward Parker, No. 26589, captured April 24th, 1915, released December 16th, 1918.
** Private Arthur Nantel, No. 25980, captured April 24th 1915, released December 6th, 1918.
*** Private John Spencer Brown, No. 25927, captured April 24th, 1915, released December 31st, 1918.

Using the names of those captured, some limited information may be obtained about individual soldiers from the records of the International Red Cross “Prisoners of the First World War 1914-1918” Historical Archives now to be found on-line at – http://grandeguerre.icrc.org/


During the Great War 128 members of the 14th Battalion Royal Montreal Regiment were captured and held in captivity as Prisoners of War (POW). Forty percent of these, or 52 men, were captured during the Second Battle of Ypres between April 22nd and 29th, twenty eight of these 52 were captured on April 24th alone when the enemy unleashed chlorine gas, a horrific bombardment, and then smashed through our trenches.

The rest of our losses were sustained throughout the next three and a half years of combat. Two days in particular stand out for heavy losses, namely September 7th, 1916, (The Somme/Mouquet Farm), when twenty men were captured, and then on October 1st 1918 (advance from Canal Du Nord/Bourlon Wood) when thirty five men were taken prisoner.

Only three 14th Bn. men managed to escape and avoid recapture. The story told by one of these men, Pte. Byron Richardson Racey, MM., No. 25996, (captured April 29, 1915 – escaped July 24, 1916), may be found on a web-site maintained by his son Richard Racey at http://www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/racey.htm

The other two escapees were:

  1. Corp. Joseph Turcotte, No. 26280, captured on December 24th 1915, escaped November 20th 1916, and
  2. Pte. Walter Edward Atkins, No. 140605, captured September 26th 1916, escaped Feb 12, 1918.

While in captivity seven men died of their wounds, two died of disease, and one died of unstated cause. Seven were released by the Germans during the war, and the remaining one hundred and eight men were kept in captivity for the duration of the war. Seventeen of these men were not released from captivity until January of 1919. Corp. Claude Harold Maugham, No. 25862, was the last to gain his freedom having been in captivity from April 29, 1916 until his release on January 23, 1919. [5]

In the First World War 3,842 Canadians spent time in German prison camps. In 1931-32, former prisoners of war emerged to present claims of maltreatment to a Canadian royal commission distributing German reparations. The commissioner, Mr. Justice Errol M. McDougall, held hearings across Canada. [6] “Of 862 claims for mistreatment, McDougall made awards in only 201 cases, most of them for $500 with, as usual, five per cent interest from January 10, 1920.” [7]

Desmond Morton, in his 1992 book “Silent Battle – Canadian Prisoners of War in Germany 1914-1919,” tells of the commission’s work, and has quoted from the testimonies of many of the claimants. Among the soldiers to make submissions or claims to the royal commission were at least three who had served in the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment. They tell of the harsh life experienced by many Canadians who had been taken prisoner.

“Unless they were officers or wounded, Canadians captured at Vimy, Fresnoy, Lens, Passchendaele, and the battles of 1918 usually spent their first months of captivity behind the German lines in conditions far worse than those experienced by most of the Canadians in Germany. As in all armies, ferocity to the enemy increased with distance from the front line, and the guards and overseers assigned to prisoner-of-war companies were no exception. Guards controlled prisoners with dog whips and clubs and their rifles…. Hugo Colver*of the 14th Battalion remembered being thrashed for starting a fire to keep warm and clubbed for his reluctance to drag railcars loaded with artillery when British shells were falling nearby.” [8]

* Private Hugh “Hugo” Ross Colver, No. 796542, captured April 21, 1915, released November 28, 1918.

“Men who behaved properly were not knocked about, admitted Sergeant Robert Stewart of the 13th Battalion, but ‘when they looked for trouble, they got it.’ Even a youthful survivor of Beienrode, Alex McLeod,** admitted to McDougall that ‘prisoners were not badly treated when they conformed to the rules and did the work assigned to them.’

Such prisoners had accepted that, for them at least, the war was over. So far as possible they avoided trouble, though, in spite of themselves, they sometimes suffered brutality. The same Alex McLeod who did his best to stay out of trouble at Beienrode, lost two teeth to a rifle butt when German guards went berserk after an escape. Like other Beienrode prisoners, McLeod could not escape salt sores and a life long battle with bronchitis and indigestion after three years of chronic hunger.”

** Private Alexander McLeod, No. 437718, captured September 7, 1916, released December 18, 1918.

“At Giessen, the first resistance among the Canadian prisoners came from trivial acts of defiance – refusal to salute German NCOs or saluting with the wrong hand. The greater defiance of refusing to work at Geisweid led to courts martial and two-year sentences at Butzbach and Cologne for at least five Canadians. It also helped inspire the only other-rank resistance organization. The so-called Iron Twenty banded together to show the Germans that they could take their punishment without giving in. One of them, the presumed ring leader of the Geisweid mutiny, was Charles Riley,*** a pre-war acrobat from Montreal. He suffered through four beatings, a broken wrist, and fourteen months in solitary confinement. Having finished his two year term, he got three more months for refusing to work in a heavy rain storm.”

*** Private Charles Sidney Riley, No. 25884, captured April 22-29, 1915, released December 19, 1918.

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, July 9, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089762.jpg
[2]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 64.
[3]   “Canada’s Wounded And Prisoners Of War Heard From,” The Gazette, Montreal, Tuesday, July 6, 1915, pg. 7, col. 2.
[4]   Ibid
[5]   Based on the report prepared for the Regiment by A.S. Peters, using Edward H. Wigney’s “Guests of the Kaiser: Prisoners of War of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915-1918” Ottawa, Ont, CEF Books, 2008, and records found at Library and Archives Canada, “Soldiers of The First World War”
[6]   Desmond Morton “Silent Battle – Canadian Prisoners of War in Germany 1914-1919,” Lester Publishing, Toronto, Ontario, 1992, pg. ix.
[7]  Ibid, pg. 154
[8]   Ibid, pg. 91
[9]   Ibid, pg. 111
[10]   Ibid, pp. 112-113

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