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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pte. John William 'Jack' Tate - The Story of Nova Scotia's First 'Fallen' Soldier

Date of Birth: August 29, 1880*

Place of Birth: Melrose, Guys. Co.

Mother's Name: Catherine Ann (Sullivan) Tate

Father's Name: Daniel Tate

Date of Enlistment: August 24, 1914 at Ottawa

Regimental Number: 549

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiment: Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry

Location of service: Canada, England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Teamster

Marital Status at Enlistment:  Single

Next of Kin: W. D. (Daniel) Tate, father

*: Attestation paper gives year of birth as 1885.  A list of birth dates in the Tate family Bible lists year of birth as 1880.
John William 'Jack' Tate was born on August 29, 1880, the eldest of ten children raised by Daniel and Catherine Ann Tate on their Melrose farm.  While most of his siblings settled in Guysborough or neighbouring Antigonish and Pictou counties, Jack possessed an adventurous spirit.  His name does not appear in the list of children living in the Tate household at the Forks in the 1901 census.  According to his younger siblings Harry and Margaret, Jack set out at an early age "to see the world", boarding a ship bound for Liverpool, England.  His travels supposedly took him around the world to China before he returned home for a brief visit!

Jack then travelled to western Canada in search of work, and was living in Edmonton at the time of the outbreak of war in Europe.  He apparently spent several years in the United States at some time prior to 1914.  Jack's attestation document lists 18 months' service in the Coast Artillery, 24th Company, American Army in addition to 6 months' service on American Navy submarines, experience that was critical to his acceptance into the first contingent of Canadian soldiers sent overseas.
Canada was ill-prepared when war erupted in Europe on July 28, 1914.  The country possessed no standing army of any size, relying instead on a patchwork of militia units spread throughout the country to deal with military emergencies.  Hardly any of these men had combat experience, making the prospect of immediately sending a contingent of "battle ready" soldiers a challenging task.

In the early days of August, a wealthy Montreal businessman approached the Canadian government with a solution.  Andrew Hamilton Gault, a veteran of the South African (Boer) war, pledged to personally raise a regiment for service with British forces in France.  He initially offered to create a mounted unit, but Minister of Militia Sam Hughes insisted that an infantry regiment would be more appropriate.  The result was the formation of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) Regiment on August 10, 1914, one week after Britain's formal declaration of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Princess Patricia of Connaught
The new regiment was named in honour of Princess Patricia, daughter of Canadian Governor-General Prince Arthur, who was the seventh child and third son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  Princess Patricia personally hand-sewed the original regimental colours carried into every First World War battle.  Referred to as the "Ric-A-Dam-Doo" (derived from Gaelic for "cloth of your mother"), it contained the initials "VP" for "Victoria Patricia" sewn upon a blue circle and placed on a red background.  The original colors survived the war and are presently on display in the Calgary Military Museums.

Gault personally financed the recruitment and equipment of the PPCLI, and served overseas as its second-in-command.  Recruiters appealed to former British Army soldiers and Boer War veterans in an effort to reduce the amount of training required prior to deployment.  Campaigns were launched in Canada's six largest cities at the time - Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.  The response was overwhelming, as by August 19, 3000 men applied for admission.  Careful screening reduced this number to 1098 "other ranks", out of which 1049 had logged military service somewhere in the British Empire.

Original Regimental Colors, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
 On August 23, 1914, the PPCLI held its first formal parade in Ottawa.  Princess Patricia personally presented the regimental colours, attached to a staff carved from a Government House maple branch.  The following day - August 24 - Jack Tate of Melrose enlisted in the regiment.  Perhaps he had read news reports of its foundation and hastened to Ottawa to join.  He may have witnessed or participated in the regiment's first parade.  In any event, his previous military experience was no doubt crucial in his acceptance into this elite military unit.  At enlistment, Jack stood 5' 9", with hazel grey eyes and dark brown hair.  Scars on his back, neck and head suggest that he was no stranger to physically demanding tasks - a valuable asset for an infantryman preparing for the trenches of the Western Front.
The Canadian government was eager to send this first contingent of experienced soldiers overseas.  The regiment initially left Ottawa on August 28 and embarked from Montreal for England aboard the SS Megantic.  The threat of attack from German u-boats in the Atlantic forced the regiment to disembark at Levis, where the men spent one month constructing a base camp, training and organizing in preparation for battle.  Finally, the regiment boarded the SS Royal George and sailed from Quebec on September 27, 1914.

PPCLI camp at Levis, Quebec - September 1914
Jack and his PPCLI comrades arrived safely in England on October 4 and proceeded to establish their regimental camp on Salisbury Plain, southwest of London.   This area served as the primary training ground for British and colonial troops throughout the war.  British authorities noted that the Canadians were well trained and quite capable of deployment at the front in their current state, a tribute to the diligent screening of candidates who applied for admission.

In early November, the regiment relocated to Winchester, where it became part of the 27th British Division.  On November 4, HRH King George V reviewed the troops preparing for battle at Bustard Camp, Salisbury Plain, accompanied by HM the Queen and Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener.  Upon examining the ranks of the PPCLI, the King commented: "This is the finest battalion I have ever inspected."  Of its approximately 1000 members, 771 wore military decorations or service medals for the occasion.  The presence of such veteran soldiers no doubt explains the strong impression the regiment made that day.  This valuable experience would soon be put to the test in the trenches of Europe.
Unidentified PPCLI members in England, 1914
Jack and the men of PPCLI spent the next six weeks in field training, honing their skills in musketry and trench construction.  On November 20, the regiment officially became part of the 80th Brigade.  All other units consisted of regular British Army soldiers, making the PPCLI a unique component of the contingent.  The regiment was issued British Lee Enfield rifles in place of their Canadian Ross Rifles on December 4 and undertook daily musketry training with the new weapons in preparation for battle.  On December 16, Jack and the PPCLI were once again amongst troops reviewed by the King and Lord Kitchener at Winchester.  At this time, the regiment consisted of 27 officers, 956 "other ranks", 25 vehicles, 82 horses, 2 motorcycles and 10 bicycles. 

The PPCLI left Winchester in the morning of December 20, proceeding by road to the port of Southampton.  Jack followed the other members of the battalion up the gangway onto the transport ship that would carry them across the English Channel to France.  The vessel embarked from Southampton at 7 pm in fine weather, arriving off the coast of Le Havre, France at 5 am December 21.  As the members of the PPCLI disembarked at 2 pm that day, they became the first - and only - Canadian infantry regiment deployed in the European theatre of war in 1914.

The officers observed that the "men were in roaring spirits" as they began their journey to the front.  The regiment spent its first overseas Christmas at Blaringhem, France.  Unfortunately, "Christmas comforts were not available" and the fine morning weather quickly turned to mist, cold and frost.  Jack joined the other members of the battalion in preparing camp, "entrenching a fire position with [a] support position 200 yards in rear extending… 3/4 mile…. Weather wet, ground waterlogged and draining of trenches very difficult."  These conditions were appropriate preparation for what the men would encounter on the front lines. 

On December 29, several PPCLI officers visited the front trenches of the 3rd British Division at Kimmel to "learn [the] method of relief and gain experience" for front line duty.  After spending the first few days of the New Year at Blaringhem, Jack and the members of the PPCLI moved to Dickebusch, Belgium on January 5, in what proved to be an uncomfortable march.  The battalion diary noted that the men were "much handicapped from want of boots… many men marching with no soles at all…."  The following day - January 6, 1915 - Jack and his fellow Canadians logged their first day of duty at the front lines, relieving the 55th French Regiment and occupying 1150 yards of trench "…in waterlogged condition… [with] few dugouts".  The Brigade Major's report stated that "all men are over their ankles in water - some up to their knees.  All cheerful…. Draining [is] impossible until rain stops as [the] ground [is] completely flooded".
Regimental War Diary sketch of PPCLI trenches, January 1915
The German front lines lay only 40 yards from the left side and 200 yards from the right side of the trench sector occupied by the regiment.  On the morning of January 7, the PPCLI received a customary "welcome" to the front trenches as German artillery shelled their position three times, resulting in 3 slight casualties.  The following day, 2 men were killed and an additional 6 wounded in a second round of shelling.  Thankfully, the battalion was relieved of front line duty by day's end and moved to support positions near Dickebusch. 

One week later, Jack was back in the front lines near St. Eloi, where the "trenches [were] in bad order, parapets not bulletproof and [there were] few loopholes" through which soldiers could observe the enemy.  An additional 2 men were killed and 4 wounded during two days' duty before the battalion was relieved on January 16.  Such was the routine for the battalion over the following month - a brief stint in the front trenches before being relieved for several days' rest - as commanding officers allowed the men time to adjust to the routines and dangers of front line combat.

Jack's time in the front trenches was interrupted on January 22 when he was admitted to the General Hospital at Rouen for treatment of myalgia, perhaps the result of the strenuous demands of trench repair.  He spent two and a half weeks in hospital before being discharged to a convalescent camp on February 9, returning for duty with the PPCLI on February 15.  During his absence, the regimental war diary marked the end of its first month at the front by taking note of its losses - 3 officers killed and 2 wounded; 20 "other ranks" killed and 30 wounded. 

The PPCLI's debut drew praise from military commanders.  In a dispatch dated February 2, 1915, Field Marshall Sir John French commented on the regiment's first month of duty: "They are a magnificent set of men, and have… done excellent work in the trenches."  In correspondence with Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, Field Marshall French further commented that the regiment "has fully justified the hopes which their magnificent appearance inspired.

On February 17, Jack returned to the cold weather and enemy shelling of the front lines for two days before the regiment once again was relieved.  After one week in support positions, the men moved into a section of the St. Eloi trenches in the early morning of February 27.  The war diary noted the "very cold, boisterous weather and wind" that greeted them on their return to the front.  To this point, the PPCLI had maintained a defensive posture in the trenches they occupied.  In the early hours of February 28, this strategy underwent a dramatic change.

PPCLI Cap Badge
The proximity of the German front trenches to the section occupied by the PPCLI - a German "sap" was a mere 15 yards away - posed a serious threat to the safety of Allied troops holding this position.  In response, military commanders developed a plan for a night raid intent on removing the Germans from a "sap" opposite trenches 20 and 21.  A small group of men was selected to participate in the regiment's first offensive manoeuvre, action that would have dire consequences for Pte. Jack Tate.  At 4:30 am February 28, 1915, "No. 4 Coy together with snipers and bomb throwers under Lieutenant [Talbot] Papineau) attacked and captured [the] German sap opposite trench 21…." 

Led by Major Gault and several other officers, the men crossed  "no man's land" and entered the German position without difficulty.  A detailed report describes the conflict that unfolded.  One officer was killed immediately upon entering the trench, while another officer - Lt. Colville Crabbe - led a small party down the trench.  Meanwhile, Lt. Papineau "ran down the trench outside the parapet throwing bombs into the trench".  Lt. Crabbe's party continued down the trench until the men encountered "a barrier behind which the Germans had collected: at this point all… except one of the party with Lt. Crabbe were out of action….  After some twenty minutes occupation of the trench, combined with work in demolishing the parapet, orders were given for the attackers to withdraw.  The withdrawal was successfully carried out though daylight was rapidly appearing." 

The attack succeeded in destroying the menacing sap and 30 yards of the parapet that had protected the German soldiers occupying the position.  This military success, like all others, came at a cost.  Both Major Gault and Lt. Crabbe were wounded, along with 7 "other ranks".  More tragically, 5 "other ranks" were killed, and one officer and two "other ranks" were missing in action.  The attack represents the regiment's first offensive action on the Western Front, a significant event in its history.

Pte. John William 'Jack' Tate is amongst the men listed as "killed in action" on February 28, 1915.  The circumstances of his death are not clear.  He may have been one of the "other ranks" killed in the trench raid.  Family sources, however, relate that his parents received a letter from a regimental officer, describing the events that took place on that fateful day.  According to its content, Jack was one of several men who volunteered to enter "no man's land" to retrieve an injured comrade, likely one of the men wounded in the morning raid.  He was mortally wounded by German sniper fire during this action.  Unfortunately, the letter has not been preserved by any known family members.  However, a memorial plaque originally placed in the Freemason Hall and later moved to the Kirk Memorial United Church in Aspen relates this account of Jack's death.  It remains on display there to this day.

Memorial Plaque, Kirk Memorial United Church (Photo courtesy of Major George R. Nye) 

The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry went on to distinguish itself in the Battle of Freezenberg, Ypres Salient in May 1915.  The regiment earned the nickname "Stonewall Brigade" in recognition of the gallant defence of its position against overwhelming odds.  By mid-1915, many of its original personnel had been killed or wounded.  Later that year, recruits from the "university companies" of McGill University - Major Gault's alma mater - supplied the manpower required to reconstitute the regiment's ranks.  It proceeded to establish a distinguished record at the front throughout the war and is recognized as one of Canada's most famous infantry regiments.

Roll of Honor, Kirk Memorial United Church (Photo courtesy of Bonnie McGrath)
Pte. John William Tate's remains were buried at Voormezeele Cemetery, Enclosure No. 3, on March 13, 1915.  Jack is believed to be the first Nova Scotian killed in action during the Great War.  His surviving siblings firmly stated this as they related Jack's story to their children and grandchildren.  It is also supported by information presented on the Role of Honor and Memorial Plaque displayed in the Kirk Memorial United Church, Aspen.  Jack was posthumously awarded the 1914 Star, in addition to the British War Medal and Victory Medal.  His father Daniel received a Memorial Plaque and Scroll bearing his name and his mother received a Memorial Cross in recognition of her son's sacrifice.

Pte. John William Tate's Memorial Plaque (Photo courtesy of Major George R. Nye)

"First Battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry." National Defence Canada.  Available online.

"PPCLI and the Great War".  Canadian Military Heritage Society. Available online.

Regimental documents of Pte. John William Tate, No. 549.  Library and Archives Canada. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9508 - 14 .  Available online.

War Diaries of the First World War: Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.  1914/11/04 - 1915/10/31.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3, Volume 4911 , Reel T-10703 File : 346.  Available online.

I am particularly grateful for additional information on the Pte. John W. Tate's story and photographs provided by family members June Tate (Melrose, Guys. Co.) and Major George R. Nye (Red Deer, Alta.).

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Princess Mary's Christmas 1914 Box

With the outbreak of the "Great War" in August 1914, thousands of men and women from Great Britain and "the colonies" found themselves in uniform at the front lines in Europe as well as military facilities around the world.  As the war's early months passed, it became obvious that the conflict would not end quickly.  By autumn, two opposing armies composed of millions of military personnel were firmly entrenched in trenches stretching across northern France and Belgium.

By year's end, the thoughts of family and relatives at home naturally focused on the welfare of their distant loved ones in uniform.  As the traditional Christmas season was fast approaching, many longed to send messages of love and support to their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives now embroiled in the greatest military conflict of modern times. 

In October 1914, a young member of the British Royal Family made a suggestion that perfectly captured this public sentiment.  Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, approached the British government with a proposal to create "Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary's Sailors' and Soldiers' Fund".  Its purpose was to solicit donations from the general public, with the goal of ensuring that "every Sailor afloat and every Soldier at the front" received a Christmas present from "home" on December 25, 1914.
Her Royal Highness Princess Mary (c. 1926)
In typical British fashion, a government committee was formed to discuss implementation of the princess's plan.  At its inaugural meeting on October 14, committee members decided that the gift should take the form of an embossed brass box containing a number of small items.  It would be delivered to every individual wearing "the King's uniform" at the front lines on Christmas Day 1914.  The committee determined that 145 000 sailors and 350 000 soldiers - including the Indian Contingent - qualified as recipients, and estimated the cost of purchasing 500 00 gift boxes at 55 000 to 60 000 British pounds.

The initial public response was overwhelming - almost 170 000 British pounds were raised in the initial appeal, prompting the Committee to widen eligibility to all British and Imperial military personnel - an estimated 2 620 019 service men and women!  As it was not possible to deliver gifts to such a large number by December 25, 1914, the Committee created three classes of qualified recipients to whom the boxes would be delivered in order of priority.

Class "A" consisted of all naval personnel and troops at the Front, as well as wounded soldiers in hospital, men on furlough, prisoners of war (their gifts were held in reserve), nurses serving at the Front, and widows and parents of soldiers killed in action.  Class "B" included all British, colonial and Indian troops serving outside the British Isles and not provided for in Class "A".  Finally, Class "C" included all troops stationed in Britain.  Gifts were to be delivered to all personnel in Class "A" before, on or shortly after Christmas Day 1914.  Individuals in Classes "B" and "C" would receive their gifts - containing a "Happy New Year" card in lieu of a Christmas greeting - sometime during or after January 1915.

To help raise the required funds, Princess Mary published a letter in British and colonial newspapers in early November 1914, making the following appeal: "I want you all to help me send a Christmas present from the whole nation to every sailor afloat and every soldier at the Front".  Citizens were encouraged to send their donations to HRH the Princess Mary, Buckingham Palace, S. W. in envelopes marked "Sailors and Soldiers Christmas Fund".

Gift Box Silhouette of Princess Mary
(Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box)
 Response was so overwhelming that the Committee decided to purchase an "embossed brass box" in which the gifts would be packaged.  Approximately 5 inches long, 3 1/4 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches deep, it took the form of a double-skinned, hinged brass tin.  Its cover design contained Princess Mary's silhouette and monogram in the center, with the names of the various "Allied Powers" embossed around its edges - the British Empire ("Imperium Britannicum"), Japan, Russia, Montenegro, Serbia ("Servia"), France and Belgium.  The words "Christmas 1914" were embossed below the Princess's silhouette.

Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box
The Committee decided to provide two basic sets of gifts.  "Smokers" received one ounce of tobacco, a packet of 20 cigarettes wrapped in yellow, monogrammed paper, and a tinder lighter. "Non-smokers" received a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case, and a lead "bullet" pencil, while nurses received chocolates.  All boxes contained a picture of Princess Mary and a Christmas card.  The date 1914 and the words "With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from the Princess Mary and Friends at Home" were printed beneath Princess's monogram.

Tobacco & Cigarettes in Gift Box
Several practical obstacles had to be overcome before the Committee could tackle the logistics of delivering such a large number of gifts to troops at the Front.  A shortage of brass, a key component in military equipment, created delays in manufacturing the boxes.  In fact, a later shipment of brass from the United States was lost when a German submarine torpedoed the cargo ship Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.
"Bullet" pencil and writing paper
Filling the boxes also required an immense quantity of supplies - 44,840 pounds of tobacco; 710,069 pipes; 13,050,000 cigarettes and 500 000 cards!  Amazingly, an estimated 335 000 boxes were delivered by Christmas Day 1914.  Brass shortages meant that some personnel did not receive their packages until the summer of 1916.  By January 1919, the British War Office reported that 252 250 gifts remained  undelivered, and placed advertisements in newspapers in hopes of contacting the remaining eligible soldiers.
"Bullet" pencil, card and photograph of Princess Mary
The "Sailors' and Soldiers" Christmas Fund" ceased operation in 1920 - six years after its inception.  The remaining money was transferred to Queen Mary's Maternity Home, an establishment founded to support the wives and children of sailors, soldiers and airmen.  More than 200 000 British pounds has been raised during the campaign, mostly from thousands of small donations made by ordinary citizens. 

A total of 2.5 million gift boxes were distributed during and after the war.  After consuming its contents, many servicemen and women used the empty tins to carry small personal items throughout the war, making the "Princess Mary Christmas box" the most common "Great War" keepsake among soldiers of the British Empire.  All of this blossomed from a young Princess's wishes to brighten the first Christmas at war for thousands of British military personnel - a truly remarkable story.


Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood.  Wikipedia.

The Princess Mary Christmas Gift.  Website of the Parish of Kinnethmont, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  Available online.

Princess Mary's 1914 Christmas Gift.  Mainland Arms and Militaria Gun Shows.  Available online.
Tin - Princess Mary's Christmas Gift 1914.  Museum Victoria, Australia.  Available online.

Pte. James Leo McDonald's Christmas 1914 box courtesy of his son, Sylvester MacDonald.  Photographs  of this box courtesy of Bonnie McGrath.