Manitoba Organization: 27th “City of Winnipeg” Battalion
by Ian Stewart
The 27th Battalion mobilized in October 1914, and, in December, the men were billeted at the Old Agricultural College Dairy and Machray Buildings at Tuxedo Park. They trained over the winter and one memoirist recalled their primitive drill, “Trenches of snow were built with protection of binder twine to act as barbed wire. These were used for instructional purposes and later for attack purposes.” A month before the Battalion departed for England, the men received their made in Winnipeg, 27th “City of Winnipeg” Battalion, hat badges in a ceremony in front of City Hall. “The design was simple and effective, wrote a local paper, “being the city coat of arms mounted on a maple leaf and containing the inscription XXVII BATTN.”
In May 1915, the Battalion boarded trains decorated with pendants and one carried a banner reading “From Winnipeg to Berlin and Return”. The trip across Canada and the voyage across the Atlantic to England were uneventful and on 29 May 1915, the 27th disembarked to begin advanced training. By early fall the Battalion, along with the rest of the 2nd Canadian Division, was prepared to go to the battlefields of France and Belgium. While waiting to board the transport ships readying to take them across the English Channel, the men sang popular tunes, including the favorite Goodbye-ee:
The “Winnipegs” took up positions in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, on 1 October 1915. Three days later, on 4 October 1915, Sergeant William Atton was killed while watching a “dogfight” in the sky above. “He held his head too high and was sniped”, wrote Winnipeg banker Lieutenant Ralph Jones in his diary, “just a couple moments after our Colonel [Irvine Snider] in passing warned him to take care and keep down lower…. being a short man has its advantages in the trenches.”
On 7 October, the 27th was relieved and returned to the relative safety of their billets four miles behind the front line. Jones commented in a letter to bank colleagues, “What amazes me now is how easily we get used to it all.” Ralph Jones was killed on 6 April 1916, leading his men during the Battalion’s and the 2nd Canadian Division’s first major action at the St. Eloi Craters. His body was never recovered, and he is memorialized at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium.
As a Battalion memoirist wrote, “The story of St. Eloi will fill a page in history and the full story cannot be given here. The bare facts are that the Battalion, with others of the 2nd Division hurried up the line to relieve British troops…. Indeed, the battle was still in progress when our men took over, though there was a lull during the 3rd of April. The next day, however, the Germans began a bombardment, which for intensity has probably never be equalled. The effect was literally to wipe out the whole trench system of that sector. During three days of great stress and amid terrific confusion, our men hung onto their line and the result of the fight was the reestablishment of the old line.”
Lt. Col. Snider was relieved of command, as a cover for incompetent high-ranking officers who had ordered the Battalion into an impossible mission. Some historians assert that the Battle of the St. Eloi Craters was the only battle ever lost by Canadians in the war, as trenches that had been won by British troops were lost and never retaken. Snider was given sick leave and sent home to Canada. “They said it was shell shock,” he wrote in his memoir, “but it was hell-shock from the way I was treated.” As well, the Battalion’s officers were outraged when command was given to Major G. J. Daly, from the 31st (Alberta) Battalion, who led the battalion until April 1918. He was succeeded by Winnipegger Lt. Col. Harold Riley.
The men settled into the dreary routine of trench warfare on the Western Front. As one Winnipeg soldier wrote, “‘Up the line’ meant spending days in cramped trenches watching comrades killed and wounded by bullets, bombs or shells, the nights are hours of ceaseless work and watching. ‘Out on rest’—a succession of work, carrying, training. And always all over rats, vermin, gas and the knowledge that each moment of life is enslaved to other men in some remote headquarters.”
The Battalion regained its stolen glory during the Battle of the Somme. Following British tanks, the 27th attacked and captured the fortified village of Courcelette on September 15, 1916. It took almost 400 casualties, with 138 dead. Then, on September 26th, it took another 90 casualties attacking Sugar Trench and later supported attacks on the infamous Regina Trench. In late October and early November 1916, the Canadian divisions moved to take up positions facing Vimy Ridge and prepared for their memorable attack of April 9, 1917. The 27th was led into Battle of Vimy Ridge by Bandsman Patrick “Paddy” Smith, who was killed while playing the regimental march on his piccolo. The Battalion captured 10 German guns and took 300 prisoners, but its casualties were relatively low.
As spring moved into summer, the Battalion saw fierce fighting during the Battle of Fresnoy. On 3 May 1917, 80 men were killed, including Lieutenant Robert Combe who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for the “most conspicuous bravery and example”. Combe’s body was never recovered, and he is memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. In August 1917, the Canadian divisions moved into position to attack the German held city of Lens. The 27th attacked a German trench system on 21 August and, although inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, they could not hold the trench and suffered 51 dead.
The Canadians moved from France to Belgium’s Ypres salient in October 1917 to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele. On 6 November, the 27th successfully attacked Passchendaele village. According to the Battalion War Diary, all the wounded were evacuated from the battlefield but because of “the terribly very heavy going it was impossible to carry out the dead other than the officers.” The Battalion lost 70 men, including Private James Robertson, who won the Battalion’s second Victoria Cross for “his most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty.” Private Robertson rests at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, Belgium, along with 45,000 soldiers who are buried and memorialized at the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
During the last 100 Days Battles of 1918, the 27th saw action at Amiens, Arras, Cambrai and Mons. After the 11 November 1918 armistice, they became part of the occupation force along Germany’s Rhine River. In April 1919, they left Germany and began the long trip back through France, to England and home to Winnipeg. On 26 May 1919, the 27th “City of Winnipeg” Battalion came home from the war. The names of the returning soldiers had been published in the local papers, so, families and friends knew who was arriving on the special Canadian Pacific train. The train arrived in mid-afternoon and a large crowd had gathered at the Higgins Avenue station to greet the returning soldiers. Winnipeg had wanted an over-the-top welcome for its famous Battalion, but “the turmoil caused by the general strike prevented any formal events.”
Some 5000 men served in the 27th “City of Winnipeg Battalion” during the Great War. 902 did not return home. They are buried in over 135 Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries scattered across France and Belgium, near hospitals in the United Kingdom and memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Thousands of others were ruined in body, mind, or spirit: wounded, gassed, shell-shocked or invalided home from illness. The names of the fallen 27th Battalion soldiers can be found on the Next of Kin Memorial on the Manitoba legislative grounds, and on World War I memorials spread across the province. However, the City of Winnipeg never raised a monument to honour the sacrifice and memory of its namesake battalion.
Page revised: 3 November 2020