McGill’s Olympian: Percival Molson and the PPCLI

Captain Percival Molson MC, PPLCI. Photo courtesy http://www.findagrave.com
Captain Percival Molson MC, PPLCI. Photo courtesy http://www.findagrave.com

First of all, we’d like to wish all of our readers a Happy New Year! It’s been a very big year for us and we’re hoping that, with your continued support, we will go on to have an even bigger year in 2016. Over the holidays I had the privilege of touring the Military Museums of Calgary with its senior curator, Rory Cory. One of my favourite artefacts on display is part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry collection and is on display in their part of the museum, Captain Percival Molson’s kit bag. Molson is a sort of special figure to me; the PPCLI was always in the Stampede Parade when I was a kid growing up in Calgary, and I know live a block away from the Percival Molson Memorial Stadium near McGill.

The Molson family had made its fortune in brewing by the time Percival was born on Cacouna, Québec in 1883. Percival Molson was an athlete, playing on the Stanley Cup winning Montreal Victorias team at the age of sixteen, and was involved in many aspects of McGill’s sports teams during his time there as a student in the early 1900s. Molson qualified and ran in the 400m race in the 1904 Summer Olympics, though he did not finish in the top three. He was also the youngest member of McGill’s board of governors and by the outbreak of the war was working at the National Trust Company. All in all, Molson, appears to have been highly successful and would probably have gone on to be even more so had he had the chance. The war, however, interrupted his upward path.

Molson enlisted in 1915 with the 2nd University Company CEF. The University Companies served as recruiting bodies at university campuses across Canada, and most of their recruits would go on to serve as officers in the CEF. Molson was no different. After training and a brief stint in the Canadian Record Office in the fall of 1915, Molson was officially transferred as a captain to the PPCLI. The PPCLI was itself the product of another wealthy Anglo-Montrealer, Hamilton Gault. A veteran of the Boer War, Gault personally funded the raising of the PPCLI at the outbreak of the war, recruiting largely war veterans and fast tracking them to the Western Front. The PPCLI occupied a somewhat irregular position, as they were officially attached to the British army’s 80th Brigade, and did not come under Canadian command until the winter of 1915 when the regiment was absorbed into the 3rd Division CEF. The regiment was known for being a crack troop, and had proved itself in some of the most desperate situations the Canadians faced in 1915 and 1916, with great loss of life.

Molson arrived to join the PPCLI in December 1915 and fought with the regiment through the spring of 1916 when he was seriously wounded in the face at Mount Sorrel in June 1916. Mount Sorrel and the later battle for Sanctuary Wood was one of the worst mistakes of the war for the Canadian command. Unprepared for a German attack that had been massing for several days at the lines around Mont-Sorrel, the PPLCI faced a 24 hour bombardment and surprise attack almost alone. The counter attack on 3rd June was a disaster and Molson was shot in the face, one of 3 750 casualties of the first three days of the battle. His jaw was wired shut and he was sent to hospital in England and later Canada until April 1917. During his recuperation, Molson received the Military Cross for his actions during the attack on Mont-Sorrel. Molson returned to the front on 1 June 1917 and was killed by a direct hit from a howitzer on 5 July 1917, one of the thousands who died during the quiet times on the front and referred to by command as ‘wastage’.

Before leaving Montréal for the final time in March 1917, Percival Molson updated and resigned his will. McGill University had begun construction on a new stadium in 1914, which had been halted because of the war, and Molson left the university 75 000$ for the continued construction of the stadium. It was named the Percival Molson Memorial Stadium after a vote of the Board of Governors in 1919. The stadium still stands today and hosts the Montréal Alouettes every year.

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