“Pro patria mori”: The McGill University Companies

I recently attended a lecture by historian Tim Cook on the legacy of Vimy, held at McGill. One thing that Dr. Cook mentioned was how closely entwined McGill’s history is with that the First World War, and how many buildings, plaques, and windows can be found around the campus that make reference to those from the school killed in the war. In total, over 3 000 McGill students and staff volunteered to fight overseas, of those, 363 did not return. 

Image: [Group portrait of McGill Overseas Company (?), in front of the Redpath Museum], c1915. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2016.07.13.01

McGill students fought in units throughout the Canadian Corps, but perhaps the most common was the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The battalion was raised in 1914 by Andrew Hamilton Gault, the son of Andrew Frederick Gault “the Cotton King of Canada”. Hamilton Gault (as he was known) contributed funds to equip the Patricias, and served with them until he lost a leg at Sanctuary Wood in June 1916.

The PPCLI was originally made up largely of former Boer War soldiers, and in the beginning recruited only those with previous military experience, so that the battalion could be sent to the front more quickly. Indeed, the PPCLI soldiers were the first Canadians to reach France, and fought at Saint Eloi in February 1915, where their commanding officer Lt Col Francis D. Farquhar was killed. Gault himself led the battalion through 2nd Ypres in the spring of 1915, and the PPCLI gained an enviable reputation during the war years.

During the Battle of Frezenberg in 1915, the PPCLI lost over 400 men and was in desperate need of reinforcements, as most of the “Originals” as the first volunteers were known, were wounded or killed. In the spring of 1915, George MacDonald and Percival Molson, both McGill graduates, decided to recruit from McGill, to form The McGill University Company. In all, five companies from McGill were recruited and sent to the front to reinforce the Patricias.

The image above shows First University Company in front of what is now the Redpath Museum. The company commander, in the middle, is Lt. Charles Alexander Pope. Like many members of the McGill companies, Pope was solidly middle-class. A lawyer, educated at McGill, he was 35 when he enlisted in 1915, and also a former member of the McGill OTC. Pope and the First University Company joined the PPCLI in France on 1 September 1915.

The cost of war, to the PPLCI and to McGill was extremely high. Over 1 200 soldiers and officers were killed during the four years the regiment was on the Front, and many more wounded. Lt. Pope was killed by a rifle grenade at Sanctuary Wood on 7 May 1916; Lt Col. Gault lost a leg at Mount Sorrel on 2 June 1916; Capt. Molson was killed by a hit from a German howitzer on 5 July 1917.

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