Courage, Sacrifice and Betrayal: the story of the Victoria Rifles of Canada – 60th Battalion in the First World War
by Richard R. Pyves
published by Helion & Company in 2018
Hardback ISBN 978 1 912390 28 1
256 pages plus large appendices, bibliography, index. Illustrated.
Cover price not stated by publisher’s flyer states £29.95
Reviewed by Chris Baker
This is a terrific book: a well researched and well written history of an ill-fated unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It is produced in the high quality materials we now recognise as the hallmark of Helion & Company’s output and is profusely illustrated, not least with portrait photographs of many of the officers and men of the battalion.
The 60th Battalion was raised in Montreal in late May 1915 and was commanded throughout its existence by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Arthur de Long Gascoigne, an officer with 30 years’ pre-war experience in the Militia but no active experience of war. He faced the demanding task of turning a unit of volunteers, with few officers and men with any military experience, into a fighting unit. It is of interest to see that over half of the men were of British or Irish birth, and, although he had been in Canada since childhood, Gascoigne was born in Gosport in Hampshire. The statistics and narrative of the book make it quite plain that this was not a unit of bronzed, six-feet-tall frontiersmen, but a mix of ordinary men from the middle and industrial classes. In that regard, the 60th is not unlike most of the units raised for “Kitchener’s Army” in Britain.
The battalion moved to England in November 1915 and, under command of 9th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division, landed in France in February 1916. As things turned out, it only served there for fourteen months before being disbanded just after the attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
The author, whose North Shields-born grandfather Edward Lewis Pyves served with the battalion and who earned the Military Medal for his work at Hill 60 in August 1916, has scoured official, published and local unpublished sources to produce a vivid account of the war as experienced by the “Silent 60th”. Its first major action, and the one that was to cost it most dearly in terms of casualties, came early when it was heavily engaged in the Sanctuary Wood area in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916. The battalion also participated in the Battle of the Somme later that year.
By early 1917 there were rumours and high-level discussions concerning the possible disbandment of the battalion. With voluntary recruitment drying up in Canada and Montreal particularly struggling in this regard, it was becoming clear that it was not going to be possible to maintain all units at full strength. The 60th, being the most junior of the Montreal units, was selected for the painful task of being split up and the men re-assigned to other units. The axe finally fell, just days after the battalion had been engaged in the capture of Vimy and Petit-Vimy in early April 1917.
The narrative is valuable as a record; the statistics and analysis help us to make sense of context; and the inclusion of many individual stories and respectful description of the death and wounding of many men, make this an exemplary study.