Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Birchall †
4th (Central Ontario) Battalion
A few years ago it was thought that a soldier was a machine, and should never be allowed to think for himself; the South African War altered all that, as far as our Army was concerned; the soldier is now taught to use his brains and to take advantage of ground and cover, with results which have been amply justified during the present war. In other words, our men are regarded as intelligent human beings.
(Birchall, Rapid Training of a Company for War, 1915, 29)
Arthur Percival Dearman Birchall was one of three CEF colonels killed in action during the second battle of Ypres in April 1915. Born on 3 July 1877 in Gloucester, England, Birchall was a professional soldier and fourteen-year veteran with the British Army. Before the World War, he participated in an officer exchange program with the Canadian militia and relocated to western Canada. As a military instructor, he attempted to transform citizen militiamen into effective soldiers prepared for war.
In January 1915, Birchall replaced the hospitalized R. H. Labatt as commander of the 4th Battalion. In February, the six-foot-four British officer led the central Ontario troops to France with the 1st Canadian Division. The experienced colonel inspired great confidence and respect in his men as the 4th fought its first major battle on the Ypres Salient in April 1915.
Private William Patrick Welch called Brichall, “the bravest man that God ever put the breath of life into. Wounded three times before he fell, he went down begging the men to do their duty. And they did it. Fought like men–yes, like fiends, for they were fighting for a man they loved.”
While urging his men forward during the advance against Mauser Ridge on 23 April, Birchall was struck down by a hail of bullets.
Writing home, a 4th Battalion lance-corporal described Birchall’s exceptional composure and resolve under fire: “…our commander was a fine man. He stood six feet four, and never carried a weapon, leading us with a cane in his hand. He knew nothing of fear, and to see him going ahead, waving his cane, and encouraging his men, you would have thought he was on manoeuvers and not in a real battle.”
Major James Ballantine assumed temporary command of the 4th during the battle until a recovered Labatt returned to France as Birchall’s official replacement.
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