Edwin Pitchford was born in Ketley, Shropshire to Edwin Pitchford Snr and Mary Jane Pitchford [née Owen] on 13th July 1884, and the seventh of their eight children.
Following his education at Wellington Edwin tried his hand at a number of different occupations before making the decision to emigrate to Canada in 1913, his brother William having emigrated himself some years before. On 6th September 1913 he arrived in Montreal aboard the ‘SS Megantic’ from Liverpool along with his brother, his sister-in-law and young nephew who had been back to England on a family visit. His occupation recorded at this time was that of a carpenter.
On 5th January 1915 Edwin was living in East Calgary, working as a clerk when he signed his attestation papers1 for enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After completion of his basic training he embarked for England on 12th June 1915 where the Battalion prepared itself for service on the Western Front, arriving there along with its horses on 22nd September 1915.
However, it soon became clear that the appalling conditions were entirely unsuitable for mounted warfare and so 1st January 1916 the Regiment, along with five others, were converted to dismounted infantry.
Edwin’s Battalion, together with the 4th Battalion, were located on the 3rd Division front line on 2nd June when the Germans launched their assault at what became known as the ‘Battle of Mount Sorrel’: their positions were overrun and approximately 80% of the Canadian Forces occupying the area were either captured, wounded or killed.
Most of the fighting took place between what was known as ‘Hill 60’ on wooded ground at HOOGE and ZWARTELEEN. The eastern edges of SANCTUARY WOOD and ARMAGH WOOD lay on a crest with the high points at MOUNT SORREL itself and TOR TOP, known as ‘Hill 62’ being its height in metres above sea level. Looking down from the heights one had an excellent view over the Ypres salient, the town and the various communication lines running to and fro. Being such a vital tactical location made it the target for a German attack.
Both the Divisional Commander, Major-General Mercer2 and the Canadian Brigade Commander, Brigadier-General Williams3 went out on a reconnaissance at 6.00am on 2nd June so as to be able to plan a local attack. At approximately 8.00am they were about half a mile ahead of the front line as the Germans began their bombardment and as this intensified trenches, dugouts and barbed wire were all destroyed with the wounded being evacuated to the rear. Whilst the British artillery retaliated it was largely ineffective as the lines of communication were cut by enemy shells and the forward observation officers [FOO] had either been wounded or killed.
It was around early afternoon that both Generals’ Williams and Mercer were lost, delivering a critical blow to the Canadian forces. In addition to the loss of these two senior officers the Commanding Officer of Edwin’s Battalion was killed.4 As the afternoon progressed the Germans, who had been tunnelling close to the now obliterated British trench near Mount Sorrel itself, detonated their mines and began an infantry assault with five Battalions with a further eleven in support behind. There was little that the defending British and Canadian forces could do to hold the line and for some of the defending Canadians this was their first taste of hand to hand combat. In SANCTUARY WOOD itself the Canadians did manage to hold the line, but at a high price in terms of casualties.
Once the extent of the enemy attack was known the order was given to deploy the Canadian reserve units located close by [2nd and 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 42nd Battalion, Canadian Infantry], but they were too small in number to be able to mount a successful counterattack and so were ordered to form a defensive line in whatever trenches and natural terrain they could find.
The Canadian Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng5 then called for more troops from much further afield, including the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade and 7th Battalion of 1st Canadian Division so that a counter attack could take place. Unfortunately by 2.00am on 3rd June, [zero hour], not all the new troops had taken up position and many were caught out in the open as they made their way to the front and it was not until after 7.00am that they were ready to attack: in broad daylight!
Some of the rocket signals being used to signify the commencement of the attack misfired and so the various units began their offensive at different times thus allowing the enemy to direct their fire. Whilst some Canadian soldiers managed to fight their way into the German trenches by means of bayonet and bullet they were unable to capture and hold them and so fell back to the start line.
Whilst all the gaps in the British line had been plugged with fresh troops it was vital to all concerned that the Germans were removed from the positions they had recently captured, thus denying them an unrestricted view across the salient, the only issue being that more manpower would be required to achieve this objective. Thus it was that a request was made of Sir Douglas Haig who had little choice but to agree to more reinforcements: the result being that additional artillery units, including two recently arrived from South Africa, together with infantry support were ordered into the area. The existing units, together with those freshly arrived now had to cope with rapidly deteriorating weather as they tried to consolidate their position and prepare for an assault on the enemy positions.
It was whilst the preparations for this fresh attack were taking place that Private Edwin Pitchford, ‘B’ Company, 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles, was reported as ‘missing in action’ at a point south-west of Brandhoek after being in the trenches at ‘Maple Copse’. His body was never found and presumption of death was declared to be Monday 5th June 1916; he was 31 years of age.
Edwin is commemorated on the Ypres, (Menin Gate) Memorial in Belgium and also on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial which is displayed at the Peace Tower, Central Parliament Buildings, in Ottawa, Ontario.
The Canadian Mounted Rifles is perpetuated today in the North Saskatchewan Regiment.