newfoundland regiment

April 14, 1917 - Ten Newfoundlanders Hold Back a German Division for Five Hours

Pictured - The men of Monchy-le-Preux. Front Row: Pte. F. Curran, Cpl J. H. Hillier, Pte. J. Hounsell, Lt.-Col. J. Forbes-Robertson, Lieut. K. J. Keegan, Sgt. C. Parsons, Sgt. J. R. Waterfield
Back Row: Cpl. A. S.Rose, Sgt. W. Pitcher, Lt.-Col. J. Forbes-Robertson, Lieut. K. J. Keegan, Sgt. C. Parsons, Sgt. J. R. Waterfield.

An action fought on April 14 was one of the most remarkable of the war. Launching an attack on German positions near the town of Monchy-le-Preux, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually annihilated, losing 458 men killed, badly wounded, or taken prisoner. A group of ten soldiers, however, including the regiment’s commander Lt.-Col. J. Forbes Robertson, dodged German gunfire and made it back to Monchy.

Sheltering behind a hedge, the little squad watched as the Germans jumped out of their own trenches and counter-attacked, trying to capture the village. For over five hours, however, this small band of Newfoundlanders held them off with rifle fire. Scavenging ammo and rifles from dead soldiers, the squad held their fire and made every bullet count; within two hours they had killed 40 Germans. Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes-Robertson accounted for 30 all by himself.

One of the men, Corporal Rose, ran off to headquarters to ask for help, and then heroically returned to the fight, scrambling to avoid German rifles both ways. After five hours, British artillery rained down on the clumped-up Germans, and then a regiment of Hampshires arrived to drive them off. But it was only thanks to ten men from Britain’s smallest dominion that a vital strategic position had been saved. A mighty bronze caribou today marks the spot where they made their stand.

Battle of Vimy Ridge Ends

The ruins of the village of Monchy, pictured in May.  On April 14, 10 men from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment defended the village against an attacking German division for five hours.

April 14 1917, Vimy–The Canadians at Vimy Ridge and the British at Arras had had a great success on the first day of the battle.  However, this was not followed up in the evening or on the next day.  In part, this was due to conditions on the ground; there was heavy snowfall for the next three days.  Additionally, the British had not really expected a success, and were not prepared to exploit it.  Over the following days, the Allies consolidated their positions, taking the last parts of Vimy Ridge (the so-called “Pimple,” not attacked on the first day) and then descending onto the plain below.  The Germans, meanwhile, had fallen back to their positions to the east, which were well-prepared in the manner of the Hindenburg Line and which would not be so easily cracked.  

On April 14, the major Allied attacks around Vimy Ridge and Arras came to an end.  They had advanced two-and-a-half to five miles, taken the high ground in the area, inflicted heavy casualties, and captured 13,000 German prisoners.  Strategically, it accomplished its goals as well, bringing a large number of German reserves to the area.  Five days after the end of major operations (and three days after the French would attack on the Aisne), the Germans had twice the number of troops in the area than they had had before April 9.  Of course, this came at a high cost, with the Canadians suffering just over 10,000 casualties and the British 8,000.  

Today in 1916: Austria and Germany Disagree on Future of Poland 
Today in 1915: British Defeat Turks at Shaiba

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Alexander McKee, Vimy Ridge; E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory.

Trench footprint: The still pockmarked landscape of Beaumont Hamel on the Somme where the Newfoundland Regiment were decimated by German machine guns. 1916

After 1918 the immense task of “clearing up” was carried out by the military and the civilians who were returning to their shattered communities.

The landscape in the fighting lines had been smashed to pieces. Roads, woods, farms and villages were often no longer recognisable. Local people who had been forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods were faced with the huge task of making a new start, rebuilding homes, businesses, farms, churches, public buildings, roads, bridges, railways and canals. The hazardous job of clearing abandoned weapons, battlefield debris, ammunition, filling in craters, tunnels, and, in many cases, exhuming soldiers’ remains had to be carried out.

I think I need help.

Days until I have to present my thesis (at least the concept): 3,5

Process on said presentation: 8%

Days I already have other stuff to do until now: at least two separate evenings, so 1

What did I do today: In university, I spent the whole 90 minutes of my only course this week googling information for my Gallipoli AU. Including a detailed history of the Newfoundland Regiment. Which plays a role one could compare with Officer Cass in A New Hope.

Sometimes, I feel like it could really achieve something if I would know how to apportion my devotion and energy…

June 26, 1916 - The Somme: British Trench Raids Reveal German Positions Unaffected by Bombardment

Pictured - A team of British trench raiders, the “Hun Snatchers”.  Trench raiding was a nightly occurrence on the Western Front, as men sneaked across No Man’s Land to seize prisoners and cause havoc in the enemy lines.

Most of the British army preparing for the Battle of the Somme was the unbloodied formations of Kitchener’s New Armies, the units of eager volunteers raised in 1914 and 1915 to turn the British Expeditionary Force from a tiny corps of elite, professional soldiers, into a mass army like those of Germany and France.  The Battle of the Somme was the first test for these soldiers.  Most were eager and confident of victory, especially as they watched thousands of their artillery pound the German lines unbroken for three days by June 26.  The BEF’s commander, General Haig, shared in his soldiers’ enthusiasm.  In a note written to the General Staff on June 16, he expressed his plan that “the advance was to be pressed eastward far enough to enable our cavalry to push through into the open country beyond the enemy’s prepared lines of defence.”

Infamously, British officers supposedly told their men that on D-Day they could simply stroll over to the enemy’s trenches without firing a shot.  Major Robert Money expressed his confidence in his diary in late June: “It appears that in about a week’s time we shall be required to prance into the Hun trenches - well cheerio and I hope the Huns will like it… Nothing seems to have been spared to make this show a success - nothing seems to have been overlooked.”

To check the state of their enemy’s defenses and keep the men keyed up for battle, front-line battalions sent raiders over No Man’s Land every night.  Thanks to the unending barrage, which paused briefly for its own men, penetrating the German lines was easy enough.  But inside the German trenches, raiders were surprised to be met with organized resistance.  Rather ominously, an Intelligence report noted that “Raids attempted all along the Corps Front were unsuccessful, in some sectors owing to intense machine gun and rifle fire.”  Soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment were driven off in a raid of their own, according to one officer forced hurriedly to “turn tail”.

The First Day on the Somme

A plate from Joe Sacco’s epic illustrated panorama The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.

July 1 1916, Albert–After a weeks’ bombardment, the great Allied offensive on the Somme was set to begin on the morning of July 1st.  Mines were detonated in many places under the German lines at 7:28 AM (and in one notable case, 7:20), and the infantry advanced at 7:30.  The majority had crept out into no-man’s land before zero hour, but still needed to make it across a substantial portion of it and through the German wire.

The artillery bombardment had, on most of the line, been entirely ineffective at its goals.  The German wire was still intact in most places, German dugouts remained intact and machine guns were able to resume firing even before 7:30.  Except in the south, where the French had prioritized it, German artillery was scarcely interfered with and was able to keep up a steady barrage of shrapnel into no-man’s land by 7:25.  An account of the ‘Sheffield Pals’ Battalion describes:

They had to pass through a terrible curtain of shell fire, and German machine guns were rattling death from two sides.  But the lines growing even thinner, went on unwavering.  Here and there a shell would burst right among the attackers….Whole sections were destroyed; one section of 14 platoon was killed by concussion, all the men falling to the ground without a murmur.  The left half of ‘C’ Company was wiped out before getting near the German wire….The third and fourth waves suffered so heavily that by the time they reached No-Man’s-Land they had lost at least half their strength….The few survivors took shelter in shell-hols in front of the German line and remained there until they could get back under cover of darkness.  What torture the troops endured in the shell holes they alone knew.

Confusion reigned in the first hours of the attack.  Officers and NCOs, leading their men, were often the first killed.  Commanders behind the line, with little reliable telephone communication with the front and extremely limited visibility, tried to make sense of the situation.  Trained after the failures at Loos (and Gallipoli) to try to exploit success where it came, they sent additional troops where they believed they were making gains.  The 29th Division HQ believed they were making substantial gains, when, in fact, only a few had made it through a gap in the German wire, briefly capturing the first line of trenches before being forced back into no-man’s land.  The Newfoundland Regiment was sent forward to reinforce the supposed gains; they were not ordered out alone, but were the only ones to even make it to the British wire.  At that point:

Machine gun fire from our right front was at once opened on us and then artillery fire also.  The distance to our objective varied from 650 to 900 yards.  The enemy’s fire was effective from the outset but the heaviest casualties occurred on passing through the gaps in our front wire where the men were mown down in heaps….In spite of losses the survivors steadily advanced until close to the enemies’ wire by which time very few remained.  A few men are believed to have actually succeeded in throwing bombs into the enemy’s trench.

None made it there; the Newfoundland Regiment suffered 90% casualties, 38% of them dead.  None of the attacks on the northern two-thirds of the British line made any gains of note that lasted the day.  Up to a third of British casualties were suffered behind the British front lines, where German artillery and machine gun fire could still easily reach

Further south, the Allies had some successes.  The German line had a 90-degree turn around Fricourt, allowing the British artillery to attack from two sides.  They also had help further south from the French, who although they could only conduct a relatively limited infantry assault due to the fighting at Verdun, had artillery to spare for the British effort. The creeping barrage, where the infantry advanced behind a steadily advancing line of shellfire, seemed to work in many places, with some battalions in the 7th Division reaching the German trenches without suffering a single casualty. (Elsewhere, the creeping barrage had advanced too quickly, leaving the advancing soldiers without cover.)  The furthest advances were made on the extreme right of the British lines, where they seized the village of Montauban at around 10:40, having advanced just over a mile.

Attacks died down in the afternoon, except a few attacks on the fortified town of Fricourt; the attacks had either largely achieved their objectives or (more commonly) completely fallen apart well before then.  The British lost 57,000 men on the day, just under 20,000 of them killed, for a gain of three square miles around Fricourt.  The Germans lost only around 10,00, though they suffered greatly where British did make gains, even after surrendering.  The official War Diary of the Manchesters described:

Considerable enjoyment was given to our troops by Lt. Robertson who made the prisoners run across the open through their own Artillery barrage, upon reaching our line these men were kept out of our dugouts by the sharp end of a bayonet.

Today in 1915: SS Armenian and Her Cargo of Mules Sunk by U24 
Today in 1914:  Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza Formally Protests Austrian Plans For War

Sources include: John Keegan, The First World War; Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme; Lyn MacDonald, Somme; Arthur Banks, Atlas of the First World War; Joe Sacco, The Great War.

British troops waiting, some still sleeping, in a support trench shortly before zero hour, Beaumont Hamel, the Battle of the Somme, 1 July, 1916.  Beaumont Hamel was the extreme northern edge of the attack zone.  The 29th division was ordered to attack that morning after the Hawthorne Mine was detonated.  The mine destroyed an emplacement, but alerted the German’s 119th Reserve Regiment to an imminent attack.  Scrambling to their posts, the German’s were able to stop the 86th and 87th Brigades in No Man’s Land, while the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the right flank had some success.  At 8:45 that morning, the Newfoundlanders were ordered to attack.  They were in this support trench along St. John’s Road behind the Tommy above.  This trench was 250 yards behind the front line British trench.  The front line was congested with wounded and dying from the 86th and 87th, so Lt. Col. Hadow ordered the Newfoundlander’s out above the trenches.  These men were visible across the whole battlefield.  Within 15-20 minutes, 22 officers and 650 men from other ranks were dead, dying, or wounded.  Many didn’t even make it to the British front line.  Out of 780 men, only 110 were unscathed and only 68 were available the next day for roll call.  Suffering 80% casualties, the Newfoundland Regiment ceased to exist.  Today there is a memorial to these 800 men whose resting places are unknown.  

Bringing in a wounded man of the 29th Division after the assault at Beaumont Hamel, 1 July 1916.
The assault on Beaumont Hamel was, like much of the tragic first day of the Somme, a dismal failure. It highlighted the poor planning, unsophisticated tactics and dogged-mindedness of the British. The attacking division, the 29th, suffered over five thousand casualties that day, with the colonial Newfoundland Regiment accounting for over 700 of those.

The agony on the faces of those men really symbolises much of the soldiers lot during War for me.

Every day is a day of remembrance, and this one is no different.

At Beaumont Hamel on the first day at the Somme, 780 troops from what was at the time still a British overseas territory charged across no-man’s-land.

In less than twenty minutes over 80% of them became casualties, leaving what was essentially a carpet of dead and wounded men behind, with only 63 of the survivors available for roll call the following morning. 

On that day, countless of Newfoundland’s best and brightest were cut down in the abominable industrial meat grinder of the Great War. 

As the centennial of the war’s outbreak approaches, let us take a short moment to remember the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who went into action on July 1, 1916 and who never returned home. 

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Somme Offensive of the Great War, it is also Canada day and I’d like to take  a moment to talk about the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. 

They come from an island, from very small fishing communities and are some of the kindest, most welcoming and thickly-accented people I’ve ever met. Their province, as today, was not a wealthy or well-developed one and yet they volunteered in droves when the war broke out. Many of them joined the Royal Navy as befitted their background and culture, but the pride of the Island was their Royal Regiment, ‘The Blue Puttees’ they were nicknamed for their leg-wrapping colour, a distinctive blue due to the lack of khaki materials in the island when many enlisted. 

On July 1st 1916, the regiment would be part of the first wave assaulting one of the most heavily defended parts of the western front, Beaumont-Hamel. In the space of about 20-30 minutes of going over the top, this pride of Newfoundland, their sons fathers and husbands who grew up together and now served together would suffer the 2nd highest casualty rate of any unit of the British Army in the 1st World War. 

780 men went over the top, 68 answered for roll call the next day.