A Centennial Action
On 14 April 1917, two days after the Canadian Expeditionary Force had secured its positions atop Vimy Ridge, an attack was launched by the Newfoundland Regiment (NFLD R) and a battalion of the 1st Essex Regiment from the village of Monchy-le-Preux with the objective of Infantry Hill, along with Bois du Vert and a smaller stand of trees known as Machine Gun Woods.
As a separate dominion of the British Empire, Newfoundland’s military contribution operated independently of Canada’s forces. Consequently, the men known as The Blue Puttees had just entered the line after a lengthy period of recuperation and refitting, following their devastating losses at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, and the larger Somme campaign.
Striking east of Arras from the village of Monchy-le-Preux at 05:30, the men were fighting with a hurried and inadequate tactical plan, the attack stuttered and stalled under withering fire from German machine gun and artillery positions. By 09:00, the attacking forces were surrounded and pressed from three sides by German counter-attacks.
It soon became apparent to Lieutenant-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson that he and his Battalion HQ staff were all that stood between the counter-attacking Germans and a major breakthrough, west towards Arras. Gathering up his staff, along with weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded they passed, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson led the tiny force of no more than 20 men through the deserted streets of Monchy, toward the battlefield. At the edge of the village, they dashed across 100 yards of open ground to a small embankment and hedge. By the time they reached it, machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire had reduced their force to just ten men.
From the diminutive safety of the embankment, armed only with rifles, the ten men then held off the approaching Germans for eleven hours under Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s leadership. By alternating between both rapid and sniping fire, while dashing along and firing from various spots of the embankment, they were able to confuse the Germans as to their actual defence and number. Sniping of German scouts sent forward also nullified attempts to gauge the size of the Newfoundlanders’ defence. During a lull in the shelling, Private Rose escaped back to Brigade HQ with the message of Monchy-le-Preux’s endangerment. Against orders, Private Rose returned to his fellow Newfoundlanders’, guiding the first platoon of reinforcements. Finally, at 22:00, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s little band of fighters was relieved. Another dark day in the history of the Newfoundland Regiment was over.
In the initial morning attack the NFLD R’s total casualties numbered 460; 166 killed in action, 141 wounded, and 153 Prisoners of War. One of the dead included Lt. Robert Holloway, whom we discussed in our 100 Days of Vimy post on 15 March 2017 (read it here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-march-15th-2017/ ). Lt. Holloway was killed by artillery near Bois du Vert while carrying a message back to Battalion HQ. In a cruel twist of fate, British artillery fire called into later defend the ten men at the embankment fell into the fields east of the village, killing many of the wounded Newfoundlanders who had laid there since the morning attack. After the battle, all ten men of the defence of Monchy-le-Preux were cited for gallantry:
Lt.-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, Commanding Officer – Distinguished Service Order
Lieut. Kevin J. Keegan, Signalling Officer – Military Cross
Sgt. J. Ross Waterfield, Provost Sergeant – Military Medal
Cpl. John Hillier, Battalion Orderly Room Corporal – Military Medal
Cpl. Charles Parsons, Signalling Corporal – Military Medal
Lance-Cpl. Walter Pitcher, Provost Corporal – Military Medal
Pte. Frederick Curran, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Japheth Hounsell, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Albert S. Rose, Battalion Runner – Military Medal
Pte. V. M. Parsons, 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment – Military Medal
In detailing the attack, planners chose to extend a thin salient even deeper into the German lines, which only increased its chances of being surrounded. A shortage of shells led to inadequate fire support in the initial stages of the attack. Planners also appear to have forgotten to send an occupying force into Monchy-le-Preux, leaving the village-wide open to a counter-attack succeeded through the remnants of the destroyed Newfoundland and 1st Essex Regiments. Re-occupying the village would have provided the Germans with an elevated vantage point just a few kilometres east of Arras, making its defence by “The Monchy Ten” all the more important.
For a detailed account of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s attack and defence of Monchy-le-Preux, we suggest reading “The Greatest Gallantry” by Anthony McAllister, CD.