“The story of the defence of Masnières and of the part which the Newfoundland Battalion played in it is one which, I trust, will never be forgotten on our side of the Atlantic.” – Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the first Battle of Cambrai (20 November – 6 December 1917). By the time the battle ended, the British had relinquished much of the territorial gains made on 20 November. An attack that had seen church bells rung in England to celebrate its initial success, was now ended with a general withdrawal. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
The Battle of Cambrai had a significant impact on the Newfoundland Regiment, so much so that they erected one of their six Caribou memorials at Masnières. In total, Newfoundland suffered 352 wounded and 110 dead in the attack, and subsequent defence, during the Cambrai offensive. Two weeks after the battle, King George V granted the prefix title of “Royal” to the Newfoundland Regiment, one of only three times the honour was bestowed while Britain was still at war (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 423).
On this day in 1917, the Germans renew their counter-attack in front of Cambrai. Still holding on at Marcoing since 30 November, the Newfoundlanders came under horrific shellfire, with entire sections of trench being flattened and the men “blown out of their posts” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422). Refusing to lose ground to the enemy, Sergeant Leo Fitzpatrick, of Conche, Newfoundland, would earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal by day’s end.
Having already earned the Military Medal eight weeks prior during the Battle of Poelcappelle, Sergeant Fitzpatrick now volunteered to lead a squad in re-taking a lost section of trench. During the ensuing action, he rescued an officer that had been wounded and left behind, retreated, and then returned with grenades and proceeded to bomb the hostile party out of the trench (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422).
Despite being pushed back to the western side of the lock along the canal, the Newfoundland Regiment managed to hold on to Marcoing for the day. For their actions, many of their ranks would receive the Military Medal, including three stretcher bearers – Privates William Fowlow, Hubert Dibben, and John Hennebury (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422). For their stand that day, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered one officer killed and seventy other ranks killed, wounded or prisoner.
The next day, 4 December 1917, General Byng ordered a general withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line’s Support System, establishing what was considered a stronger line for the winter, but at the loss of many of the hard-won objectives from the Cambrai offensive (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 423). For the Newfoundlanders, who had been relieved on the night of 3 December, it would have been difficult to physically witness the withdrawal from Marcoing and Masnières.
In honour of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s role in the Cambrai offensive from 20 November – 6 December 1917, today’s slang term is “Blue Puttee”.
Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Newfoundland suddenly found itself needing to clothe hundreds of volunteers, without having a stock of uniforms, nor even the proper fabric to make their own. In desperation, the Patriotic Association’s Equipment Committee hired local clothing manufacturers to create uniforms, underwear, ground sheets and blankets as quickly as possible (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 110). Without any khaki wool available for making puttees, navy blue fabric was used instead.
As a result, the five hundred troops of the Newfoundland Regiment’s First Contingent left St. John’s in October 1914 wearing blue puttees. They would be the only Newfoundlanders to be equipped with puttees in this colour and thus, it became a badge of honour.
Consequently, ‘to be a “Blue Puttee” was to be a member of the famous First Five Hundred’ (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 110).
For many years after the war, veterans of the Newfoundland Regiment – proud “Blue Puttees” – gathered annually on 4 October, marking the anniversary of the First Five Hundred’s departure from St. John’s in 1914.
On this day in 1917, having massed their forces, the Germans counter-attack the Cambrai offensive. At one point on the line, four British divisions face nine German divisions. Striking hard from the east, the Germans intend to drive in the British flank and then turn north, sweeping the entire salient clear. Caught off-guard, the Newfoundland Regiment is rushed forward as desperate fighting breaks out all along the line.
With only one night of rest, on the morning of 30 November the Newfoundland Regiment is sent to relieve a unit in front of Masnières. Caught in the opening barrage before the German counter-attack, the Newfoundland companies are sent forward individually, entrusted to make their own way to the assembly point.
Coming upon Marcoing Copse, expecting to meet fellow 88th Brigade units, the Newfoundlanders instead stumble upon advancing Germans. Breaking into a charge, a wild melee takes place at bayonet point and the Newfoundlanders steadily roll back the German advance, in concert with the other 88th Brigade units to the south. In the midst of this, Brigade Major, Captain J. K. McConnell gallops up and down the line, riding bareback on a horse, directing the defense (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 420). By the end of 30 November, the 88th Brigade had pushed back the enemy almost a mile. But the Newfoundlanders suffer heavily, losing one officer and 130 other ranks.
The next day was marked by enemy machine gunning and sniper fire as the Commonwealth forces desperately dug in to their precarious positions along the St. Quentin Canal. For now the situation was saved, but within twenty-four hours, another German counter-attack would re-ignite the crisis.
“We Have Passed From Death Unto Life Because We Love The Brethren”
Epitaph of Private Ernest Fisher, Regimental No. 3516, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 29 November 1917 (age 18).
Ernest, a butcher from St. John’s, enlisted on 6 March 1917. He landed at Rouen, France on 27 September 1917, making his way to the Newfoundland Regiment as they prepared for the Battle of Poelcappelle in early October.
Taking part in the Battle of Cambrai, Ernest was wounded on 21 November 1917 and admitted to the 21st Casualty Clearing Station with gunshot wounds to the chest. He died eight days later from his wounds on 29 November 1917.
Private Ernest Fisher is buried in Rocquigny-Equancourt Road British Cemetery, Manancourt, Somme, France.
Epitaph of Second Lieutenant James John Tobin, Regimental No. 69, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 20 November 1917 (age 24).
James enlisted on 2 September 1914 with the Newfoundland Regiment, leaving his $10-per-week job as a barber. He landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli in September 1915. After the evacuation of Commonwealth forces from Suvla Bay in December 1915, he was admitted directly to hospital in England with jaundice. In July 1917 he was married by proxy to a Mrs. Margaret in Quebec City. Just four months later, 2nd Lt. James John Tobin was killed during the Cambrai offensive, leaving behind his new wife and child.
James’ wife was employed in Quebec City as a nurse for the children of a Mr. A.J. Price of the Quebec-based Price Brothers & Co. lumber sawmill and pulp and paper giant. In December 1917, Mr. A.J. Price wrote to the Deputy Colonial Secretary of Newfoundland to inquire “what pension she and her child will get from the Newfoundland Government”, as Mrs. Tobin’s grief was such that she was unable to deal with her late-husband’s affairs.
James’ brother Walter Tobin also enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment, but survived the war. In 1918, James’ wife moved to live with his mother in Boston, Massachusetts.
Second Lieutenant James John Tobin is buried in Marcoing British Cemetery, Nord, France.
One of the many casualties suffered by the Newfoundland Regiment during the Cambrai offensive was their leading sniper, Lance-Corporal John Shiwak. An Inuk from Labrador, Shiwak was killed along with nine other Newfoundlanders by a lone shell as the regiment moved into reserve at the end of 20 November 1917.
Prior to the war, Shiwak had met and befriended a writer, Lacey Amy, who convinced Shiwak to keep a diary. In a last letter to Lacey before his death, Shiwak longed for home, his family and hunting community : “There will be no more letters from them until the ice breaks,” he wrote (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 416).
In a tribute to Shiwak following his death, Lacey wrote:
“He had earned his long rest… Out there in lonesome Snipers’ Land he lay, day after day; and the cunning that made him a hunter of fox, and marten, and otter, and bear, and wolf brought to him better game. And all he ever asked was: “When will the war be over?” Only then would he return to his huskies and traps where few men dare a life of ice for a living almost as cold. John Shiwak – Eskimo – patriot.”
(Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 416-417).
On 9 October 1917, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of Poelcappelle, in Flanders, Belgium.
True to form, the mud of Flanders wreaked havoc with the preparations for battle; “Gun teams were struggling to bring the field artillery forward; and when the sweating horses became bogged belly-deep in the mire, manpower took over and dragged the guns into position.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 392).
The mud slowed the Newfoundlanders to such extent that while forming up the night before the attack, it took them five hours to march only five miles along washed out roads and mud-slicked duckboards, invariably skirting one shell crater before falling into the next (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 393).
As positions were taken up in support of the 4th Worcesters, the Newfoundlanders saw a Very light suddenly soar into the sky from the opposing lines at 5:10 AM. Though wracked with suspense, no response came as the light fizzled out. “A few minutes later a solitary shell was heard whining far overhead, followed a minute later by the sharp bark of a French 75. Then promptly at 5.30 came pandemonium as the barrage crashed down.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
Wading across the Broembeek, the 4th Worcesters and Newfoundland Regiment became disorganized and entangled, to the extent that the Newfoundlanders now formed part of the leading wave in the attack. Fortunately, this left more men on-hand to mop up the enemy dugouts found along the Ypres-Staden railway embankment (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 395). By 7 AM, the Green Dotted Line was gained, and the combined units continued the push to the Blue Dotted Line against mounting resistance.
At Pascal Farm, concrete ruins bristled with machine guns but thorough tactics of fire and movement carried the day. Additional buildings along the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road were to be shelled by four tanks, but the mud had prevented them from getting past the start line. On the left flank, the Newfoundlanders watched as Lewis Gun teams from the Irish Guards stood upright, resting the Lewis barrels on their shoulders while their comrades fired continuously during an attack on Cairo House. (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).
By noon, the Newfoundlanders were consolidating their thinly held positions along the Green Line, the third and final objective. Enemy counterattacks were successfully thrown back, but trouble on the flanks forced an orderly retirement to stronger positions just north of the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road. The Newfoundlanders were relieved by the 2nd Hampshires at nightfall, signalling the end of another hard-won victory.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered 67 killed and 127 wounded on 9 October 1917. For their bravery, thirty-three decorations were awarded to the Newfoundlanders; seven received the Military Cross or Bar, five the Distinguished Conduct Medal, while the Military Medal or Bar went to twenty others. The fighting at Poelcappelle produced “the only appreciable gains on the northern flank, in the Fourteenth Corps’ sector.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 397).
While the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) fought the Battle of Hill 70, theNewfoundland Regiment was taking part in the Battle of Langemarck from 16 – 18 August 1917. Advancing across a stream and approximately 1,000 yards of enemy frontage, the Regiment fought splendidly andover ten Military Medals were awarded to soldiers in the ranks. The 29th Division, in which the Regiment served, was the only unit to capture all its objectives in the offensive (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 385). But the victory was not without loss; 103 Newfoundlanders fell as casualties, 27 of these being fatal.
Perhaps the lasting memory of the Battle of Langemarckwas themud.Foreshadowing the morass of Passchendaele in autumn, the Newfoundland Regiment moved to the start line along a wooden plank road that was buried in knee-deep mud (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 380). Meanwhile, in the midst of battle, one private, “a man not blessed with great height”, and entrusted with a basket of carrier pigeons, “found himself stuck up to his middle in the bog” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander,p. 384). A long day in the mud passed before a pigeon arrived at battalion headquarters, carrying an informal messageabout the state of affairs at the front and the plight of one plucky private stuck out in the mud. Before long, “a party went forward to rescue the pigeon bearer from his predicament” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 384).
Editors Note: It is important to note that the Royal Newfoundland Regiment served in the Commonwealth forces as a separate contribution to the war effort from the Dominion of Newfoundland; consequently it was not part of the CEF and often fought at entirely separate engagements.