“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 this day in 1917, members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade distinguish themselves in the attack on Cambrai. Amongst the Newfoundlanders, two earn Distinguished Conduct Medals, another a Military Medal, a fourth the Bar to his Military Cross, and the fifth, a Distinguished Service Order. From the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan of the Fort Garry Horse earns Canada another Victoria Cross.
The Newfoundlanders joined the British Third Army’s attack on Cambrai two and a half hours after the initial start, forming the left flank of the 88th Brigade’s diamond formation, which was led by four tanks. At first the advance took place “in an almost leisurely manner over unspoiled fields” with knee high grass, thistles and nettles replacing the usual mud and shell-holes (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 411). The few enemy positions that had survived the first wave of attack were quickly overcome.
However, the horrors of war would soon re-appear. When B Company was halted by machine gun fire, it was eventually found to be coming from a disabled British tank. Inside, the tank sergeant had suffered half his face being shot away and was in a state of madness from the horrific death of his comrades and the terrible heat within the tank. In his miserable state, he “was firing indiscriminately at any living target he could see” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 412). As the Newfoundlanders attempted to speak to him through the open tank door, the sergeant was struck by an enemy bullet and killed.
With little choice but to carry on through such horrors, the Newfoundlanders pressed steadily forward, helping their flanking units capture a battery of field guns, but at the loss of all four supporting tanks. Reaching Marcoing Copse they launched their assault on the St. Quentin Canal lock, at the western outskirts of Masnières.
Captain Grant Paterson, MC & Bar Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes, DCM Sergeant Albert Davis, DCM Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, MM
Defending the lock were numerous machine gun posts and snipers in the houses along the canal bank. When a British tank ventured over from the direction of Masnières, the six-pounder guns in its sponsons were quickly put to work against the German defenders. As the enemy broke into retreat, Captain Grant Paterson led a small party charging across a footbridge beside the lock, gaining the far bank and securing both the footbridge and lock. For his actions, Captain Grant Paterson earned a Bar to his Military Cross.
Three other men received honours for their actions during the fighting at the footbridge and lock. Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes was one of the first to cross to the far side of the canal, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Sergeant Albert Davis received the Distinguished Conduct Medal after he “had kept his company moving by running forward alone and killing two snipers” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Lastly, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, received the Military Medal for courageous leadership amidst the fighting for the footbridge.
Captain Bertram Butler, DSO, MC
Now on the far side of the canal, the Newfoundlanders prepared to dash from the shelter of a building to the railway tracks, sixty yards away. Several attempts to cover this ground were halted by heavy machine gun fire and severe casualties before Captain Butler, M.C., rallied his men and charged forward, “followed by cheering Newfoundlanders” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 413). The enemy position was eliminated and the now-wounded Butler received the Distinguished Service Order for his actions.
End of the Day – 20November
Now entirely across the canal and with their left flank secured, the Newfoundlanders turned to their right to help capture Masnières. However, enemy fire from positions in old gun pits north of the railway tracks soon drew the Newfoundlanders’ attention for the remainder of the afternoon, with fighting by rifle, bomb and bayonet carrying on until daylight ran out (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Overnight, mopping-up parties moved through Masnières, clearing out all resistance except for in the north of the town and a small party still in the catacombs at its centre (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 415).
Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC
East of Masnières, the 88th Brigade’s Hampshire Regiment and Worcestershire Regiment had gained the far bank of the St. Quentin Canal, and the Worcesters were now advancing on the town from the east, while the Newfoundlanders closed in from the west. The outcome of the attack on Masnières was still uncertain when the Canadian Cavalry Brigade received erroneous reports that the 88th Brigade had captured all its objectives on the far side of the canal. Sensing the opportunity for a cavalry breakout, Brigadier General J. E. B. Seely ordered the Fort Garry Horse (FGH) across the canal.
With the road bridge in Masnières having collapsed under a British tank, a temporary foot bridge was expanded with the resources and labour assistance of German prisoners and local civilians (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 336). “B” Squadron of the FGH quickly crossed the canal and galloped to the north-east. However, when it became clear that no more cavalry could cross before dark, orders were issued to recall those already on the far bank.
Having sped off towards a ridge overlooking Masnières, “B” Squadron was beyond reach of the orders to turn back and would now face the enemy alone. Their initial orders had been to capture an enemy headquarters and scout ahead for crossings of a further canal. Captain Campbell was soon killed whilst leading a charge through a gap in the enemy wire and command fell to Lieutenant Harcus Strachan. Quickly encountering an enemy artillery battery, “B” Squadron charged the guns, eliminating the entire battery by saber and hoof. Spotting enemy infantry in the open beyond, Strachan turned his men and charged these as well, eliminating many but also losing many of his own men from heavy machine gun fire.
By now “B” Squadron was over three kilometres behind enemy lines and taking shelter in a sunken road awaiting the rest of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which unbeknownst to them was no longer coming. While taking shelter, the Squadron located and cut three enemy telephone lines. As darkness set in, with only 43 men left and the enemy pressing in from three sides, Strachan stampeded the remaining horses to draw the enemy’s attention, while the men slipped off on foot towards friendly lines. Still not satisfied with the day’s work, they charged and engaged numerous enemy parties with the bayonet, eventually crossing back into the lines of the Newfoundland Regiment in the early hours of 21 November with no less than 15 prisoners.
For his actions and leadership that day at Cambrai, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan received the Victoria Cross. He already held a Military Cross for his actions at St. Quentin in May 1917.
Harcus Strachan was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada in 1908. He enlisted in 1915. Strachan returned to Canada after the war, and passed away in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1982.
On this day in 1917 (20 November), the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade take part in the launch of the massive Commonwealth attack on Cambrai. Labelled “The Great Experiment”, the attack foregoes the typical artillery bombardment, and instead relies on advanced surveying and range-finding to launch a sudden furious barrage at the hour of attack. Trundling into this are nearly 300 tanks, followed by infantry deploying aggressive fire and movement tactics. The next major offensive on the Western Front was now underway.
“The Great Experiment”
Like the Canadian Corps, the Newfoundland Regiment had fought at Passchendaele in the fall of 1917. After only a short rest period the Regiment was sent back to France near the town of Cambrai. An important supply point on the German Hindenburg Line, Cambrai was the site of the next British attack after the end of Haig’s long and draining Passchendaele Offensive.
The attack by the British Third Army, organised by General Julian Byng of Vimy fame, would make use of combined infantry and artillery, with the second major deployment of Haig’s mystery weapon of 1916 – the tank – alongside the Cavalry Corps. Now in sufficient numbers to be massed together, over 200 tanks were to be used to break the Hindenberg Line.
Launched early in the morning, the massed artillery, machine guns, and tanks quickly overwhelmed the German frontline positions. Placed in a follow-up wave, the Newfoundland Regiment pressed forward with the other units of the 88th Brigade. Meanwhile the Canadian Cavalry Brigade (CCB) waited for the opportunity to attack across the open ground that was to be cleared by the infantry.
Initially, Cambrai was a great success. The British Army advanced further in one day than the entire Passchendaele campaign, and everything seemed to be going well until the first German counter-attack. Unfortunately, the CCB was stuck until mid-afternoon on 20 November waiting for an improvised bridge to be constructed for their horses, and the Third Army had almost no reserves. This weakness began to show as the battle dragged on, and on 29 November the expected German counter-attack pushed the exhausted Third Army back towards their starting position. On 4 December, Byng carried out a fighting retreat to a position along the Hindenburg Line, where the army was to wait out the winter.
Losses were heavy for both the Newfoundland Regiment and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade; total Third Army losses were over 40 000 killed, wounded and missing. By the night of November 29, the Newfoundland Regiment had only 8 officers and 230 other ranks left. The Battle of Cambrai lasts from 20 November – 7 December 1917.
-General Byng attempted the combination of artillery, infantry, tanks, and mobile cavalry that would be so successful during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918. There were a lot of moving parts, and not all of them worked as they should, particularly the tanks and cavalry; however, Byng realised that combined attacks were what would win the war.
-The initial attack marked the first use of tanks en masse, with over 200 from the newly formed Tank Corps functioning as an independent unit in coordination with the infantry, rather than suborned to it.
-The artillery approach at Cambrai was reconfigured, with no preliminary registering of the guns other than survey calculations. As a result, the creeping barrage opened up with no prior warning, gaining surprise, but at the loss of accuracy. The infantry was to advance behind the tanks, which was supposed to protect them from accidental friendly fire.
The courage and sacrifice displayed by the Newfoundlanders during the Cambrai offensive resulted in a number of medals and awards being awarded to individual members of the Regiment. A member of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade also received the Victoria Cross.
Please click on the hyperlinks in the men’s names for further reading about their lives and actions at Cambrai in 1917.
Lance Corporal John Shiwak,was an Inuk from Rigolet, Labrador and one of the Newfoundland Regiment’s snipers. He was killed on 20 November 1917, by a direct hit from a German shell that killed nine other men. Shiwak corresponded with the journalist William Lacey Amy, who had encouraged him to keep a diary while at the front.
Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC, served with the Fort Garry Horse, and received a Victoria Cross after leading “B” Squadron through the enemy lines when their Captain was killed, eliminating an enemy field gun battery and numerous infantry parties along the way. Strachan survived the war and returned to Alberta where he lived until his death in 1982.