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.
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.
1July1917 – 2017 Memorial Day – Newfoundland & Labrador
Today we gather with our families and communities to celebrate Canada Day, marking the 150th Anniversary of our nation. In the midst of these celebrations, it is important to note that for some this day also marks sadness. In Newfoundland & Labrador, July 1st marks a sombre anniversary; that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s massive losses at Beaumont-Hamel. On 1 July 1916, the youth of Newfoundland went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In just half an hour, the entire regiment would be destroyed, suffering 324 killed and 386 wounded. Of 801 available men, only 68 volunteers could answer roll call the next morning.
In response to these great losses, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador established their own day of mourning, actually preceding Remembrance/Armistice Day of 11 November, by marking 1 July 1917 as their Memorial Day. Consequently, 1 July 2017 is not just the 150th year of Canada, but also the 100th Anniversary of Memorial Day. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 1 July is first and foremost Memorial Day, marked by the observance of solemn ceremonies at cenotaphs, honouring the province’s immense sacrifices. Only after these sacrifices have been mourned does the province begin the transition to the celebration of Canada Day in the afternoon.
On 25 April, ANZAC Day is observed in Australia and New Zealand, commemorating the sacrifices made by those serving in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. An annual event, ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli by Australia and New Zealand’s troops on 25 April 1915.
In their first major action of the First World War, the ANZAC forces suffered considerably. Alongside fellow Commonwealth forces (which included the Royal Newfoundland Regiment), their numbers were decimated by inclement weather, insufficient shelter and supplies, a skilled opponent and rampant disease. Conditions at Gallipoli were prone to disease and misery with cramped trenches and extreme fluctuations in weather – 145,000 Commonwealth troops became sick, and nearly 7,000 were hospitalized for frostbite. The suffering experienced in the Gallipoli Campaign galvanized the ANZAC forces and produced an indomitable spirit that became known as “the Anzac Legend”.
In the words of Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian after 1918: “Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.”
It is important to note, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment also served in Gallipoli, arriving in September 1915 and serving as the rearguard during the evacuation off the continent in January 1916.
ANZAC Day has since become a national observance for Australians and New Zealanders, similar to Remembrance Day in Canada. This past ANZAC Day in 2017, members of the New Zealand Defence Force performed a haka to the fallen during the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
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.