On this day in 1917, the HMS Stephen Furness, an armed boarding steamer, is torpedoed by the German submarine UB-64 off the western coast of the Isle of Man, sinking before lifeboats can be lowered. The loss of one hundred lives includes five Canadians from the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve. Lost at sea, they are commemorated on the Halifax Memorial. We remember:
Able Seaman Albert Edward Wigmore
Able Seaman William Franklyn Romans
Able Seaman Harold Bennett Lawes
Able Seaman Robert Donald Watt
Able Seaman Henry Leo Meehan
On this day in 1917, relief trains from across the Eastern Seaboard depart for Halifax, Nova Scotia. After the telegraph lines to Halifax went dead, Vincent Coleman’s last message out had flashed from station to station along the Eastern Seaboard (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103). Unsure of what had happened, but fearing that it was likely disastrous, nearby communities rallied to send relief. Railways were cleared of all regularly scheduled trains, and priority given to all available relief trains, which had already begun to arrive from towns across Eastern Canada before the end of 6 December 1917 (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178).
Immediate aid came from the military ships that had been moored in the Halifax Harbour at the time of the explosion. Both Canadian and American soldiers and sailors were sent ashore to aid in the recovery efforts. Meanwhile, sailing back from a transatlantic convoy escort, the USS Tacoma was 52 miles out at sea when its crew spotted the pall of smoke over Halifax. Sensing something was wrong, Captain Powers Symington altered course and headed straight for Halifax. The USS Van Steuben did the same (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 70). At night, American soldiers patrolled the streets, allowing the Canadians to rest (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 137).
In the United States, New York had sent its first train within twenty-four hours of the explosion, “filled with twenty engineers, doctors, nurses, $15,000 worth of tools, $150,000 worth of lumber, one thousand portable houses, and thirty thousand pounds of bandages” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 168). Before dawn on 7 December, the Boston & Maine relief train was already at McAdam, New Brunswick; “from McAdam Junction to St. John [New Brunswick], the platforms were lined with solemn-looking workers holding shovels, carpentry tools, and medical bags, hoping for a ride to Halifax” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 165).
Hampered by a snowstorm that drifted over and blocked the railway tracks, the Boston & Maine relief train finally pulled into Halifax on the morning of Saturday, 8 December 1917. With it came a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts, addressed to the mayor of Halifax:
“Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts stands ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of… an important meeting of citizens has been held and Massachusetts stands ready to offer aid in any way… P.S. Realizing that time is of the utmost importance we have not waited for your answer but have dispatched the train.”
Upon receiving the letter, C. A. Hayes, the President of the Canadian Government Railway, wept.
(Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178-179).
The city of Halifax was a bustling port during the First World War, with thousands of troopships and cargo vessels moving in and out each year. On the morning of 6 December 1917, the Halifax Harbour was busy as usual, and two ships were about to pass each other through the Narrows, a dangerous section of water between the harbour and the Bedford Basin. The SS Imo, a Belgian relief ship, had been unable to leave before the anti-submarine nets shut close on the harbour the previous night. Likewise, the SS Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, had been unable to enter the harbour in time (learn more here). Now on the morning of 6 December, both ships’ captains hoped to get underway. In a rush to escape the busy harbour, the Imo crossed over into the Mont Blanc’s path and failed to defer to the Mont Blanc’s right of way, which was naval law.
When the two ships collided at the entrance to the Narrows, the Imo’s bow tore a hole in the Mont Blanc. More importantly, it crushed a few grains of the extremely volatile dry picric acid. Few of those on shore knew of the Mont Blanc’s explosive cargo; it carried 5.85 million pounds of explosives, including picric acid, TNT, gun cotton, and benzol. When the loose grains of picric acid were set alight by the crushing force of the Imo’s bow, dense fumes from the barrels of benzol on deck caught fire and led the flames directly back to the barrels. In those few seconds, the fate of the ship, and Halifax, were sealed. Expecting an explosion at any moment, the Mont Blanc’s crew abandoned ship, and rowed frantically for shore, but for over twenty minutes the ship was adrift in the Narrows. It eventually came to rest against Pier 6 in the industrial neighbourhood of Richmond, where a crowd gathered to watch it burn.
At 9:04:35 a.m. the Mont Blanc exploded in a massive fireball. The explosive crash ripped through the air at “13,320 miles per hour – twenty-three times the speed of sound” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 63). The blast’s air wave followed, flattening buildings instantaneously and sending shards of glass through the air, slicing through whatever stood in their path and causing terrible injuries. The ship’s entire hull was hurled in the air, tumbling within the fireball, with most of it simply vapourizing (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 62). Fragments of the ship tore into the buildings and people in the Halifax Harbour and dockyards. The 1,140-pound anchor shank flew through the air approximately 3.78 km, landing at Armdale, while the ship’s 90 mm gun landed over 2 km away at Albro Lake, Dartmouth. The explosion also caused a large tsunami in the harbour, the resulting twenty-foot wave smashed into buildings, swept people out to sea and decimated the Mi’Kmaq community in Tufts Cove.
In all almost 2 000 people are thought to have been killed, many were never found and some 250 bodies never identified. The city hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, many suffering from eye injuries as the result of broken glass or burns from the fires that spread across the city. Over 1 600 houses were destroyed, and many areas in Halifax and its surrounding communities were uninhabitable. More than 6 000 people were homeless, with little prospect of shelter for the winter.
Trains filled with donated goods were sent from across Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States, and over $30 million in financial aid was raised to help rebuild the city. This funding did not extend to the Mi’kmaq communities in Tufts Cover or to the black settlement of Africville on the Bedford Basin, both of which suffered damage either from the explosion itself or the tsunami. Restoration activities began almost immediately, to ensure that the port remained open for ships travelling to and from Europe. Despite a judicial inquiry and several civil suits, no blame for the explosion was ever officially laid.
Patrick Vincent Coleman was working as a telegraph operator at the Richmond railway station on the day of the explosion. Somehow, he and Chief Clerk William Lovett had been warned of the contents of the ship and the danger of imminent explosion. Coleman and Lovett realised that a passenger train was due to arrive at 8:55 am and hoped to stop it. Lovett managed to call the terminal agent further up the line and warn them of the imminent danger, after which both men left. However, Coleman returned to his office, and continued sending warnings by telegraph, which were picked up by the stations along the Truro line, in an attempt to stop any incoming trains bound for Halifax. He was killed at his desk when the explosion occurred at 9:05:34 a.m. Lovett was also killed. When the Halifax lines suddenly went dead, Coleman’s message “rocketed from station to station”, announcing to the outside world that something terrible had happened in Halifax (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103).
The Christmas Tree at Boston Common
When the Spanish flu struck in 1918, Nova Scotia sent a team of doctors to Boston to as a symbol of gratitude for the assistance received from Massachusetts after the Halifax Explosion. In December 1918, this gratitude was extended in the form of a Christmas tree, sent from Halifax and installed at the Boston Common. In 1971 the tradition was reinstated and has taken place every year since, with the lighting of the annual tree signaling the start of Boston’s Christmas festivities. In Halifax the gesture remains a sobering reminder of the loss suffered in December 1917. (See Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 273-274).
On this day in 1917, the SS Imo, a ship delivering food relief to occupied Belgium, is delayed in taking on coal in the Halifax Harbour. Meanwhile, at the mouth of the harbour, a French munitions ship, the SS Mont Blanc, is held up by the Examining Officer. During the delay, the anti-submarine nets running across the harbour at George’s Island close for the night, sealing off shipping traffic from passing in or out. The Imo is essentially “locked in”, while the Mont Blanc is “locked out”. With nothing left to do, both ship’s harbour pilots call it a night. A seemingly small inconvenience will prove to have dire consequences for Halifax.
“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.
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.
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.