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  The Battle of Arras  

The Regiment’s next engagement with the enemy was destined to be one of much greater magnitude. Sir Douglas Haig had been preparing for some months, from the time of the glorious avenge at Beaumont Hamel, to strike a heavy blow at the enemy in Belgium, extending from the neighborhood of Lens in the north to Arras in the south, a distance of about twelve miles. The preparations included a tremendous concentration of artillery and roughly, 120,000 men in the storming line and 40,000 in support.

The first blow was to be delivered on April 9. The attack was preceded by a very intense bombardment of the German first and second line of trenches, and at 5:30, in the first dim grey of a rainy, misty, sleety morning – that kind of mixed, miserable, spiritless weather which we sometimes experience in Newfoundland during the latter part of March and the first of April – the infantry dashed forward to the attack. The engagement was a monstrous display of military genius and power, and was fought with wonderful success for the British armies.

The Newfoundland Regiment reached Arras on Easter Monday. It was not until the night of the twelfth, however, when the Battle of Arras had reached the end of its fourth day of desperate fighting, that the Twenty-Ninth Division took its turn in the front line of attackers I front of the village of Monchy-le-Preux. This village was captured by the Thirty-Seventh Division on the eleventh. The thirteenth was a comparatively quiet day for our men. No large forward movement was planned in this section, and the whole area from north of the Cojeul River to the south of the Scarpe was held by the Twenty-Ninth and the Seventeenth Divisions, the Twenty-Ninth to the south and the Seventeenth to the north. At about 5:30, on the morning of the fourteenth, both divisions advanced for the purpose of testing the enemy strength, and, if possible, to push them farther back from Monchy. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but the Newfoundland Regiment added new honors to its already splendid records at Beaumont Hamel and Gueudecourt.

The Advance.

The plan of the attack was that the 88th Brigade, which consisted of the Newfoundland Regiment, the 1st Essex, the 2nd Hants, and the 4th Worcesters should advance in a direction about east from Monchy, on a front of about 500 yards. Another brigade of the Twenty-Ninth Division was to advance at their right and the Seventeenth Division at their left. The attacking troops had not gone far before they were subject to a strong German counter-attack and a murderous shell-fire from the enemy guns. As they advanced, enemy machine guns were turned on them with terrible results. Despite the heavy shell and machine-gun fire, however, our Regiment reached part of its objective, though heavy losses were sustained in so doing. The brigades which were supposed to advance on the right and on the left of the 88th suffered severely from the German barrage and before they could advance they were held up by the on-rush of enemy troops.

Some of our men reached the enemy trench, but no sooner had they done so than they saw strong parties of enemy troops advancing on both sides. Before they had time to realize the situation two whole companies of our Regiment were hemmed I and were being fired on from all sides. Escape was impossible. Small parties of our men fought against whole companies of the enemy until many of them were severely wounded and they were obliges to give themselves up. All communication by telephone had been cut, but at about half past nine, a private of the Essex Regiment ran into headquarters and reported that the Newfoundland Regiment had been wiped out. Lieutenant Keegan was immediately sent out to find out what the exact situation was and bring back a report. He saw the Germans coming along victorious, only about 250 yards away. Every man available at headquarters was quickly collected together, and, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes-Robertson, the little party of sixteen men rushed out, collecting weapons and ammunition from dead or wounded soldiers as they went, determined, if possible, to hold up the Germans until reinforcements arrived. A company of the 2nd Hants, which had been brought up by a lieutenant of the Essex Regiment, defended the northern flank and prevented the enemy troops from getting around in that quarter. The small headquarters’ party, which had been reduced to nine when they reached the edge of the village, established themselves in a grove of trees just outside the village, and every German who came up was shot. The nine men held the grove from 10 o’clock in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and at times they were obliged to keep up a rapid fire in order to ward off the enemy and keep information as to the number by which the important position of Monchy was defended concealed from them. German scouts which were sent out never returned; and it is obvious that had one scout returned with information as to the exact situation Monchy would have been lost, and quite probably the victories of the previous four days together with the months of preparation that made the victories possible would have been in vain.

Regarding this engagement Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says:

“It was an unsuccessful day, and yet it was one of those failures which will be remembered where facile successes have been forgotten, for it brought with it one episode which elicited in the highest degree the historical qualities of British Infantry.”

It was later discovered that our Regiment and the Essex Regiment had held up the advance of a strong German counter-attack by a whole Bavarian Division with the intention of retaking Monchy. The Newfoundland Regiment simply declined to be beaten. Its courage stubborn resistance and willing sacrifice undoubtedly saved Monchy, and probably the whole splendid success of the Battle of Arras. Regarding the Headquarters’ Staff Captain (Reverend) Nangle said in his lecture on the work of the Regiment:

“Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes-Robertson and his eight men are the men who saved Monchy. They won fame for themselves; they won fame for the Regiment. The whole British army in France honors the names of these nine men for their heroic conduct.”

Our Regiment suffered heavily in this action. The casualties included Sergeant-Major Gardner, whose splendid achievement at LesBouefs has already been mentioned; Captain Rowsell, and Lieutenants Stevenson, Smith and Outerbridge. Fortunately most of the losses were in prisoners who were rehabilitated after the armistice. Forty-nine men were reported killed, 142 wounded, and 296 missing. A number of decorations were awarded for heroic and valuable services, but one can well imagine that many of those who advanced to the German trench earned decorations, but because their heroic sacrifice and gallant resistance were not witnessed, except by the enemy who were held up and suffered severe losses in consequence, the distinguished conduct could not be reported.

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Military Records Contact: Daniel B. Breen

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