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Extract from The Fighting Newfoundlander, Ps. 490 - 493|
by Colonel Gerald W. L., Nicholson CD, Government of Newfoundland, 1964. It was about half-past ten when a breeze sprang up, sufficiently strong to disperse the fog and the smoke. The forward Newfoundland Companies had cleared the handful of houses at Neerhof, and on the left the village of Rolleghemcappelle had fallen to the 26th Highland Brigade, which had come forward to fill a gap developing between the Newfoundlanders and the Belgians.
Now a serious situation developed. Flowing diagonally across the Newfoundlanders' path was the Wulfdambeek, a stream in some places five or six feet deep, and too wide to jump. The watercourse was in full view of the enemy on the rising ground to the east, and as the sun shone out, it quickly became apparent that his field guns had the range perfectly. Section after section of the Newfoundlanders were wiped out in attempting to bridge the Wulfdambeek. Finally they were across, some by wading, others by swimming, though a number were hit in mid stream, of whom a few found a watery grave. The depleted platoons pushed on 1000 yards to De Beurt Farm, at the top of the ridge.
Here the Battalion was again held up by shelling, which was coming from the direction of Drie-Masten, about 600 yards to the south-east. A call by means of rockets for supporting gunfire against the hostile battery brought no response, for the advance had put the British guns out of contact.
Something had to be done quickly to stop the withering German fire before the Newfoundlanders were annihilated. Attempts by various officers to reconnoiter to right or left with small parties resulted only in more casualties. In this critical situation a platoon officer of "B" Company, Lieutenant Stanley Newman, led his men forward to the right with the object of outflanking the German battery.
By clever maneuvering the little party succeeded in reaching the depression south of the ridge, where they were within point-blank range of the German field guns, and under fire from the machine-guns protecting the battery. In the platoon's Lewis gun detachment was a young soldier from Middle Arm, White Bay, Private Thomas Ricketts, who was only seventeen years old. Two years previously he had advanced his age to eighteen in order to join the Regiment, and he had then come over with the Windsor draft. He first saw action at the Steenbeek; and he received a bullet in the right leg at Marcoing, rejoining the Battalion in time for the fighting at Bailleul. What now took place in front of Drie-Masten is described in the following extract from the London Gazette (of January 6, 1919). (Citation as copied above and account of investiture) Lieutenant Newman, who after the battery had been taken led his platoon on to the next farm and captured an ammunition wagon and several more prisoners, received the Military Cross. Ricketts' section commander, Lance-Corporal Matthew Brazil, M.M. whose cool work with the rifle helped provide covering fire for the final assault of the German gun position, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Battalion was now able to reorganize and press onward. But there was not much more progress to be made that day, for a mile to the east the Germans were holding a wired position around Laaga Kapel Wood and the Bois d'Heule. The Newfoundlanders met brisk machine-gun fire from the hamlet of Steenbeek, between the two woods. Then they encountered an old friend. From the right flank a mounted officer came galloping towards them. He proved to be Brigadier-General Freyberg, who was visiting his troops of the 88th Brigade in the front line as usual, despite the enemy fire. When within hailing distance he shouted, "Who are you?"
"Newfoundlanders", was the ready reply.
"Thank God, my left flank is safe", exclaimed the Brigadier, as he wheeled his horse preparatory to galloping off, "Now for my right". Of this unexpected testimonial to the Regiment's reliability a distinguished Newfoundland journalist, the Honourable Dr. John Alexander Robinson, was to write: The Royal Newfoundland Regiment received many tributes of praise during the war from impartial and disinterested quarters, but General Freyberg's involuntary words will, I think, appeal to most as the greatest of all, greater even than the "better than the best," which however grateful to our pride in the gallant sons of our loved land, saviors of extravagance. As dusk fell, the Battalion dug in on a line 500 yards west of Steenbeek. The day's advance of three miles had placed the 28th Brigade farther east than any other troops of the Second Army. For the Royal Newfoundland Regiment it had been a strikingly successful day. There was a count of 500 prisoners and 94 machine-guns, besides the five field guns taken at Drie-Masten, three other guns, and vast supplies of ammunition. But as in previous operations there was the same sad story of heavy casualties. The Battalion had lost two gallant young officers, Lieutenant Frank Burke, who was commanding "A" Company, and "B" Company's Lieutenant Albert Taylor, who had earned a Bar to his Military Cross only two weeks before.
Among the rank and file there had been many killed and wounded. At dawn on the 15th the Battalion could muster only 300 rifles. Extract from p. 504: Then it was time to be concerned about Christmas - really concerned, for with the tremendous strain on transport, there seemed little likelihood that the turkeys and other festive fare which the Quartermaster had indented for from the rear would arrive before the Such indeed turned out to be the case, but, veteran campaigners as they were, the Newfoundlanders were equal to the situation. Wrote one officer: "For several days I went out into the surrounding country on horseback along with my groom, looking for geese, ducks, or what have you, and we quite often were able to fill the bags which we carried along".
On Christmas Day there was enough for all, enough even for some to find its way into homes where Newfoundlanders were billeted, to be received by the German civilians with eager gratitude as a welcome change from the unsatisfying diet of bread, which even when liberally spread with jam, appeared to be "a compound of straw and sawdust. "B" Company had special cause for celebration. Two days before, Major Bernard (who had taken over acting cornmand of the Regiment from Lieutenant-Colonel Mathias) had announced the award of the Victoria Cross to Tommy Ricketts. The lad at once found himself the recipient of countless handshakes and slaps on the back, and at the Company Christmas dinner his health was enthusiastically drunk in German beer - "all that could be had." All ranks of the Battalion enjoyed a pleasant evening, and there was much exchanging of visits between billets. At a late hour there could be heard bursts of singing in the streets, from which all civilians were barred nightly between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Military Records Contact: Daniel B. Breen
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