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CHAPTER IVThree Important Engagements in the Latter Part of 1917
It should be noted in passing that from this time until the end of 1917 the Allied armies on the Western Front were faced by rapidly increasing German armies. The Russian army ceased to exist as a serious force, and the German armies that had fought on the eastern Front were transferred to France and Belgium. Ypres Canal.
Our Regiment did not take an important part in any engagement for four months after the severe fighting at Monchy-le-Preux. Several times it was in the support trenches or in reserve without being brought into conflict with the enemy. On the night of July 12, when the Regiment was in the front line on the eastern bank of the Ypres Canal, it was subject to a heavy bombardment by the enemy. Several parties of our men were out placing wire entanglements some distance I front of the trenches while parties of the Essex Regiment were digging new trenches farther back. While the latter worked on the top of the ridge they could be seen against the horizon, and presented the spectacle of much larger numbers. Evidently the Germans thought that a big attack was being prepared, and at about 9 o’clock they opened a terrific bombardment and kept it up until 4 o’clock the following morning. Our Regiment suffered slight casualties, but the Essex men came under the full effect of the bombardment. Page Sixty-Three
It was not until August 16, two weeks after the Third Battle of Ypres had begun, however, that our Regiment took its turn in the front line of attackers. On July 31, when the Guards Division undertook to capture those ridges which girt in Ypres and dominated it from the north and north- east, the only high ground along the line which up to that time had not fallen into British hands, our Regiment formed part of the supports. The situation was now reversed, and those divisions which had borne the brunt of July 31, were now in support, while the old supporting divisions were in the line. The Twenty-Ninth Division went into the line on the western bank of the Steenbeek River the night of August 15. On the 14th and 15th both sides were bombarding heavily, and about 11 o’clock on the night of the 15th , the Twenty-Ninth began to lay bridges across the river. The advance started from the line of the stream, and necessitated a big swing by the left flank, while the right advanced comparatively slowly but assisted the left by an effective flank fire on the enemy troops. The left had to advance about 1400 yards to reach its objective, while the right had to advance about 800 yards. The first objective was Passerelle Farm, the second, Martin’s Mill and the final meant a straightening up of the line with our Battalion’s left at Wydendrift and its right at Langemark. The Advance.
The advance started from the bank of the Steenbeek River in the early dawning. For the first 500 yards progress was necessarily slow, and made under most difficult circumstances. The ground has been characterized as a "floating swamp," and the term will probably convey as accurate an idea as can be given of the actual conditions of the ground. As the men waded through the swamp some sank to their waist and others deeper, in many cases having to remain there until pulled out by more fortunate ones. Unfortunately there was little or no time in which to aid a comrade who had sunk into the swamp. The advance was preceded by a sweeping barrage, and those who could keep themselves above the surface had to keep pace with the barrage, otherwise its effectiveness would be lost. One favorable circumstance of the advance, however, was the lack of fighting spirit in the German troops who defended the position. Page Sixty-Four
In many instances they offered no resistance whatever, but either gave themselves up or made their escape. They displayed a cowardice and enervation which our men had not previously seen so conspicuous among the enemy troops. Th first objective was therefore reached with remarkably few casualties from the activities of the enemy. The most difficult ground was passed, but new obstacles presented themselves. The heavy bombardment by the British guns caused the ground for a distance of about 500 yards beyond the first objective to be converted into large mud heaps, and huge shell holes which in many cases were filled with water. Added to this was the fact that some distance beyond there was a large number of enemy machine guns in a commanding position and protected by the famous pill-boxes, and until they were reached by our men and put out of business they did considerable damage. The condition of the ground, which seemed to be the greatest obstacle, was not so serious, however, as in the first part of the attack, and the advance to the second objective was carried out much more rapidly. In less than an hour alter the capture of the second objective, the Newfoundland Regiment was digging in on the top of the ridge, which extended from Langemark on the right to Wydendrift on the left. The village of Langemark itself was taken by the Twentieth Division, which operated on the right of our Regiment. Splendid Advance by Newfoundland Regiment
The whole advance by the Newfoundland Regiment was carried out with admirable regularity and efficiency, and with comparatively few casualties. Trouble given by the enemy Mebus, or pill-boxes, was overcome by parties which worked around them and trapped the occupants. The guns in these concrete emplacements could swing through an angle of about twenty degrees, and sometimes a party of three or four men would work around to the right or the left and once out of range of the guns would rush up to the pill-boxes and throw bombs in through the loop- holes. In this way whole garrisons of from twenty to fifty enemy troops were instantly put to death. In this particular engagement, however, the Germans showed no disposition to fight the Newfoundlanders. Only in a few cases did the garrisons stick to their batteries and fight until captured or overcome by our advancing- troops. In many instances the Germans ran from the batteries and give themselves up. In one instance it was found that all the enemy troops had fled except an old man whose feet were chained to the base of the gun that he was supposed to operate. Page Sixty-Five
There were many evidences of demoralization among the German troops, and where they did attempt to put up a fight they were quickly disposed of by our men Great credit is due the Commanders of the different companies for the thorough and courageous manner in which the various obstacles were overcome, and the new positions organized with minimum losses to the Regiment.
Corporal H. Raynes received the Distinguished Conduct and the French Croix de Guerre for the great ability and cool courage which he displayed at one point during the advance. His company was held up by the rapid rifle fire of the enemy. He took two of his company, Privates J. J. Peddle and G. Lacey, and crept around from shell hole to shell hole until they got to the rear of the Germans who were holding up the advance. They quickly bombed out the four or five dug-outs, each one of which contained six or seven Germans, and signaled to their company to advance. Their splendid initiative and courage enabled their company to carry on at this point without a single casualty. Page Sixty-Six
PEDDLE and LACEY.
Privates Peddle and Lacey were both decorated for the magnificent way in which they helped Corporal Hynes to carry out the daring and successful attack on the enemy. MURRAY.
Private Murray was Awarded the Military Medal for his noble endurance and courage in keeping a machine gun, which he was in charge of, continuously in operation against the Germans for upwards of 24 hours under most adverse conditions of mud and enemy fire. DAWE, SIMMS and WISEMAN.
Privates F. Dawe, J. H. Simms and E. G. Wiseman rendered similar valuable service with Lewis guns. At various points of the advance these men crept around to the flank or rear of parties of enemy troops and operated their guns with admirable success. The importance of these individual undertakings cannot be lightly regarded. In many instances they meant a complete disregard of personal safety in order that the objectives of the Regiment might be reached. MEANEY AND SPURRELL.
Alongside these, must be placed the courageous and self-sacrificing spirit of such men as Privates T. Meaney and R. Spurrell. These men were acting as stretcher-bearers, and during the most intense German bombardment crossed through the mud and water of the "floating swamp" several times in an effort to save some of their comrades. The work was done under most difficult conditions and with great personal risk.
The advance was a splendid achievement for the Newfoundland Regiment. It was skillfully conducted by the officers, and every man fought his way through mud and water and against German machine gun and rifle fire, overcoming all resistance until the final objective was reached. The gains were consolidated and held against strong and repeated enemy counter-attacks, and with remarkably low casualties for such an achievement. The losses to the Regiment included 9 killed, 93 wounded and 1 missing. Page Sixty-Seven
Only nine days after this engagement, when the Regiment was billeted at Elverdinghe, the village was subject to a very heavy bombardment by enemy guns. The Germans had brought up guns that far outdistanced any that had previously been used. They shelled areas that were considered entirely outside the theatre of action. On August 25, the village of Elverdinghe was practically blown to pieces by these long-range guns, and a considerable number of casualties were sustained by the troops that were billeted there. The Newfoundland Regiment had 38 casualties, and 7 of these were instant deaths. Canal Bank.
Our Battalion spent considerable time in the line and in support trenches during the following weeks, but saw no other big engagement until in the early days of October, when it moved to Canal Bank, near Ypres. The weather conditions could not be more unfavorable for an advance in this sector. For weeks past the whole area had been flooded with heavy rains, and the around was a mass of deep soft mud, together with numerous shell holes filled with water. It has been described by one writer as a "desolate, shell-ploughed landscape, half-liquid in substance, brown as a fresh turned field, with no movement upon its hideous expanse, although every crevice and pit was swarming with life, and the constant snap of the sniper's bullet told of watchful, unseen eves." So terrible were the conditions that for three days there was no connection between the right of the Twenty-Ninth Division and the left of the Fourth. Broembeek.
With these conditions to meet and conquer before getting to the real enemy, the Newfoundland Battalion left Ypres at 8:30 o'clock on the night of October 8. It took four and a half- hours to cover six miles. With their usual resourcefulness and invincible courage the men struggled on through the mud, the swamps and the small gullies until they reached the starting off point, a line astride the Staden Railway about 300 yards south of the Broembeek River, about I o'clock the following morning. They were ordered to take the third objective, and were lined up on assembly behind the 4th Worcester Regiment. At 5:30 our artillery opened fire. The bombardment of the enemy positions lasted for about half an hour when it took a line about 50 yards in front of our troops and began creeping towards the enemy line. The infantry was supposed to keep pace with the creeping barrage, but at the outset our Battalion was confronted with an unexpected difficulty. The 4th Worcester Regiment was supposed to have bridged the Broembeek and to have continued in the front wave until the first two objectives were taken, but owing to the dense fog and the difficulties of the ground, direction was lost somewhat, and the battalions became intermingled. From the first objective onward, the Newfoundland Battalion found itself in the front wave of attackers. Page Sixty-Eight
In the front line were D Company on the right commanded by 2nd Lieutenant G. Hicks, and A Company on the left, commanded by Captain J. A. Ledingham; and in the second line were C Company on the right, commanded by Captain K. Keegan, and B Company on the left, commanded by Captain J. Nunns. Captain Ledingham was fatally wounded early in the advance, and his place was taken by Lieutenant A. L. Summers. At many points during the advance, the Regiment was held up by enemy machine- gun fire and sniping from pill-boxes, but by the capable leadership of the officers and the daring courage of small parties who worked around the pill-boxes and machine guns and put them out of action, the advance was carried out successfully. By about 11 o'clock, all objectives were taken, and the new position was quickly fortified. The Germans continued sniping heavily during the remainder of the forenoon, and large numbers of enemy troops collected around Taube Farm for the purpose of retaking the ground that they had lost. The first counter-attack took place at about noon, but it was beaten off with severe losses to the enemy. All through the afternoon the enemy could be seen collecting in great force and making preparations for a much stronger attack. At 6:30 they opened a heavy machine gun fire on the position occupied by the Newfoundland Battalion and the battalion on the left, and began to advance in great numbers. The Battalion on the left was driven back, after putting up a stubborn fight, and the Newfoundland Regiment was obliged to fall back about 200 yards because of its left flank being exposed. This position it held until it was relieved by the 2nd Hampshire Regiment during the night. GOODYEAR.
In this engagement our Regiment lost 50 men of all ranks in killed, 130 in wounded and 14 in missing. Among those who were killed was Lieutenant Stanley Goodyear, Transport Officer. The importance of the work of a transport officer cannot be overestimated. Upon him more than upon any other person depended the well-being of the Regiment. Lieutenant Goodyear never disappointed the men who looked to him to get their rations to them on time. There were numerous ways in which a transport could become lost or got temporarily astray, but Goodyear knew of these ways only the better to be able to avoid them. He always saw to it that the Regiment’s supplies were delivered as close to the line as possible and with clockwork regularity. No man was better appreciated and better liked by the Regiment than was Lieutenant Goodyear, and there can be no doubt that his attention to duty and the capable manner in which he always carried it out were deserving of the greatest praise. Page Sixty-Nine
His death was a severe loss to the Regiment, and was deeply regretted by every man whose happiness and comfort he had worked untiringly and willingly to insure. HICKS.
There were many instances of conspicuous bravery and ability during the engagement. Second Lieutenant G. Hicks took charge of a section of the line after several of the officers had become casualties, and by his splendid leadership and ability held the position against a severe counter-attack when a unit of his flank was forced back. The situation called for the highest qualities of skill and courage, and Lieutenant Hicks met the demand in an admirable way. TAIT.
Captain R. H. Tait was awarded the Military Cross because of the resourceful and entirely successful manner in which he organized the forming up of the Battalion on its assembly position under the most difficult circumstances. After reaching the final objective, though the position was being shelled heavily and enemy snipers were very plentiful, he made a reconnaissance of the whole line, and brought back valuable information. NUNNS
Captain J. Nunns did splendid work during the rapid advance and all through the severe counter-attacks of the enemy. He led his company with great skill in the first attack and captured all his objectives. Later in the engagement, when in an exposed part of the line, he held his ground for many hours against repeated counter-attacks. CHAFE.
Second Lieutenant E. R. A. Chafe was awarded the Military Cross for the highly commendable way in which he measured up to a difficult situation. After his company commander was killed he took charge, and by his personal energy and courage instilled the greatest vigor into the attack, and, in spite of heavy losses, carried the attack through with marked success.
Several other men were decorated because of their great courage and valuable services, and among them were some who acted as runners and others as stretcher-bearers, work which called for the highest degree of endurance and self-sacrifice. The whole engagement was a splendid success for the Newfoundland Regiment. Its usual fighting qualities were upheld in every difficult part of the action. One more unit of the German army had learnt to its sorrow that when it was faced by the Newfoundland Battalion it was in for a hard time. Page Seventy
After the severe fighting in the Broembeek engagement our Regiment saw no further action until the closing days of 1917. By this time the Germans had transferred all their best troops from the Eastern Front, where they were no longer needed, to the Western Front, and could oppose the British with greatly superior numbers. Allied Reverses.
The Russian debacle was a military disaster of the first order. It completely checked for more than six months the victorious career of the Allies on the Western Front. Along with this came the disaffection and sudden collapse of the Italian Second Army, and the capture of upwards of 200,000 Italian troops with large stores of ammunition and nearly 2000 guns. Five British Divisions were taken from Flanders and sent to relieve the Italian situation. No greater proof of Great Britain’s loyalty to her Allies could be given. The severe fighting in the Paschendaele sector had, however, thinned the German ranks farther south, and a surprise blow was prepared by the Field-Marshall for the Cambrai area. No part of the famous Hindenburgh line was more strongly fortified than was the area around Cambrai, but there were big advantages to be considered also. The Battle of Cambrai.
It was clear to all who were familiar with the conditions on the British front that the success of the undertaking depended entirely upon the swiftness with which it was carried out. It was well known that in 48 hours the Germans could bring up a sufficiently strong force to prevent any further advance unless a most advantageous position was gained during that time. Shortly after 6 o'clock on the morning of November 20, the advance began. The British operations were favored by a thick haze which lowered the visibility considerably, and an effective smoke-barrage was used to screen the initial steps of the advance. When the signal for the advance was given the British guns opened a terrific bombardment of the enemy position, and the long line of tanks moved majestically forward, breaking down the heavy wire entanglements without the least difficulty and crawling invincibly upon the German concrete emplacements, the infantry following their lead. Approximately 400 tanks were lined up to clear the way for the infantry.
The Newfoundland Regiment had been billeted at Sorel-le-Grand, which place it left at 2:30 on the morning of the 20th and marched up to assembly by way of Gauzeaucourt. At 6:20, when the whole line moved forward, the Newfoundland Battalion formed the centre of the 88th Brigade; the Worcesters were on the left and the Essex on the right. Page Seventy-One
The whole Twenty-Ninth Division dashed swiftly forward, and whole platoons of Germans were enveloped and taken prisoners before they fully realized what was happening. Advance by the Newfoundland Battalion.
The 87th Brigade seized the village of Marcoing, and the 86th, Neuf Wood, while the 88th pushed resolutely on and captured Les Rues Vertes and part of Mesnieres. The bridge crossing the Canal de 1'Escaut at Marcoing was reached and successfully crossed before the fleeing Germans could make any progress in their attempt to destroy it. At Mesnieres, however, they had succeeded in considerably weakening the bridge and when a tank attempted to cross, both the tank and the bridge crashed into the Canal. The Newfoundlanders were the first to secure a foothold on the opposite bank. They crossed by means of a footbridge which they had secured whilst a more permanent structure was being built. They were quickly followed by other units. The advance was continued at this point without the aid of the tanks, and the Germans were rapidly driven out of the whole of Mesnieres. The whole advance was so methodical, determined, and forceful, declining, to be halted at any point, that numerous gallant deeds and heroic sacrifices must have gone unnoticed, but the splendid success represented the courage and ability of all. The Twenty-Ninth in Pivotal Position.
The position held by the Twenty-Ninth Division was a very serious one for the enemy. It was a commanding position, and if the advance from this point on the 21st could be conducted with the success that attended the previous day's operations, the town of Cambrai with all its important network of railways would be in British possession. For this reason the Germans threw all their force against this point, and on the 21st, and, in fact, from the 21st until the 27th, the enemy made ceaseless desperate attempts to drive the Twenty-Ninth Division across the Canal so as to regain possession of Mesnieres and Marcoing. Germans Brought up Reserves.
Meanwhile the Germans had brought up a strong force of reserves and were preparing to strike back at the British with the full weight of their advantageous position and the full strength of their reserves. The'28th and 29th were quiet on both sides. It was a case of a calm before a great storm. Our Regiment was out of the line, enjoying a short rest in the village of Mesnieres, when on the morning of the 30th, the German great counter-attack burst forth in all its fury. Two companies of the Newfoundland Battalion went to the assistance of the Twentieth Division, which was being severely pressed by the Germans, and the other two companies took a position in their old trenches on the left of the Twentieth.
The fighting during the following four days was terrific. Both the Twentieth Division on the right and the Sixth on the left were driven back, and our men were obliged to take a position at the southwestern outskirts of Mesnieres. The whole Twenty-Ninth Division was in for a trying experience. Both flanks were being rapidly exposed by the supporting divisions, being forced back, and there was great danger that the enemy would force their way around the south and cut off the withdrawal of the Twenty-Ninth. The Germans pushed their way into the village of Gouzaecourt, Headquarters of the Twenty-Ninth Division, and came alarmingly near to capturing General de Lisle. He grabbed his papers and a revolver, and made his escape on horseback after the German infantry had entered the village. For two whole days the Newfoundland Battalion with other units of the Twenty-Ninth fought desperately against repeated German attacks, without -living an inch. Every machine gun, except one, which had been supporting the advance post held by the Division, had been captured. On the night of December 1, when it became clear that the position could not be held except at very great sacrifice, orders were given for a general readjustment of the line by the evacuation of Mesnieres sector. Two units, however, the Newfoundlanders and the South Wales Borderers, were left on the north side of the Canal. No greater compliment could be paid these two battalions. The position was one of extreme danger and difficulty, and required the greatest courage and ability on the part of the defending troops. They were practically unsupported by artillery or machine gun fire, while they were incessantly subject to a most destructive enemy machine gun fire. This part of the engagement proved beyond doubt that "the mechanical side of modern warfare can never quite eliminate the brave pushing heart and the strong arm."
It was a cruel experience for the most seasoned soldiers, but the Newfoundland Battalion fought through it with a courage and determination that would not give in. All through the 2nd and until the evening of the 3rd of December they held the northern bank of the Canal. When it was decided that a withdrawal was advisable, because the position was not worth the sacrifice necessary to hold it, the two battalions got back to their new position on the southern bank with splendid discipline and with remarkably few losses. Page Seventy-Two
Our Regiment occupied a trench which ran from the Canal to a road that runs about south-west from Les Rues Vertes, about midway between Marcoing and Mesnieres. This position it held, except a stretch of about 100 yards, until the morning, of December 4, when it was relieved by another battalion.
Previous engagements in which the Regiment had taken part lasted generally one day. But in many respects the Marcoing-Mesnieres engagement, lasting as it did over a period of two weeks, and, except for two days’ intermission, at maximum strength and exertion, was an endurance test of the highest order. It was a test, however, to which the Newfoundland Regiment stood up with unabated courage and perseverance, and many of the men were decorated for deeds of conspicuous valor and untiring devotion to duty. Page Seventy-Three
Captain Bertram Butler again distinguished himself. After two attacks were held up, on his own initiative he organized and led another attack and captured the position. It was a magnificent display of resourcefulness and determination. WHITTY.
Lieutenant G. J. Whitty was a Signaling Officer. When several of the officers had been knocked out, he went forward on his own initiative and assisted in organizing an attack. He personally led a charge in an able manner and with entirely successful results. RENDELL.
Captain H. Rendell was in command of a strong point that was very heavily bombarded. When his trench was blown in, he withdrew his survivors in an orderly manner to a neighboring trench.
He got a supply of bombs together, and as soon as the shelling ceased, he led a bombing party, drove out the Germans and re-established the position. By his initiative and determination he saved a vital point. Many other men were decorated for their courageous and valuable services in various capacities. As would be expected from such a long and severe engagement, in which the Regiment had put forth its bravest and most determined effort, heavier casualties were sustained. Seventy-nine men were reported killed, 340 wounded and 43 missing.
The following is a list of the decorations awarded for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in the three actions reviewed in this chapter:
The severe fighting that the Regiment had gone through in the Marcoing-Mesnieres engagement and the heavy losses sustained, necessitated a long period for recuperation and rebuilding. Fortunately the need came at a time when the severe fighting of 1917 was over, and preparations were being made all through the British Armies for the unpleasant outlook of the following spring. The journey back to winter quarters was made over roads, which, in many places, were blocked with deep banks of snow. It was typical Newfoundland winter weather; but the thought of spending Christmas and enjoying a rest in a French town took the edge off all hardships and gave them a tinge of cheerful anticipation. Many good stories could be told and are told in other places, of experiences in French towns. A special Christmas dinner was given to the Newfoundlanders at Fressen, and a Battalion mess dinner was held during the night. It was a much enjoyed day, "the other side of a soldier's life". Page Seventy-Six
Military Records Contact: Daniel B. Breen
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