The New­found­land Reg­i­ment’s great­est vic­tory was at Monchy-le-preux

The Compass - - EDITORIAL OPINION -

Beau­mont Hamel, where the New­found­land Reg­i­ment was dec­i­mated on the 1st of July, 1916, is the best-re­mem­bered of all the reg­i­ment’s bat­tles dur­ing the world war of 1914-18.

Only 68 of the 801 soldiers who at­tacked that morn­ing were able to an­swer the roll call the next day.

And Tommy Rick­etts, a 17-year-old boy from Mid­dle Arm in White Bay who won the Vic­to­ria Cross, is the best-known of all New­found­land’s mil­i­tary he­roes.

It takes noth­ing away from the hero­ism, gal­lantry and sac­ri­fice of those who fought at Beau­mont Hamel to re­call that their ef­fort was a mil­i­tary folly, which served no pur­pose ex­cept to de­stroy a bat­tal­ion of New­found­land’s finest young men, nor does it di­min­ish Rick­etts’s glory to re­mem­ber that the heroic acts for which he, and his four com­rades, were dec­o­rated were a small in­ci­dent dur­ing the vic­to­ri­ous ad­vance of the Bri­tish Army through Flan­ders in the fall of 1918.

But many mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans would ar­gue that the reg­i­ments’s en­gage­ment at Monchyle-Preux in April 1917 was its great­est vic­tory dur­ing the long strug­gle on the Western Front, and that the “ 10 men who saved Monchy” stand very high among the he­roes of the Great War.

Monchy, as New­found­lan­ders call it, was a small part of the three-month long Bat­tle of Ar­ras, in north­ern France. The en­gage­ment be­gan at 5 a.m. on April 14 as a rel­a­tively small at­tack by two bat­tal­ions — the New- found­lan­ders and their com­rades in the 88th Bri­gade, the 1st Es­sex, 1,500 men in all.

It was doomed from the out­set. Flawed plan­ning by both divi­sion and bri­gade staff, ex­ac­er­bated by faulty ex­e­cu­tion, put both units at peril from the mo­ment they left their trenches. They were or­dered to ad­vance with their flanks ex­posed, and their ini­tial suc­cess was not sup­ported by the bat­tal­ions on ei­ther side of them.

Atop that, the Bri­tish High Com­mand had failed to un­der­stand the “elas­tic de­fence in depth” tac­tics adopted by the Ger­mans some months ear­lier, when they fell back to the Hin­den­burg line, a very strong de­fen­sive po­si­tion.

A Ger­man counter-at­tack turned into a rout of the men of both Bri­tish bat­tal­ions, who soon found them­selves all but sur­rounded. Many, in­clud­ing 153 New­found­lan­ders, were forced to sur­ren­der.

The failed at­tack opened up a great op­por­tu­nity for the Ger­mans — a res­o­lute ad­vance would have al­lowed them to break through the Bri­tish front line. Lieu­tenan­tColonel James Forbes-Robert­son, com­mand­ing the New­found­lan­ders, was un­aware of the threat un­til shortly af­ter 10 a.m., when a wounded sur­vivor re­ported to bat­tal­ion head­quar­ters, sev­eral hun­dred yards be­hind the front line.

Forbes-Robert­son sent Lt. Kevin Kee­gan for­ward to re­con­noitre. Within 20 min­utes, he re­ported that ev­ery New­found­lan­der who had taken part in the at­tack was ei­ther wounded, killed or had been cap­tured. Forbes-Robert­son im­me­di­ately gath­ered up the head­quar­ters staff — sig­nallers, cooks, clerks and staff of­fi­cers — and led them for­ward to­wards the en­emy.

They were only a hand­ful at the start, 20 in all, and only 10 made it to the pro­tec­tion of a hedge a few yards be­hind the trench from which their com­rades had jumped off ear­lier that morn­ing. Armed with ri­fles and am­mu­ni­tion picked up dur­ing their fran­tic rush for­ward, the 10 men were all that “stood di­rectly be­tween the Ger­mans and Monchy, one of the most vi­tal po­si­tions on the whole bat­tle­field,” in the words of the Bri­tish Army’s of­fi­cial his­tory.

Ma­jor-Gen­eral Sir Beau­voir de Lisle, the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the 29th Divi­sion, of which the New­found­lan­ders were a part, told them af­ter­wards that 40,000 men would have been re­quired to re­cover Monchy had the Ger­mans cap­tured it.

Those 10 men — nine of them New­found­lan­ders and the 10th from the Es­sex Regi- ment — stopped the en­tire Ger­man army that morn­ing. They held up hundreds of the en­emy for more than 11 hours be­fore re­lief reached them.

The reg­i­ment — in­deed, the Bri­tish Army — knew no greater ex­am­ple of hero­ism dur­ing the en­tire War. The of­fi­cial ci­ta­tions in the Lon­don Gazette de­scribed the men’s ac­tions as a com­bi­na­tion of “con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry” and “the great­est gal­lantry.” All 10 were awarded dec­o­ra­tions — Forbes-Robert­son re­ceived the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Or­der, sec­ond only to the Vic­to­ria Cross; Kee­gan the Mil­i­tary Cross; and the other eight men the Mil­i­tary Medal, the en­listed soldiers’s equiv­a­lent to the Mil­i­tary Cross. (The Bri­tish class struc­ture ex­tended even to the gal­lantry dec­o­ra­tions awarded to their army’s soldiers).

Forbes-Robert­son sub­se­quently won the Vic­to­ria Cross, in April 1918, as well as a Bar (a sec­ond award) to his DSO and the Mil­i­tary Cross, be­com­ing one of the most dec­o­rated of­fi­cers of the First World War. Kee­gan also won a Bar to his MC. Both sur­vived the war, as did five of their eight com­rades.

Tony McAl­lis­ter’s new book, “ The Great­est Gal­lantry,” tells the story of Monchy fully and ac­cu­rately, if you want to know more about the bat­tle.

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