Revisiting the battlefield

Local contingent paying homage to the valiant soldiers who fought for Monchy-le-Preux

Steve Bartlett
Published on April 21, 2012
Author Anthony McAllister places a Newfoundland flag, in this 2006 photo, on the grave of #2755, Pte. Harry Joseph Stone, Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Stone is buried in Windmill Cemetery, Monchy-le-Preux. Stone was killed in action April 23, 1917 at the age of 19. - Photo courtesy of Anthony McAllister.

During a week when the world marked the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking and Canadians commemorated the battle at Vimy Ridge, some people in this province were remembering the Newfoundland Regiment's remarkable First World War battle at Monchy-le-Preux, France.

April 14 marked the 95th anniversary of the day nine Regiment soldiers and one soldier from another unit kept between 200 and 300 Germans at bay for hours.

They were, according to official British history, "all that stood between the Germans and Monchy, one of the most vital positions on the whole battlefield."

Regimental historian Anthony McAllister is the author of "The Greatest Gallantry: The Newfoundland Regiment at Monchy-le-Preux April 14, 1917," which was published in 2011.

He believes the battle is the Newfoundland Regiment's greatest victory.

"This was our Vimy, as far as I'm concerned," says McAllister, who is part of the Newfoundland Great War Research Group.

The beginning of the battle didn't go in the Regiment's favour.

At 5 a.m., two British battalions - the Newfoundlanders and the 1st Essex unit - launched an attack that was countered by German forces.

The Essex unit sustained heavy losses and started retreating.

The Newfoundlanders also suffered heavy casualties, with many men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Around 10 a.m., a wounded soldier showed up and informed battalion headquarters what had happened.

Lt.-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, the British officer who commanded the Newfoundland Regiment, sent a scout to survey the situation.

Lt. Kevin Keegan couldn't find a Newfoundlander who hadn't been wounded.

He also saw hundreds of Germans advancing about 300 yards away.

"Forbes-Robertson had a choice," McAllister says.

"He could have ran west. He could have packed up and retreated from Monchy-le-Preux."

But the commander chose to fight and enlisted 20 members of the headquarters staff - cooks, orderlies and signalers among them.

McAllister says Forbes-Robertson's intent was to hold the Germans off for 15 minutes, at least until reinforcements arrived.

The men marched forward, gathering guns and ammunition from fallen soldiers.

The commander surveyed the situation from the roof of a house. He saw Germans entering the very trench the Newfoundlanders had unsuccessfully attacked hours ago.

Under fire, Forbes-Robertson led his men to a nearby hedge. By the time they reached it, their numbers had dropped to 10 - nine Newfoundlanders and one from the Essex Regiment.

From a trench discovered near the hedge, they held off the German army for 10 1/2 hours (it was long said to be four hours, but McAllister says his research indicates 10.5).

Under Forbes-Robertson's direction, they used rapid rifle fire to fool the Germans into thinking their threat was powerful.

"That was enough to drive them to ground."

McAllister says Forbes-Robertson knew his men couldn't continue the rapid fire and got them to switch to sniping mode after a few minutes.

"For the next 10 1/2 hours, that's all they did."

It took a long time, but it was a valuable victory, according to McAllister.

"One of the comments the generals made is, without Monchy, the success of Vimy (five days earlier) would have been muted, and if they had lost Monchy, that would have given the Germans some tactical view of the Vimy Ridge area."

Holding onto Monchy was also significant from a manpower perspective.

Maj.-Gen. Sir Henry Beauvoir de Lisle was commanding officer of the 29th Division, to which the Newfoundland Regiment belonged.

He later estimated it would have taken 40,000 men to recapture Monchy.

McAllister says the Newfoundland Regiment's successful resistance that day was largely due to Forbes-Robertson.

"It was through his daring and gallantry and leadership that saved the day."

While all 10 men received medals, Forbes-Robertson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. That's second only to the Victoria Cross, an honour he eventually earned in 1918.

While Monchy was a great victory for the Newfoundland Regiment, it was also a devastating battle.

Casualties totalled 460, with 166 soldiers killed or missing, 141 wounded and 153 captured by the Germans.

Only the losses at Beaumont Hamel were higher.

McAllister and others from the Newfoundland Great War Research Group left St. John's Friday for Monchy and the sites where the Newfoundland Regiment fought during the First World War.

Part of their plan is to retrace the Regiment's steps during its time in Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915-16.

"I'm not sure if anyone from here has ever tried to accomplish that," says group member Frank Gogos.

The purpose of the trek is to gain a better understanding of the Regiment's battles.

Forbes-Robertson's son, Kenneth, will be joining the group in France. McAllister is excited to show him where his father led the Newfoundland soldiers to victory 95 years ago.

"If this were anywhere else, there'd be a movie made," he says of what happened at Monchy-le-Preux. Twitter: SteveBartlett_