Bailleul 1918 – Prologue

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment found itself in the village of Fressin celebrating its second Christmas in France in December 1917.

In the spring the Regiment was transported back to the Brandhoek line behind Ypres. The spring also signaled a three month German offensive. After the Revolution in Russia in 1917, the German army was reinforced on the Western front by transfers of large bodies of troops from Russia. On 21 March, 1918 the Germans sent 71 divisions attacking across a fifty mile sector. The situation facing the British Army was dire. Initially on their to rest behind the lines on April 9, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was diverted and ordered, with their 88th Brigade, to Bailleul to help stem the enemy attack. For nearly ten days straight the Newfoundlanders engaged the enemy onslaught.

 


(Adapted from Pilgrimage, with the kind permission of David Parsons.)

THE ROYAL NEWFOUNDLAND REGIMENT was going into reserve following a tour of front line duty in front of Ypres. They traveled to St. Jans ter Biezen on their way to join the rest of the 29th Division near Estaires, but there was to be no rest or billets. A critical situation had developed near Bailleul after the enemy launched its massive spring offensive with overwhelming numbers from the Eastern Front.  The 34th Division had evacuated Armentieres on April 10 and were withdrawing west to Bailleul on the Armentieres-Bailleul road (see map). The Germans were advancing so quickly from the south that it was likely this withdrawal would be cut off. The 25th Division had pulled back from Ploegsteert to the edge of Nieppe. The 88th Brigade was diverted to Bailleul under temporary command of the 25th Division to secure the road under  threat from the Germans advancing from the south.

Near-Breakthrough by Germans April 10

The Newfoundlanders and the rest of the 88th Brigade were bused to Bailleul and on to La Creche. A little after 4:00 P.M., April 10, 1918, they left the buses at La Creche, a village one and one-half miles east of Bailleul. The Germans had occupied Steenwerck and were advancing towards Bailleul. C and D Companies went forward toward Steenwerck Station, coming under machine gun fire and suffering casualties. The low railway embankment made a good defensive position and the foremost troops of the Division were along one and one half miles of this track. They warded off German attacks during the day and dug in for the night, with the 40th Division on the left and the 34th Division on the right.

That night, the Newfoundlanders went into reserve, but were held in readiness for a counter-attack at any time. On April 11, the 88th Brigade came under the orders of the 34thDivision. At midday, April 11, they were moved to De Broecken Farm, north of the Bailleul-Armentieres road in order to protect the 88th Brigade from encirclement. At dusk, the 34thDivision withdrew from Nieppe, and passed  through the 88th Brigade.

April 12 Crisis

April 12 was a day of crisis. The Germans had pushed the British from Estaires. The enemy were now in the rear of Bailleul.

The defensive position of the 34th Division held. The 88th Brigade was facing east on a front of 5000 yards from Steenwerck Station to the Bailleul Road behind Nieppe. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was in the front line with the Hampshires on the right and the Monmouth Regt* on the left. At noon A and C Companies were forward in the line, the other Companies were in support. At 4:00 P .M., a strong attack against the Monmouth Regiment started. That Regiment was ordered to hold its position astride the Bailleul Road, but was cut off and suffered over four hundred casualties. To cover the open flank, a platoon of C Company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, commanded by Lt. L. Moore, turned his front 90 degrees to face north and caught the advancing Germans in enfilade. The platoon held on stubbornly but was overwhelmed. Lt. Moore was wounded and taken prisoner. This heroic action allowed the rest of C Company to fall back in good order to light railway tracks north east of Steenwerck. Here, they were joined by A Company and the battalion HQ and stragglers from other units, to make a stand, commanded by Capt. G. Paterson. B and D Companies came up from reserve to join them. The Germans were halted by the determined fire of the Newfoundlanders. (It was said by some that it was like Beaumont-Hamel again, only in reverse. The Newfoundlanders fired at  close range at the advancing Germans from behind the railway embankment.) At this time the remainder of the battalion was deployed in a semi-circle, facing fire from the north, east, and south.

That night, they withdrew to De Suele Crossroads, where the lateral road from Neuve Eglise meets the Bailleul Road. The Battalion was relieved by the Northumberland Regt. of the 34th Division. If the troops did not keep moving, they would fall asleep on their feet. They retired to their reserve position, on call in case of a counter attack by the enemy.

Re-Newed Crisis April 13

That call came the afternoon of April 13. The 6 tired British brigades were facing six German divisions. At 5:00 P.M., a determined assault by the Germans had penetrated the British line and advanced along the De Broecken Road. This time, it was D Company’s chance to catch the Germans in the open. At 6.30 P.M., as the Germans advanced over open ground, D Company was in position to pour devastating fire into the advancing enemy. The rest of the Battalion joined D Company in this action. This stopped the enemy advance after they suffered heavy casualties. Capt. John Clift, OC D Company, was later awarded a Military Cross for his coolness in directing fire in this engagement.

Later that day, the Regiment were ordered to Ravelsberg Ridge to dig in at a previously selected position north-east from Bailleul to Crucifix Corner. They held this line on April 14.

On April 15, the Newfoundlanders marched back to Croix de Poperinghe (two miles north of Bailleul, on the slope of Mont Noir). Their stay in Nissen Huts here was less than twenty-four hours. The Germans had captured Bailleul and Ravelsberg Ridge. The Regiment went forward to dig in with the rest of the 88th Brigade, about half way between Croix de Poperinghe and the ridge. While there were no German assaults during their stay in this line, there was heavy shelling but without serious loss.

Re-assignment and Relief

On April 21 , the Battalion was relieved by the 401 Regt. of the French 133 Division. They marched to billets near Steenvoorde and joined what remained of the 10% left out of battle. The next day, a short bus ride to Hondeghem, near Hazebrouck, reunited the 88th Brigade with the rest of the 29th Division.

The German Offensive continued until the end of April in this sector, but little progress was made after the rapid advance in the first week. By the end of April, the offensive had been called off. They now concentrated their forces on the French front towards Soissons and the Marne River, advancing to within thirty miles of Paris. By the end of July, the German Army had exhausted their resources of manpower and material. The offensive was finished and the Allied counter attacks began.

 


*The Monmouth Regiment had replaced the Essex Regiment in the 88th Brigade.

 

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment had paid a high price for their part in stemming the German offensive. Casualties amounted to six officers and one hundred and seventy men. The fighting around Bailleul had left the Regiment far below strength. As no immediate reinforcements were available, the Regiment was taken out of the line. On April 19, 1918, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment left the 29th Division of which they had been a part since 1915.

 


{The British Army unfortunately were not reluctant to break up Divisions and re-assign regiments or even brigades to different divisions. The Canadian Army in WW1 did not follow this practice, and the result was beneficial to the integrity and efficiency of the Canadian Army.} By May the German offensive had exhausted itself and The Royal Newfoundland Regiment were taken out of the front lines. Their depleted condition and the difficulty of finding replacements prompted High Command to remove the Regiment from the 29th Division and place them at Sir Douglas Haig’s Headquarters at Montreuil. The time there would be spent rebuilding the regiment to fighting strength.