Newfoundland and Labrador: a Contribution Remembered (part 12)

The Battle of Cambrai

“I don’t care what happens to me now; I have commanded the most wonderful troops in the world, who have fought the best fight any man can see and live. I feel my career has been crowned.”

- Brigadier Nelson


The Battle of Cambrai was to be the Allies "Great Experiment" using a new approach to warfare. The goal was to break through a ten-kilometre section of the German Hindenburg Line in Northeastern France, with the city of Cambrai as their objective - a vital German supply centre. 

Because the landscape was favourable for the deployment of the newly-invented tank they would advance with 278 tanks and six infantry divisions — including the 29th Division, of which the Newfoundlanders were apart.


By so doing they would not have to use their customary artillery bombardment prior to the attack to destroy the enemy's barbed wire and other defences.

There would be some element of surprise too.

On November 20th, 1917, at 6:20 am, the Newfoundlanders advanced. They were heavily laden, carrying at least 72 pounds on their backs. This weight included the rifle, over 100 rounds of ammunition, flares, mills bombs, water, rations, picks, shovels, ladders, sandbags, etc, etc.

The NFLD and Essex Regiments quickly charged over the Welsh Ridge and knocked out a battery of field guns as well as capturing 150 prisoners. With the Church spires of Cambrai looming in the distance, they took cover in The Marcoing Woods before launching their further assault on Masnières and the St. Quentin Canal.

Although they attained all their objectives, it was again very costly to the Newfoundlanders: 131 casualties.

Lieutenant Walter Greene, who had won the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) at Caribou Hill, in Gallipoli, was the first to be killed in the attack.

Field Marshall Haig was later to say, "The story of the defence of Masnières and of the part which the Newfoundland Battalion played in it is one which, I trust, will never be forgotten on our side of the Atlantic." He also paid tribute to the "high courage and unfailing resolution" of all ranks of the Newfoundland Regiment.

Then, in one of those sad ironies of warfare, a chance shell, fired indiscriminately into the air, perhaps five or six miles away, landed among a NFLD platoon, killing ten and wounding 15.

One of them was Sgt Walter Pitcher, one of the ten heroes from Monchy le Preux. Another was the Regiment’s leading sniper, Lance-Corporal John Shiwak, from Labrador. (He will be featured in a future Blog.)

Then, on December 3rd, a massive German counter-offensive began which would force all British Forces to withdraw across the Salient. For the Newfoundland Regiment, the enemy artillery barrage was quickly followed by waves of German infantry. In their forced withdrawal, they lost 71 soldiers.

Brigadier Nelson, who collapsed after the strain of battle, said of his 88th Brigade (of which the Newfoundlanders were apart) “I don’t care what happens to me now; I have commanded the most wonderful troops in the world, who have fought the best fight

any man can see and live. I feel my career has been crowned.”

Once again, the conspicuous gallantry and bravery of the Newfoundlanders earned them many medals and honours. Two weeks after the battle of Cambrai, Governor Harris was informed that “His Majesty the King has been pleased to approve the grant of the title “ROYAL” to the Newfoundland Regiment.”

This was only the third time in British History that such an honour had been conferred while the troops were involved in the battle (The other two occasions were in 1665 and 1885).

And, no other Regiment was to have such an honour conferred upon it during WW1 while fighting was in progress. It was a unique mark of Royal Favour in recognition of the superlative conduct of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Ypres and Cambrai battles.