One thing that I find both fascinating and frustrating about history is that no matter how much you read or think you know or how many history courses or degrees you have, you will never know it all. I suppose that is why I feel motivated to read so much about it. Just when you think you are getting a grasp on a topic, you learn something out of the blue....one of those "Wow, I never knew that!" moments. I had just such a moment a couple days ago as I was reading through a general history of World War One. (Martin Gilbert's "The First World War: A Complete History" (2004) is a work I highly recommend if you are looking for a good readable overview of the conflict. Yes, it is very British and yes, it tends to ignore the political side of things, but I digress.)
My "I never knew that moment!" occurred about halfway though the book and consisted of just one sentence actually. After a nod to the Canadian efforts at Vimy Ridge, Martin gives the briefest of mentions to an action that occurred two days after the conclusion of this battle in the village of Monchy-le-Preux. It was a victory snatched from the jaws of certain defeat and being the curious fellow that I am, I had to go searching for more information.
Having cleared the area around this village on the outskirts of Arras, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Essex Regiment (now the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment of Windsor, Ontario) were tasked with clearing the village itself. After a successful attack, however, the two attacking battalions were met with such a fierce German counter-attack that things almost ended in disaster.
Platoons were overrun and surrounded, and isolated from each other where they continued to fight until they either ran out of ammunition, were forced to surrender or were killed to the last man. It wasn't until a runner from the Essex Regiment finally managed to get back to HQ that the commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson, got a full picture of the disaster that was unfolding. Forbes-Robertson gathered up a small band of men from his HQ staff (mostly runners and signallers) and headed out into the fray.
What began as a small band of 20 soon became just 9 as they made their way forward between the houses of the village and had to make a few made dashes over open ground between the hedge rows where they were easy targets for German machine-gun fire. (Robertson's band of 9 soon became ten after they were joined by a battalion orderly from the Newfoundlanders who crawled forward to meet the group after having been knocked out by an exploding German artillery shell.)
What happened next was nothing short of epic and is what shocked me that I had never read of it anywhere before: For the next 4 or 5 hours (sources vary) Robertson's band of 10 men held off an entire German division, something like 200 men. The group was cut off and almost completely isolated. Making every bullet count, the Monchy Ten had killed an estimated 40 of the enemy within the first 2 hours. Many of these were German scouts who had been sent forward to find out why the Germans were now pinned down in their trenches following their successful morning rout. In this way, Robertson was able to keep the Germans in ignorance about just how pitifully small their group was. The plan worked.
Robertson was finally able to send a runner, Private Albert Rose, back to HQ to inform them of the situation and call down artillery fire on the German trenches. Having delivered his message, Rose then disobeyed a direct order and ran back through what can only be described as a gauntlet of hell, to rejoin the others. With artillery now falling down on them and a supporting British regiment arriving in relief, the Germans were forced to withdraw.
Military higher ups later estimated that had the village fallen it could have taken the Allies as many as 40,000 casualties in order to retake that section of the front. The following medals were award as a result of this action....
Lt-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Distinguished Service Order (Robertson later went on to win the Victoria Cross the following year)
Lt (later Captain) Kevin Keegan, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Cross
Private Fred Curran, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
Staff Sergeant John Hillier, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
Lance Corporal Japhet Hounsell, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
Sergeant Charles Parsons, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
Private Victor Parsons, (1st Essex Regiment), Military Medal
Sergeant Walter Pitcher, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
Sergeant Joseph Waterfield, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal
2nd Lt (then Private) Albert Rose, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Military Medal (Rose was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in another action.)
Also awarded as a part of this action were two medical staff, Captain JW Tocher (Royal Army Medical Corps) and Sergeant Archibald Goobey with the Military Cross and Military Medal respectively for their actions in retrieving and caring for wounded men after their medical post had been hit by 3 German artillery shells.