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Webmatters : 19th Bn CEF memorial at Fresnoy en Gohelle

19th Battalion Canadian Infantry

Location

Fresnoy en Gohelle is a village approximately fifteen kilometres north-east of Arras.

From Arras take the D950 in the direction of Douai as far as Gavrelle. Take the exit (passing the Royal Naval Division’s anchor memorial on your left). Take the first left passed the church in the direction of Oppy. On reaching Oppy continue around to the right keeping the church green on your left. Turn left at the next junction towards Fresnoy.

The monument is on Fresnoy’s village green in front of the church.

Alternatively from Vimy. Return to Neuville Saint Vaast and follow the signs for Thélus on the D49. Just after Thélus turn left for Farbus, Willerval, Arleux and then follow the sign for Bois Bernard on the D919. A kilometre outside Arleux turn right for Fresnoy.

The action commemorated by the plaque took place in the vicinity of this crossroads.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 50.365484 2.889858 Map

 

Background

In the Spring of 1917 the new French Commander in Chief, Général Robert Nivelle convinced the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, that he had a winning formula for breaking the stalemate on the Western Front.

The French would conduct a large scale offensive along the Chemin des Dames on the Aisne, preceded by a diversionary offensive by the British at Arras. Lloyd George was won over by Nivelle’s eloquence and ordered Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to subordinate himself to Nivelle’s wishes. The Battle of Arras would begin on the 9th April 1917, followed nine days later by the French operation.


Soldiers awaiting the commencement of the ceremony
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada

The British offensive was opened in flurries of snow and a number of villages towards Cambrai soon fell to the Third Army. On its left flank the Canadian Corps, assisted by British units conquered Vimy Ridge in myth making circumstances. Despite its initial success, the battle soon became, like all the others, bogged down in the face of an obstinate defence by the Germans.

The 16th April saw an almost total failure by the French to crush the German positions along the Chemin des Dames. This failure had more to do with politics and the naivety of Nivelle’s planning than the ardour of the soldiers carrying out the attack. The crushing disappointment of the offensive’s failure brought about a deterioration in the morale of the French Army.

Wishing to distract the Germans from the ailments afflicting his Allies, Haig decided to continue with his own offensive despite his desire to mount a British offensive in Belgian Flanders.

Although the taking of Vimy Ridge had been successful, the position remained vulnerable whilst the Germans continued to hold the hills to its south-east. To this end Haig ordered a further advance towards Arleux en Gohelle on the 28th April.


Piper from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada
The piper

Arleux was taken by the Canadians but the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division encountered stiffer opposition whilst taking Gavrelle. Haig decided to put an end to the offensive but wanted to organise a better defensive line and a final ironing out assault was planned for the beginning of May.

To this end, whilst the British were to attack the village of Oppy, the Canadians on their left would seize Fresnoy on the 3rd May. Moving forward before dawn the Canadians were spotted in the moonlight by the Germans, who, since the fall of Arleux, had been on high-alert for just such an attack.

The German artillery opened a bombardment on the Canadian lines followed by a Canadian counter-bombardment on the German trenches. The 2nd Battalion Canadian Infantry managed to get themselves into the village and the wood to the north was taken by the 3rd Battalion.

Although not particularly high, Fresnoy does give a superb view over the surrounding countryside and for this reason the German staff began organising an operation to retake the village. On the 5th May the British reorganised their dispositions; moving the Canadian Corps boundary to the northern side of the village, which was taken over by the XIII British Corps.

Between the 6th and 8th May the German artillery fired more than 100,000 shells along the sector, and it was in the midst of one such bombardment that in the early hours of the 8th May, the 19th Battalion Canadian Infantry advanced across the valley with orders to relieve the 29th Battalion in the front line.

Passing Farbus the soldiers were subjected to a gas shelling and for many it was their first encounter with the weapon and the march continued wearing gas-masks. What they could not know was that as they arrived at the front, 5 Bavarian Division was in the process of moving forward to their jumping off points, ready to storm Fresnoy.

Rough Map of Area

At about 0345 hours Bavarian troops covering the deployment stumbled into the Canadian trenches whilst the handover was taking place. The hand to hand fighting was vicious and difficult for the Canadians who had little idea of the ground and were disorganised in mid relief.

Then at 0547 hours the German artillery dropped an intense bombardment on the village of Fresnoy. The rain and fog that morning masked the British distress flares and, in any event, the British artillery were incapable of competing with the ferocity of the German shelling.

One soldier of the 19th Battalion wrote afterwards that their trenches were collapsing as much due to the incessant rain as the fall of shells. Everything and everybody was covered in mud.

The 12th Bn Gloucerstershire Regiment, defending Fresnoy, found themselves literally shelled out of it and their retirement dragged that of the 19th Canadians’ right flank back with them. Part of the 19th Battalion’s front line was taken but they struck back by pushing their reserve (D Company) forward to recover the lost trenches and messaged the Gloucesters to do the same. The Gloucesters, however, had been reduced to 130 men and were in no position to counter-attack.

By 1330 hours the 19th Battalion’s position formed a small salient and they were being fired upon from three sides. They held their ground until later in the day when they were ordered to retire.

An attempt the following day to retake Fresnoy was repulsed and the village would remain in German hands until the last months of the war.

In its combat on the 8th May the 19th Battalion suffered the loss of 11 officers and 225 men killed or wounded out of a total effective of 19 officers and 668 men. It was their bloodiest day of the war.

Major Harry Hatch would find himself once again in command, but in better times, during the battalion’s encounter with German tanks in October 1918.

 

The plaque

The plaque was inaugurated on the 17th May 2015 in the presence of members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and local representatives of the Commune and Departement.

The Canadian Militia helped sponsor a number of the CEF’s infantry battalions. In the case of the 19th Battalion one of the parent units was the 91st Regiment Canadian Highlanders (of Hamilton, Ontario). For this reason soldiers of the 19th Battalion wore a kilt.

In May 1920 the 91st regiment were renamed the : Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, who continue to maintain the heritage of the 19th Battalion.

Few of the casualties have a known grave and often as not it is because they died of their wounds elsewhere. They are buried at :

  • Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension (1)
  • Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension (2)
  • Beehive Cemetery, Willerval (1)
  • Douai Communal Cemetery (1)
  • Ecoivres Military Cemetery, Mont-St Eloi (5)
  • Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux en Gohelle (5)
  • Terlincthun Military Cemetery, Wimille (1)

The other sixty-one killed in action are commemorated on the Vimy memorial.

 

Some photos from the inauguration

Before the inauguration Michel Volanti, the Maire with the Canadian party Canadian and French soldiers The march on M Volanti and the Colonel unveil the plaque Congratulations Prayers were led by the regimental chaplain The plaque is situated on the green near the town memorial Last Post Wreath laying

Click on the thumbnail for a larger version

 

Other monuments in the area