AT BEAUMONT HAMEL
“The Heroism and devotion to duty they displayed on
July 1st, has never been surpassed.”
When Louvencourt was reached on June 7th, 1916, it was generally regarded by the First Battalion as a haven of rest after the trying experiences at Gallipoli. Indeed, the people of the village were friendly; they liked our lads and our lads liked them.
It was here that orders were received for the re-organization of the Regiment, and conferences were held, when “the big push” was planned. The instructions from Brigade included a map of some country North of “C” Company billets, which had been plotted out, imitation trenches dug to represent the country over which the advance would be made between the present British line and Puisieux Road, the final objective. It was decided, after some consideration, that “A” and “B” Companies should lead the attack, with “A” Company on the left, followed at some 100 yards distance by “C” and “D” Companies, with “C” on the left. Each company was to advance in lines of platoons in file ( or single file) at 40 paces interval and 25 yards between sections.
The training went on day after day; sometimes certain phases had to be repeated or done three times, in order to satisfy the criticisms of the General, and every evening the lads would come swinging back to their billets, dog tired, but singing happily- the voices of youth singing cheerfully in the face of death. Louvencourt saw the Newfoundlanders at their best- Louvencourt was to mourn them a month later!
When the Battalion moved to the trenches it was plain to be seen that there was a great deal of work to be done there in preparation for the great advance. Deep dug outs to accommodate over a thousand men had to be completed; bridges averaging twelve feet in length, and camouflaged, were being constructed, and gaps had to be cut in barbed wire entanglements. Men were moving from dusk to dawn carrying up equipment, gas cylinders, etc. Patrols in “No Man’s Land” were frequent. On June 23rd the Regiment was due to be relived by the South Wales Borders at 5 p.m., but at 4.15 p.m., a rain storm swept across the sector, so heavy that in less than half an hour Tipperary Avenue was waist deep in water. This held up the relief, which was not completed until 12. 30 a.m., on the 24th and it was 3.30 a.m., before the Battalion was back in billets at Louvencourt, and had something to eat.
According to an entry made by Capt. A. Raley, M.C, then Adjutant of the 1st Battalion: “Conferences were the order of the day. The orders for the attack were out. On June 27th the Brigadier came to the Battalion H.Q. and went over all the orders with the officers. The order of attack was for the 86th and 87th Brigades to carry the 1st enemy system and the 88th Brigade to follow them 20 minutes later and capture the 3rd line system. The formation of the Regiment in the attack was to remain as decided at the conference on June 7th with the 1st Essex Regiment on our right. The left boundary of the 29th Division was the South edge of Beaumont Hamel so that the Regiment did not really have the actual village to attack.
Heaving showers of rain began to set in on June 26th and on the 27th word came through that the attack was postponed for 48 hours. At this time the question of identification of the enemy troops in the opposite lines came up for important consideration, and it was decided to secure some information by raiding some area of the enemy trenches by a specially selected body of men. It had been contended that our own trenches had been raided by the Germans a couple of nights before our Brigade took over, and that some prisoners secured by the enemy revealed the arrival of the 29th Division in France.
However, on June 1st, Capt. B. Butler, M.C., was detailed by Lieut. – Col. A. L. Hadow, C.M.G, to do the raid; select whatever officers he desired and men up to fifty in number. 2/Lieuts. W.M. Greene and Chas. St. C. Strong volunteered, and with N.C.Os and men like Harold Barrett, Sebat Foran, and others training went ahead with enthusiasm; all specializing as bombers.
On the evening of June 27th, just about dusk, two charabancs left Louvencourt, with 57 passengers, in full war paint, faces blackened, and armed to the teeth. The artillery duel previous to the 1st of July battle was in progress, and after a short pause in the front line trenches, - zero was 11.45 p.m. the party moved out into no man’s land. It was found, however, that the bombardment had not effected the enemy wire, and while our men were working within thirty yards of the Germans, the latter took alarm, fire was opened and our men were obliged to retreat. They were, however, gratified to know that the job was to be repeated the next night, with another duty- that of cutting as many gaps in the wire as possible in preparation for July 1st.
The second raid started without incident. Barrett and his men reconnoitering discovered a partial breach in the wire; Butler and Jack Lukins made the approach and Sebat Foran went back to bring up the remainder of the party. Just as they reached the outer edge of the wire, a flare went up, and the German trenches were seen to be lined with troops. Then ensued a battle royal- with splendid targets and good bombers. Some of the party were hitched in the wire, but three or four got through and did much execution. Two of the men were taken prisoners, and our casualties were quoted as: 4 killed, 21 wounded and 3 missing ( including the two prisoners). George Phillips spent the night in the German wire, but got back during the next day, not much the worse for his experience. Here might be mentioned the prompt action of No. 402, Private Frederick M. O’Neil. He saw a German bomb being thrown in the midst of his party, and realising the great danger, he picked up the bomb and threw it back. It exploded on leaving his hand, and he was badly wounded, but his quick decision and act saved many lives. O’Neil was mentioned in dispatches. Captain Butler was awarded the Military Cross, and Private George Phillips received the Military Medal and the Russian Order of St. George.
No. 945, Private Peter Barron, referred to above, in a written statement prepared especially for this History, states regarding the raid: “When the bombing started, a boy named West was hit in the side by a German bomb and was killed. Jack Cahill got four bullets in him, and he asked me to try and get him in, but I was hit myself, and then the Germans got us. When the Germans got us down in their dugout they said it was a good scrap. There were Germans crippled up, with their arms and legs bandaged up, so the German’s got as good a breaking up as we did.”
Although these raids might not be termed most successful, nevertheless something was achieved, and it is not likely that survivors of the party will forget the two nights. – June 27-28, 1916.
OVER THE TOP
June 30th was a beautiful day. A draft of 66 men arrived from the depot in the afternoon, and were attached to Companies. At 9 p.m., the Regiment fell in, and ten minutes later there commenced the last march to Beaumont Hamel. As the men swung out of Louvencourt they raised their voices in song- the happy care-free songs of the jesting Army- which continued until the first halt was made just East of Acheaux.
By 2 a.m., on July 1st the Regiment was settled away in St. John’s Road and Clommel Avenue from which trenches the attack was to be delivered.
At 6 a.m., everybody was alert; the gun fire increased, and the intense bombardment, that was to continue until 7.15 a.m., opened. “Zero” was fixed for 7.30 a.m., and at 7.15 the hurricane bombardment opened. “At 7.30 a.m., “writes Capt. Raley, “above the bombardment, was felt the concussion and trembling of the earth as the ground in front of Beaumont Hamel shot like a fountain into the air and at the same time the South Wales Borderers ran up the trench steps and out into the open.”
The enemy, apparently, were fully prepared for the attack, for it was not very long before the Borderers came back, and it was seen that the enemy had pushed its guns into No Man’s Land and had established a position on the lip of the crater of the mine. There was a feeling in our ranks that things were not quite right, and this increased when at 8.20 a.m., orders were received, not to advance at 8.40 as previously arranged, but to stand by and await further orders.
At 8.40 the men were still waiting, and at 8.45 a verbal came from Brigade: “1st Essex and the Newfoundland Regiment will advance as soon as possible”---- the Battalion to occupy the enemy’s first line trench from point 89 to just North of point 60 and work forward to Station Road which was partially sunken and in rear of the enemy front lines.
A short conference was held and it was decided to attack on the formation rehearsed in training. At 9.15 a.m., Brigade was notified that the Newfoundland Regiment was moving off. Our lads were in the Great Advance on the Somme!
Eye witness stories and extracts from letters which have come before our notice in the compilation of this History vary to some extent, but are unanimous on the pictures presented, that of steadily advancing under heavy machine gun fire- with men dropping right and left. When the remnants of “A” and “B” Companies reached the front wire, it seemed impossible that men could live to get through these gaps. Officers, N.C.O.s and men went forward fearlessly sometimes in bursts- sometimes slowly and bravely. Soon “C” and “D” Companies reached the zone of death- and the same steady walk continued. This scene lasted for nearly twenty minutes, and the enemy heavy artillery opened an exceedingly heavy and intense bombardment on the whole system of trenches.
The scene was a sad one. The heat was intense- the shells roared- and everywhere could be seen the wounded and dying of all Regiments. What a baptism of fire for the new men who had just come out- what an experience for these civilian soldiers from Newfoundland! Beaumont Hamel can never be forgotten by those who survived.
At 9.45 a.m., (according to the Adjutant) just 30 minutes after the advance commenced, the C.O. reported in person to Brigade Battle H.Q, where the General found it very difficult to imagine that a Battalion, nearly 800 strong, could be completely wiped out in a few minutes. By 10 a.m., the attacks along the whole sector had been repulsed.
Early in the afternoon our ten percent re-enforcements arrived in the line and the Battalion occupied the support trench in the right sub-sector known as St. James Street. By morning on July 2nd, some 68 other ranks who had gone “over the top”, answered the roll call. On the 3rd the Battalion moved to Fethard Street, and for the next two days were occupied in the sad task of getting the wounded and attending to these comrades who had fallen. On July 6th the remnants of the First Battalion went back to the billets at Englebelmer. Here they were joined on July 11th by a draft of 127 other ranks, and on the 14th the Newfoundlanders under arms in France numbered 260 rifles.
Co. – Sergt Major W. Clare won mention in dispatches for his work on July 1st, and Privates Stewart Dewling and J. Cox were awarded Military Medals for their splendid efforts in helping the wounded, relieving suffering and getting the disabled in to safety.
In a statement submitted in connection with this History, an Officer who was wounded on the eventful day says as follows:----
“As is well known to you, C.S.M Clare is mentioned in “The Times” History of the War as having got the farthest of any Newfoundlander on that day, July 1st, 1916. It is not my intention to take away any of the glory of Sgt. Major Clare’s achievement, because he did get quite a distance, and I understand he was taking cover in the vicinity of where I was lying.
“On the morning, Ralph Herder, Lnc. Corp. Ralph Andrews and Jack Caul got as near to the German front line as any survivor of that awful day.
“Two of the bravest men in the Newfoundland Regiment, in my opinion, were Lieut. Roy Ferguson and Sergt. W. Ollerhead. When I was lying down on the morning after the advance had been held up and there was not another soul advancing, Lieut. Ferguson went towards the German trench with his revolver grasped in his outstretched right hand. As you know, he like all those unknown heroes, had the epitaph “Killed in Action.” Sergt. Ollerhead, whose platoon officer I think Ferguson was, advanced to see what had become of his officer. In my humble opinion these two men advanced towards the German trench knowing that certain death must be the inevitable result.”
Well might that London “Times” write: “They behaved with a completely noble steadiness and courage. The great burden of the battle had been borne by the British line Regiments- God Bless them!- but there is none of them and no man from any part of the Empire who ought not to be proud of the Newfoundland Battalion.”
The greatest testimonial to our troops, however, came from the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force:
(No. 330: Telegram Received:
Newfoundland may well feel proud of her sons. The heroism and devotion to duty they displayed on 1st July has never been surpassed. Please convey my deep sympathy and that of the whole of our Armies in France in the loss of the brave officers and men who have fallen for the Empire, and our admiration for their heroic conduct. Their efforts contributed to our success, and their example will live.
The Historian of the 29th Division refers to July 1st as follows:
“BEAUMONT HAMEL. The 87th Brigade had the right half of the attack. The 86th took the left. The attack was at 7.30; the barrage on the left was so intense that it was not until 7.55 that the supports left the trenches. The Dublin's could not reach their mark. The Middlesex reached theirs with heavy loss. The attack had failed. What would be the fate of the 88th? If they went forward they went to certain death. But when the military machine gets in motion it is hard to divert or stop. Those in command had imperfect and rather encouraging reports. If our men were really fighting in the Station Road on the right, i.e. well behind the enemy’s front line they must be supported and a determined effort made to prevent them being cut off and undone through the very brilliance of their success. Accordingly the G.O.C ordered a fresh attack to be carried out by the Essex and the Newfoundlanders. The latter were ready first and launched a determined attack at 9.15. Many eye witnesses have testified to the superb steadiness of that astonishing infantry. Undaunted by a hail of machine gun fire they went forward, till out of 700 men a mere handful remained.
“These men from a far land spent their blood like water for their distant kindred, their love of justice and the PaxBritannica. The site of their glory is a little bit of extraterritorial Newfoundland dedicated for ever as consecrated memorial of valour. “Ours” lost 90 % of those in the actual assault and 84 % of their available strength.”
Lieut.- General Sir Aylmer Hunter- Weston, K.C.B., D.S.O., R.E, J.P., D.L., M.P., in his official report, wrote:
“Among such grand Battalions it is difficult to allocate greater praise to one rather than to another but as this is the first occasion on which troops from our oldest colony, Newfoundland, have taken part in a big battle, it is good to be able to say that they proved themselves worthy of the highest traditions of the British race, and that no battalion among all those bands of heroes did better than they. They acted regardless of loss, moving forward in extended order, wave behind wave undismayed by the heavy fire to which they were subjected. It was a magnificent exhibition of disciplined courage.
“I went to visit them shortly after the battle and found that notwithstanding the losses they had incurred, and the drenching rain to which they were exposed, both by day and night after the battle, their spirit was indomitable, and the survivors and reinforcements were ready to attack again whenever the situation demanded. To hear men cheering as they did, after undergoing such an experience and in the midst of such mud and rain, made one proud to have the command of such a Battalion."
Source: MG 439 Box 1, File 2, The Rooms, Provincial Archives, St. John's, NL