Beaumont-Hamel – July 1, 1916

In August 1914, the German Army swept through Belgium forcing the French and the “Contemptible Little Army” (as Kaiser Wilhelm described it) of the British Expeditionary Force to withdraw to within 40 km of Paris. There the German offensive stopped due to the overextended lines of communication and exhaustion of the soldiers. A gap appeared between the German Army Groups allowing the Allies to attack. At the Battle of the Marne they were successful in driving the Germans back to beyond the Somme.

The German Army dug in across France from Ostend on the North Sea to the Swiss border. An extended trench system was now established.

 (courtesy Dr. W David Parsons and S. Ficken)

 

On the Western Front, the German strategy was to hold the land gained by defensive means while defeating the Russians in the East. The Allies’ strategy was to drive the Germans out of France by offensive action. This was to be the conduct of the war for the next three years. German trenches were very well constructed nd generally were located on better ground of the German’s choosing. It was their intention to remain and hold these positions, whereas the French and British trenches were often temporary. The Allies were intent on pushing the enemy out, moving forward and reclaiming territory lost in August 1914.

An Anglo-French offensive was planned for late June 1916 with the objective to knock the Germans out of the war. However, as a result of the slaughterhouse at Verdun the French were forced to reduce their participation in the offensive from 39 divisions to 5 divisions. Plans were prepared that required the British to take the lead role in the offensive.

The offensive was planned to commence on the morning of June 29th. In the early stages of planning it was referred to as “The Big Push” and later as the “July Drive”.

Arrival in France

On March 22nd 1916, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment arrived in France from Egypt after having seen their first action in Gallipoli. They suffered their first battle casualties as a result of a determined enemy and the harsh conditions that existed in Gallipoli.

The Regiment landed in Marseilles and were transported by train to Pont Remy (near Abbeville, at the mouth of the Somme) where they entered their first billets.

On April 4th, 1916 the Battalion arrived at their billets in Louvencourt, approximately 12 km northwest of the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

In the months to follow the Newfoundlanders were tasked to assist in the construction of support and communication trenches, roads and railways. These duties were interrupted by brief periods in the front lines. While in the lines, on April 24th 1916, Pte. G.R. Curnew became the first casualty in France when rifle fire claimed his life.

However, time in the lines did not bring much relief from hard physical exertions. Trenches had to be fortified, deep dugouts had to be constructed, the new firing lines had to be improved, and lanes were cut in their own wire to allow advancing troops to quickly advance into No Man’s Land. The Battalion also underwent intense training for the upcoming assault, which included rigorous physical exercise.

The Raids

In order to assess the German defences and their state of preparedness a raid into German lines was planned for the night of June 26th – 27th. Led by Captain Bert Butler, a raiding party of 60 men underwent three weeks of preparation for the raid.

(courtesy Royal Newfoundland Regiment museum)

On June 26th at 11:30 pm 57 heavily armed raiders left their lines and made their way into No Man’s Land. Their objective was a heavily fortified area of the German front line known as the Y-Ravine. Upon reaching German wire, they fired two Bangalore torpedoes designed to blow a gap in the enemy wire. Due to the thickness of the wire, the torpedoes were not effective and the raiders had to resort to wire cutters. The Germans were now alerted and fired flares completely illuminating the Newfoundlanders. Having lost the element of surprise Captain Butler ordered his men back to their trenches. The raid resulted in two minor casualties. HQ did not accept this and ordered a second raid.

On the night of June 27th – 28th Captain Bert Butler commanded the second raid into German lines. Setting off into No Man’s Land in very heavy rain they reached a gap in enemy wire, which was the result of heavy shelling earlier that night. Just as they reached the gap the enemy sent up a flare directly over the Newfoundlanders. The German trench, less than twenty yards away, was seen to be full of soldiers, who began firing and hurling grenades at the raiders. The Newfoundlanders immediately took advantage of the enemy targets and returned fire. A number of bombs fell directly into enemy trenches, which must have taken a considerable toll on the inhabitants occupying them. The Newfoundlanders were also suffering heavy causalities. A number of them were caught in the wire and hit by bullet or bomb. Three or four of the raiders managed to reach the German parapet; however, several of these were either killed or taken prisoner.

It is reported that one soldier, Pte. Frederick O’Neill (#402), was one of those who were successful in entering the German trenches.  After completing his mission Pte. O’Neill was coming out of the trench with a German helmet in one hand and his rifle in the other, when he saw a grenade pitch among 16 or 17 of his mates, about 10 yards away from him. He shouted, “Look out, boys, I’ll stop it or go under.” Dropping the helmet he made a dash for the grenade, grabbing it and throwing it back toward the German trench. Just as it left his hand it exploded knocking him about 15 yards away.  The other raiders thought he was done for. Captain Butler and his comrades were able to safely return him to their own lines. After coming around his first words were, “Is any one hurt?”

The raid lasted 25 minutes. With their supply of bombs exhausted and their casualties mounting, Captain Butler ordered his troops to retreat to an area close to where the Danger Tree now stands. The losses from the second raid resulted in 4 men killed, 3 taken prisoner and 21 wounded, 2 later dying from their wounds. All officers had been wounded during the raid. As a result of the two raids it was learned that enemy trenches were intact, held in great strength and the German wire in front of their lines was thick and intact. Raids conducted by other battalions in the area produced the same intelligence, information which was ignored by higher commanders.

As a result of Captain Butler’s actions in these raids he was awarded the Military Cross.

Before The Battle

Due to very heavy rain, the attack was delayed to the morning of July 1st. Five days of bombardment which was to precede the assault was extended to seven days. This had a negative effect in that the number of shells available for the assault on July 1st was considerably reduced. According to German reports, the additional two days of shelling did result in heavy casualties, and damage to their trenches and wire.

German trenches at Beaumont-Hamel from original British map  (dated 30 Jul 1916). (From Chasseaud, P., Topography of Armageddon, p. 160)

However, their deep dugouts were largely untouched and they were able to maintain excellent supply lines to their front.

Divisional Command was so confident the shelling of the previous week had destroyed German troop and artillery positions it was suggested that the infantry needed only to advance at a “walking” pace towards German lines.

On June 30th, 1916, a final draft of 66 men arrived in Louvencourt bringing the battalion up to the normal war establishment of 32 officers and 972 other ranks. That evening, at 9:00 pm, the Newfoundland Battalion left their billets at Louvencourt, leaving 10% behind in reserve. The British adopted this policy in 1915 to provide a foundation to rebuild in the event a regiment was to suffer severe losses in an engagement. In accordance with this policy, probably 3 officers and 97 other ranks were left behind.

As the Battalion marched through the fields east of Acheaux they sang the popular wartime song “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. Upon arriving to the south of Mailley-Maillet they halted and remained there for a few hours. They then proceeded along Tipperary Avenue and shortly after 2:00 am they entered St. John’s Road. The men had constructed this trench a few weeks before. After spending a restless night the troops were served a hot meal and waited for the order to go over the top.

It is important to know something of the general topography at Beaumont-Hamel. The British occupied a ridge line, and the Germans were downhill occupying low ground. The German position was uniquely marked by a deep ravine, varying in depth but generally about 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide. This ravine was generally parallel to the British lines, and the Germans heavily fortified it and used it extensively for protection from artillery by digging into the sides of the ravine to provide very deep overhead cover. When the British 29th Division left their trenches, they had to come over the skyline of the ridge and then move downhill to the German lines after clearing lanes through heavy wiring secured by iron pickets. This position, known as a ‘reverse-slope position’ greatly favoured the Germans, and they employed this advantage to deadly effect. It favours the defender because the attacker cannot see the enemy prior to crossing the skyline, and the defender can easily see the attackers silhouetted against the skyline.

 

Zero Hour

On the morning of July 1st the British commenced an artillery barrage at 6:25 am, which lasted for one hour.

 

Beaumont-Hamel, July 1, 1916, superimposed on present Memorial Park. (Click pop-up hand to view photo of indicated location)(courtesy Dr. W. David Parsons – Pilgrimage)

At 7:20 am an underground mine situated at Hawthorn Ridge, 900 meters from the Newfoundlanders, exploded. The force of 40,000 lbs. of explosives sent dirt and debris high into the air. Ten minutes later, at 7:30am the bombardment of German positions ceased.

Hawthorn Ridge mine explosion – 0720 hrs July 1, 1916 – 900 meters from the Newfoundlander’s position (Courtesy of Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum

 

The explosion of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge and the cessation of the artillery barrage alerted the Germans that an attack was soon to take place. The British had forfeited the advantage of surprise allowing the Germans sufficient time to prepare for the assault. The Germans immediately commenced their own artillery barrage over British lines and No Man’s Land.

The 29th Division’s initial objective was to capture a sector of German lines known as the Y-Ravine. The Germans who occupied this salient survived the artillery barrage of that morning and were in an excellent position to ward off an attacking force.

The first wave of the 29th division, consisting of the 2nd South Wales Borderers and the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers left the relative safety of their trenches at 7:30 am. They were met with a hail of machine gun fire and heavy shelling. The attack was over in five minutes with most of the casualties occurring in the few narrow gaps in the enemy’s wire. Some of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers managed to make it to enemy lines but most of them were killed or taken prisoner.

German and British trenches at Beaumont Hamel. Note the Y Ravine. (Click to enlarge) (McMaster University

A second wave consisting of the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the 1st Borderers went over the top about 7:35 am. Most were mowed down as they attempted to enter the gaps in their own wire. A small number of the Borderers did make it to German lines but were to meet the same fate as their comrades. The dead and wounded of the first and second assaults now filled the gaps in the British and German wire. The situation was completely chaotic and the assault was not going according to plan.

The problem was compounded by a deadly misinterpretation. Brigade HQ saw a white flare on the Division’s right. This was their signal to indicate the capture of the first objective. Unfortunately the Germans used the exact same signal to indicate that their own artillery was falling short.

The Newfoundlanders

Major General de Lisle, seeking to reinforce what he perceived to be a successful assault, ordered Brigadier General Caley, commander of the 88th Brigade, to commit additional troops to capture the German front lines to the left to support the perceived success on the right.

At 8:45 am a verbal order was received from Brigade. “1st Essex and 1st Newfoundland Regiment will advance as soon as possible.”

The commanding officer of the 1st Essex requested permission to delay the advance in order to clear the communication trenches. His request was granted.

The following communication took place between Lt. Col. Hadow, commanding officer of the Newfoundlanders, and Brigade.

Hadow: “Does ‘as soon as possible’ mean independently of the Essex or will we have to work together?”

Brigade: “Go as soon as you can move, independently.”

Hadow: “Has the enemy’s front line been captured?”

Brigade: “The situation has not been cleared up.”

At 9:15 am the Newfoundlanders commenced their assault following procedures rehearsed in training. They did so without the benefit of artillery and without the support of the 1st Essex.

Unable to make their way through the relative safety of the communication trenches to reach their front line, the Newfoundlanders went over the top from St. John’s Road. The Germans occupied a ‘reverse-slope position’, meaning that they were in low ground in the Y-Ravine and could easily see any enemy leaving their trenches as they were silhouetted against the skyline. From that point the Newfoundlanders were completely exposed to intense machine gun fire. They proceeded to the support trench and on to their front line trench, crossed over their wire, advanced over the downward slope of No Man’s Land and through German wire before attempting to enter German trenches, a distance of approximately 470 meters. The distance from St. John’s Road to the British front lines was 250 meters.

Following their junior officers, “A” and “B” companies, line abreast, proceeded into German machine gunfire and shelling, followed by “C” and “D” companies some forty paces behind. The Newfoundlanders were the only targets for the German machine guns. They were walking into a hail of German bullets and shells.

Many did not make it past their own front line. Dead and wounded soldiers of previous assaults who were now blocking the gaps in their own wire slowed the advance. Those making it further were mowed down in No Man’s Land.

Situated about mid-way in No Man’s Land was a single battle scarred tree that had managed to survive the ravages of war. Today that tree is known as the “Danger Tree” and it reputedly marks the furthest advance made by the Newfoundlanders that day.

By 9:45 am it was all over for the Newfoundlanders. Lt. Col. Hadow informed Brigadier General Caley in person the attack had failed.

It was not until two weeks later that the population of the island became aware of the devastation at Beaumont Hamel.

Lt. Col. Arthur L Hadow, C.M.G., Commanding Officer, the Newfoundland Regiment (courtesy Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum)

In the trenches and causality stations, the most universal question asked by the wounded Newfoundlanders was, “Is the Colonel pleased?”  That was the one thing they all wanted to know.

No doubt Lt. Col. Hadow was pleased with the performance of his men.  However, one cannot help but think how the slaughter of his Battalion that morning affected him, not only on that day, but also for many days to come

Lt. Col. Hadow was painfully aware that the “easy going” Newfoundlanders would have to be battle hardened to face what he knew was to come. However, nothing could have prepared him for what was to become of his men at Monchy le Preux less than a year later.

A Fatal Decision

In order to monitor the progress of the attack, British soldiers were required to attach a triangular tin reflector to their haversacks. Unfortunately, for anyone attempting to crawl back to their own lines, these tin triangles presented a perfect target for German snipers. Those unable to make it back attempted to find the safety of a shell crater and lay there for the remainder of the day hoping to crawl back under the cover of darkness. This proved to be just as dangerous as the Germans were constantly illuminating the night sky with flares.

The severely wounded, unable to move, remained where they had fallen, suffering from thirst, loss of blood and pain. Others, disoriented and tormented as a result of their wounds, unwittingly headed to Germans lines. The Germans assumed these soldiers were intent on carrying on with the attack and dealt with them accordingly. One determined Newfoundland soldier managed to make it back to his lines on July 5th, after surviving in No Man’s Land for four days. He had just arrived as part of a new draft days before and missed the preparatory training for the attack. The process of clearing the trenches, collecting the wounded and burying dead continued until July 6th. This was made all the more difficult by sporadic shelling and sniper fire.

The Cost

The Essex, after clearing the communication trenches of the dead and wounded, moved to the front line and commenced their assault at 9:55am. They too were met with machine gun fire and heavy shelling. They incurred 228 casualties.

Incredibly, Lt. Col. Hadow was ordered to gather up any fit men he could find and make another attempt.  Hadow accepted the order without question.  Fortunately, a corps officer, having witnessed the attack from a nearby ridge, countermanded the order and called off any further operations in the area.

While the casualty list varies, the best statistics available indicate that 721 men went over the top and of those 619 became casualties.  The Battalion’s War Diary on July 7th states that only 68 men were available for roll call the next day, (July 2nd). (The 10% of the Battalion, previously referred to, who were Left Out of Battle (LOB), were not included in the roll call for 2 July). Every officer of the Newfoundland Battalion who went into battle that day became a casualty. Fourteen officers were killed and twelve were wounded. The Newfoundlanders suffered the highest unit casualty rate that day.

Casualty Figures:

Total Strength 30 June: 801

Left Out of Battle 1 July (10%): 80

Committed to Battle: 721

Killed In Action or Died of Wounds: 14 Officers, 219 Other Ranks

Wounded: 12 Officers, 374 Other Ranks

Total KIA and wounded: 619

Percentage Causualty Rate: 619/721 or 85%

Missing on July 1 were 91 reported, probably many filtered in from No Mans Land over the next 48 hours.

Eyewitness

Pte Arthur F. Osmond, regimental number 1131, was to later write the following account of his ordeal at Beaumont Hamel.

“ … sometime ago you asked me to write a statement of what I went though in the NFLD. Regiment. I will do so to the best of my knowledge … but its hard for me to sit down and write for what I endured in the war.

On that terrible night … I was one of the men at Beaumont Hamel, with Captain Butler in charge, when we beat our way to the German front line. We put up a wonderful fight. I heard the screams from the Germans when they first heard us.

And on July 1st was more than I could stand … bullets flying everywhere. Within a couple of hundred yards from the German lines I got a bullet threw my right lung and I though I was up. I was a bomber at that time, with 20 mills bombs on me … I was down with bullets flying all around me. It was a hard sight. Anyway I kept my head and the first thing that I did was to get clear of the bombs which I rolled from my neck. By that time I was bleeding a lot, most of the blood came out of my mouth on account of me breathing. I knew if I stayed there I would die. So I started to get back and hauling myself along with one arm, for my right arm could not move, and bullets sticking in the ground around me everywhere.

Some time that day I got back to our trenches and just as I was rolling in over Captain Summers came to my rescue. There … our trenches were full of the dead and wounded soldiers. Captain Summers helped me in our trench and he got behind me and put his hands up under my arms and helped me to a dugout where the Red Cross attended me. I knew nothing more until daylight the following morning. For twelve days I was on the serious list, more dead than alive.

In February 1917, I went to the Front again where I spent a terrible hard time.”

(Note: On April 14th 1917, Pte Osmond was taken prisoner at Monchy le Preux).

Gallantry Awards and Citations – (The Raids and July 1st)

Other than for the medics’ actions at Beaumont Hamel gallantry awards were deliberately not awarded for July 1st. This was a deliberate decision to demonstrate that the action of the entire battalion on that day was a display of gallantry by the whole battalion and not just a small group of men.

Regt. No.: 146 / O-152
Name: Butler, Bertram
Rank: Captain
Community: Topsail
Occupation: At “Bank of Nova Scotia, Bell Island”
Enlisted: August 27, 1914
Enlistment age: 24

Military Cross
London Gazette, September 22nd, 1916
Action Date, June 26th-27th, 1916 – Beaumont-Hamel Raid
For conspicuous gallantry during operations. He commanded a raiding party on two successive nights with great determination in face of heavy opposition. A few days later he took part in an attack on the enemy’s lines and did fine work.

Also, 88th Brigade Lists:
On the night of June 26th-27th, 1916, south of Beaumont-Hamel, he was in command of a raiding party which failed to achieve its objective. On the following night the raid was repeated. This officer led the raid with courage and ability. A severe fight took place and the party only returned after all three officers, including Capt. Butler, had been wounded

Regt. No.: 0966
Name: Cahill, John J.
Rank: Private
Community: St. John’s
Occupation: Fireman
Enlisted: January 13, 1915

Enlistment age: 32
Fatality: July 5, 1916 “Died of Wounds in German Hands”

Mentioned in Despatches (MID)
London Gazette, 4th January 1917.
He took part in a raid on the night of 27/28 June, 1916 South of Beaumont-Hamel. He showed conspicuous gallantry in bringing in a wounded man, and after the raid went out on his own initiative to bring in another wounded man and was never heard of again.

Regt. No.: 0809
Name: Cox, John
Rank: Sergeant
Community: Harbour Breton
Occupation: Seaman
Enlisted: December 22, 1914
Enlistment age: 22

Military Medal (MM)
London Gazette, 21st December 1916.

Action Date, 28/29 June 1916 – Raid Beaumont-Hamel.
For gallantry in the raid on the night of 28/29th June, 1916. During the raid in connection with the operations of July 1st, south of Beaumont-Hamel when, owing to severe fire the raiding party had to retire after very heavy losses, he showed conspicuous gallantry and contempt of danger in covering the retirement, remaining out all night to perform his task.

Regt. No.: 0020
Name: Dewling, Stewart
Rank: Private
Community: St. John’s
Occupation: Plumber
Enlisted: September 2, 1914
Enlistment age: 20

Military Medal (MM)
London Gazette, 21st September 1916.
Action Date, 1st July 1916.
For bravery in the field. On July 1st under machine gun fire south of Beaumont-Hamel, he brought in two wounded men and worked continuously under heavy shell fire. On July 2nd he brought in six wounded men under shell and machine gun fire in daylight. On July 3rd he went out and looked for wounded men in daylight.

Regt. No.: 856
Name: McGrath, Thomas White
Rank: Private
Community: St. John’s
Occupation: Druggist
Enlisted: January 2, 1915
Enlistment age: 19
Fatality: October 11, 1916

Military Medal (MM)
London Gazette, December 21st 1916
Action Date, July 1st 1916 – Beaumont-Hamel
For conspicuous gallantry on July 1st 1916, in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. On July 1st 1916, near Beaumont-Hamel, he showed conspicuous devotion to duty as a Red Cross attendant under heavy shell and machine gun fire during daylight, bringing in wounded men after the attack had failed. His conduct was most gallant.

Regt. No.: 1164
Name: Phillips, George
Rank: Private
Community: Whitbourne
Occupation: Lumberman
Enlisted: February 12, 1915
Enlistment age: 22
Fatality: October 12, 1916

Military Medal (MM)
London Gazette, 21st December 1916.

Medal of St. George, 3rd Class (Russian)
February 15, 1917

He displayed conspicuous gallantry in the raid on 27/28 June 1916, south of Beaumont-Hamel. He entered the enemy trench and accounted for several of the enemy single handed. After getting out of the trench he went back again to try and obtain some identification. He remained out all night and had to cut his way back through the enemy’s wire. This man also took part in the attack on July 1st and showed great gallantry. He was wounded on this date.

 

Beaumont-Hamel  Memorial Park (1997).(courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada)