After Beaumont Hamel
After the devastation at Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundlanders were relocated to the northern part of the front at Ypres, Belgium. In the fall of 1916 Ypres was a very active part of the front and a soldiers’ life was not without danger. The Newfoundlanders suffered some casualties there. They were engaged in trench construction and other fatigues just east of Menin Gate on the outskirts of Ypres. In August the Newfoundlanders came under gas attack for the first time. The order to put on gas masks prevented any casualties.
On October 8th, 1916 the Battalion left Ypres for the Somme. No doubt the men must have experienced considerable apprehension in light of the tragic events of July 1st, 1916.
Several days later the Battalion arrived at the tiny village of Flers, about 1.5 km south west of Gueudecourt.
Orders issued for an assault on German lines located on the outskirts of Gueudecourt. The Newfoundlanders were to advance on the right and the Essex on the left. The 88th was given two successive objectives. To gain the first of these — the Green Line, about 400 yards from the British front line — would require the capture of a portion of Hilt Trench, with its extensions of Rainbow Trench to the southeast and Bayonet Trench to the northwest.
The plans for the attack introduced a new form of tactics involving an unusually close co-operation between the advancing infantry and the supporting artillery. This became known as the creeping or rolling barrage.
A similar procedure was laid down for the advance to the second objective, the Brown Line, about 400 yards beyond the Green. Little was known of the nature or extent of the German defences this far back, though Battalion CO’s were directed to mark on their maps two short sections of “Grease” trench, opposite the centre of the 88th Brigade’s front, and “Bacon” trench farther over on the left.
Zero hour had been set at 2.05 pm, and there was little enough time before daylight (about 5:30) to do all that had to be done under cover of darkness. During the night the Essex took over the left half of the Newfoundland positions in the firing line.
Through the early hours of the 12th the four Newfoundland companies were kept busy with their preparations. Equipment was checked (though the load was light compared to the burden at Beaumont Hamel); carrying parties brought forward rations and additional supplies of ammunition.
Dawn came, and packed tightly in their jumping-off trench the Newfoundlanders settled down to pass the long hours until zero hour. They ate sparingly, not knowing when more rations would reach them. Too exposed to start fires, they could not brew a cup of tea and had to wash down their bully beef and biscuit with slender draughts from their water bottles. British artillery kept up the slow bombardment that had been going on for two days. In order to gain surprise there was to be no quickening of the rate of fire before the barrage opens at zero.
Over the Top
Then, shortly after two, the order was quietly passed along: “Fix bayonets — and don’t show them over the top of the trench.”
It was five minutes past two; and precisely at that moment a lone shell whistled overhead, to land 100 yards out in No Man’s Land. Within seconds the air was alive with bursting shrapnel, and the Newfoundlanders were scrambling over the parapet. They formed up in the designated zone, platoon commanders keeping one eye on their watches and one eye on the curtain of fire ahead of them. At the appointed moment the whole Battalion began its advance. “A” and “B” companies were in the lead, left and right respectively, and close behind them “D” and “C”. Each company moved in two waves, two platoons leading. There was little difficulty in keeping direction, for “B” Company’s right flank rested on the Gueudecourt—Beaulencourt road, which was in fact the boundary between the Fifteenth and Fourteenth Corps.
The barrage was timed to move forward in lifts of fifty yards each minute, and the infantry were to keep not more than fifty yards behind it. These timings had been carefully explained to the men beforehand, but in their eagerness to get to grips with the enemy many pressed ahead through the curtain of fire. Platoons of the supporting companies, treading impatiently on the heels of those in front, became mixed with the leading waves, the result being a partial loss of control. There were numerous casualties. It was estimated that thirty per cent of the attackers were put out of action before reaching the first objective, and that fully half of these fell victim to their own shellfire. Captain Butler’s left forward platoon was practically wiped out, but its right-hand neighbour reached Hilt Trench with scarcely a casualty. On the Battalion left “A” Company’s Commander, Captain O’Brien, was mortally hit. On the right “C” Company’s Captain Donnelly, who had won his M.C. at Caribou Hill, Gallipoli, was killed just as he reached the first objective, shouting: “Boys, the trench is ours!”
So closely did the Newfoundlanders “lean on the barrage” that the Germans, compelled by the shelling to remain under cover, had little chance to bring their machine-guns into action. The wire in front of Hilt Trench was negligible, and on reaching the enemy parapet the Newfoundlanders quickly became engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. In the fifteen minutes of close combat the enemy paid a heavy toll. A few grenades tossed into dugouts brought forth their occupants with hands held high above their heads, and these were soon on their way to the rear under guard of wounded Newfoundlanders. The barrage, which by this time was falling 150 yards to the rear of the Green Line, prevented any German reinforcements from coming forward, and by 2:30 pm Hilt Trench was firmly in the Newfoundlanders’ possession. On the Brigade left the Essex too had taken their initial objective, though on their own left the attack by the 12th Division’s 35th Brigade on Bayonet Trench had been halted by thick, uncut wire.
It was time now for both of Brigadier Cayley’s battalions to advance to their final objective. Keeping to the prearranged schedule, a party led by Lieutenant Cecil Clift, consisting of two platoons from each of “A” and “B” companies, pushed on towards the Brown Line. Finding no enemy trench in the first 100 yards, they began digging in under heavy fire — though not before half of them had been killed or wounded, including Clift, who was later listed as “missing, believed killed.” Caught in fire from German machine-guns on their right, where the British 6th Division’s attack was only partly successful, the Newfoundlanders were forced to fall back to Hilt Trench. Some of the Essex reached Grease Trench before they too were compelled to retire. Worse was to come for the Essex. The 35th Brigade’s failure had left with them with an open flank. A German counterattack developed, and with their position considered untenable the Essex was ordered to withdraw to its starting line on the outskirts of Gueudecourt.
The Newfoundlanders held on. When it was found that the Essex had vacated their portion of Hilt Trench, Captain March quickly organized bombing parties to take over the unoccupied position. They secured some 350 yards of trench, and at the far end they established a block to prevent enemy infiltration from Bayonet Trench. The Newfoundland line was thus suddenly almost doubled in length, and with the limited forces available could only be thinly manned. All but the sentries fell to with pick and shovel to strengthen the position as much as possible. This meant constructing a new firing step and generally reversing the whole position. They found the trench poorly sited for defence against attack from the German lines. It lay in a small depression, overlooked by the enemy-held ridge to the northeast. Digging in the hard chalk which characterized most of the subsoil at the Somme was exacting work, but within an hour much had been accomplished.
It was then that the expected counter-attack began to develop. A short preliminary bombardment by artillery and machine-guns filled the air with dust and smoke, through which could be seen approaching a large force of German infantry. Throwing down their shovels for their rifles the Newfoundlanders found excellent targets as the enemy advanced. The most effective fire came from the Battalion’s Lewis guns and from the Vickers guns of a detachment of the Brigade Machine Gun Company, which had accompanied the Newfoundlanders forward. These took a heavy toll of the enemy, breaking up their attack 200 yards from Hilt Trench. The work of consolidation was resumed, and attempts later that afternoon by small parties of Germans to force an entrance into the newly won position were driven off without difficulty.
After the Engagement
At nine that night a company of the Hampshire Regiment came forward as reinforcements, and these were joined shortly afterwards by a party of Royal Engineers, to whom the Newfoundlanders gladly relinquished their construction duties. At 3 a.m. on the 13th the arrival of another Hampshire company enabled the Newfoundlanders to hand over responsibility for Hilt Trench. Weary from sleeplessness and the strain and physical exertion of a long day, they filed slowly through the darkness back to Gueudecourt and down a mile of Cocoa Alley to support trenches just in front of Flers. It was good to find a meal, and then to be able to snatch a few hours sleep before beginning the inevitable task of reorganizing.
What assessment can be made of the day’s action? The Newfoundland Battalion was one of the few units on the whole of the Fourth Army’s front to capture and retain an objective. It was indeed the only battalion of the Fifteenth Corps to have made an appreciable gain. “The success,” wrote Brigadier-General Cayley to Sir Walter Davidson on the 28th, “was the more gratifying as it was the only real success recorded on that day.” Gueudecourt was five miles from the Front Line at Beaumont Hamel – the farthest advance of the Somme Offensive.
On 27 October the Regiment occupied Grease Trench which today is the site of a Caribou Memorial. Over the next several months the Newfoundland Regiment continued to alternate between the front lines and the reserve trenches along the Somme front. Christmas 1916 was spent at the small village of Camps-en- Amienois. Those members of the Regiment who had served over six months in France were granted leave to London.
To the Newfoundlanders themselves there was keen satisfaction that in some measure the losses of Beaumont Hamel had been avenged. They had killed an estimated 250 enemy, and of the 150 taken prisoner by the 88th Brigade, the Newfoundlanders could claim half.
In January, 1917 the Newfoundland Regiment found itself again in the trenches running astride the road to Le Transloy (NE of Gueudecourt). The Newfoundlanders were in support of the 88th Brigade.
At 5:30AM on the 27th of January the Allied Artillery opened fire signaling the commencement of the battle. The Newfoundland Regiment joined the foray by concentrating their trench mortars on the enemy positions. Company Sergeant Major Cyril Gardner earned a bar to his previously won DCM by single handedly capturing 72 German prisoners.
After a brief respite the Newfoundland Regiment was ordered back to the front lines just north of Sailly-Saillisel. From the 1st to the 3rd of March the Regiment fended off a number of German attacks designed to drive the Newfoundlanders from their defensive positions. The fighting was fierce but the Newfoundlanders held their positions. On the 3rd of March the Newfoundlanders were relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers. The Regiment’s losses for the two month period of February and March included 27 killed and 44 wounded. Sailly-Saillisel enhanced the reputation of the Regiment and earned the men a two week stay in divisional reserve. Despite the fact they were in reserve the Newfoundland Regiment continued to train daily which included practice in bombing, bayoneting and trench fighting techniques.
On 19 March the Newfoundland Regiment returned to its billets.
On October 14th Colonel Hadow’s Daily Orders complimented the Regiment on its gallantry:
“The Commanding Officer wishes to convey to all ranks his admiration for the way in which the Regiment held the front-line trench under heavy shell fire for some 40 hours, and then repelled a counter attack. Nothing could have been finer than the way in which every officer and man acquitted themselves in this strenuous task.”
“To Captain March and Captain Butler he wishes to especially convey his congratulations, as on them fell the responsibility of carrying through the task, which they did in a most able and gallant manner. The reputation gained by the Regiment on July 1st has been magnificently maintained.”
The Newfoundland Regiment’s success in front of Gueudecourt had not been achieved without considerable cost. From the time that they went into the trenches on the night of October 10th until their relief fifty-three hours later, the Newfoundlanders had suffered 239 casualties. Of the known dead, and those who subsequently died of wounds or, having been listed as missing, were never reported as taken prisoner — of this total number of fatal casualties five were officers and 115 other ranks. Five officers and 114 other ranks were wounded and survived.
Gallantry Awards and Citations
Recognition came to some members of the Battalion after the battle — though they would have been the first to maintain that such awards belonged to the whole Regiment. Captain March of St. John’s, who had shown exemplary courage and skill in leading the initial attack, and resourcefulness and thoroughness in consolidating the newly won position, received the Military Cross (M.C.) and the French Croix de Guerre. Captain Butler of Topsail, who was reported to have personally shot fifteen Germans, won a bar to his M.C.
Three Newfoundlanders were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for their gallantry on October 12th:
Through a gap in the trench which “C” Company was holding Sergeant-Major Gardner, who hailed from British Harbour, Trinity Bay, sighted a German bombing party withdrawing from a fruitless assault on another part of the Newfoundland line. Acting quickly, Gardner, with two of his men launched an attack on the enemy detachment, catching them by surprise. They cut down a number of them, took some prisoners, including an officer, and put the rest to flight.
Sergeant Peter Samson, of Fox Harbour, Placentia Bay, played a major part in the capture of one of the three enemy machine-guns won by the Battalion. He led a bombing party against the machine-gun post, killed the crew, and with the threat of their bombs forced the surrender of several Germans near by. In addition to his winning the DCM. His bravery brought him the award of the Croix de Guerre.
Lance-Corporal William Bennett, of Stephenville, won the third DCM. In carrying messages back to Battalion Headquarters throughout the action he was continually exposed to German gunfire. After making three round trips through the hostile barrage, he led some bombers against a group of Germans who were attempting to creep around the Battalion’s left flank, and with his squad captured the entire detachment, which consisted of an officer and thirteen men.
The following soldiers earned the Military Medal for their actions at Gueudecourt:
Pte. B. Carroll; St. Barbe
Pte. O. Goodland; Elliston, Trinity Bay
Pte. Sgt. R. Neville; St. John’s
Cpl. A Webber; Harbour Grace
Cpl. J.J. Morrisey; St. John’s
Cpl. A Manuel; Botwood
Pte. D. Brown; Tilton
Sgt. M. Collins; Placentia