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The Western Front
Unlike the Gallipoli campaign, the campaign of the Western front was far from being over when on March 22, our Regiment reached Marseilles and became part of the rapidly in creasing Allied Armies which were determined to drive the Hun forces out of France and Belgium. The fiercest battles, those that were to use up the largest amount of ammunition, take the greatest toll of human life, and bring sorrow and grief to the largest number of homes had yet to be fought. It must also be said that the battles that were to record the greatest successes for the Allies on the Western Front were fought after this time; and it is to the glory of the Newfoundland Regiment that no unit of the British Armies has received more favorable comment from its commanding officer than has our Regiment. Plans were already in preparation when the Regiment reached France for a strong British attack in the Somme section, and efforts were being made to strengthen the British positions around Ypres. The Germans showed great activity in the Ypres salient, partly, no doubt, for the purpose of holding the British armies to their ground while they dealt with the French at Verdun, and partly for the purpose of bringing about a premature offensive or entirely dispersing the gathering storm in the Somme Valley. The fighting in the Ypres salient continued severe for four months, during which time both sides suffered heavy losses. The Canadians alone lost about 7000 men. Preliminary Preparations.
Our Regiment still formed part of the Twenty-Ninth Division, which was soon to add new laurels to its already enviable distinction. Since its arrival in France the Twenty-Ninth had not taken part in any bit attack, but, for the most part, was being kept I reserve and preparing for the monstrous attack on the Germans in the Somme Valley. In the latter days of June our Regiment made several raids on the German trenches for the purpose of clearing the ground of the wire entanglements. On the 27th a party under the command of Captain Bertram Butler got up to the German wire defenses, but found that their wire-cutters were unable to sever the very heavy wire which the Germans has recently put in. Page Forty-Two
They were obliged to retire as soon as they were detected by the enemy. Again the following night they went forward, and this time succeeded I making several gaps I the wire defenses and getting through to the enemy trenches. They were subject to heavy fire and bombing from the enemy, but they held their ground until every available hand grenade had been used. In this action several men displayed unusual courage and ability.
Private T. M. O’Neil, seeing an enemy bomb thrown in the midst of his party and realizing the danger to the entire party picked up the bomb and threw it back. It exploded on leaving his hands and severely wounded him, but his quick and brave act undoubtedly saved several of his company. Page Forty-Three
Captain Butler was awarded the Military Cross because of the great ability and daring courage that he displayed on this occasion. A glance at Captain Butler’s military record, contained in the second part of this volume will show that he carried the same soldierly qualities in every action. Philips.
Without any assistance Private G. Philips attacked several Germans, some of whom he killed and others severely wounded. He later received the Military Medal and the Russian Order of St. George for his conspicuously courageous conduct. Beaumont Hamel.
These two minor actions constitute the prelude to an action by the entire Regiment, which, in its almost reckless courage in the face of unsurpassed and obvious dangers, was probably not excelled by any circumstance or instance of the entire war. For several months General Haig had been amassing a strong army north of the Somme. Preparations had been completed during the month of June in spite of the continuous and severe enemy attacks in the Ypres sector. Newfoundlanders’ Objective.
On the night of June 29, instructions were given as to the particular part of the German line to be stormed by the Twenty-Ninth Division. The Newfoundland Regiment was to start from St. John’s Road, a new trench built by the Regiment, south of Beaumont Hamel. They were to cross two support trenches and our firing line, from which they would pass through the gaps in our wire and across to No Man’s Land. They were then to cross the first and second German systems, which were supposed to have been taken by the 86th and 87th Brigades, and halt near Pursieux Road while our artillery weakened the third enemy system, which was the objective that our Regiment was to take possession of. On the following night, when, to use the words of one of the First Five Hundred who took part in this battle, “ the sun had hidden its face from the horrors of the battle front” and conditions were favorable for the secret movement of troops, our Regiment was ordered to take its position as supports to the 86th and the 87th Brigades, which were to attack the first and second line of the German trenches, south of Beaumont Hamel.
The Twenty-Ninth Division now consisted of the 86th, 87th, and 88th brigades. The 1st South Wales Borderers and the 1st Inniskilling Fusiliers of the 87th Brigade formed the van of the attack upon the right of the division, and the 2nd Royal Fusiliers and the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers of the 86th Brigade formed the van of the attack upon the left of the division. Page Forty-Four
The ground over which they had to advance could scarcely be more difficult. It formed a gradual descent, which rendered our troops completely exposed. It contained enormous quarries and excavations in which large numbers of the enemy could remain concealed, almost immune from shell-fire, and ready to rush out and attack our men in the rear. Although the bombardment from the British guns was terrific it had comparatively little effect in lessening this danger. There was another condition that tended to minimize the success of the Twenty-Ninth Division. It was found that the artillery fire had thoroughly cut the German wire, but our own wire had not been cut to the same extent and proved a serious menace to the advance of the troops. Some gaps were cut, but they ere not sufficient and they were quickly discovered by the Germans who played their guns on them with terrible results.
At 7:30 o the morning of July 1, the whistles blew, and the men, determined to force the line of Beaumont Hamel or show the absolute impossibility of the task, sprang from their trenches and advanced I successive waves of assault against the enemy trenches. The entire 86th and 87th Brigades were drawn in to the fight and suffered tremendous losses, and about 8:40, scarcely more than an hour after the opening of the “Battle of the Somme”, the Newfoundland Regiment and the 1st Essex were ordered forward to take the first line of the enemy trenches. Like the other battalions, our Regiment and the Essex were held up by the murderous machine-gun fire in front of Beaumont Hamel. They were also subject to the fire of flanking machine guns. The whole action was so rapid, the positions occupied by the enemy machine guns so advantageous and commanding, and the fire from those guns so destructive that by 10:20 the assault had to be given up, and only a defensive line could be held.
Our Regiment suffered very heavily, but only in proportion to the indomitable courage and fortitude displayed under most adverse conditions, and even in the face of death itself. It is said that no other unit suffered so heavily in proportion to the number of men engaged. One hundred men were report killed, 210 missing, and 374 wounded. No action could be more fitting than that this field should be bought by the voluntary subscriptions of the people of Newfoundland and forever held in memory of the men who sacrificed their lives that day. July 1, 1916, will be remembered in the history of our country as at once glorious and tragic. Regarding the conduct of the Regiment, Sir Douglas Haig telegraphed: “The heroism and devotion to duty they displayed on the 1st July has never been surpassed.” In a letter to Sir E. P. Morris (now Lord Morris) the Lieutenant-General who commanded the corps said: Page Forty-Five
“ That battalion covered itself with glory on July 1 by the magnificent way in which it carried out the attack entrusted to it. It went forward to the attack when two other attacks on that same part of the line had failed, and by its behavior on that occasion it showed itself worth of the highest traditions of the British, race, and proved itself to be a fit representative of the population of the oldest British colony. When the order to attack was given every man moved forward to his appointed objective in his appointed place as if on parade. There were no waverers, no stragglers, and not a man looked back. It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no farther. They were shot down by machine guns brought up by a very gallant foe under our intense artillery fire. Against any foe less well entrenched, less well organized, and above all, less gallant, their attack must have succeeded. As it was the action of the Newfoundland Battalion and the other units of the British left contributed largely to the victory achieved by the British and French farther south by pinning to their ground the best of the German troops and by occupying the best of their artillery, both heavy and field. The gallantry and devotion of this battalion, therefore, was not in vain, and the credit of victory belongs not alone to that individual but to the whole team whose concerted action led to the desired result.
“I should like you to let my fellow citizens of the Empire I the Oldest Overseas portion of the British Realm know how well their lads have done, both officers, non-commissioned officers and men, and how proud I, as their Corps Commander, am to have such a battalion under my command, and to be a comrade-in-arms of each and all of them.”
It would be an injustice to the whole Regiment to single out any one man or half a dozen men because of conspicuous gallantry on this occasion. On other occasions if two or three men were to perform deeds of fearless gallantry such as were preformed by every man that day, they would receive the highest distinction of the British Army. Page Forty-Six
Whole Regiment Distinguished Itself.
Every man distinguished himself. Sergeant Thomas Carroll is credited with having got farther than any other man before he was detected by the enemy and killed. There is abundant evidence that the heavy casualties suffered by their comrades did not shake the courage of those who remained. After the severest fighting had died down, although still subject to heavy machine-gun fire, Private J. Cox and Private S. Dewling distinguished themselves in a determined effort to relieve the suffering, and, if possible save the lives, of some of their comrades-in-arms. Because of their splendid services in this connection, and the absolute contempt for danger under such circumstances, which these men displayed, they were both awarded the Military Medal. Success at Southern End of Line.
The efforts of the British forces at the Southern end of the line produced much more favorable results. From Fricourt to Montauban, a stretch of seven miles, the German first line was broken on the memorable first of July. General Haig adopted the plan of rolling up the German line from this point. The plan was entirely successful. Jon July 14, the second line was broken from Great Bazentin to Longueval, and on September 15, the third line was broken at Martinpuich.
The tremendous losses suffered by our Regiment, and, indeed, by the whole Twenty-Ninth Division, necessitated a long recuperation and a complete reorganization. The 2nd Hants and the 4th Worcesters were the only battalions that were not drawn into the fight at Beaumont Hamel, and around these the Twenty-Ninth Division had to be rebuilt. Three months were spent in rest camps during which time several drafts were sent over from England, and the Regiment was again brought up to fighting strength. A short period was spent behind the lines in the Ypres salient during the first part of October, and from there the Regiment proceeded to the Somme where it was to make its second great effort in the First Battle of the Somme, this tome at Gueudecourt. Conditions at Gueudecourt.
While the natural topographical condition did not present so serious a difficulty as that at Beaumont Hamel, other conditions were more serious. For more than three months severe fighting had been going on in the Somme area. The ground had become torn up, and was covered with large shell holes. Added to this was the fact that for weeks previous torrential rains had flooded the whole area, and the mud had become so deep and soft that the ground was almost impassable. Page Forty-Seven
The Advance at Gueudecourt.
The 88th Brigade was lent to the much weakened Twelfth Division to advance and capture the position held by the enemy at Gueudecourt under these conditions, It was the first chance for revenge since the reverse and losses at Beaumont Hamel, and the Regiment did not fail to take advantage of it. Heavy casualties were suffered by our men from the preliminary shelling by the enemy on October 11, but on the following day, when the attack was to be made, the vigor and courage of those who remained were found undiminished and unshaken. Our Regiment, led by Captains March, Butler and Bartlett, and Lieutenants Clouston and Edens, advanced in two waves on a front of two platoons each. Their advance was covered by a creeping barrage of machine-gun fire which kept pace in front of the advancing troops. Every foot of Rainbow trench had to be fought for. The enemy held on stubbornly and tenaciously, but was finally dislodged with heavy losses. Not only did the Newfoundland Regiment take its objective, but it also took the objective which the Essex Regiment was supposed to have taken on the left. The fighting was severe and costly, but our men were driven by a determination that knew no defeat. The success, which they achieved, was the only success for the day, and it was won under most unfavorable conditions and against a foe far superior in numbers.
The day was marked by heroic and daring conduct, and by the loss of some of the very finest of the Regiment. Among those who fell were Captain Donnelly, whose steady nerve and heroism at Gallipoli have already been mentioned; Captain O’Brien, Lieutenants Ebsary, Clift and Norris. These men and many others displayed a courage, fearlessness and defiance of danger that ere fatal. They could not be stopped except by death itself. There were numerous individual distinctions, some of which should be specially noted. MARCH.
Captain March, who was senior officer, displayed great ability and calm resourcefulness in the face of very great danger. He took a leading part I the first attack, and is credited with having bayoneted three Germans. In the work of organizing the defence after the position had been taken he showed an ability for initiative and thoroughness that would be highly praiseworthy in one of higher rank. His gallantry and ability won for him great honor, and for his Regiment and County, respect and admiration. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre for his noble and efficient conduct in this engagement. Page Forty-Eight
Captain Bertram Butler has already been mentioned in connection with his initiative and daring enterprises at Beaumont Hamel. It would be impossible to relate the numerous stories told about Captain Butler all of which illustrate his fearlessness, initiative and determination. On one occasion, in the early dawning, a corporal’s attention was drawn to the fact that a man was crawling under our wire. A private pointed his gun, but the corporal, fearing it was one of our men, requested him not to fire until he could determine whether the man was an enemy or a friend.
Lieutenant R .P. Holloway rendered invaluable service in much the same way. Regularly he used to creep over the land in front of the trenches, sometimes getting incredibly near the enemy trenches without being detected, crawling from shell hole to shell hole with a tape, making a plan of the land. His education fitted him specially for that kind of work, and his fearlessness fitted him for the danger. The value of his services as intelligence officer, the importance of the information that he was able to furnish, will never be fully known by the people for whom he won respect and praise.
The ground won in this engagement was contested at every point. The enemy offered stubborn resistance. Every section of the trench had to be fought hard for, and in many instances at the point of the bayonet. GARDNER.
The situation consequently brought out individual resourcefulness and courage. Sergeant- Major C. Gardner, who later created a spectacle of most unusual interest, saw an enemy bombing party in a gap in the trench that had just been taken attacking one of our companies. He got two other men, and the three of them attacked the hostile party. Before the enemy troops knew what was happening Gardner and company had inflicted severe losses on them. Very few of the party escaped, and sixteen of them, including one officer, were taken prisoners. NEVILLE.
Sergeant R. Neville, upon finding himself opposed by a strong group of enemy troops when he was about to enter the trench, attacked them with a bombing squad. The Germans fought desperately, but were finally obliged to retire after suffering heavy losses. BENNETT.
Lance-Corporal W. Bennett exposed himself continually to the fire of the enemy guns in taking messages back to battalion headquarters. Three times he passed through the barrage, and after returning the last time he led a bombing squad against a party of the enemy troops who were creeping upon our left flank. Fourteen of the enemy, including one officer, were taken prisoners. GOODLAND.
Private O. Goodland rendered similar courageous and valuable service by taking back messages through the barrage. CARROLL.
Without any thought of personal safety, Private B. Carroll exposed himself to the heavy fire of the German guns in order it assist some wounded COMRADES. He saved a number of lives by his heroic and unselfish conduct. Lieutenant Clift attempted to advance beyond Rainbow trench, but his party was practically wiped out. Page Fifty
At Beaumont Hamel, the strength of the Regiment was approximately 900 of all ranks. In the engagements at Gueudecourt it was less than half that number, and the casualties were in about the same proportion. Forty-five men were killed, 119 wounded, and 75 missing. The engagement was fought with many individual distinctions, praise to the entire Regiment and honor to Newfoundland. Beaumont Hamel and Gueudecourt Contrasted.
In an action north of Gueudecourt on the eighteenth of October, in which the 2nd Hants and the 4th Worcesters were successful, 250 of the Newfoundland Regiment acted as stretcher-bearers.
These two actions, July 1 at Beaumont Hamel and October 12 at Gueudecourt, constitute the actual fighting in which the Regiment was engaged during 1916. The names will ever be familiar to the ears of Newfoundlanders. They will carry with them a mixed feeling of joy and sorrow: sorrow because of the tremendous loss to the finest manhood of our little country, and joy because of the never dying honor and fame that they won for Newfoundland. The results of Beaumont Hamel remain as a tragic and glorious memory. The engagement at Gueudecourt, from the standpoint of Military achievement, was more victorious; from the standpoint of human sacrifice, less tragic, and from the standpoint of individual initiative and distinction more productive. The results present a great contrast, due entirely to the fact that the conditions under which the two actions were fought were so very different. Had the German machine-gun fire been no more advantageous and no more severe at Beaumont Hamel than at Gueudecourt, the story of Beaumont Hamel would be quite different. The following decorations were awarded at Beaumont Hamel and at Gueudecourt.
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