The conventional story told about the dreadful events here on the first day of the Battle of the Somme focuses on the Newfoundland Regiment - not surprisingly, because Newfoundland Park is named in honour of the men of that regiment who fought and died here.
The Newfoundland Regiment, of only one Battalion and about 800 strong, arrived in the reserve trench (which can be seen running parallel to the road as the Park is entered) at 08.45 on 1 July 1916.
Having moved forward with great difficulty out of the communication trenches 'direct over the open' (as the Regiment's War Diary says) to the British front line trench and sustaining heavy casualties from German shellfire on the way the Newfoundlanders then had to make their way through narrow gaps in the British barbed wire and form up into 'waves' for their attack which began at 09.15. The Germans had these gaps targeted and the Newfoundlanders suffered further heavy casualties even before they began to advance across 'no-man's-land'. As they began their advance shrapnel shells and machine gun fire poured into them. Many more casualties were inflicted in the area of the 'Danger Tree' and it would seem that few Newfoundlanders managed to get much further than where 'Y' Ravine CWGC Cemetery is now. The Regiment's War Diary suggests that perhaps a few survivors managed to throw bombs into the German front line trench.
Of the 800 Newfoundlanders who went into the attack 684 were killed and wounded.
So appalling were the casualties and so shattering was the effect of this tragedy on the small population of Newfoundland that it is understandable that what happened to soldiers in other British regiments who went into action in this area on the same day tends to be overlooked.
Furthermore, although we know what happened to the Newfoundlanders, we are much less certain about how and why it happened.
In order to answer the 'how' and 'why', first of all let us construct a fuller account starting at 07.20 and involving all the Battalions which went into action.
The first Battalion to attack across Newfoundland Park was 2nd South Wales Borderers. On their right was 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The men of both would have heard the explosion of the Hawthorn Ridge mine and seen the tip of its debris rising into the air at 07.20.
The War Diary of the 2nd South Wales Borderers indicates that on the explosion of the mine the men 'immediately commenced getting out of the trenches and through our wire'. But the Germans, forewarned by the Hawthorn Ridge explosion, quickly prepared for the attack and the advancing South Wales Borderers were hit by intense machine gun fire and shrapnel shells as they reached the outer edge of their own barbed wire. By 07.30 the two leading companies had lost all their officers and about 70% of their men. The Battalion's objective, the German front line, was not reached and the War Diary indicates a total of 399 killed, wounded and missing. The Battalion War Diary also contains a small sketch map showing the position of five enemy machine guns in their front line trench.
The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers fared scarcely better than the South Wales Borderers and in terms of casualties, worse. Their War Diary (the entry for 1 July is very brief and tersely written and does not contain timings of events) indicates that 'Immediately our lines appeared on the parapets the enemy brought heavy machine gun cross fire to bear.' (See the South Wales Borderers' sketch map.) None of the Inniskilling Fusiliers were 'able to gain further ground than the enemy's wires.' They suffered 568 casualties.
Shortly after the launch of these two attacks white signal flares were seen. White flares were the pre-arranged British signal to indicate the capture of the German front line. However, to the Germans, who had actually fired the flares, they meant that their artillery should increase its fire on British positions and 'no-man's-land' in the area.
So at the very moment when German artillery fire was becoming more intense the local British commanders ordered 1st Border Regiment to follow the South Wales Borderers into the attack. Their War Diary mentions that the bridges which enabled them to cross over their front line trench had 'been ranged by the GERMAN MACHINE GUNNERS the day previously' and therefore 'we met with heavy losses while crossing these bridges and passing through the lanes cut in our wire.' (So much for the accuracy and intensity of the British artillery bombardment which preceded the battle!) By 08.00 'The advance was brought entirely to a standstill.' 575 officers and men were killed, wounded and missing out of 832 who went into the attack.
On the right of the 1st Border Regiment was 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers following in the footsteps of the Royal Inniskillings. They began their attack at 07.52 'under heavy machine gun fire'. The Battalion War Diary indicates at 08.10 'Our attack not progressing owing to intense enemy machine gun fire. Attack on left (by the 1st Border Regiment) observed to be equally unsuccessful.' At 08.45 the attack ceased. 552 were killed, wounded or missing.
Then it was the turn of the Newfoundland Regiment (see paragraphs 1 - 5 above) who had to leave the cover of the trenches clogged with the dead and the dying from the previous attacks and advance towards their jumping off point. Their attack from in front of their own barbed wire began at 09.15.
It is worth mentioning that the direction of the Newfoundlanders' attack was different to that of the previous attacks. They did not advance directly towards the German front line (ie. towards where the Highlanders Memorial is now) in the direction the South Wales Borderers had taken - but more in the direction of where 'Y' Ravine Cemetery is now. The original plan had been for the Newfoundlanders to advance beyond the German lines and to the east of Beaumont Hamel on the assumption that the German positions would have been captured in the earlier attacks. Although the War Diary of the Newfoundland Regiment indicates that they were told by their Brigade Commander that the 'situation was not cleared up' in the German front line and that their objective was now to take it and then to push on towards their old objective, it seems very likely that this change of plan could not be communicated to the men already in the process of advancing. Hence the different direction of their attack. This change may also explain why the Newfoundlanders casualties were higher than those of any of the other Battalions which went into action in this area. Their advance took them (according to the South Wales Borderers' sketch map) directly towards 3 German machine guns and exposed them to another firing into their right flank.
On the right of the Newfoundland Regiment was 1st Essex Regiment. They, too, got held up in clogged trenches but their commander was more cautious than the Newfoundlanders' commander. They did not leave the cover of their trenches. Their attack which did not begin until 10.50, and was called off at 11.10, was limited and their casualties were lower. The Essex lived to fight another day.
Now it was the turn of 4th Worcester Regiment and on their right 2nd Hampshire Regiment. At 11.30 am they began to move towards the front line and immediately suffered casualties from shellfire.
At 13.00 Major General de Lisle, Commanding Officer of the 29th Division observing the battlefield (from Mesnil Ridge to the south west) called a halt and at 14.25 the order was given to hold the line in preparation for a German counter-attack. No further attacks took place here until November 1916.
(Though appallingly high, the figures of casualties above are the lowest quoted in the sources consulted.)
What caused the high casualties in this area?
All accounts of the attack here mention intense German machine gun fire and the South Wales Borderers' sketch map shows where the machine guns were - in the German front line trench. However, the view of the battlefield from much of the German front line trench is actually very limited and it seems unlikely that the machine guns in those positions would have been able to cover all of 'no-man's-land'.
I have often speculated on the purpose of the German front line trench in front of 'Y' Ravine since the poor field of fire which could be commanded from some of it is so uncharacteristic of German trench positions. Indeed, the gaps in the British barbed wire that the Newfoundlanders had to get through would have been very difficult (if not impossible) to see could from parts of the German front line trench within Newfoundland Park.
'Y' Ravine, of course, although it runs along the lowest line of the battlefield is an excellent defensive position. Its great depth and steep sides meant that it was very difficult target for British artillery - most shells from British field guns would have flown harmlessly across the top of it and the British were short of the type of guns which could lob heavy shells down into it. Therefore, 'Y' Ravine was a prized possession and the Germans built dugouts, often lined with concrete, into its sides and communication trenches (and possibly tunnels) to connect it with their trenches further back on Hawthorn Ridge.
My conclusion is that 'Y' Ravine was also to be defended from behind as well as in front and that the German front line trench in this area was intended to be as much as a physical obstacle to attackers approaching 'Y' Ravine as it was as a location for machine guns.
A careful examination of the battlefield has also leads me to conclude that perhaps not all the German machine guns in action on 1 July were where they are indicated on the South Wales Borderers' sketch map. It is also possible that the disposition of the machine guns their sketch map is incorrect. Currently serving officers say that without modern electronic detection equipment it is actually very difficult to tell exactly where machine gun fire comes from. Even in 1916 machine gun ammunition was 'smokeless' and emitted no flash visible in daylight.
It is unlikely that there were three German machine guns in the position indicated on the sketch map near the sharp bend in the German front line. They would have been dangerously close together and vulnerable to British shell and mortar fire. The South Wales Borderers may have been misled by the extreme accuracy of the well-trained German machine gunners firing from this direction and may have overestimated the number of machine guns in the position indicated on the sketch map. It is possible that there was a machine gun firing over the heads of the German machine gunners in this position from another position roughly on the 100 metre contour line some distance behind and slightly above them on the other side of 'Y' Ravine - or even from a position beyond that. It is also likely that other German machine gun positions were not within the area of Newfoundland Park but on the ground which rises up between it and the village of Beaumont Hamel ie. Hawthorn Ridge. If you walk a short distance (say 50 metres) up the lane which leads from the western end of 'Y' Ravine to Beaumont Hamel and then turn left and walk across the open field in the direction of the Hawthorn Ridge crater you will quickly obtain an excellent view across Newfoundland Park. (The view will be even better in your mind's eye if you make that effort of imagination and get rid of those trees which are part of the Memorial!) There were German trenches and dugouts here and, indeed, the late Miss Rose Coombs, no mean judge of a battlefield, described them as constituting 'the main German position' in 'Before Endeavours Fade'.
This is almost certainly where other German machine guns were. From here the Germans would have been able to observe all the British attacks on the morning of 1 July and would have commanded a field of fire impossible from the front line trench below and beyond 'Y' Ravine. Also, from here, and also benefiting from an extensive view of the battlefield, German artillery observation officers would have been able to call down accurate shellfire upon the successive waves of attacking British troops. The impact of German shellfire in the action here tends to be understated, in my view. Most of the casualties to the Newfoundlanders as they advanced 'direct over the open' to the British front line trench, and many, of the casualties around the 'Danger Tree' would have been from German shrapnel shells probably fired from as far as 2-3 km. away from the direction of Beaucourt.
What convinced me of the likelihood that there were German machine guns firing into the area of Newfoundland Park other than those in the front line was the evidence in a battlefield map. This was not the map of the German trenches on 1 July published in the Official History but the map produced for a trench raid two years later in June 1918. In the meantime the Germans had retreated far from this area east to the Hindenburg Line then returned to their old positions on Hawthorn Ridge in their final offensive of Spring 1918.
On the map distributed to the attacking British troops groups of German dugouts are clearly marked on the rising ground of Hawthorn Ridge behind 'Y' Ravine. The British could draw them on their map because they had discovered them in the successful attack in November1916. The dugouts would not have been built by the British - they advanced well beyond the Ridge and beyond Beaumont Hamel - though the British might have used them.
It would seem to me that these German dugouts had been there in 1916. They would have provided shelter in an ideal position for German machine gun teams. Remember - the British artillery fire was concentrated on the German front line trench some distance away. After the Hawthorn Ridge mine explosion they would have quickly emerged, set up their guns, probably not very far away, possibly even on top of their dugouts, and opened fire on the waves of advancing British troops.
If you take that walk up the lane from the end of 'Y' Ravine towards Beaumont Hamel then turn left and walk across the open field you will walk across, or very near to, where these dugouts were.
To take a view of the battlefield in this area which includes the land beyond the boundaries of Newfoundland Park is to enable a different perception of the events of 1 July 1916. The German defences were extremely well-positioned to the west and south of the fortified village of Beaumont Hamel - itself tucked into a deep and narrow valley only accessible from the British side through a narrow defile. To the west was the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt which the British failed to take on 1 July despite blowing a huge mine. The low lying land to the south and south east of Hawthorn Ridge (through which runs 'Y' Ravine) actually resembles a huge dry moat across which successive waves of British troops would have to advance without cover. The fact that they were attacking downhill gave them no advantage whatsoever - the slope served to expose them all the more. In his book 'The Mind's Eye' Edmund Blunden wrote that Beaumont Hamel was a masterpiece of German brainwork, spadework and ironwork. It is no exaggeration to say that Beaumont Hamel was not merely a German strongpoint but a veritable fortress.
In undertaking this analysis primary written sources and secondary written sources proved less useful than the material primary source of the battlefield itself. The written primary sources did not contain sufficiently detailed evidence which would enable me to arrive at a sustainable conclusion about the reasons for the high casualties in this area and the position of the weaponry which caused them. Perhaps salutary is the fact that the source containing what I consider to be the most significant piece of evidence does not directly relate to the events of 1 July 1916 and did not come into existence until nearly two years later.
Above all, however, it was necessary to test my conclusions as far as I could by an examination of the battlefield. Sometimes a consideration of place in History is as important as a consideration of time.
Article contributed by Peter Crook.
Select bibliography: (Title, Author, Publisher)
Battalion War Diaries for 1 July 1916: Public Record Office:-
- 2nd South Wales Borderers
- 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
- 1st Border Regiment
- 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers
- Newfoundland Regiment
- 1st Essex
Battle Tactics of the Western Front Paddy Griffiths, Yale University
Beaumont Hamel Nigel Cave, Leo Cooper
Before Endeavours Fade Rose Coombs MBE, After the Battle
Haig's Command Denis Winter, Penguin
Kitchener's Army Ray Westlake, Spellmount
The Battle of the Somme - A Topographical History Gerald Gliddon, Alan Sutton
The First Day on the Somme Martin Middlebrook, Penguin
Walking the Somme Paul Reed, Leo Cooper
Technical advice: Major (Retd.) John Ellis, formerly Curator, Cheshire Military Museum, RHQ Cheshire Regiment, Chester; serving Officers in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Royal Air Force Regiment.
Many thanks to the staff of the PRO, the librarians at the Imperial War Museum and Kurt Erdmann of the Bundesarchiv - Militaerarchiv, Freiburg for their response to my enquiries concerning the 119th German Reserve Infantry Regiment war diary which, alas, was almost totally destroyed in the Second World War. The few surviving pages relate only to 11th to 18th August 1918. That Regiment, of course, defended Beaumont Hamel on 1 July 1916.
29th Division Attack on Beaumont Hamel map Official History of the Great War © HMSO (Crown Copyright). No restriction on use for research/educational purposes.