We are going to shift things now, from Canadian troops to Newfoundland troops with our battles of the First World War for Canada. While it is true that Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949, I am including the battles that Newfoundland took part in because of their role in the future of Canada and the island of Newfoundland. Today, we look at the Battle of Albert, also known as the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, which ran from July 1 – 13, 1916 and served as the first major European engagement for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which had arrived in France in March. Since arriving in France from Egypt, the Newfoundland troops had spent the previous months in construction of support and communication trenches, roads and railways. There were brief periods of time at the front lines and Private G.R. Curnew was the first soldier from the regiment to die in France when he was killed by rifle fire on April 24.
With the assault being planned, the Newfoundland troops were trained heavily in order to be ready for the assault.
By the end of June, the Newfoundland troops began to conduct small raids to assess the defences of the Germans, and their state of preparedness. The first raid was conducted on the night of June 26, into the early morning hours of June 27 when Captain Bert Butler led 60 men towards the Germans after three weeks of preparation.
At 11:30 p.m., the men left their lines and journeyed through No Man’s Land towards Y-Ravine, a heavily fortified part of the German trench. The troops encountered German barbed wire and fired two Bangalore torpedoes into the wire to destroy it but this failed. The Germans, now seeing that there was a raid coming, fired flares into the air to illuminate the area and began to fire at the troops. Captain Butler then ordered his men to return back to their own trench, having lost two men in the first raid.
The next night, Captain Butler commanded a second raid. The men set off in heavy rain through No Man’s Land and reached a gap in the wire, created thanks to heavy shelling earlier. As the Newfoundlanders reached the gap, the Germans sent up a flare to illuminate the area. The Newfoundlanders soon saw that they were only 20 yards from a trench full of Germans who quickly opened fire. The Newfoundlanders began to quickly fire back and throw grenades, but they would suffered heavy casualties. Four men made it into the German trench. One soldier, Private Frederick O’Neill, reached the German trench and emerged back out with a German helmet in one hand and his rifle in the other. Just then, he saw a grenade thrown into the air towards about 17 of his fellow soldiers. He shouted, “Look out boys, I’ll top it or go under.”. He dropped the helmet, ran and grabbed the grenade and threw it into the German trench. It exploded just as it left his hand, sending him 15 yards in the air. Captain Butler and the other troops were able to make it back to their own lines with O’Neill, who they thought was dead. When he came to through, he asked if anyone was hurt.
In all, the raid lasted 25 minutes. In all, four men were killed, three were taken prisoner and 21 were wounded with two more dying later from their wounds. The information the raids brought back though would show that the German trenches were held in great strength, and that the German wire was thick and still intact.
Other raids by other divisions would show the same result, but the commanders in charge ignored this intelligence.
Originally, the attack was supposed to occur in the last days of June but it was moved to July 1. It was decided to extend the five days of bombardment to seven days. While this may seem like a good idea at the time, it actually meant there was a limited number of shells for the actual assault. The additional shelling did result in heavy casualties and damage to wiring and trenches on the German side though. The deep dugouts were relatively untouched and this still allowed for supply lines to come to the front.
On the morning of July 1, the British began a one hour bombardment of the Germans at 6:25 a.m. At 7:20 a.m., an underground mine was detonated 900 metres from the Newfoundlanders, creating a crater that was 40 metres wide and 18 metres deep. The force of the 40,000 pounds of explosives sent debris high into the air. Then minutes later, the bombardment of the Germans ceased.
All of this allowed the Germans to realize that an attack was about to take place, and they began to prepare. The Germans then began to bombard the British lines and No Man’s Land.
The British sent in the 29th Division of their troops, who were met with a hail of machine gun fire. The attack was a terrible failure with massive casualties as the British troops were gunned down by the Germans. A second wave of the British occurred, but again this was a terrible failure as the British troops were once again gunned down.
Things were made even worse at the Brigade Headquarters where they saw a white flare on the Division’s right. This was the signal to indicate the capture of the first objective. The problem was that the Germans used the same signal to indicate that their own artillery was falling short.
Major General de Lisle believed it had been a successful assault as a result and he ordered the 88th Brigade to commit additional troops to capture German front lines on the right. The order was given to send in the First Newfoundland Regiment as soon as possible.
The night before the attack, two men were sent out into the open in order to cut through the barbed wire to prepare for the attack. A letter to the Vancouver Daily World would state, quote:
The attack was planned for 10 a.m. and the First Essex would support Newfoundland in the attack. But then, instructions arrived as related in the war diary of the regiment.
“0845 – Received orders on the telephone to move forward in conjunction with First Essex Regiment and occupy the enemy’s first trench – our objective being from point 89 to just north of point 60 and work forward to station road clearing the enemy trenches and move as soon as possible. Asked Brigade if enemy’s first trench has been taken and received reply to the effect that the situation was not cleared up. Asked Brigade if we were to move off to the attack independently of the Essex regiment and received reply in the affirmative.”
At 9:15 a.m., the Newfoundlanders began their assault without artillery or support. The Newfoundlanders went over the top at their position at St. John’s Road. The Germans, because of their position, could easily see the enemy leaving the trenches against the skyline. This meant the Newfoundlanders were completely exposed to machine gun fire. Four companies of Newfoundlanders were marching directly into a hail of bullets and many of the regiment never even made it past their own front line. Dead and wounded soldiers from the previous assaults were blocking gaps in the wire, slowing the advance and allowing the Germans to gun them down.
Private Anthony Stacey would write in his memoirs years later, “the wire had been cut in our front line and bridges laid across the trench the night before. This was a death trap for our boys as the enemy just set the sights of their machine guns on the gaps in the barbed wire and fired.”
A tree sat in No Man’s Land, that had survived the war so far. It earned the name Danger Tree and it was as far as the Newfoundlanders reached on that day.
Within 30 minutes of the Newfoundlanders beginning their attack, the attack was over.
The Windsor Star would write, quote:
For those who were wounded in No Man’s Land, the battle was not over though. The soldiers in the craters and holes all wore triangular tin reflectors on their bodies that allowed the attack to be monitored from afar. The problem was that these reflectors made perfect targets for German snipers. Those unable to make it back after the battle had to lay all day in a crater until they could crawl back in the dark. As soon as night came, the Germans began to illuminate the area with flares so many of the wounded, unable to move, had to stay where they were, dealing with pain, blood loss and thirst. Some, delirious from their pain, wandered into German trenches where they met a quick fate.
One Newfoundland soldier stayed in No Man’s Land for four days before finally make it back to his trench. Another, Private James McGrath, lay on the battlefield for 17 hours before making his way back to safety. He would say later, “The Germans actually mowed us down like sheep. I managed to get to their barbed wire, where I got the first shot, then went to jump into their trench when I got the second in the leg. I lay in No Man’s Land for 15 hours and then crawled a distance of a mile and a quarter. They fired on me again, this time fetching me in the left leg and so I waited for another hour and moved again, only have the use of my left arm now. As I was doing splendidly, nearing our own trench they again fetched me, this time around the hip as I crawled on. I managed to get to our own line which I saw was evacuated as our artillery was playing heavily on their trenches. They retaliated and kept me in a hole for another hour. I was then rescued by Captain Windeler who took me on his back to the dressing station, a distance of two miles. Well, thank god my wounds were all flesh wounds and won’t take me long to heal up.”
On July 1, 721 Newfoundlanders went over the top in the battle and by the next day, only 68 men were available for roll call. Every officer who went over the top became a casualty with 14 dead and 12 wounded. No other regiment suffered more on that day than the Newfoundlanders. In all, the casualty rate of the Newfoundlanders was put at 85 per cent. Included in the dead were 14 sets of brothers, including four members of the Ayre family of St. John’s, more on them later.
The commander of the 29th British Division would say of the Newfoundland Regiment, “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig would state, quote:
“Newfoundland may well feel proud of her sons, for the heroism and devotion to duty they displayed on July first has never been surpassed. Please convey my deepest sympathy and that of the whole of our arms in France in the loss of the brave officers and men who have fallen for the Empire and our admiration of their heroic conduct. Their effort contributed to our success and their example will live.”
Private Arthur Osmond would write about that day.
Osmond would spend 12 days on the serious list at the hospital but would return to the front lines in 1917 and would be taken prisoner on April 14, 1917.
Private Anthony Stacey would state, “the enemy just set the sights of the machine guns on the gaps in the barbed wire and fired. I could see no moving, but heaps of khaki slumped on the ground.”
On Aug. 9, 1916, a group of 500 soldiers were sent over to Europe in order to replace the many who lost their lives in July. Another 500 men would soon be sent forward as well. The Calgary Herald would report, quote:
“News has been received here of the arrival in England of another contingent of 500 soldiers for the Newfoundland regiment. This draft was sent forward to reinforce the Newfoundland unit, which was almost annihilated on the opening day of the big drive.”
In the 1920s, the Newfoundland government would buy the ground over which the regiment fought and a memorial park would be established there. At the site, 5,000 trees native to Newfoundland were planted there when the project was completed in 1925. The site encompasses 30 hectares and is the largest of the five Newfoundland memorial sites in France and Belgium. The site features a bronze caribou designed by sculptor Basil Gotto, who was inspired, partly, by the iconic Newfoundland photo The Monarch of the Top Sails. The sculpture weighs 1,700 pounds. At the site, 820 names are inscribed on three bronze tablets at the base of the caribou monument to honour those who died in France but have no known grave. At the site of the Danger Tree, which emerged as an important symbol of the scope of devastation caused, a replica of the original tree now stands in its place. The original tree was a plum tree. The entire memorial site was unveiled by Field Marshal Douglas Haig on June 7, 1925. Each year, the site receives approximately 230,000 visitors, more than the population of St. John’s.
Today, July 1 is not just Canada Day in Newfoundland, but also a day of remembrance of the battle.
For my soldier profile, I am actually going to look at four soldiers from that battle.
Captain Eric Ayre, Captain Bernard Ayre, Second Lt. Gerald Ayre and Second Lt. Wilfrid Ayre were three cousins from St. John’s who decided to join the fight overseas and enlist in the First World War. Their grandfather had established the firm of Ayre and Sons, which their fathers worked at and this firm helped to boost the economy of Newfoundland. Eric and Bernard were brothers, while Wilfrid was the son of John Ayre, who was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Newfoundland until his death in 1914. He was the uncle to all of four of the officers. Their grandfather was Charles Ayre, who served in the Newfoundland Assembly from 1873 to 1878 and then again from 1879 to 1889, the year he died.
All four men came from St. John’s, where their grandfather and fathers all lived. When the war broke out, Bernard was in England at Cambridge and immediately joined up and was part of the Norfolk Regiment initially. In Canada, Eric, Wilfrid and Gerald were all working in the family business when the Newfoundland Regiment was formed. The three young men all went overseas to complete their training and Gerald was quickly promoted to Second Lt.
On July 1, all four would go over the top of the trench to charge at the Germans in the battle. All four would die on that day.
Information comes from The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Wikipedia, Veterans Affairs, Canadian Encyclopedia, Heritage Newfoundland, Windsor Star, Vancouver Daily World, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald,
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