Canadian in a British Regiment: 1 July 1916

Hawthorn Ridge, Somme.

Hawthorn Ridge, Somme. On July 1, 1916, at 7:20 AM a mine was detonated on this German held position. The following letter, whose author remains anonymous, was published a few days after the 1 July 1916 attack. Mention is made of Dum-Dum ammunition whose use in warfare was first prohibited in 1898 and further ratified n 1899 at the Hague Convention. The protest banning their use was led by the German government.

IN THE GREAT ADVANCE

Canadian Officer’s Graphic Letter.

The following is a letter from a young Canadian serving with an English regiment – an officer in the first line on the first day of the big offensive: -

July 1.

     I am writing this in a dug-out about 200 yards from German lines. My whole platoon is here with me, and we are waiting patiently for the order to attack. I am sitting on the sharp corners of a bully beef tin, a fat Tommy is asleep across my legs, and the German guns are making a fiendish row. A huge bit of shell has just landed outside the dug-out.

July 4.

      I have now a few moments to sit down and write a brief summary of my doings. First of all I slept on a real bed last night. I had only had about five hours’ sleep till then since June 27, and yet I felt most “horribly healthy.” On June 27 we went into the trenches, tramped about in mud all day and night. Our company had only one platoon’s frontage, and consequently the dug-outs were crowded. We were constantly getting shelled, and had to move our quarters. One dug-out we evacuated had seven men killed in it ten minutes after we left. On Saturday morning, July 1, a division went over on our left and another further down on our right. The line has a bend, and consequently the Germans were all driven into the village. The attack succeeded on both flanks and joined hands, making a pocket simply packed with Boches. This attack was preceded by seven days bombardment, and although the trenches and houses and wire entanglements were battered to bits, a great many of the enemy emerged from their deep dug-outs with machine guns practically unharmed the moment we advanced.

     At 2.30 the order to attack this village was given. My men were all asleep in the dug-out, but I had them all out and over the parapet fully equipped before 2.40. The fire that greeted us was so terrific that I sent a message to the company commander to find out what I was to do. He came personally to the spot where I was, just behind a gap in the wire entanglements (they had been cut the night before). I shouted out, “I am ready to advance.” He shouted back, “Get along then.” I jumped up and yelled “Come on, No. ―.” They rose and followed to a man, although they had been suffering heavily from rifle and machine gun fire while still on the ground in front of the parapet. I dashed forward, closely followed by my platoon sergeant.

     We were met by a perfect inferno of rifle and machine gun fire. I looked over to the German trenches, and it was a sight I shall never forget. The fire trench was on a steep bank about 150 yards of it parallel to our trench, and then it went up and away to our left. The part that went up the hillside was packed with Germans four deep, firing over each other’s heads. The part parallel to us was crammed so full that one line used the parapet and jostled each other for room while the remainder stood up on a step behind and fired over the first line’s shoulders. I could hear the machine guns, but could not see where they came from. I afterwards learned that they were 10 feet below the parapet in dug-outs fired through loopholes so that only a direct hit would knock them out. One look was enough. I ducked my head and ran for all I was worth – not back – but straight at the guns. I felt like some Johnny in the Light Brigade. My men fell like ninepins. Men collapsed or rather fell down headlong with a groan. My orderly fell by my side.

     At last I reached a small gully or shell hole or something. Down I flopped, and looked around – not up. The greater part of my platoon were either lying dead, wounded or dying in the short 100 yards that I had gone, so I came to the conclusion that it would be unwise to advance, especially as I found out afterwards that the German fire trench contained 500 men and eight machine guns in 150 yards of trench. My servant had six bullets through him, so I got him dressed up a bit. Another man had five shots through his arm in a two-inch group. Imagine the rate of fire the machine guns must have had. Another man crawled in with his arm shot in two. The German snipers, at any rate, were using dum-dum if not explosive bullets. The wounds were simply ghastly.

The use of expanding bullets, known as dum dums, provided propaganda discussions from both sides of the frontlines. Although Dum Dums were produced at the British India Dum Dum Arsenal, Calcutta, India.

German propaganda related to French Dum-Dum ammunition.The use of expanding bullets, known as dum dums and named for the British India Dum Dum Arsenal, Calcutta, India, provided ample propaganda value for either side of the fence during the Great War.

It would have been inadvisable to show one’s head, so I kept low. I soon found out I was being sniped at from German trenches to the right. I was pretty savage by this time – I suppose if I hadn’t been in such a rage I should have been frightened. I crawled out and took an entrenching tool from a dead man and dug myself in.

     I saw the wounded of my platoon trying to crawl up to my gully for protection, but as soon as they moved a machine gun was turned on them. The poor devils dropped flat, but that was not enough. The snipers had seen them move, and fired shot after shot at them with their dum-dum bullets until there was no doubt about their being alive. Then sent over shrapnel and coal boxes. I was simply furious and dying to get at them by this time, and so were the men.

Huge Lyddite Shells.

     The German fire gradually got less intensive, but in its place came huge lyddite shells which burst directly overhead. They made a great cloud of yellow smoke which was beautiful against the blue sky. Lyddite shells unfortunately explode vertically downward, and I had a few anxious moments as pieces of shell as big as your head sat down beside me. After that two beautiful white albatrosses with black crosses painted on their wings came over, escorted by a huge, grey battleplane, the whole followed by a perfect swarm of little white puffs of shrapnel from our anti-aircraft guns. They did not stay long, however.  Two of our battleplanes came along, and the whole lot fled.

     At dusk the Germans had retired to their dug-outs, leaving a few snipers and machine gunners on guard, and I was able to get back to our lines. When I jumped in, or rather fell headlong in as fast as I could, I found another regiment in our places. I was looked upon as risen from the dead.

     I enjoyed myself rather when I got to my shell hole. I was rather isolated, but comparatively safe. The sniping that I did kept my spirits up wonderfully. I also had a meal of bully beef, biscuits, and chocolate – so did my platoon sergeant, after some persuasion. He said he had lost his appetite.

Canada Illustrated Weekly, July 22, 1916 pages 93 – 94


About The Author

pferguson
Paul has worked with the Paradigm Motion Picture Company since 2009 as producer, historian and research specialist. Paul first met Casey and Ian WIlliams of Paradigm in April 2007 at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium when ceremonies were being held for the re-dedication of the Vimy Memorial, France. Paul's sensitivity to film was developed at an early age seeing his first films at RCAF Zweibrucken, Germany and in Sardinia. Paul returned to Canada in 1967 and was further amazed by David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai". Film captivated Paul and with time he became increasingly interested in storytelling, content development, character, direction, cinematography and soundtracks. At the University of Victoria, Paul studied and compared Japanese and Australian film and became interested in Australian film maker Peter Weir and his film "Gallipoli" (1981). Paul was entranced when he learned Weir had visited the beaches, ridges and ravines of the peninsula. The film "Gallipoli" alone led Paul on many journeys to sites of conflict in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Malta, Hawaii and Gallipoli. It was, however, when Paul watched documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, "The Civil War", that Paul understood how his own experience and insight could be effective and perhaps influential in film-making. Combining his knowledge of Museums and Archives, exhibitions and idea strategies with his film interests would be a natural progression. Paul thinks like a film-maker. His passion for history and storytelling brings to Paradigm an eye (and ear) to the keen and sensitive interests of; content development, the understanding of successful and relational use of collections, imagery and voice. Like Paul's favorite actor, Peter O'Toole, he believes in the adage “To deepen not broaden.” While on this path Paul always remembers his grandmother whose father did not return from the Great War and how his loss shaped her life and how her experience continues to guide him.

Comments

Leave a Reply