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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

The Battle of the Somme

In this section:

Interview with Arthur Raley: Royal Newfoundland Regiment
Transcript Excerpt, 15 minutes, 27 seconds

A. The next engagement for the regiment, actual engagement, would be Beaumont Hamel, which was the biggest battle we fought and probably the most renowned but, as a matter of fact, it was never a battle. We started off too far back. We were wiped out soon after we got over our own front line but the regiment made its name there. It was one of the most magnificent shows of the war. We went over, I think it was eight hundred strong, and we had less than a hundred left. They simply were moved down. They didn't see the front line of the Germans. We were told to advance from where we were. It was the back line down a slope, a nice steady slope, against the skyline. Everybody was seen all the way and I actually phoned to brigade headquarters to ask whether we were to go alone or with the people on our right. We were told at first the two regiments would advance and, in my account of the battle, I wrote this telephone conversation and it was distinctly said that we should advance as soon as ready so we went. The others were in the front line, we were in the third line. Our field of fire, what seemed the advancement, was just the slope down the hill, steady slope. The men were carrying trench bridges, rolls of wire, torpedoes, all sorts of things like that. The men weren't in any position to shoot. They'd got to get their stuff there. Their other people were in the front line and didn't start. That was why we were so frightfully mowed up. When I say they didn't start, one or two men had gone over but it was no advancement on the right. It was very, very bad, well I shouldn't say this, but I thought it was a very bad order at that time. We could have gone down the trenches and got into the front line or got into the second line even but there the cart wheels were horizontal with the machine guns of the Germans on the cart wheels swinging round, just a belt of fire, on this hill, going downhill to Beaumont Hamel, which we never saw. It was taken in November. This was July 1st. It was taken in November.

Q. What sort of supporting fire did you have?

A. Our supporting fire was fairly good on the air, the gun fire, but we had very little, very little infantry fire, practically none.

Q. Did you have any machine guns?

A. Very little. We had the full number of machine guns but they weren't firing. We were just advancing. This was long after the advance had started, hours after. Another brigade had been over before we went but they never got to the front line.

Q. Could you describe the physical features of this battleground and the weather and the light on that day?

A. The field we advanced over there was a gentle slope right down to the German line, just a gentle slope. There was no cover. There was fairly longish grass at that time of the year. If you lay down you probably would not have been seen in many places but that wasn't advancing. That's one of the main reasons why I and the CO were alive. We walked on first, over the top first, and they took no notice of us and when we got halfway to the front line we lay down and we could see everything going along around us. We had tufts of grass in front of us, nothing else. The men had tin plated triangles on their backs so that, when they lay down, the sun was reflecting these bright squares and triangles on their backs and they were easily seen.

Q. What was the idea of these little triangles of tin?

A. The little tin things were so that the artillery could see our backs, see where we were, how far we'd gone. Of course they never worried about it, they never saw, we never went into our own artillery. It was not a good thing really.

Q. What were the German positions like?

A. The German positions were going up the other slope, going up the other slope, very strong. As I say, they had machine guns out in front mounted on cartwheels. They had a spray of fire going around in all directions. They were quite ready for us. It was all known. Of course some places went on. A line went up on our left which we took for a bit and then lost. Of course it was noted we hadn't gone on and Thiepval farther on the south was captured, I think, that day. One or two places on the Battle of Somme on July 1st, the line went on on the south. It was a right-angled bend, just a mile or two south of us and then, from where we were, in November they went to gain another battle. When we'd gone further up on the right-angled bend, Guerdecourt, we were in that battle.

Q. Returning to Beaumont Hamel, could you tell me how it ended as far as the Newfoundland regiment was concerned?

A. As far as the Newfoundland regiment, I think it was sixty-eight we got back and we went to a village behind the line. I won't worry you with the names and we just fell in then, the few men there were, and the reserves came up, probably two to three hundred, and we were sent to the Ypres Salient for a rest.

Q. What do you think accounted for most of the casualties, was it the machine gun fire?

A. Yes, undoubtedly the machine gun fire. In these days in different battles, different things accounted. It might be gas, it might be the heavy bombardment of one front line but, where we were and in Beaumont Hamel days and these massive onslaughts like at Arras, it was mostly machine gun and a certain amount of gunfire onto certain targets but when there was a line of men going forward, they might go for an hour or two without being seen or spotted and it would be the infantry that would deal with them before the gunners got onto them.

Q. What was the actual plan of attack, what were the objectives?

A. Well, it really didn't concern one regiment because, from farther north, twenty miles north of us and ten miles south and then return to the right, at right-angles, went along to Thiepval and to Burnisay Wood. It was about fifty miles in a big battle like that.

Q. What I'm wanting to understand is, from the point of view of an individual infantryman in that battle, what was he expected to do and what were the dangers that faced him?

A. Well, the ordinary infantryman, you're going back to the Somme now which is many years. We learned a lot but, as I say, he first of all had to go and carry a bangalor torpedo or a bridge or a roll of wire or all sorts of things that were wanted in the trenches for people that had already captured the line. The other ones simply had to walk on, walk on and down until you found the Boche, then you fought him if he stayed and, if he didn't, you'd run after him or shoot him but there wasn't a great deal to do in the battle. The battles of the type where infantrymen had to fight were what we called a raid. There might be any number of men but generally fifty or so, blackened faces and not in sort of uniform, just with a club or a bomb and just rush over, get one or two prisoners and come back. The big battles were, of course, just strolls across country literally, just strolling across country until you met a Boche and fought him, shot him if you had any sense.

Q. Well, Beaumont Hamel then, I'm still staying with Beaumont Hamel, was one of these strolls then, down the slope, was it?

A. Yes, at Beaumont Hamel. There's no, very little anyway, this running and charging that you see in pictures. You'd hurry up out of the trenches and get away from the trenches of course. They had the range of it. Then you'd run twenty yards, flop down, run another twenty yards and flop down or, if it was in very open country where they weren't expecting you, you were walking along just like infantry across country with their rifles on the trail.

Q. But surely at Beaumont Hamel they were expecting to run into machine gun fire, weren't they?

A. Yes, yes, very much so, but still we didn't know what had been going on. We didn't know that the first lines weren't captured. We didn't know that we were five miles ahead. We had rumours and all sorts of signals coming but it was just a case of going on at the time that we were ordered to go and we were, I think it was the third line of advance we were but we hadn't got as far as the first line.

Q. Did the Newfoundlanders get close enough to fire at the Germans?

A. Well, you must remember that the trenches that the Newfoundlanders had come from there were still some reserves who might be firing over to the German trenches and, when they were halfway over, if there were any alive, I remember one man collecting a few and firing. Halfway over he was at one point, anyway near the Boche lines, he was firing at them. There were just a half dozen men with half a dozen bullets each perhaps but they just do that because there's nothing else to do. If they see any Boche they'd shoot him but they couldn't get on themselves. They were being shot down where they were with these lights on their backs and having been seen. I saw, with my own eyes, a signaller running down the hill towards the Boche line waving a signal, whatever these things are, waving over his head. No good, he wasn't going anywhere, he wasn't going to kill anybody, just rushing there until he dropped. That's all he could do. Other men struggling with bridges. One man would fall down and the other man would pick up the bridge, two men to a bridge, and the other men would go on pulling.