And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.
-John Oxenham, entrance to the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial
On the first day of the battle there were 57,000 British casualties with 19,000 deaths, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. The battle lasted about five months, and there were over one million casualties on both sides, with the Germans losing about 500,000. Tactically the battle was a terrible waste, with about 6 miles being gained. However, the great losses to the Germans made it impossible to recruit and train enough soldiers to effectively advance against the Allies. Some think that the Somme in the long run guaranteed an Allied victory.
The second greatest loss by a single unit on the first day of battle was the First Newfoundland Regiment. As we all know, on July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel, the Regiment left the trenches in the third wave with the purpose of taking the commune of Beaumont-Hamel. They never made it, and the next morning, 68 reported to roll call.
The hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man’s Land to begin the Battle of the Somme.
-(The Old Front Line, 1917, by Poet Laureate John Masefield)
The History Television documentary is of interest because it follows two related stories. The Battle of the Somme was a documentary and propaganda film made by British official cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell before and during the initial attack. It was filmed at the British lines near Beaumont-Hamel, and shows the first footage in history of soldiers dying in battle, and gives a feeling for life in the trenches. The modern documentary tries to find out what was real and what was propaganda in the movie using various modern techniques. While most of the footage explicitly is of the Lancashire Fusiliers of the British 29th Division, there may be some footage of the Newfoundlanders. The investigation and techniques are fascinating and give an accurate picture of what was happening in the area where the Newfoundlanders fought.
The second story is about two privates of the First Newfoundland regiment, John Howard and Linus Coombs, who are the ancestors of Howard Coombs and Captain (ret.) Derm Coombs. While Howard died, Linus Coombs survived the war, albeit with one leg amputated. Howard and Derm remember him well, and they are bringing some of the equipment used by Linus back to France with them. Both were officers in the Canadian Armed Forces, with Howard retiring to complete his doctorate in Military History and Strategy. They follow the trail of John and Linus to Beaumont-Hamel, trying to recreate what it was like for them, and what memories remain along the route. They also are bringing some mementos from the war with them, which haven’t been in France for 90 years.
To recreate the experience, they wear the original uniforms, try to eat the original type of field rations, simulate a gas attack, and march with full kit. In those days full kit was about 70 lbs (32 kg) of gear, and they were expected to maintain 3 miles per hour for up to a full day. When they arrived at the battle lines, they were shown the terrain and how the soldiers were sent over the top by mistake. I also saw the Danger Tree for the first time (this was as far as the regiment was able to advance).
In the end the documentary had two major results. The film researchers were able to determine real footage and extract much new information from it, and to confirm that the attack footage was real. They also identified some of the soldiers from the film, and one definitively. On the Coomb’s side, they gained an understanding they never had before of what Beaumont-Hamel meant to their family and to Newfoundland, and to develop some sort of closure.
I found the documentary interesting on both fronts, and it was refreshing to get a Newfoundland perspective into the mix. Many of the previous documentaries I have seen on this topic have failed in this respect. Also, it was a respectful and moving piece of work.