I was just a boy from the small village of St. Anthony. Back then, we only had a population of just one hundred, but we were slowly becoming a booming town, thanks to our hero, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell. Every time he’d come back from his missionary work, all of St. Anthony would flock to him to greet him back. We all admired Dr. Grenfell as children. After all, he was the one who brought the schools, churches and hospitals across Newfoundland. When we learned that Grenfell was going to France to help fight the war in Europe as a field doctor, we all naturally decided to follow his lead and volunteer and become some of the first soldiers of the First Newfoundland Regiment.
We were sent to frontlines in the spring of 1916 in Beaumont-Hamel, France. The White City was what the Brits would call it. We were part of the 29th British Division. We Newfoundlanders were easily recognizable from the blue puttees, which we proudly wore on our legs. That’s why they called us the “Blue Puttees.” Following our rigorous training in Great Britain, I thought I was ready for any endeavours that would come. Oh Lord, how I was wrong. After months of being on standby in the trenches, we finally received word to attack the German lines on July 1, 1916. Our plan was to ambush German positions to help the British and French forces who were going against fighting the Huns head-on.
At 7:00, after hours of restless sleep, the loud explosion of nearby mines shook me awake. After that, we heard the sound of artillery raining down on German forces. We were all cramped behind the front lines in St. John’s Road, our support trench, waiting for our moment to attack. After a while, it was getting clear that the first wave of Allied forces was getting slaughtered. The narrow front trenches were becoming overwhelmed with wounded soldiers. Nonetheless, we were still determined to push forward.
At 8:45, that moment finally came. After equipping our rifles with a bayonet, our commanders blew their whistles. I will never forget what happened next. Once out of the trenches, the Jerries greeted us with endless machine gunfire. We were very easy targets for the enemy. We were running 700 meters in the open while carrying 30 kgs of heavy equipment with us. The Jerries had their sights on us. We could hardly see them behind the small gaps of barbed wires. They were mowing us down mercilessly. Captain Smallwood, Moores and Peckford were all torn to pieces in a matter of seconds. Private Rideout, our platoon’s sharpshooter, was trying to shoot the enemy gunners to no avail. His face got obliterated by an explosive bullet right after he emptied his Lee-Enfield.
The battlefield was filled with dead soldiers. Blood soiled the mud, puddles were no longer filled with water, ash rose from all directions. The only way you could escape was to play dead amongst the corpses and hope the enemy doesn’t see you moving. Corporal Wells was amongst those wounded who were trying to crawl back to the back of friendly lines. Both of his legs were gone, leaving nothing but pieces of flesh.
A nearby medic tried to assist a wounded soldier when an artillery shell completely erased them, safe for a blackened severed hand. Something rained on my face when I was inching towards the Jerries’ trenches. I stopped for a second to pick and investigate this warm red-bluish matter off my right cheek. I yelled out of shock and horror when I found out it was Sergeant Tobin’s brain. He was right next to me when a sniper blew half of his skull away. The atmosphere was filled with deafening gunfire, artillery storms and endless screams of agony. I’ve never seen such carnage before. But that was just the beginning.
Privates Tulk, Grimes and I managed to advance toward a single gnarled tree to take cover. There, enemy fire was getting more and more intense. Once we reached that tree, we were joined by Corporal Williams and Dunderdale. Davis was coming too, but he got hit by a mortar shell. Warrant Officer Marshall tried to help him, but the Fritz shot him to death. We all helplessly watched a bleeding Davis call out for his mom before he breathed his last.
There was no way we could traverse No Man’s Land without getting shot at. The tree we hid behind was getting weaker by the second. I tucked my chin in, like there was a blizzard, back home. I prayed for the Lord to spare us from this living hell. My knees were trembling, hands were fidgeting, teeth were chattering. All I wanted was to go back to Saint-Anthony.
Lieutenant Ball soon arrived to give us support, but his men fell quicker than most of our battalion. In total, there were just ten men that made it to the gnarled tree. Under Ball’s leadership, I was instructed to attack the machine gun nest from the left with Private Furey. As we were about to pull out of cover, I saw the flash of a field cannon taking us out.
It was all dark and oddly silent. I thought this was the end. I thought I died, and I was in the afterlife. Then, I felt like someone was picking me up. Was it the angels who were taking me to those pearly gates? I couldn’t see anything or hear anything. I don’t know if I was still unconscious or groggy. I couldn’t feel any of my limbs or any parts of my body. Eventually, I was slowly coming to my senses. When dusk dawned on No Man’s Land, I found myself lying on a bed in a field hospital. I had lost both of my legs and my right arm. My left eye was permanently swollen and my jaw was permanently dislocated.
When I was sent back home, I was welcomed back as a war hero. But what was there to celebrate? When we went to war, we were only 800 Newfoundlanders. We were all boys who thought war was an adventure toward adulthood. But 324 of us perished during that first morning of the Battle of the Somme while I was part of the 386 wounded. Only 68 of us managed to walk away from this apocalypse. Despite our British generals recognizing us as a fearless fighting force, I can still relive the anguish my brothers and I faced in France, years after the war ended. I can still feel the trauma pinching me whenever July 1 always comes around.
As I narrate this story for the future generations of Newfoundlanders, my only wish is that they will never forget the events on July 1, 1916. I wish they would never have to make the same sacrifices to keep Newfoundland a free and prosperous Dominion. A Dominion that is better than the best.
By Jaques Wang