Beaumont Hamel, 1916

“Beaumont Hamel”  as our then G.O.C. said six years later, “was the first occasion when the Highland Division was able to prove that, given a fair chance, it would certainly be successful against the enemy. Here was a fortress defended by every artifice of which the Boche was a past master. It had several lines of defence connected by subterranean tunnels, and each line defended by several belts of barbed wire. When the Division proceeded there the place had been attacked on at least two occasions, and it still remained intact. When I went to those Divisions that had attacked in order to try to get some tips, I was told, “You have not a dog’s chance”. As you know it rained continuously for several days before 13th November. In fact we carried out a raid two or three days before, and the men were so involved in the mud that they could not get on and could scarcely get back. Yet Beaumont Hamel was taken, you might say, with almost automatic precision. We took nearly 3,000 prisoners, and that in spite of very little progress being made on our left. This was the same Division that had fought bravely at Festubert. It had taken over the Labyrinth from the French, which was really over a Boche mine-field, for mines were blown up practically every night. And yet it lost hardly a single trench. It was the same Division that had fought in High Wood on the Somme with great loss. The reason was that elsewhere we were pitchforked into other people’s battles, whereas in Beaumont Hamel the Division was able to prepare and fight its own battle in its own way.” 

So much for the actual battle : let us look at it from the R.A.M.C. point of view. 

The previous medical arrangements in the High Wood engagement, where a shifting personnel and a divided jurisdiction of Field Ambulance commanders had been somewhat confusing, were now changed ; and a Forward Evacuation Officer was appointed whose duty it was throughout the battle to contrive and supervise the evacuation of all wounded from the R.A.P.s to the Main Dressing Station and Walking Wounded Collecting Station ; a more satisfactory method which held good to the end of the campaign. 

When we took over the line from the Royal Naval Division on 17th October, the different medical posts were then quite inadequate for the push which we knew to be in prospect ; and it was well, from the R.A.M.C. standpoint, that frequent postponements of Zero day took place. For in that time our men, “with necessarily limited R.E. help” (that familiar Staff cliché), had to enlarge and add an extra entrance to a Relay Bearer Post at Tenderloin in White City ; to make an entirely new one in Second Avenue Trench and another at Uxbridge Road; to pit-prop and false-roof a Collecting Post at Auchonvillers in the stable of a farmyard there ; and to prop, sandbag, and fit stretcher-racks into the cellars of a brasserie at Mailly-Maillet as an A.D.S.; all of which entailed on the officer overseeing the forward work many a weary mile daily, for weeks on end, of trench tramping in the vilest of weather through mud often up to above the knees.

Still, when 13th November came, our preparations were finished and the whole thing was workable. The constant anxiety of a Forward Evacuation Officer was to have good head cover for his men when they were not in action, and to be sure that he had no superfluous personnel at the different posts to invite unnecessary casualties ; while equally certain in his mind that he had plenty men to face the work in hand, and that all demands for stretcher-bearers would be met. 

Yes, there was always a lot to do before a push, and the experience gained in each had to be duly noted, remembered and used with advantage in the next : in bello non licet bis errare. A good surplus of stretchers, blankets, splints, dressings, rations, medical stores and comforts, had to be accumulated gradually at the first Field Ambulance Post behind the R.A.P.s before Zero day. If the weather were wet, as almost invariably happened when a push was on hand, the blankets had to be carried up to the line in bundles wrapped in water- proof sheets, to protect them as far as possible from rain and the soaking, sticky sides of the muddy trenches. Without this precaution they were bound to arrive at their destination hopelessly wet and soiled before they were ever called into use ; and as it was quite impossible, owing to the confined space, to have drying accommodation of any kind at such places, this kept us from attaining that warmth and dryness for the wounded so essential in combating shock. 

This forward Field Ambulance post was usually the Collecting Post, the furthest up position to which cars could approach with a modicum of safety before the push commenced. As the stretchers, blankets, stores, etc., began to be called for from the R.A.P.s, the M.O. at the Collecting Post had to indent back on the Advanced Dressing Station, and this in turn on the Main Dressing Station, which, again, was in touch with the C.C.S. and the Advanced Depot of Medical Stores ; so that cars returning to the front after leaving their wounded at the M.D.S. were always bringing up fresh stores towards the line to replenish the different posts from which they carried back. At an early stage of the battle it was quite possible that the roads would be either totally blocked with combatant traffic or so seriously congested as to make transit an exceedingly slow business ; and it was, therefore, absolutely necessary to have a surplus at each stage to refill the medical post immediately in front of it. 

The providing of an adequate supply of water was also a problem to be met. It had to be sent up to Regimental Aid Posts, Relay Bearer Posts, and Collecting Posts, in petrol tins, and the supply of these tins was necessarily limited. The Battalion M .O. had always to have a generous stock at his R.A.P., drawn previously by the Quartermaster from the harassed A.S.C. A certain number, if the M.O. was wise, were strictly earmarked for carrying forward when the time came to advance his aid post, and were only used at the original one when the necessity was imperative. On sending back for a refill to the Collecting Post, he was always supposed to return the empty tins, an item in the programme which he frequently forgot ; and this omission equally frequently prevented his again getting supplied promptly. For at the Collecting Post a reserve supply had to be kept for their own cases in the event of the tank of the water cart stationed there receiving, as often happened, a punctured wound from shell fragment or shrapnel or of the supply water-cart being knocked out or held up on its road from the A.D.S. behind. 

To provide hot food for the hungry, soup kitchens were usually run as near the communication trenches as possible. In this battle, in addition to the Divisional soup kitchen at Stockton Dump, which we could draw on for supplies, we had a show of our own, generously helped by the Scottish Churches Tent, in our farmyard at Auchonvillers and there throughout the battle it did yeoman work for wounded, stretcher-bearers, prisoners and all who claimed our hospitality. Besides, by diplomacy, tact and ingenuity, we had accumulated an extra good rum ration, and had further purchased a plentiful supply of canteen chocolate for the bearers. 

By the night, then, of 12th-13th November all these things – and many more – had been seen to, and the Forward Evacuation Officer at the Auchonvillers Collecting Post took a final pipe and look over his orders wondering how far the latter would pan out as expected, and trying to anticipate, with the help of his colleague there, what should be done in the event of any part of the official programme breaking down. Then, with the gas curtains down – for the area echoed all the wet, misty night with the slow and melancholy “Whew-ew-Punk “ of gas shells – few hours of disturbed sleep were got on a stretcher, until the hour before Zero made all alert for work at hand.

At 5.30 on 13th November our furious barrage started, and by 7 a.m. a steady stream of wounded was flowing in, which lasted all day ; but evacuation went on well and steadily with no congestion at the various posts. At 11 a.m. and 2.45 p.m. Auchonvillers was vigorously shelled and we had, for the time being, to carry all the cases lying in the farmyard, awaiting dressing or removal, inside our already crowded Dressing Room. By the middle of the forenoon German prisoners began passing in large numbers ; and a hundred fit men were held up to help to clear the field of their own wounded. These men were fed and treated like our own bearers and worked willingly and well, being docile to a degree ; any number up to fifteen at a time going off in charge of one R.A.M.C. man. 

Corporal Charlie, one of the best known characters in our unit, had general charge of the Hun auxiliaries, and his management of them and of the language difficulty was admirable. Ordered in the evening to detail twelve men for wheeled stretcher work, in answer to a call for more bearers to go to Thurles Dump, he went to the ruined shed where his command lay ; most of them, mark you, smoking cigarettes supplied by their friendly enemies. It was dark by then, and I happened to cross the yard as he began operations. Holding on high a hurricane lamp he shouted :-

“Noo, then, you Fritzes! A dizzen o’ ye! Compree?

“Nein!” said a puzzled voice from amongst the huddle of Huns in the shed. 

“Nine, ye gommeral? It’s nae nine ; it’s twal’ o’ C’wa’ noo! Look slippy! You, Nosey !'” ye! (indicating a gentleman well endowed in this way by nature). “An’ you, Breeks ” (to another, the seat of whose trousers was severely damaged by barbed wire). 

He then most appropriately fitted Nosey between the front handles of a wheeled stretcher with Brëeks at the tail end, and with a deft shove sent them and their apparatus out of the way ; while, again applying his personal method, he rapidly picked out another two. When the tally was complete he turned to the orderly in charge with :-

“Noo, laddie, there’s your Fritzes! See ye dinna loss ony o’ them!”-and calmly made off in quest of another job. 

As a practical linguist he was unique : his French being quite as good as his German. An equal adept was he with penny whistle or mouth organ, or as Rabelaisian raconteur in chief. He was a man of never-failing cheerfulness, and much legendary lore deservedly circulated round him.

Later, going round a dark corner of the farmyard, I collided violently with someone coming from the opposite direction. After tersely commenting on the situation I flashed on a torch light and discovered the corporal, with both arms crossed, like a tombstone saint, over a mass of bulging material inside his tunic. 

“What on earth have you got there?”  asked. 

“Booms!” came the laconic reply. 

“Bombs! What are you doing with bombs?”

“Pittin’ them in a holie roond at the back” 

He had collected about forty bombs from the wounded who had come in, and I was rather glad our collision had not been more violent than it was. 

But Corporal Charlie has led me away a bit. All day the run of cases continued and all night of 13th-14th. In spite of the shelling of the evacuation routes there had so far been no casualties amongst our personnel. Morning saw things rather quieter ; but in the forenoon, near White City, an M.O. of the 2/1St F.A., one of the most efficient and gallant R.A.M.C. officers in the Division, was killed by a shell, as later was a private of our unit along with two Boche bearers. The good old motor transport, with their usual sang-froid, were now steadily running cars down to Tenderloin Post in White City by the much battered Auchonvillers- Beaumont Hamel road, the route being risky (although no worse than Happy Valley in July) ; and in any case it was necessary at all costs to ease off the strain on the now thoroughly exhausted bearers, many of whom had their shoulders absolutely raw with the constant friction and pressure of the stretcher slings. Evacuation went on steadily all day and night of 14th-15th. 

On the evening of the 14th a batch of some half dozen Boche officers was temporarily left in our charge until an A.P.M ‘s guard was available to remove them back. We stuck them under a guard of our own in the much battered part of our building which faced the enemy lines. Shortly afterwards I got a message asking for an interview. On entering their quarters there was much heel-clicking and saluting : and a fat, walrus-faced fellow who spoke semblable English asked :

“Are you aware, sir, that we are German officers”” 

I murmured politely that the fact was obvious. 

“Are you aware, sir, that this room is not suitable accommodation for German officers?”

By good luck I remembered what Sam Weller, as boots of “The White Hart,” had said to Mr. Perker when the little lawyer remarked “This is a curious old house of yours.” So I gave Sam’s reply to the indignant Hun :

“If you’d sent word you were coming. we’d have had it repaired.” 

The effect was magical! Walrus-face beamed and translated the remark to his brethren, who all saluted with pleased smiles, while their interpreter observed in the most amiable manner:-

“Do not further apologise!” 

I replied that I would not ; and, looking in later, found them in very audible enjoyment of some liquid nourishment from the soup kitchen. The incident was happily closed.

And now came the inevitable stage of clearing up the battlefield and searching all possible places where wounded, whether British or Boche, who had not been picked up in the actual battle, might have sought shelter. At daybreak an M .O. and a party were sent to work from Y Ravine towards White City; while another party, încluding two Jocks with rifles (as the dug-outs with which Beaumont Hamel was tunnelled were not yet clear of whole-skinned Huns), worked across to meet him, an officer of the 6th Seaforths acting as guide. A further object was to search for a wonderful legendary underground Hun dressing station of the Arabian Nights variety, which, incidentally, we failed to locate. 

It was drizzling wet and vilely cold, the trenches in places thigh deep in clay and an awful mess of smashed barbed wire, mud, disintegrated German dead and debris of all sorts. In one trench our occupation for half an hour was hauling each other out of the tenacious and blood-stained mud ; and during our mutual salvage operations we had evidently made ourselves too visible, as the enemy started shelling. There was nothing for it but to take to the open and make for another trench, which we promptly did ; doing a hundred yards in rather good time.

Now, the Jocks and I were of the Julius Cæsar, Napoleon and Lord Roberts type of physique, while our guide was a tall man, whose greatcoat – which for some obscure reason he had put on before starting – blew out as he led us, doubled up on account of the phut-phut of bullets, across the open ; and it struck me with a great feeling of irritation as we ran that we must be providing excellent comic effect for anv of the enemy observing us through glasses, by suggesting an alarmed hen and three chickens on the run. (I had the opportunity of being in a gunner’s O.P. near Cambrai in 1918 and seeing four Germans doing a sprint under similar conditions. For once I felt a definite kinship to the Hun: I, too, had been at the wrong end of the telescope. In the next trench we again set about searching the dug-outs and placarding them, to catch the eye of the stretcher-bearers who would follow, as containing so many wounded for removal : but again the Hun gunners got on to us in an exposed place and we had a second sprint across the open for another trench, where we had to stay below in a sous-terrain for an hour till things got quieter. 

This dug-out was typical of the many with which Beaumont Hamel was honeycombed. On descending about forty steps one was in a large floored and timbered chamber some fifty feet long ; and at the further end a second set of steps led to a similar chamber, one side of each being lined with a double layer of bunks filled with dead and wounded Germans, the majority of whom had become casualties early on the morning of the 13th. The place was, of course, in utter darkness; and, when we flashed our lights on and the wounded saw our escort with rifles ready, there was an outbreak of “Kamarad!” while a big bevy of rats squeaked and scuttled away from their feast on the dead bodies on the floor. The stench was indescribably abominable : for many of the cases were gas-gangrenous. Any food or drink they had possessed was used up, and our water bottles were soon emptied amongst them. After we had gone over the upper chamber and separated the living from the dead, we went to the lower one where the gas curtain was let down and fastened. Tearing it aside and going through with a light, I got a momentary jump when I caught a glimpse in the upper bunk of a man, naked to the waist, and with his right hand raised above his head. But the poor beggar was far past mischief  – stark and stiff with a smashed pelvis. Some twenty other dead Germans lay about at the disposal of the rat hordes. The romance of war had worn somewhat thin here.

When the shelling had eased up and we quitted the place, the wounded firmly believed they were being left for good ; although we had repeatedly assured them that in a short time they would all be taken to hospital. But to the end of the campaign the wounded Boche could never understand that he was not going to be treated with the same brutality he had meted out to others at the outset of war; so it was amidst a chorus of shrieks, wails and supplications that we made for the welcome open air, ticketed the dug-out as containing fourteen wounded our search in similar for removal, and renewed surroundings for fresh casualties. 

One other memory of Beaumont Hamel is still vivid. Parallel to Wagon Road, and on its Auchonvillers side, ran a chemin creux in which were several dug-outs where we – and the Division on our left – had Battalion R.A.P.’s. It had been severely shelled and the sides of the road had fallen in, reducing the cart track to a foot-path knee deep in mud. Going up it one morning soon after daybreak, I saw a headless corpse lying on a stretcher at the path side. From the neck a trickle of blood ran to the feet of a man outside a dug-out who was calmly frying some ham in his canteen lid over an improvised oil-can stove. His mate – fag in mouth – was watching him. What was beside them had ceased to be worth comment. They were surfeited with evil sights. And they were hungry. 

On the 16th, Tenderloin in White City became our H.Q. for forward evacuation ; and there with two M .O.s and a hundred and twenty bearers we stayed until the 19th, searching all possible locations in the field for any cases possibly missed, and clearing a large quantity of wounded for the Division on our left, who were stunting and whose R.A.P.s could not be cleared without our help· All this time White City and the roads into Beaumont Hamel were distinctly unhealthy, and the weather was vile ; while the atmosphere inside our dug-outs one long chamber with over a hundred and twenty occupants – was almost palpable. A wash was an unknown luxury, of course ; but though lousy we were cheerful -even tuneful at times, thanks to the corporal’s penny whistle and a veteran gramophone – as our job was nearly done. 

By the 22nd our unit had still twenty-four bearers in the R.A.P.s at Beaumont Hamel, twenty-four at Tenderloin, thirty-six in reserve at Auchonvillers, and a tent sub-division at the A.D.S. at Mailly-Maillet ; while, in addition, we were running the M.D.S. at Forceville, handed over to us by the 3rd H.F.A., which had left for Puchevillers So our hands were fairly full. But, on the 23rd, we handed over, and started overhauling equipment in view of our next move.

What Field Ambulance officer does not recall over-hauling equipment after a push? The counting of stretchers, blankets, wheeled carriers, etc., etc. ; the exploring of Field Medical and Surgical panniers to check missing “unexpendables” ; and the inevitable and unanimous finding of all concerned that what couldn’t be found had certainly been destroyed by shell-fire! However, on this occasion we had increased and multiplied exceedingly for we came away from Beaumont Hamel outstandingly to the good in the essential matters of blankets, stretchers, and especially wheeled stretcher carriers : So that the soul of the A.D.M.S. rejoiced within him, until at the first D.D.M.S. conference he had to meet his suffering and blood-thirsty colleagues who had been on our right and left flanks. 

Four days later we moved from Forceville to Senlis, and took over a set of hutments on top of a windswept hill above the village from a Canadian Field Ambulance, finding the place  – to be quite honest – in a most unholy mess. He was a good man, the Canuck, right enough, and “a bonny fechter” but he had a way of his own all through the campaign. Our advance party officer was taken round the show by a Canadian confrère (in shirt sleeves, breeches and gum-boots) who, on giving an order to a sergeant en passant, received the reply :– 

“You go to – John!”’ 

The officer’s only comment was a grieved :-

“*Well, now! He shouldn’t say that, should he?”- and the matter apparently ended!

 Here, then, we stayed for several uncomfortable cold and wet weeks while the Division was in the line at Courcelette; thence for some weeks of severe frost to the Buigny-St. Maclou area near Abbeville, where we were not far from historic Crecy. Later, we were once more at the hutments of Haute Avesnes 2 and marched thence to Caucourt, on the other side of D.H.Q. at Villers Chatel, to run a Divisional Rest Station and prepare the forward medical posts for the next push, the famous Vimy Ridge battle, where the 51st were on the right of the Canadians.

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