– Wilfred Owens, poet and soldier killed in World War I
A summer cold front slipping down from Canada was cutting through Central Illinois. When it ran into a warm, southern wind, rain had begun to fall and thunder and lightning broke up the sky. Cornrows, spreading endlessly toward the horizon, wavered under the weight of the summer rain. I knelt on a paved slope beneath an overpass, entreating motorists to stop and wondering if I was going to have to walk to California.
Rocking back and forth to keep from shivering in my wet clothes, I felt my grandfather’s World War I medal bouncing lightly against my chest. Ma had given me her dad’s award from the King of England for a graduation gift a few weeks earlier when I had finished high school. The silver pendant bore on its front the words, “For King and Empire, Services Rendered.” My grandfather’s name, George C. Hiscock, and his regimental enlistment number N297 had been scratched into the back. When I heard the story of what happened to my grandfather’s regiment in the Valley of the Somme, I was unable to stop thinking about the improbability of my family’s existence. Statistically, the odds were against any of us even being alive.
My grandparents, whose families had immigrated to the island of Newfoundland from England and Wales, struggled to build a family with whatever the sea might provide. Hardly a soul in St. John’s earned a dollar that was not connected in some manner to the fishing or sealing industries. Ma’s daddy, George C. Hiscock, developed skills as a cook and spent time in the galleys of various ships of Newfoundland’s merchant marine fleet. While still very young, Newfy boys accepted the inevitability that, like their fathers, they would be absent from home for long periods of time, either on a merchant vessel or working the ice floes and taking seal pelts. My grandfather’s destiny also appeared to be defined by the Atlantic until the guns of World War I began to sound.
When the King of England decided to confront the German Kaiser, a call went out to the colonies for volunteers to serve the empire. Newfoundland, proudly bearing the legacy of being England’s original overseas settlement, responded with a patriotic naiveté that was to bring a profound sadness to the island. At the time, Newfoundland had no real army and the organization most closely resembling a military unit was a group of cadets dedicated to service and called the Church Lads Brigade. Regardless, by the hundreds, the b’ys came in from the ships and the fish processing plants, walked away from the docks, and went down to sign up and serve in a war they did not understand against an enemy they had no reason to hate. Within days, the Newfoundland Regiment was formed by 500 enlistees, the heart of the adult male population in St. John’s, and they began to prepare for combat in a camp on the shores of Lake Quidi Vidi, which, optimistically, was named Pleasantville. Eventually, machine gun training was conducted in the Southside Hills where my mother would one day climb to pick berries as a little girl. Instead of waking to the call of seagulls, a foghorn, or the gentle rumble of a passing freighter, Fort Amherst and all of the Southside families arose to the chattering of machine guns.
They were poor, all of these Newfie boys, and poverty and educational shortcomings conspired to make them unwitting participants in what may have been history’s bloodiest and most absurd conflict. In Newfoundland today, however, there is not a person alive who is unaware of the legendary status of the island’s “First Five Hundred.” The day they marched off to war from their training camp in Pleasantville, the town closed all shops and crowds cheered as the boys swung into a line leading to their ship for embarkation. A band played, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and a roar of good cheer rose up when the regimental colors were presented, though departure was delayed by saddened embraces. In the crew quarters of the S. S. Florizel as she cleared the narrows of St. John’s Harbor on the morning of October 4, 1914, enlistee number 297, George C. Hiscock, and his comrades contemplated their grand adventure and gave little thought to death. The Union Jack was ceremoniously dipped on every flagpole lining the cliffs as the Florizel shuddered into the open sea.
While the Florizel was taking a heading on the white cliffs of Southern England, the island they were leaving behind was enduring wrenching poverty. Most of the modest intellect and muscle needed to sustain the economy was disappearing into a haze over the eastern Atlantic, never to return. Ma said “the rock” on which they all lived had provided so little money that there were not even sufficient resources to give every one of the First Five Hundred a khaki uniform. When the Army ran out of khaki, blue denim was used to complete the regiment’s uniforms. Each of the “brave lads” wore puttees, lower leg covers, which were blue instead of tan and the nickname “blue puttees” followed them down through history.
Odds of survival appeared to be marginal for the Newfoundlanders as they were dispatched to the Great War’s most disastrous campaigns. Their first deployment was to Sulva Bay and the Battle of Gallipoli where they moved into the trenches to reinforce the Australians. Brazen rats stole hard tack bread from the Newfies’ hands and disease killed soldiers as readily as the Turkish snipers. Weather was so cold that four Newfoundlanders were found frozen to death in the spots where they had been stationed the night before as lookouts. Although the Aussies were mowed down by the hundreds when they climbed out of the trenches to charge the Turks, most of the Newfoundland regiment survived and was shipped back to Suez for additional training and reinforcements. Several months later the “blue puttees” were on a train moving toward the Western Front, unaware of their upcoming role in the slaughter at The Battle of the Somme.
The Newfoundlanders tramped through villages in Northern France where the roads and walks were mud and rutted, beaten by the wheels of heavy artillery and the boots of boys who would not ever again walk home. The cottages with their neat gardens had been abandoned months ago as the guns boomed across the farm fields made abundant by the Somme River.
Assigned to a maze of trench works dug into cropland on the edge of a village named Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundlanders discovered they were on the upper end of a plain that rose away from a distant ridgeline. The land, which fell away in front of them, was covered with barbed wire that had to be crossed to approach the German position. The Kaiser’s troops had set up machine gun nests along Hawthorne Ridge while artillery emplacements were invisible below the horizon. In the midst of this broad, open sweep of land was a solitary tree at the center of the field of fire where the bullets crossed paths. The Newfoundlanders named it “the danger tree” because they were unable to imagine one of them surviving long enough to make it that far across the battlefield and anyone who did was clearly in great danger.
Trench warfare was one of military history’s grandest idiocies. No logic explains why two armies might array themselves across a front, dig trenches between their positions, spread razor wire, and then throw troops into that breach to be easily cut down. Occasionally, there were moments when commanders decided on a tactic beyond sending their soldiers to certain death. Officers of the British Expeditionary Force had ordered a tunnel to be dug toward German lines at Beaumont Hamel. 40,000 pounds of explosives were laid up as a mine in an underground cache beneath the “no man’s land” separating the two armies.
The charge was to be set for a specific hour in the early morning of July 1, 1916, and after the earth exploded, the attack whistle was to blow and send the boys of Newfoundland and the other British outfits howling down the wire-crossed slope toward Hawthorne Ridge. Their objective was to occupy a vast crater, which was to be left after the detonation of the underground bomb. On the flanks of the Newfoundlanders, ready to respond to the same order, were the Welsh Borderers and the Royal Scottish Fusiliers. The attack was part of an assault along a sixteen mile front in the Somme River Valley.
Unfortunately, the underground bomb was detonated ahead of schedule. Because officers in the trenches had strict orders about the precise time to send their troops “over the top,” they waited before attacking. As a result, the explosion did little more than serve as an alarm for the Axis troops to take up their guns. By the time the Inniskillen, Royal, and Lancaster Fusiliers had climbed up out of the earth at 7:30 a.m., the Kaiser’s soldiers had been given ten minutes to man their posts. The Germans were able to keep a safe distance up on the ridge and drop the British before they even reached the wire. They fell by the hundreds, their rate of death impeded only by the speed with which the enemy’s guns were able to discharge. Thirty minutes later the support battalions of the Middlesex Regiment, Dublin Fusiliers, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and the Border Regiment also scrambled out to be massacred.
No one was left to capture Beaumont Hamel; except for the Newfoundlanders. At 9:40 a.m., more than two hours after the mine had exploded, the attack whistle blew and the Newfies climbed up to a fate that ought to have been avoided with more capable commanders. The Newfoundlanders’ position within the defenses was behind the British forces that had preceded them into the German guns and they were forced to advance a hundred yards across piles of bodies and the screaming wounded. There was no hope as they made their way toward “the danger tree” from the safety of a spot behind the lines, which they had named “St. John’s Road.”
“I got up out of the trench,” Private Ron Dunne wrote, “The boys were falling on either side until there were only two of us left. He got it, he was killed. Then I got it. I got two bullets in me. I dropped. Blood was coming out of me. I thought they saw me go down. I stopped the blood as best I could. But I give up…….I said my prayers and I seen my Mom as far as I knew, but I knew she wasn’t there.”
The only gap in the British wire was at “the danger tree” and as the Newfoundlanders funneled in that direction the Germans were easily able to concentrate fire and devastate their enemy. My grandfather was in this tangled mass of flesh, I assume, proceeding obediently toward death. There may be causes worth dying for, but this was not one of them. The bloodied soil, cries of grown men pleading for their mothers, clumps of bodies, thunderous explosions and bullets whining through the air, were all a result of inane, regional political squabbles and economics. What did this have to do with a fisherman’s son from the other side of the Atlantic? George C. Hiscock and his comrades worked their way forward to a predictable demise, motivated by a desire to serve “king and country.” 19,240 young men in the British ranks found their end on that day and they were all as disconnected from the war’s purposes as was my grandfather.
Grandfather, however, did not die. Of the 801 Newfoundlanders who went over the top that morning in July, only 68 answered roll call the next day. 710 were wounded, killed, or missing; many of them were still lying sprawled and bleeding to death in no man’s land. The four grandsons of St. John’s most successful merchant, C.B. Ayre, had all been fatally wounded and died at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. Just on the basis of sheer numbers killed, my grandfather ought not to have lived, either. Our family retains no memory of him ever speaking in any detail of that morning in France. Really, there was not much to say that had not been revealed in the casualty lists. I have often wondered, though, about the reaction of Grandpa Hiscock and the rest of the island when the incompetent commander of the 88th Brigade, Maj. Gen. D.E. Cayley, offered up his insensitive summation.
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valor,” he said, “and only failed because dead men can advance no further.”
Cayley and the other commanders never suffered sufficient blame for the massacre of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel. No flexibility in planning was shown after the mine was exploded prematurely. Officers in the trenches had no latitude to order their own assaults immediately after the explosion, instead of waiting for the appointed minute. More astonishing, however, was the failure to retract the attack order for the Newfoundlanders. Thousands of troops had already been cut down by the Germans holding a superior fire position and it was clear after their loss that continuing a simple, straightforward approach was nothing more than a calculus for greater death. Two hours into the bloody mess, long after any visions of victory had been shredded by the Kaiser’s weaponry, the Newfoundlanders were ordered into the fray. Through the context of time, nothing changes. History will always see the order the Newfoundlanders obeyed as more like the carrying out of a death sentence than the execution of a military tactic.
Every strategic decision the British made seems to have been bone-headed and foolish. Airplanes, which were just beginning to be used in combat, had been called in to provide weapons fire support and aerial reconnaissance. Although the impact of aviation on the battle was not expected to be more than minimal because of limited ammunition payloads the primitive planes were able to carry, troops on the ground were, nonetheless, ordered to make accommodations for the pilots. Each soldier was provided a silver, metal triangle to be placed on the back of his pack, which already weighed more than 60 pounds. Pilots strafing the battlefield were supposed to be able to spot these shiny reflectors on the Allied troops and thus be able to avoid killing their compatriots. Unfortunately, the thousands of wounded attempting to crawl back to their own lines were sending bright, shining messages to tell German sharpshooters and machine gunners they were still alive. Injured Newfoundlanders, easing through the bloody ground on their stomachs, hoping to reach medical attention, sent a sunlit reflection off of their backs toward the Hawthorne Ridge redoubt. Almost every man who made a move was picked off as quickly as the German gunners saw the bouncing sunlight.
One of the Newfies who survived with my grandfather, Private Victor Carew, sent a note home and revealed a sense of futility, which had overtaken him as a result of what he had experienced in the Somme River Valley.
“It is quite lonesome here now,” Carew wrote. “All my chums are gone. I suppose it will be my turn next. I don’t much care. I am satisfied to die for King and Country. It will be quite a shock when they hear the news about all the fellows being killed.”
Carew met the fate he had acknowledged and was killed in action the next year on November 20, 1917. My grandfather, however, outlived the bloodiest battle in the planet’s bloody history. He was not among the million men ultimately killed along the Somme. The regimental register indicates George C. Hiscock was transferred to Belgium and Boulogne where he was stricken with gastralgia and dyspepsia before contracting influenza. These maladies often occurred as the result of exposure to mustard gas, which he may have encountered at the Ypres Salient during the time the Newfoundlander’s were manning Hellfire Corner. Grandpa Hiscock was back on “the rock” by August 23, 1917 after being discharged as medically unfit.
When he returned and began to build a life, George C. Hiscock went to the ice as part of the annual seal harvest but the months away from his new wife and young family were difficult to endure. Eventually, he found consistent work in a pelt factory and was able to remain in St. John’s instead of going down to the ships. An accident while sharpening a knife on a spinning wheel, though, resulted in my grandfather cutting his leg. The gouge quickly turned gangrenous and his leg was amputated. The poison, however, had spread too quickly to be stopped and my grandfather was dead within a week. He had outlasted combat’s most prolific days of death and was taken down at age thirty six by a multiplying bacteria, two years after penicillin had been discovered and only a decade before its usage had become commonplace. The lives of Newfoundlander’s always tended toward the tragic, as if the sea were determined to exact payment in casualties for the sustenance it returned.
“I barely knew Daddy, son,” Ma told me. “I can still see his face, though, giving me a kiss or a piece of candy through the picket fence in front of our house. I was just over five when he died. I don’t remember the funeral. But they said it was the longest procession ever in St. John’s. A big train of people walked behind the horses and the casket all the way from the Southside to the graveyard up on Forest Road.”
A generous and thoughtful man in an age of absurdity, Grandpa Hiscock had raised money and collected clothing and dry goods for shipping to the impoverished families he had encountered in the remote northern out ports of Newfoundland during his sealing days. He had left his wife and four children in relative comfort in a large, multi-roomed house hanging from a rock precipice on the South Side of St. John’s harbor.
When I made my first trip to my grandfather’s battlefield I found it nearly impossible to connect the serenity of the locale in Northern France with the slaughter that had occurred where I stood. A giant caribou sculpture, a symbol for the Newfies, stood on a mound of dirt staring off toward Hawthorne Ridge in eternal defiance. The names of the dead were on a plaque at his feet. The trenches grow green and rounded but they still carve up the landscape, which is still littered with the random field artillery chassis. The birds never stopped singing during my two hours walking the grounds. In the museum, there is a detailed document that explains how this battlefield is the property of Canada and Newfoundland and is the only sovereign French territory to have ever been deeded over to another country. Sacred soil knows nothing of legal boundaries.
Four decades have passed since I stood in the Illinois rain with my thumb out, hitching a ride toward California. I still wear my grandfather’s medal I felt dangling around my neck that day. I think about him often and all of the unlived lives wasted when the Battle of the Somme began on this morning in July 1916. While I was born an American, have lived most of my adult life in Texas, and love the feel of warm October wind off of the Chihuahuan Desert, there is much of me that belongs to the cold “rock” where my mother was born. As grateful as I am to have come into the world on American soil, I am equally proud to have descended from Newfy blood. I am fortunate to be an American and a Texan along with something else that is equally grand, and I am happy to tell anyone who might listen.
I am a Newfoundlander.