Sunday, 13 November 2016

Beaumont Hamel, the Battle of Ancre. November 13 - 16, 1916

My father,  Fred Nicholls served as a bugler /stretcher bearer with the 2/2nd South Midland Field Ambulance, RAMC, from the outbreak of war in August 1914, until January 1919. In 1916, aged 19, he was posted to France, and served on the Somme, and later, at the 3rd battle of  Ypres. This is his own account of the action at Beaumont Hamel , on the Somme, November 13 -16 1916.

On Sunday, November 12th, 1916, the unit was resting at the village of Auxi le Chateau after taking part in the Somme battle, and we were holding a church parade. During the service a despatch rider arrived with a despatch for the C.O., the service was concluded and we were ordered to return to our billets and parade again in half an hour in full pack.

Beaumomt Hamel November 1916
     On re-assembling we marched down the lane from the village to where three old London buses awaited us, and after about five hours travelling we arrived at the ruined village of Mailley-Mallett, where we were issued with hot tea, two hard Spillers biscuits,and a very small portion of cheese.

     It was here we were told that we had been bused in as stretcher-bearers to the 51st. Highland Division, who were in the trenches in front of Beaumont Hamel. We collected our stretchers and other equipment, and marched the two miles to the ruined village of Auchon Villers, where we fixed up an Advanced Dressing station in the vaults of the old ruined church.

     It was dark, when we moved again, and the road was occasionally lit up by the ‘Very Lights’ from the trenches of both sides. On reaching the front line trench we were split up, six men to a dug-out, very deep in the ground and with many steps.

     We had a very warm and reception from the ‘Jocks who were very lavish with the rum. They told us that next morning there was to be an attack on Beaumont Hamel which was impeding our advance to Bapaume and Cambrai, and had to be captured. Later in the evening a ‘Jock’ officer arrived and informed us that ‘stand-to’ would be at dawn and that the attack would commence at 7.00am and that we stretcher bearers would go over the top with the first wave.

     For weeks beforehand our Artillery had put up a devastating barrage on the enemy’s lines between 6 and 7 am. Jerry had become accustomed to this and when the shelling commenced he would retire to his dugout until things calmed down.

     November 13th was very cold and a thick mist hung over the trenches. Our artillery opened up as usual, and at 7.00am the first wave went over the top. There was little opposition from the enemy as Jerry was still in his dug-out and waiting for the barrage to cease so he was an easy target for the infantry, who threw hand grenades into the dug-outs.

Memorial to Gordon Highlanders, 51st Highland Division.
     After the capture of the first German trench our artillery lifted the barrage to behind enemy lines to cut off reinforcements. It was in the second line that we met stiff opposition, and our casualties were pretty heavy. We fixed up first aid posts in the captured German trenches ,which were about three miles from the dressing station at Auchon Villers. We had planted iron stakes across no-mans land and the trenches and tied roller bandages to them to guide us to the dressing station, and had bridged the trenches with corrugated sheeting. Some of the wounded were very heavy, and we had four German prisoners with us, making eight bearers to a stretcher.

     During the advance, we came upon a Jock sergeant, with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his throat. He was bleeding profusely and we applied dressings to his throat to assuage the bleeding, and got him onto a stretcher. It was very important that he sat upright to prevent the blood choking him, and I had to walk beside the stretcher with my arm around him to keep him upright.

       Our three mile journey to the Dressing station took us across the trenches and No-Mans-Land of both sides, and we often had to drop into shell holes to shelter from shell and machine gun fire. It was after one of these ‘drops’ that we found one of the prisoners missing. It was very misty, and although we searched round we couldn't find him and decided that he had been killed. Our patient was still conscious but very weak from loss of blood and we had very little hope that he would survive the journey.

    It took us 3 1/2 hours to cover the 3 miles to the dressing station where we found our missing prisoner,sitting on with his back against the tea boiler and enjoying a bully beef tin full of hot tea and two large biscuits. It seems that on one of our ‘ducks’ he made for a shell hole and on getting out again, he had failed to find us in the mist, and had followed the tape to the dressing station.

The site of Beaumont Hamel today.
It is now known as Newfoundland Park and is the Memorial
to the Newfoundland regiment who suffered heavy losse here
July 1st 1916
Our patient was operated on on  a trestle table,under the light of a carbide lamp, One of our medical officers removed the shrapnel and he  was then taken by ambulance to the Casualty clearing station where he received further treatment before being sent back to England.

     Some weeks later the C.O. received a letter from him  saying that he was well on the way to recovery, and thanking the C.O. for the wonderful job he did in patching him up. He also sent a special ‘thank you’ to the brave Red Cross blokes who had carried him out of that "Bloody-Hell" He had been anxious as whether they would make it to the dressing station.

Beaumont Hamel was finally recaptured on November 16th. The multitude of dead and wounded scattered over the battlefield, told of the price that was paid for a heap of rubble. The village had changed hands four times since July, involving the sacrifice of thousands of lives, only to be lost again in the German advance of March 21st, 1918.

After this action we moved on to the village of Forceville, where we spent Christmas with the rest of the unit, before proceeding to take part in the third battle of Ypres.

Monday, 4 August 2014

My Dad's War, in my Dad's words.

I joined the 2nd South Midland Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps in March 1914 at the age of 17 years. The headquarters were at the Great Brook Street. barracks, (now demolished).

At the time of my enlistment there happened to be a vacancy in the Corps band for a cymbal player, and, having passed my medical (A1) I became Bandsman Private F.W. Nicholls No. 1951. On the outbreak of war this was altered to 437107.

Prior to August 1914 the band played at many functions and weekend camps, and, occasionally played at Garden parties at the residence of an officer of the Unit. Shortly after mobilisation the band was disbanded and I returned to the ranks as bugler and stretcher-bearer.

The following true incidents occurred from the time we left for the Annual Camp on July 31st 1914 and during our service in France

    The Cymbal Basher

            It was on Sunday July 31st 1914 that the Unit entrained at Snow Hill Station for the annual fourteen days camp at Great Marlow, Bucks.

            On leaving the train at Great Marlow we formed up outside the station to march to the camp a mile or two the other side of the town. On marching off, the band struck up the Double Eagle march, which, to any one that knows it is a very inspiring march tune.

            On entering the town we found the main street thronged with hundreds of people who had been waiting our arrival. Together with the inspiring march and the crowds of people, I felt more like 6’ 6” tall than 5’2 1/2”, so much so that I put more energy than usual in to the cymbals, with appalling results

            The leather strap of the left hand cymbal became undone and the cymbal went careering down the road and in to the crowd some150 yards away

            I ran after it and retrieved it, feeling about 3 ft high and very hot and bothered. It was very fortunate for the people in the crowd that due to the noise of the band, they were unable to hear the ‘sweet’ words that the bandmaster shouted in my ear as I again took up my position in the ranks.

            Alas, our stay at camp was short lived. The next day Monday August 1st. we were back again in Birmingham, awaiting our call up on the declaration of war which came on Thursday August 4th, 1914