How I survived at the Somme

March 1, 2016 by Christopher J.A. Morry
Somme main photo
Private Howard Morry was assigned to bring rations to his regiment at the front. He did not go over the top on July 1, 1916, but he did witness the tragic attack.
Christopher J.A. Morry

 

A Newfoundland Regiment soldier recounts
the 1916 tragedy that was Beaumont-Hamel

Introduction by Christopher J.A. Morry  |  Diary by Howard L. Morry

Howard L. Morry, my grandfather, was a fifth-generation Newfoundlander. His immigrant ancestor, Matthew Morry, was a self-made fish merchant from Devon, England, plying the Newfoundland cod trade. By the end of the 1700s, the cod fishery had declined and only a few hard-working merchants who were prepared to operate from Newfoundland succeeded—at least until 1894, when the banks collapsed and merchants, including the Morrys, went bankrupt.

Somme diary
Diaries: In the years after the war, Morry filled notebooks and long letters with his memoirs.
Christopher J.A. Morry

Overnight, Howard went from a child of privilege to one who had to work hard for a living. His father, a man of honour, set about to repay his debts dollar for dollar, rather than 10 cents on the dollar as most did. His sons worked without wages from the time they were old enough to go out in a boat. In their 20s, Howard and his brothers, Bert and Graham, took off for the prairies, but they did not enjoy working in the fields. They moved on to British Columbia, where they worked in logging camps and canneries and on coastal vessels.

When the war broke out, Howard was a strong, hard man, six feet tall and 210 pounds. Though 29, he was just what Newfoundland needed for the war effort. He had no undue respect for authority—a common trait among “colonials.” He steadfastly refused to take stripes and enjoyed the companionship of his peers. Despite illness and disease in Gallipoli, he made it through to Beaumont-Hamel, where as part of the 10-per cent reserve, he watched in horror as his friends were mowed down by German machine guns.

Howard was a prodigious diarist, and while some of his writings were lost or destroyed many years ago, some 22 notebooks worth of his writings and letters survive. Here, he describes events before and on July 1, from his own unique perspective.

Before the first of July, one of our chaps, Edmund Edgar [Edwin Edgar Jr.], a buddy of mine, got a cheque for $25. We had to go to the next village to cash it. But Captain [Reginald S.] Rowsell would not give him a pass to go. But he and I, with the help of one of our good sergeants, sneaked off. I went to see the sarge with Edgar and said “Sergeant, what would you do for a couple of bottles of champagne?” He knew that the officer had refused Ed permission to go. Well, he said, “I’d be as blind as the sphinx for two hours.” Well, that was all we wanted. We cashed the cheque and were back without being missed. Edgar and I went with a couple of bottles of champagne for the sergeant. He is alive yet, a real man he was, a born leader. He’d get men to follow him to the gates of hell.

Edgar divided the money left over in our platoon. Of course, there was lots of champagne and wine for some of us that night, as it was considered unlucky to bring money in the line with you. We had a nice time that night and on the first of July, Edgar was killed. A very likeable chap.

On June 28, we came on to the village of Acheux and got outfitted for the drive. Some of us were issued with bombs, more got ladders to throw across the trenches, and we all had a triangular piece of tin to tie to our backs, so as [our] artillery would see us and not shell us from the air.

On the 29th and 30th, we knew we were for it, so we all wrote letters home and left messages with our chums if we should be killed. Some of them were sure they were going to be killed, and I know of a couple of chaps who thought that way and were killed. It’s strange how some chaps seemed to know they were not coming back from the drive. We knew what we were in for. I’ll give you three instances I know.

Somme 2
Staged portrait: Morry poses with two other regiment soldiers before leaving St. John’s. “I still can see the crowd on the wharf,” he later wrote, “women trying to get a last handshake and goodbye kiss from their sons, and sweethearts waving goodbye.…”
Christopher J.A. Morry

Mike Flynn, a lovely kid from central Newfoundland, wrote about a dozen letters that night, and I asked him what he was writing so many for, and he said these were the last he’d write. He seemed like a damned man. I tried to jolly him along, but he could not seem to throw off the depression that was on him.

The second, laughing, carefree Jimmy Howard, who said, “The bullet that kills one, kills two.” Strange to say, his mother died after she heard the news of his death.

Then there was Joe Penney from Carbonear. He was engaged to my sister [Beatrice Mary Morry, born Sept. 22, 1888], and that evening he came to me with a letter and ring and said “give this to Trixie when you get home.” I said, “Why not keep them, you’ll see her as soon as me.” But he said, “No, I’m not going back.” He also was killed. A fine chap. He could have had his discharge, but would not take it.

Somme 4
Height advantage: Morry is the tall man at the centre of the back row in this portrait of the Newfoundland Regiment’s C Company.
Christopher J.A. Morry

On the night of the 29th, we left to march into the line. We left the roads and marched through fields and byroads. We sang songs and talked when marching easy. The songs were “My Little Gray Home in the West,” “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty,” “Down on the Farm,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” and the favourite one was “When the Great Red Dawn is Shining.” Poor chaps; only about one out of twelve were left uninjured or alive after the next day.

On the afternoon of June 30, we were all briefed to our part in the next day’s advance and knew that zero hour was 7 a.m. Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever way one looked at it, being married, I was picked among the 10 per cent who were kept back about three miles, in reserve for bringing up rations as the troops advanced.

Somme 5
Morry and other regiment members shipped out from St. John’s on Feb. 5, 1915. Morry wrote on the back of this photo, “‘C’ Company…on the ‘Great Adventure’—the fight for the freedom of the world.”
Christopher J.A. Morry

The morning of July 1 was lovely, once the ground fog cleared away. At dawn, eight of us were sent in with rations, and brought it around to the boys in the trenches. I never felt so low as I did that morning. All the chums were going over and I was kept back with some others. Anyway, Victor Carew, my cousin from Cape Broyle, and I stayed in and were there when the boys went over.

But the advance that was scheduled for 7 a.m. was postponed till 9. The officers all synchronized their watches and then began counting—nine minutes to go…eight minutes to go, and so on. Each minute seemed an eternity. Our chaps got up in the reserve trenches. By and by, the officers said, “This is it boys, over we go.” Then there were only the ration party and very few others left in the line.

Somme 6
Morry’s crew: The regiment’s home in May 1915 was a tent city at Stobs Camp near Hawick, Scotland.
Christopher J.A. Morry

The very minute they went over the top, all hell broke loose. The Germans sure were ready and waiting. When our fellows got up to advance, Jerry opened with everything he had and shelled no man’s land, the trenches and supports. There were two big gaps cut in our wire and the Germans must have had every gun trained on them. Most of our chaps were killed before they reached our own front line. You could see nothing but shell bursts and men and sods going up in the air. The machine guns were mowing them down. You could see nothing but dust and flame. You could not hear nor see with the noise of the bursting shells and the crack of rifle bullets and the dust. After about an hour or less, it was over and our front line was blown almost level, also our supports.

Victor Carew and I got together and started out—you could hear the bullets from machine guns swishing by at our feet. We had to be right behind them with the food, but there was no advance. We, with the others, were told to come back, as there were no rations needed. In fact, we both started off after the bunch and went a few yards and when we saw what was doing, we got back to the line again pretty quick. The officers knew that the advance was a failure and that our regiment was wiped out. So we never left the trench, except to go back to headquarters with messages and to feed the very few that got back to the line. The front line was like a butcher shop in hell, with our wounded dragging themselves in and falling down in the trench.

We had thought hard of being detailed for the ration party. That day, we were sure glad to get back in the line again. The first of the ration party to be killed was Quigley from St. John’s. He did not get 10 feet. We brought him in at nightfall. Our front line and communications trenches and the reserves were all smashed level and we made shelter in the deepest part of the trenches we could find. There were very few places not blown down. The ground in front was all smoking and all shell holes, and the groans and cries of the wounded were awful to hear.

By and by, the officers said, “This is it boys, over we go.”

 

At noon, I was sent in to bring in the 10 per cent reserves and quartermaster Captain Summers, but the order was countermanded just before I left for it. So I brought in Capt. Summers and a quartermaster sergeant. It was nearly evening, and when we came to the supports, Jerry had again started shelling.

Somme 7
This portrait with Leo De Lacey (left) and Jack Davis taken on July 23, 1916.
Christopher J.A. Morry

I told them to keep low and do as I did, as they were not used to trench warfare. Going up a support trench or communication trench, I heard a shell coming our way and threw myself down flat. It burst over me and then, as they did not lie down, both were blown to pieces. If they had lay down, neither one would have been killed. I had to go report their death to the colonel. I reported to [Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur] Hadow. He was sorry to hear of their death. They were both good men. [Summers is officially listed as dying July 16 of wounds received on July 1.]

 

The shelling was heavy then and it started to rain like hell. There was hardly a man to be seen. If the Germans had advanced, they could have walked through. After a while, I came across Charlie Parsons, C Company signaller, and Paddy McDonald, D Company cook. We got together a few pieces of corrugated roofing and stuck it up to keep the rain off. We just got in there and had a smoke when BANG came a shell, followed quickly by three or four more. When we looked around, our roof was gone, but we were unhurt. McDonald was a very strong broad-shouldered chap who had knocked around quite a bit before he enlisted, same as I did. Never saw him since that day, though he got home O.K. He was from Salmonier. We used to have many a yarn when we got a quiet time. What a great gift speech is.

Somme 8
“We beat the Charge of the Light Brigade for Bravery & brought honour to ourselves and our country,” Morry wrote on the back of this portrait .
Christopher J.A. Morry

All day long we were watching through glasses and, any of our chaps moved from where they were lying, the Germans would shoot them. The big piece of tin on their backs that was meant to save life cost the lives of many of our chaps that day. The least stir, the sun glittered on the tin and gave them away. There wasn’t any shellfire, but you could hear the crack of the snipers’ rifles all day. The Germans were sniping our wounded. They paid dearly for it afterwards.

At nightfall, we went out to try and treat some wounded and it was a job. The gaps we had cut in our wire for the advance were piled high with dead in all shapes and forms, an awful sight to see. My buddy at this job for the first part of the night was Leo De Lacey, a little fellow from St. John’s, but tough and saucy and brave. We brought in three or four, but it was hard to find them. Every shell hole contained a dead or wounded man and it was a nervy job, crawling into the holes and feeling round to see if they were dead or wounded for, though during the day we could hear the cries for help from the shell holes, at night there was not a sound, as the poor fellows were afraid to call out, lest the Germans would hear them and kill them. One of them told us that as soon as it got dark, the Germans came out and bayoneted any wounded they saw.

Charlie Parsons and I brought in a lot of wounded later in the night. He was the bravest and luckiest man I knew; got a Military Medal and Bar and came home without a scratch. It was awful, the dead and dying, the burst of shells and then the star shells lighting up everything as bright as day. One could only make a few yards at a time when a flare or star shell would burst. Then you would have to stay still. If you moved at all, you’d be spotted. I never thought the human mind could stand so much.

Some chaps who were wounded struggled to get back to our lines. Some of them made a good job of bandaging their wounds and stopping the bleeding and others just lay there and let themselves bleed to death. A few badly wounded, or with painful wounds, just cut an artery and died. Guess when they were not rescued the first night, they could not take it, the poor fellows.

We brought in a young fellow the second night who had not a mark on him except a bullet graze across his nose, but he was stone blind. He thought it was still night. It must have been awful long to him.

Somme 10
Second home: On leave in Edinburgh, Morry (marked “Dad”) and other regiment mates wear standard-issue caps. “Most of us when we went to the front,” Morry wrote, “always looked back to Edinburgh as our second home.”
Christopher J.A. Morry

After the wounded, we began to bring in the dead. We took 89 dead out of one gap in the barbed wire and 72 out of the other. It was an awful sight for us survivors to see our good friends and buddies for years, piled up like that. But we were pretty exhausted and stunned by what had happened to us and we were called in and told to go down in the dugouts and get some sleep. If the Germans had tried to advance that night, they could have gone right through, as the 29th Division lines were held by a very few exhausted men.

Only 68, to be exact, answered roll call the first evening, and the ration parties were counted in with them; 16 in our C Company. Neither officer and only one non-com were counted. Me being senior private, I was heading patrols and doing sergeant’s work for a couple of weeks. I would not take stripes. Too much trouble. Some of the older chaps wanted me to, and the officers too. They said I’d be sorry when the new bunch came and I had to take orders from the new NCOs just from home and they’d have their own friends and would give the old fellows the dirty end of the stick. I was just about taking them when I got sick. Captains Donnelly and Rowsell both told me many times that I’d be a sergeant in a month, they’d see to it. Time I got out of the hospital, both these men were dead.

What an awful waste of human life (“War is hell” is surely true). It leaves behind it a trail of broken men, broken hearts and lives and broken and unhappy homes.

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Diary passages excerpted from
When the Great Red Dawn is Shining.
Copyright ©2014 Christopher J.A. Morry. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher, Breakwater Books (www.breakwaterbooks.com). All rights reserved. 


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