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Wilfred Owen's Places: Beaumont Hamel

Beaumont Hamel

This present day photograph is taken from the front line positions facing No Man’s Land taken up by Owen and the 2nd Manchesters on the 23rd January 1917. The Beaumont Hamel to Beaucourt-sur-l’Ancre road lies just behind the camera – Beaucourt being to the right of the picture. The sites of the White City and the Hawthorn Mine Crater lie some 1500 yards behind the camera position.

The winter of 1916/1917 was extremely cold and the conditions endured by the soldiers of both sides were almost unbearable. One man of Owen’s platoon froze to death before he could be evacuated to the rear, for the 2nd Manchesters were forced to lie out in the snow in shell holes and in a bitterly piercing wind. There were no dug-outs and, as will be seen from the photograph, the rising ground in front of them ensured that the battalion positions were always under observation preventing any movement by daylight. For ten minutes in every hour the battalion came under shellfire but miraculously casualties from this cause were light, a greater number being wounded sent to hospital suffering from frostbite.

Shortly after coming out of the line, to the envy of his fellow subalterns, Owen was sent to the Advanced Horse Transport Depot at Abbeville to join a Transport Officers’ Course. Here he was billeted in a house. Even so there was no fuel for a fire and it was so cold that the milk froze in its jug within a few minutes. "Exposure" and "Happiness" were begun during Owen’s stay in Abbeville. Whilst here, Owen wrote to his mother asking her to buy the Morning Post of February 8th 1917. In a copy of that newspaper there is a map showing the Beaumont Hamel area. A dotted line marks the British front line on that date, most of the dots following the Beaumont Hamel to Beaucourt road. Owen told his mother that he could even pick out the identical dot on the map where he spent his time in the freezing cold of the front line.

Whilst Owen was on the Transport Course in Abbeville momentous events took place elsewhere. On the 24th February a sister battalion of the 2nd Manchesters, the 21st battalion (7th Manchester "Pals"**) was holding the line near the Serre road and sent out a dawn patrol into No Man's Land. They found the German trenches completely deserted. The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line had begun.

The British Army then began its advance in the wake of the retreating Germans-the 2nd Manchesters being ordered south and across the River Somme to take over from the French in the front line near Le Quesnoy en Santerre. By the 1st March Owen was back with them.

** "Pals". In 1914 men were encouraged to join up together, being promised that they would serve with their friends ("pals") often in the same platoon or company. Whole groups of men joined the army on this basis often coming from the same warehouse or office. The Manchester Regiment quickly raised several thousand recruits by this system. Indeed, some battalions of the Regiment were initially known as the Warehousemen and Clerks battalions. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 caused tremendous casualties amongst "Pals" battalions resulting in whole communities and even families receiving War Office telegrams saying that their menfolk had been killed or wounded in action. After that men were drafted into regiments wherever reinforcements were needed sometimes resulting in Scotsmen serving with English County regiments and vice versa- not always a welcome arrangement.

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