‘Pray for the Soul of a Blue Puttee Boy’

Susan Flanagan
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Published on June 23, 2014

Fields of yellow canola dot the landscape on the way to Beaumont Hamel north of Paris. — Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

Published on June 23, 2014

J.J Howard’s name on the plaque below the caribou in Beaumont Hamel. — Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

Published on June 23, 2014

A portrait of J.J. Howard. — Photos supplied by family

Published on June 23, 2014

J.J. Howard’s memorial in Belvedere Cemetery in St. John’s.
— Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

Published on June 23, 2014

The caribou statue in Beaumont Hamel is more prominent than the statue in Bowring Park.
— Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

Published on June 23, 2014

Medals and certificate presented to J.J. Howard’s family after his death at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916. — Photo supplied by family

Published on June 23, 2014

In 2006, J.J. Howard’s cousins, then Lt.-Col. Howard Coombs, CD (at that time commanding officer of The Princess of Wales Own Regiment) and Capt. (retired) Derm Coombs, both of the Canadian Army, visited Beaumont Hamel and retraced the path of J.J. Howard and Linus Coombs (a great-uncle), walking in the final steps of their relatives. They carried Jim’s medal and plaque with them to the sites where their ancestors ate their last meal and at the church in Louvencourt where they prayed before going into battle. Unlike his cousin, Jim, Linus Coombs survived the battle of La Somme and returned home after the war, although the wounds he received on July 1 resulted in the amputation of a leg. — Photo supplied by Howard Coombs

James John Howard was born in St. John’s on May 10, 1892, just two months before the Great Fire levelled the city.

His parents, Johanna and Capt. Patrick Howard, the latter a master mariner and captain of the vessel HM Customs, lived in a row house on Colonial Street.

Luckily for them, the wind on July 8, 1892 blew the flames westward and Colonial Street was not in danger of being razed.

It was there at No. 52 (now No. 68) that they raised Jim, as well as his younger brother, Patrick (who died at the age of 16 in 1913), and three sisters; Daisy Margaret, (died at 14 in 1918); Mary May, the eldest, (died at 60 in 1950); and Esther (Hetty), who married Leo Buckley (died at 73 in 1969).

My neighbours Esther and Jeanie Buckley are Hetty’s daughters, and thus Jim Howard was their uncle.

When Esther heard my husband and I were making the pilgrimage to Beaumont Hamel this past April she told me about Jim’s life leading up to his arrival at Beaumont Hamel in 1916.

Esther always heard that her Uncle Jim, growing up in downtown St. John’s in the late 1800s, like the rest of his siblings, loved playing music, reading and writing poetry.

After finishing school at St. Patrick’s Hall, Jim found a job as a printer at The Evening Herald for a weekly salary of $12.

On Aug. 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Newfoundland, a British colony, offered to recruit and train at its own expense more than 500 Newfoundlanders who would fight alongside British and Canadian soldiers in Europe.

Although the pay for enlisted soldiers was far less than the salary he made, Jim went to the Church Lads Brigade Armory and signed up as a private in the 1st Newfoundland Battalion for $1 a day.

On Sept. 16, 1914, the five foot three, 137 pound 22-year-old with black hair and brown eyes became a Blue Puttee (No. 560), so-called after the swath of blue material wrapped around their lower legs to provide protection and support, not to mention a place to store a spoon.

The word puttee comes from the Hindi word patti, meaning a strip of cloth, and the use of puttees was adopted by British soldiers stationed in India in the late 1800s.

Jim arranged for $5 of his pay to be sent to his father each month and commenced his training at Pleasantville, less than a half-hour walk from his home. Five weeks later, Jim said goodbye to his family on Colonial Street, embracing them before heading to war.  

“Don’t worry, Mother, I’ll be home for Christmas,” he reportedly said, perhaps refusing to entertain the idea he might never see any of them again.

On Oct. 3, 1914, with 536 other members of the 1st Newfoundland Battalion, Jim marched from Pleasantville to the waterfront where a massive crowd had gathered to cheer as the Blue Puttees boarded the SS Florizel, the sealing ship that would carry them across the ocean to fight for England in the Great War.

Up to 400 of the Blue Puttees were native to St. John’s and sang as they sailed away.

Because Jim’s father was a sea captain, he was able to sail through the Narrows with family members on another ship and stay behind the Florizel for a short while until it disappeared from sight.

Once the Florizel reached England, the First 500 reported for active service at Aldershot to continue their training. By the time they made it to Edinburgh around Christmas, their numbers had reached 1,000. In August 1915 they went to Devonport and boarded the Megantic bound for Alexandria in Egypt. On the 13th of September, Jim and his countrymen left Alexandria for Gallipoli, Turkey, made famous by Eric Bogle’s song “Waltzing Matilda.”

The Blue Puttees were the only North American regiment to fight in Gallipoli and Jim most likely met his first artillery fire in Suvla Bay on Sept. 20.

Having survived Turkey, Jim and his battalion made their way to France by the spring of 1916. Jim was 24 at the end of June when he found himself northeast of Paris with other members of the 1st Newfoundland Battalion preparing the Battle of La Somme when on the same day 150 British battalions, each with about 80 men, went forward to attack the Germans.

Today, as you drive to Beaumont Hamel, you pass dozens of cemeteries and monuments to the various battalions.

Their sheer number is overwhelming.

The Blue Puttees were billeted in Louvencourt, a small village, and it was there after dark on the night of June 30 — seen off by the locals who had grown fond of them — that they marched to their trenches at what we now refer to as Beaumont Hamel, which was really just a farmer’s field, like dozens of other farmers’ fields that spread along the Western Front.

The 1st Newfoundland Battalion were third in line to go over the top at Beaumont Hamel.

They were supposed to have backup, but because the other soldiers couldn’t get out of the trenches in time, the Blue Puttees stood alone.

The Newfoundlanders had with them that day a can of white paint to mark the German guns they would take as their own.

The paint was never used for that purpose.

All across the length of the Western Front, copious amounts of barbed wire had been wound around and around to create barricades preventing Allied soldiers from easily accessing the German lines and vice versa.

In the days leading up to the July 1 attack, holes were cut on a diagonal in the layers of wire through which the Allied soldiers could pass.

But not enough holes were cut.

Thus many soldiers waited their turn to pass through the same ones. The Germans, who were only hundreds of metres away, sized up exactly where the barbed wire had been cut so all they had to do was train their machine guns on the holes and wait.

On the early morning of July 1, 1916, Allied soldier after Allied soldier crawled through the holes and were shot down on the other side, and it was there in a heap their bodies lay after the battle.

Many of the Blue Puttees never even made it as far as their own front line.

My husband and I arrive in Beaumont Hamel in 20 C temperatures under a bright sun; sheep graze lazily under massive fruit trees with pink and white blooms. School groups and other tourists mill about in shorts and T-shirts.

It’s hard to imagine this as a killing field. But then we spot the bronze Caribou statue, facing east towards the enemy, a symbol of the Newfoundland Regiment I have recognized since childhood. The Caribou stands high on a rise surrouned by a rock garden featuring hardy Newfoundland plants. It is more striking than the statue in Bowring Park simply because you can see it from all sides with no trees to obstruct the view.

Once we see the Caribou, all bets are off on this being a place to picnic. This, rather, is a place to ponder how lucky we are to walk freely without having to pick our way through fields of undetonated bombs. The Iron Harvest is how French farmers still refer to it.

Before we ascend the paved pathway winding its way up to the Caribou, we read the plaques on the far side of the mound which list 595 names of members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment as well as members of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Newfoundland Mercantile Marine who fought in the First World War and have no known grave. J.J. Howard’s name is there among those of his fallen comrades.

Walking away from the Caribou towards the German line, we see huge craters now covered with lush grass. And trenches snaking their way through the field. It’s hard to picture J.J. Howard and the other boys hunched in the mud waiting for word from their superior to crawl through the barbed wire. I’d like to think that Jim was not aware of what lay ahead. I’d like to think he was imagining his family back on Colonial Street and how excited they would be to see him arrive home. I doubt he knew that communications were a shambles and that he and his fellow Newfoundlanders didn’t stand a chance.

As we all now know, the 1st Newfoundland Battalion was decimated on July 1, 1916. Of the 801 men who attacked the Germans at Beaumont Hamel that summer morning, 710 were wounded or dead. Only 68 answered roll call the following day. James John Howard was not one of them. Jim had died on the farmer’s field in Beaumont Hamel together with 232 of his fellow Newfoundlanders, and his body was never identified.

It is worthy of note here that Beaumont Hamel was but one battlefield to suffer high Allied losses on July 1.

I used to think that Newfoundlanders alone had lost huge swaths of men. Of the 150 British Battalions who went forward at 7:30, 32 of them suffered more than 500 casualties.

To put it another way, of the roughly 120,000 British soldiers who attacked that morning, there were over 57,000 casualties, more than 19,000 of whom died. And to put those numbers in perspective, the population of St. John’s in July 1916 hovered around 34,000, far less than the 57,000 dead and wounded British soldiers.

It is for that reason that July 1, 1916 is known as the single worst day in the history of the British Army, and is a day of mourning in Newfoundland.

When word got back to St. John’s that so many men had died on July 1, Esther remembers her mother, Hetty, telling her that as she walked up Colonial Street she could see her neighbours crying in the doorways as they held telegrams about their loved ones.

In the years following his death, Jim’s family added his name to the Howard family tombstone at Belvedere Cemetery in St. John’s and included the inscription “Pray for the Soul of a Blue Puttee Boy.”

On Dec. 5, 1919, Jim’s family received the 1914-15 medal in his honour followed by a memorial plaque and the Victory and British War Medals in 1921, the year that money raised mainly by Newfoundland women purchased 74 acres of farmers’ fields around Beaumont Hamel to preserve the battlefield where so many Blue Puttees had their lives cut short.

Danger Tree

My husband and I spend about two hours wandering the fields past the Danger Tree, a dead stick of an apple tree standing in what was once a fruitful orchard, a grim reminder of what happened to the rest of the trees and the boys who fought under them. If Jim made it to that landmark tree, it is highly doubtful he made it beyond.

As we leave the site, a tour guide, having heard we were Newfoundlanders, presents us with a Caribou pin to bring back to Esther and Jeanie in memory of their uncle, Jim, Blue Puttee No. 560.

• • •

To get to Beaumont Hamel, follow directions on the Department of Veterans Affairs website (www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/beaumonthamel). The highway north of Paris is wide and clean and lined with fields of yellow canola, so bright they look

photoshopped. Ample rest stops provide gas and snacks.

Susan Flanagan is looking forward to Ed Roberts’ book “Memoirs of Sydney Frost (Blue Puttee No. 58)” which will be published by Flanker in the fall.

She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.

Organizations: The Evening Herald, First 500, North American Battle of La Somme Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve Newfoundland Mercantile Marine British Army Department of Veterans Affairs

Geographic location: Colonial Street, Newfoundland, Pleasantville Britain Germany England Europe Alexandria Gallipoli, Turkey India Paris Edinburgh Devonport Egypt Gallipoli Suvla Bay France Louvencourt Bowring Park Sydney

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