Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land is a story of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel in the Somme Offensive. The book was published in 1995. I chose it as my reading companion on a recent trip to Newfoundland.
It helps to understand the significance of Beaumont-Hamel in Newfoundland history to appreciate No Man’s Land. Newfoundland was still a small British colony. This was the first major battle in the war for the Newfoundland Regiment. (They had relatively few casualties at Gallipoli.) The regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. (Some reports say more went over the top, with a result of 85% casualties. But still …) All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. July 1 remains a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history.
No Man’s Land recounts the Newfoundland Regiment’s final day of preparation in Louvencourt, the march to the front that night, the waiting overnight in the trenches, and the battle itself. The story is told mostly through the eyes of second lieutenant Allan Hayward and (later) underage private Ned Martin, both from St. John’s. We also meet other men from A and C companies and some of the locals.
Over half the book is the calm before the storm. The men have been preparing for the Great Push and are anxious to start. The tension builds as the time to leave approaches. But they find ways to blow off steam, be it a football game or riding off to a swimming hole.
While Major focuses on only a few characters, we learn more about the shared Newfoundland experiences that tie them together than about each individual. Fishing references, hymns and sea shanties are a common bond that overcome the class and religious differences at home.
“You know, this is a lot like sealing. Only the seals have guns, and they’re just as smart as you are.” (p 81)
“Now if we could haul up and shift the whole bloody works to Cape Bonavist’, no tellin’ what might come of it. The Hun could be lost in the fog for a week.” “End up on an ice floe and never be heard tell of again, what.” (p. 177)
There are growing hints about the foolhardiness of the battle on which they are to embark. Field intelligence that extensive bombing has not broken the barbed wire to let the troops through is dismissed by the senior British officers. Some of the Newfoundland officers question the wisdom of exercise. But ultimately they have confidence in what the generals tell them and were trained to obey orders.
We know how it ends.
No Man’s Land was indeed a good read while in St. John’s. The Harvey Road Armory, Bannerman Park and other points mentioned in the book are still evident and evoke events and memories in the book. But in the length of a novel, I wanted to know more about Hayward, Clarke and Martin.
Major later adapted No Man’s Land into a play. I think it may work better in that format.