Forgotten story of extraordinary First World War heroism
Thanks to the classic film Zulu, most people know of the Battle of Rorke's Drift, when British soldiers in South Africa defended their post against raging warriors for a day and a night.
The crossing of the Diyalah River was Lancashire’s own ‘Rorke’s Drift,’ except that instead of tribesmen with cowhide shields and assegais, our men faced a modern army armed with machine guns, rifles, grenades and artillery.The Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War, conducted against the Ottoman Empire in what we now call Iraq, saw thousands of Lancastrians fight their way from Basra to Baghdad and beyond. From the three regiments represented by the Lancashire Infantry Museum alone – the East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments – no less than 1,239 of them lie there still.They belonged to the 13th (Western) Division, a New Army formation made up of men who had rushed to respond in 1914 when Kitchener pointed his finger and cried ‘Your Country Needs You!’The Division included the 38th (Lancashire) Brigade, a typical Kitchener formation, made up of the wartime-only 6th (Service) battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashires, plus the 6th King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment from Lancaster.Less than two years before they had been civilians in the cotton towns of Lancashire, but were now seasoned veterans.Hastily formed and trained in the early months of the First World War, the Brigade saw action much sooner than many of its New Army contemporaries. Thrown into the failing Gallipoli campaign in July 1915, it remained on the peninsula until the final retreat in December. Given a scarce two months in Egypt to recover, instead of heading back to Europe, the Lancashire Brigade, with the rest of the 13th Division, found itself transported to what was then called Mesopotamia. It was to toil gallantly there, under the hardest of conditions, for the rest of the war.Initially, Mesopotamia was to prove to be no improvement on the ill-conducted Gallipoli campaign.Thrown into a muddled failure to relieve a besieged British garrison at Kut, the Lancashire Brigade contributed more than 700 casualties in five days of fighting to the relief force’s 22,000 death toll.With this disaster coming so soon after the Gallipoli debacle, incompetent Indian Army generals were sacked and General Maude, their own much respected Divisional GOC, was made Commander in Chief.Maude brought sense to the shambles and insisted on devoting the next seven and a half months to training, improving the lines of communication and acclimatising to the extreme weather conditions. Even so, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50C, death and illness from heat-stroke were common and dysentery, malaria and other tropical diseases endemic indeed General Maude himself was to die of cholera before the campaign was won.Nevertheless, when he took the field again in December the Turkish armies crumbled before his vastly-improved force. Kut was retaken by mid-February and on March 6, 1917, in a blinding sandstorm, the Lancashire Brigade entered ancient Ctesiphon, just 20 miles south of Baghdad, after a punishing march of 115 miles in 12 days.Over the following days the Lancashire Lads of the 38th Brigade faced their greatest test. Selected to force a crossing of the Diyalah River, the Turks last main line of defence just eight miles from Baghdad, men from all three battalions – men from Burnley and Blackburn, Preston, Leyland and Chorley, Wigan and Bolton, Warrington and St Helens – together with fellow Lancastrians of the 6th Kings Own from the north of the County Palatine, were shot down in waves as they tried to ferry pontoons across the stream.Eventually around 100 men and four officers from the 6th Loyal North Lancashires established a tiny bridgehead. But fierce Turkish opposition forced all attempts to get across the river to supply and reinforce them to be abandoned, and there began an epic of endurance under fire second to none in our history.For more than 30 hours the little band, at least well positioned for defence in a deep bund in the river bank, fought off attack after attack, often at the point of the bayonet. Their few bombs (today we call them grenades) were expended during the first night, but with great skill and courage they hurled back the ones thrown into their redoubt by the Turks. Each man started the action with 220 rounds of ammunition, but it quickly became clear that unless great caution was used they would be left only with their bayonets.Finally, on the third night of the siege, the East Lancashires at last succeeded in getting across the Diyala River behind them.When relieved the little force was down to four officers and 35 men, many of them wounded, out of bombs and down to the last of the ammunition. Their senior officer, Captain Oswald Austin Reid, King’s Regiment attached 6th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross.The following day, the British Army entered Baghdad.Until river subsidence caused it to be moved, a Loyal North Lancashire Regimental Memorial stood on the spot where the little band fought.Today it stands, damaged but too massive even for Saddam Hussein to destroy completely, in the British Military Cemetery at Baghdad (North Gate).
The young officer who led the largest party of Loyals to successfully get across the river was a schoolteacher from Blackpool named Harry Beaumont. It was he and his men who established the defensive enclave, into which the rest of the survivors gathered, which they were to defend for the next 30 bullet and bomb – swept hours.Awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry that day, Harry Beaumont returned to home after the war, married, had children, spent the rest of his career teaching at Blackpool Grammar School, and faded from history. Until, that is, a casual inquiry from his grandson, England rugby legend Bill Beaumont, caused the Lancashire Infantry Museum to go looking in the archives for him – with, initially, little success, so completely had he disappeared. Now, however, – and thanks largely to Harry’s own diaries, loaned to the museum by his family – he is revealed and recognised as being one of the most important figures in the defence of the Diyalah River crossing. His diary entry, notated and very brief though it is, is the best contemporary first-person eye-witness account we have.Beaumont family tradition is that Harry was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but only one was awarded and, as was the usual practice, it went to the senior officer present in the enclave, South African Captain Oswald Reid – who certainly deserved it.Sadly, Harry Beaumont’s thoroughly well-deserved Military Cross was stolen in a burglary many years ago.Citation for Military Cross (Recovered from Diary)“For conspicuous gallantry, perseverance and resource. When cut off from help of all kinds, and surrounded and attacked by overwhelming numbers, held out for many hours, and eventually succeeded in joining up with another party. By his personal example, he inspired all under his command.”
Harry Beaumont Diary Extract
Thursday March 8, 1917 ..... Conference of officers in even(ing) to discuss scheme for crossing Diala River (trib(utary) of Tigris) – task allotted to our Bn. Marched off at 7.30pm – scheme of crossing very carefully thought out. Reached river at 10.30pm & sat down to wait on bund – very cold.Friday, March 9, 1917 Our artillery barrage started at 12.00 mid(night) – many shells short – caused some casualties – rowers lost in confusion – hardly knew where I was but managed to get my men into the boat & finally got across & landed in good position – amphitheatre – without opposition – Beat off attacks by Turks – SIX in all – exciting night – ammunition getting short – casualties – parties from A & C Coys joined us up in the night – about 50 – 60 men in all – against all the Turkish forces – all our pontoons sunk by MG (machine gun) fire. My rations lost but shared a few biscuits for a tin of Bully with CollinsVery hot day – time dragged – sorry plight of wounded – Turks did not attack during day but shelled us very accurately & caused some casualties. Attempts to send a line over by rocket & rifle grenade failed & as evening drew on we prepared for a thin time as ammo & bombs were short.Turks worked round to our left & attacked from wood ten yards away & threw bombs, causing some casualties but we kept them off by rapid fire & the few bombs we had. They enfiladed us a little from the left & caused some casualties – dug funk holes –Saturday, March 10, 1917 Desperately cold night – Reed hit – snatches of sleep – no more attacks after midnight, Men down about prospects of relief but at dawn our artillery barrage started & boats began to cross bringing E Lancs & ammo – wanted to cry with relief. Got wounded back first & then crossed ourselves. B Coy casualties 12 killed & 23 wounded. Rested during day in Turkish village – hot, windy & dusty. & dirty.
Oswald Austin Reid was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 2, 1893, the son of Harry Austin Reed and his wife Alice Gertrude Reid, both pioneer founders of the city. He attended the Diocesan College in Cape Town and St John’s College in Johannesburg before coming to Britain to complete his education at Radley College, Oxfordshire, where he became senior prefect and captain of the football and cricket teams. In 1913 he was captain of a public schools eleven that played against the MCC.On August 14, 1914, just 10 days after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, he was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant. In April 1915 he was wounded while serving on the Western Front. Following recovery, he joined the 1st Battalion of the Kings, but was wounded again a year later. He was posted to India, and from there to the campaign in Mesopotamia, where he was attached to the 6th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. He led the 100 men of the battalion cut off at the Diyalah River crossing, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.He was wounded yet again in March 1917, and in December 1917 he was mentioned in despatches for his part in the capture of Baghdad. By April 1919 he was serving with the Allied force sent to Russia. Oswald Reid, by then an acting Major, later returned to his native South Africa, but he died in October 1920, just six days before his 27th birthday.He is buried in the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg.His Victoria Cross is displayed in the South African National Museum of Military History in JohannesburgCitation for the Victoria Cross“For most conspicuous bravery in the face of desperate circumstances. By his dauntless courage and gallant leadership he was able to consolidate a small post with the advanced troops, on the opposite side of a river to the main body, after the lines of communication had been cut by the sinking of pontoons. He maintained his position for 30 hours against constant attacks by bombs machine guns and shell fire, with the full knowledge that repeated attempts at relief had failed, and that his ammunition was all but exhausted. It was greatly due to his tenacity that the passage of the river was effected on the following night. During the operations he was wounded.”