A casual inquiry from Fylde coast rugby legend Bill Beaumont has revealed a close family connection with one of the most gallant and epic actions of the First World War.
While attending a function at the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Fulwood Barracks, Preston, Bill, from Lytham, asked if anything could be found out about his grand- father Harry.
All he knew was that Harry had won the Military Cross while serving, he thought, with a Lancashire Regiment, but he didn’t know which one, or what the MC was for.
“It wasn’t much to go on,” said Roger Goodwin, from the Museum. “At first we had some difficulty. We established that Harry was an officer in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but the records were sketchy. There wasn’t even a citation for his MC.”
But then Bill’s sister Alison, who lives in Spain, produced some diaries that Harry had kept during the war.
“Once we examined them, it immediately became clear that Harry was one of the four officers who led the defence of the Diyalah River pocket in Mesopotamia in 1917, when Captain Oswald Reid won the Victoria Cross,” said Roger.
“It was one of the true epics of the First World War and Harry played a very significant part in it.”
In March 1917, a British force was chasing the retreating Turks up the line of the River Tigris in what was then Mesopotamia, and is now Iraq.
The Diyalah River was the enemy’s last main line of defence just eight miles from Baghdad.
The 38th (Lancashire) Brigade, consisting of the 6th Loyal North Lancashire and Kings Own Regiments, was selected to force the crossing, but the men were shot down in waves as they tried to ferry pontoons across the stream.
Lieutenant Harry Beaumont led the largest party to successfully get across, and eventually around 100 men and three other officers, all from the 6th Loyal North Lancashires, gathered around him in a tiny bridgehead.
But fierce Turkish opposition prevented reinforcement and there began an epic of endurance under fire which bears favourable comparison even with the much more well-known Rorke’s Drift battle.
“Because of the film Zulu, everyone knows about Rorke’s Drift,” said Roger.
“The Diyalah River was Lancashire’s own Rorke’s Drift and it deserves to be much better known than it is.
“Instead of tribesmen with spears and cow-hide shields, our Lancashire Lads had to withstand a modern army with 20th Century fire-power.”
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 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 Diyalah River behind them.
When relieved, the little force was down to the four officers and 35 men, many of them wounded, out of bombs and down to the last of the ammunition.
The following day, the British Army entered Baghdad.
The senior officer present in the bund, Captain Oswald Reid, King’s Regiment attached 6th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
“We didn’t know exactly what grandfather Harry got his Military Cross for,” said Bill. “The story in the family was that he was recommended for the VC, but it was given only to the officer commanding.”
“That is very possible,” said Roger.
“Multiple VCs were awarded for single actions, for instance the ‘six VCs before breakfast’ won by the Lancashire Fusiliers at Gallipoli, but it was very rare.
“More often the senior officer present was awarded it to represent the action as a whole.
“However it is quite clear from Harry’s diaries that it was the Diyalah crossing for which he received the MC, and quite rightly so, too.
“From what we have been able to piece together it is quite clear that he led the main body to get across and that it must have been him who found and established the good position into which all the others gathered, which they were then able to defend for so long.”
“The Military Cross can only be awarded for courage in the face of the enemy.
“Harry Beaumont certainly earned his.”
Harry remained with his battalion after the battle, but was seriously wounded a few weeks later.
“He spent the remainder of the war recuperating in India.
After the war he returned to his home town of Blackpool, where he spent the rest of his working life teaching at the Grammar School.
“He died when I was eight,” said Bill. “So I never had the chance to talk to him about it.
“It is good to know his story at last.”
“For the Lancashire Infantry Museum, this has been an important discovery.” said Roger.
“The Diyalah River was an epic action in a war of epic actions. Probably that is why it is not as well known today as it should be.
“That is something we seek to rectify whenever we get the chance.
“We have the official histories to work from, and of course there are the details of Captain Reid’s VC, but little else.
“That is what makes Harry’s first-person account so fascinating and valuable.”
Harry Beaumont’s diaries are currently being transcribed so that copies can be added to the Museum’s Loyal North Lancashire Regiment archives, after which they will return to the family.
Sadly, his Military Cross medal was stolen in a burglary more than 40 years ago.