Stories from the Somme
Letters of Lieut. Raymond B. Penniman, Company A, Royal Canadian Regiment, 7th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, BEF.
Lieut. Raymond B. Penniman was just one of countless young men who fought in the Battle of the Somme. Born in Massachusetts in 1891, he lived in Providence, R.I. until his father Edwin moved the family to Ontario sometime before 1911. Raymond became a Canadian citizen in order to take a commission in the military, enlisting in 1914. He served as a Lieutenant in Company A of the Royal Canadian Regiment, 7th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, British Expeditionary Force.
He was lost at the Somme, reported missing on October 8, 1916, in Regina Trench, joining over a million other casualties of that conflict.
The following letters were donated to the Museum in 2013 by his relatives. They document the final months of his life, as well as his family’s struggle for answers in determining what happened to him.
My Dear Folks,
Since I wrote you last I have had much honor thrust upon me. I have been decorated with the Military Cross and now wear a ribbon on ‘me chest.’ I have not actually had the Cross yet and probably will not for some time but the King has given authority for a Cross to be given to me. This was a surprise to me. You will be able to read later what it was given for. Everything seems to be coming my way so far during this war. What do you think? I am very much pleased indeed. It is very gratifying to have one’s work recognized.
France, Sept. 28, 1916
Probably you know where we are now [on the Somme]. We are seeing some real warfare and believe me it is hell. Today is the first fine day we have had and it is no joke sleeping in the open when it rains. Last time in the trenches I had command of the company and we made an attack. I went over the parapet with the men and the Lord only knows how I ever got back again. The artillery had not done its work and we caught hell. CheeriO! It is all over for a while.
In a letter dated October 4, 1916, He wrote:
Rain, rain and more rain. More rain more mud more duds, as the Tommies say; all of which means that the rain will soften the earth to such an extent that the shells will not go off. A bad shell we call a dud.
We are trying to keep dry with a small piece of canvas and to say the most it is rotten.
The war still goes on with much gusto and fritz still goes luck [sic]. It will take time but we will get him. The weather may save his luck but from what I see will not hinder much. The other day we captured some marines. They must be short when they put their sailors into land battles. I would like to know what the Hun big bugs think. We know what their soldiers think. They are fed up with fighting and throw their hands up without a fight.
My leave is coming soon and I am going to forget the war for a while.
This was Lieut. Penniman’s last letter home.
Initially his father Edwin remained hopeful that his son was being held prisoner, reaching out to contacts in the Red Cross, the Masonic War Relief Association, and his son’s fellow soldiers in an effort to track down Lieut. Penniman, however, as time went on, news became more discouraging.
France Trenches Oct. 20/16 –
Just to-night I learn that Ray is reported missing. Would that I could write something that might lift a little of the apprehension and sorrow that must assail Mrs. Penniman and yourself. I remember so well my last chat with Ray. We ran over old days at school.
The Battalion to which I was attached, were lying on the plains near Albert when his [Raymond's] regiment moved up. This fight at the Somme has been terrific. Many, very many of our best boys have ‘gone west,’ as we say. I am hoping that somehow or other Ray has managed to escape. Missing is a very elastic word in military parlance. Some days the gloom of so many casualties seems more than we can bear.”
Headquarters, the Royal Canadian Regiment, 4th November, 1916
E.J. Penniman, Esq. Fort William, Ontario
I am forwarding your herewith a few letters belonging to your son Ray who you have already been informed has been missing since October 8th last. I am very much regret that so far I have no tidings of him or his whereabouts; and one can only express the hope that we hear something definite before long, when you will be immediately advised.
E. Guider, Lieutenant Adjt. RCR
October 29, 1916 from Sydney B. Harris, Lieutenant, 1st Canadian Division, HQ, BEF France
Dear Mr. Penniman,
[Lt. Penniman’s] duty during the Regina Trench was to take, consolidate & put a block in a trench about 75 yds. Beyond Regina Trench which he very successfully did but was subjected to a very severe bombardment of Rifle Grenades and very few came out of it alive in his particular part.
Typewritten Report, Havre, Royal Canadian Regiment, 1st May 1917 [in regards to] Penniman. R. B., Lieut.
He was in command of the 1st Platoon and acting O.C. of the Company on 8th October 1916. I saw him wounded at Regina Trench on the morning of 8th October at about 5.30 (breaking day); he was just going into the German line and fell from the parapet into the trench. I heard him give some orders and heard nothing further. We did not hold the trench but had to retire the same morning. The wounded were left behind.
Pte. J.A. Dawson, 477230, Royal Canadian Regiment, A Co., 1st Platoon, Canadian Camp Harfleur.
Typewritten Report, Royal Canadian Regiment [in regards to] Penniman. R. B., Lieut.
I last saw him about 8th October on the Somme at the taking of Regina Trench. He was lying on the ground, dead. Time, about 8.30 a.m. It was No mans land. We were relieved the same day, but do not know by whom. I recognized him clearly. He was in command of my platoon.
Pte. J. Stevenson, 477881, A.L. No. 1, Canadian General Hospital.
Lieut. Penniman’s death certificate was finally issued on June 27, 1919, bearing the date of October 8, 1916.
A selection of the original letters can be seen as part of the Museum’s exhibition, They Shall Not Pass | 1916, which sheds light on the personal side of the conflicts at the Somme and Verdun. The exhibition will run through March 12, 2017.
These documents are also available in the Museum's Online Collections Database.
"United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch (https:// familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M97T-H8J : 22 January 2015), Raymond B Penniman in household of Edwin G Penniman, District 2 Providence city Ward 6, Providence, Rhode Island, United States; citing sheet 15B, family 357, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,241,507.
"Recensement du Canada de 1911," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV9P-WW45 : 2 March 2015), Raymon? B Penniman in entry for Edwin G Penniman, 1911; citing Census, Thunder Bay and Rainy River Sub-Districts 1-30, Ontario, Canada, Library and Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario; FHL microfilm 2,418,523.