THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
This account is reprinted from the webpage formerly at http://www.cdli.ca/beaumont/somme2.htm, now out of print
"It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further."
- Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Commander of the 29th British Division, reporting on the efforts of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment.
On Saturday, July 1, 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment was virtually annihilated at Beaumont Hamel.
On that fateful day in July 1916, 100,000 Allied soldiers, the Newfoundlanders among them, set out on the "Big Push" - a colossal infantry offensive along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Western front called the Somme. It was confidently expected they would smash through the German defences and clear a path for the cavalry to advance to the Channel coast.
Beginning soon after daylight, the attacking soldiers climbed out of their trenches and marched as ordered: slowly, wave upon wave, with bayonets held high. Each man was burdened with roughly 30 kilograms of equipment, including shovels, wire-cutters and sections of bridges which, once assembled, would enable passage across the enemy's trenches. Few made it that far.
The Germans had been long forewarned of an infantry assault. To make matters worse, the Allied artillery siege which had been aimed at the enemy throughout the preceding weeks had missed most of its targets. It had not destroyed the enemy's guns, the bulk of their formidable barbed wire defences nor the deep dug-outs which concealed scores of platoons. The overburdened Allied soldiers became easy targets for the readied German guns.
With the advancing forces was a sole infantry battalion from the island of Newfoundland. Raised within just two months of Great Britain's declaration of war, it had already fought with distinction in Gallipoli. The Newfoundlanders arrived in France in March 1916 and on July, at 2 a.m., they completed a five-hour march to the trenches of the Somme.
Part of the 88th brigade in the 29th British Division, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment was assigned a role with the second attacking wave. At 7:30 a.m., platoons from the 87th Brigade were to set out to capture the first two lines of German fortification at Beaumont-Hamel. Together with a battalion from the Essex Regiment, the Newfoundlanders were to take the third enemy line 70 minutes later. It was assumed they would face little opposition.
Little, however, went according to plan. A huge mine was ignited under a German trench at 7:20. Although it destroyed its intended target, the blast also alerted the enemy to the impending infantry attack. German soldiers prepared to defend their lines, and their artillerymen countered by shelling Allied ground. At 7:30, in the face of this military barrage, the 87th Brigade embarked. At 8:45, the Newfoundland Regiment and the Essex Regiment were ordered to provide them with support. Their battle lasted less than 30 minutes.
It was a terrible experience. Because the forward trenches were clogged with bodies and debris, the advance of the Essex regiment was delayed and the Newfoundlanders were forced to cross 900 metres of exposed front independently. Few made it to the beginning of the Allied barbed wire entanglements, 230 metres beyond their starting point. Those who did had to follow the zig-zag lanes between pre-cut, highlighted openings in the wire which were well covered by the enemy machine-guns. If they managed to emerge through these gaps, the men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment then discovered that at least 500 metres of open ground lay between them and the fully intact first line of German defences.
Some of the Newfoundlanders progressed far enough to hurl bombs at the enemy trenches, but most had been struck down long before that point. Many were killed at the start, as they clambered out of their trenches. By 10 a.m., little remained of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. Their casualties numbered more than 700, one-third of which were fatal. Every officer who went into battle that day was either killed or wounded. Only 68 of the regiment escaped serious injury.
For the British Army, it was the bloodiest day of the war. They suffered 57,470 casualties, while German dead or wounded totalled 8,000. Precious little ground had been gained and months of deadlocked fighting followed.
In Newfoundland, news of the tragedy arrived July 13, nearly two weeks after the battle at Beaumont-Hamel. Members of the clergy then began what seemed an endless succession of condolence visits.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment resumed training. A support cadre plus the traditional 10 per cent of total strength had been spared from the morning assault. In all, 150 members remained of a battalion which, at its fullest strength, had boasted 1,000. Reinforced with 130 new recruits, the regiment transferred to the Ypres Salient.
The Allies launched a second major offensive at the Somme on September 15, 1916. The following month, the Newfoundlanders returned to the region and distinguished themselves in action near Gueudecourt. The brutal Somme campaign finally ended in November. In the end, the Allied forces had gained only 10 kilometres of ground. The terrible cost was approximately 600,000 casualties.
After the Armistice, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment returned to Newfoundland and disbanded. More than 6,000 men had served in it during the First World War and at least one in five had given their lives. In 1918, in recognition of the regiment's battlefield contributions, King George V granted the addition of the title "Royal" to its name. Re-formed as a reserve militia unit when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment exists to this day.
It has been said that, as a nation, Canada came of age during the Great War. However, the life of Newfoundland was nearly extinguished. Almost a generation of its potential leaders was lost at Beaumont-Hamel and in subsequent actions. Since then, July 1 has become a day of mixed emotions for Newfoundlanders.
Before joining with the rest of Canada in celebrating the anniversary of the nation's confederation, the province holds a Remembrance Day ceremony similar to the annual commemoration held November 11. Many Newfoundlanders pin forget-me-not flowers to their clothing and read newspaper articles recalling the island's saddest day.
THE NEWFOUNDLAND BEAUMONT-HAMEL MEMORIAL
Today, the grass-covered peaks and valleys which characterize the battlefield park at Beaumont-Hamel are but faintly reminiscent of the mortar-torn trenches of July 1916. Decades ago, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment fought for the land in front of a rocky hilltop now marked by a bronze statue of a caribou - the symbol of the regiment and the crowning piece of the Newfoundland Beaumont-Hamel Memorial. Before the magnificent stag is St. John's Road, the trench from which the Newfoundlanders began their assault on July 1.
The Beaumont-Hamel battlefield park is the largest of five established by Newfoundland to commemorate its citizens who died in France and Belgium during the First World War. Two small cemeteries in the park, Hawthorne Ridge No. 2 and Y Ravine, contain graves of unknown fatal casualties of the Somme campaign. As well, three bronze tablets, at the base of the statue, list the names of 814 Newfoundlanders who gave their lives while serving in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve or the Mercantile Marine, and whose graves are unknown.
Memorials have also been erected at battlefield parks in Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Masnieres and Courtrai. All are adorned with samples of trees and brush native to Newfoundland. And they are all, of course, guarded by the signatory bronze caribou, his head held defiantly high, facing in the direction of the Newfoundlanders' former foes.