Canada Day is celebrated on July 1, but for Newfoundlanders, it means something completely different.
During my travels across Europe, I took in every bit of history I could visit. Beaumont Hamel was one of my first stops to pay respect for the ultimate sacrifice the fallen men from Newfoundland had given so I can be free.
Armed forces exist to fight wars, a task that required individuals to carry out many functions under extreme conditions. Violence or the threat of violence has always been at the core of this occupation.
More than 800 communities within the province of Newfoundland contributed men to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who fought and fell at Beaumont Hamel. All were affected to various degrees. But in a small community of scarcely 100 people, how can the effect of losing one or several of its sons be measured? In the capital city of St. John’s almost no street escaped this tragedy.
In the early hours of July 1, 1916, before the attack, the Regiment lay idol in a communication trench on St. John’s Road and Clommel Avenue after five hours of marching.
Days prior to the attack, heavy artillery had punished and bombarded the land at Beaumont Hamel. The Newfoundland soldiers were told that this was going to be a walkover, meaning slight resistance and that the recent artillery had effectively weakened German positions.
But the Germans had dug in deep, withstanding the blasts and the artillery attack was actually a warning to the enemy soldiers. Prior to the morning of July 1, 1916, gaps had been cut in the barbed wire so the Newfoundland Soldiers had a way through no man’s land. A vital mistake by the regiment commander as the German soldiers trained their machine guns on these passages.
“The heaviest casualties occurred on passing through the gaps in our wire, where the men were mown down in heaps,” the regiment commander wrote in his battle record.
“Instinctively they tucked their chins into an advancing shoulder, as they had so often done when fighting their way home against a blizzard in some little outport in far-off Newfoundland,” an officer who saw the men advance said.
The Newfoundland Regiment participated in the great Somme offensive with honor, and on July 1, 1916, strategic and tactical miscalculations led to the terrible slaughter.
Allied soldiers were organized to attack in two waves, but were met with brutal machine-gun fire on the battlefield. This sent the young Newfoundlander troops scrambling out of the trenches with little protection as the land had been cleared by an earlier barrage of bullets and artillery.
By 9:45 a.m., just over 30 minutes into the battle, the Allied commanding officer deemed the attack a failure and a quarter of the Newfoundland Regiment had been killed, while another 386 were wounded. The next day only 68 soldiers answered the roll call. Howard Morry who is from Ferryland Newfoundland was one of those soldiers although Morry did not go over the top because some soldiers were assigned to ration parties. In his memoirs written in the 1960’s, he remembered nearly 90 bodies piled high in the area of the Danger Tree. Very few made it much farther than the Danger Tree Morry wrote.
Despite its horrific casualties, the Regiment fought until 1918. For its valour, it won the to add “Royal” to its name, the only such honour bestowed during the great war.
Newfoundland memorial park at Beaumont-Hamel symbolizes the service and sacrifice of Newfoundlanders during the First World War. This park pays special tribute to the role of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Battle of the Somme and the heavy loses it suffered. The park also stands as a memorial to those Newfoundlanders who fell in battle and who have no known grave.
Once a battle, Beaumont-Hamel became, in 1922, a memorial park conceived by Padre Thomas Nangle and planned by Rudolph H. K. Cochius. Its design evokes the Newfoundland environment: overlooking the battlefield stands a bronze caribou resting on a granite base surrounded by plants native to the island.
Three bronze tablets bear the names of Newfoundlanders buried elsewhere. The memorial park honours those soldiers and ensures that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Newfoundlanders buried elsewhere
Other brave Newfoundlanders also lay buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery found in France. The cemetery was named after a barn at the centre of a German strongpoint, which was called “Tyne Cot” or “Tyne Cottage” by men of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
After its capture in October 1917 in the advance on Passchendaele, the pill-box which is a concrete bunker still found in the cemetery was used as an Advanced Dressing Station.
The first burials were made around this pill-box as men fell to their deaths during the Great War which eventually became the cemetery. The ground was lost to the German army in April 1918 and recaptured by the Belgian Army five months later.
After the war the cemetery was enlarged for reburials from the battlefields and it is now the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world.
It holds 11,956 graves, and 14 of those headstones belong to Newfoundlanders. Some of the buried have names engraved and others are unknown to God.
“You threw your fear in the sea of no cares.”
Rest easy my brave Newfoundlanders.