The Newfoundland Regiment and Beaumont-Hamel
For many in Canada, July 1st is a day of celebration and known as Canada Day. However, for Canadians in Newfoundland and Labrador, the day is significant for another reason. On July 1st 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered some of the worst casualties for a single regiment seen in the whole of the First World War.
During WW1, Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire and not yet part of Canada. At the outbreak of the war, the loyalty of the Newfoundlanders was fierce; 12,000 of the population of 240,000 signed up to go to the front.
The regiment was hastily trained during the early months of the war, and saw action for the first time during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. It would be in the summer of 1916 when the regiment would be faced with its toughest experience during a day which has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest in military history.
July 1st 1916 was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, a full blown assault from the allied forces with the intention of breaking through the German lines, ending two years of stalemate on the western front.
At 7:30am, thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers left their trenches and went over the top. The result was a slaughter. 57,000 were killed or wounded and very little ground gained.
The Newfoundlanders’ role on that tragic first day was to capture the village of Beaumont-Hamel. It was expected to be one of the easier objectives on that first day. However, the Germans discovered that the village was a target and this, along with the failed allied bombardment intended to destroy German defences, would result in more heavy casualties.
At approximately 9:15am, the regiment went into battle from a trench behind the front line. Due to the sheer number of dead, dying and wounded soldiers from the first waves, the Newfoundlanders were forced to cut straight across the communication trenches.
They needed to walk across 200 metres of open ground just to reach the allied front line trenches. By the time they went over the top, they were the only soldiers moving on the battlefield; making them easy targets for the German guns.
Those who reached no man’s land would be faced with 500 metres of open ground, barbed wire, and the bodies of those fallen before them. Not a single Newfoundlander would reach the German front line.
The soldiers made their way through the hail of machine gun and artillery fire, many were cut to pieces. In no man’s land, there was a particular point where the German fire was most concentrated.The sloped terrain of the battlefield gave the German machine gunners a devastating advantage over the oncoming allied soldiers.
A single, blasted tree stands at this point on the battlefield. It is a truly symbolic sign for the Newfoundlanders as it is said to be the furthest forward any of the regiment made it during the attack. It is a small symbol in size, but it was the final resting place for so many soldiers who were sent into a slaughter by their superiors. Sending thousands of troops into certain death was a tactic which made the First World War the hell on earth we have come to learn about.
The Newfoundlanders would succumb to the fate of so many on that day, and throughout the Battle of the Somme. The true toll of the decimation on July 1st wasn’t fully revealed until the following day at the regiments roll call. The figure is almost incomprehensible. Out of the 800 to go over the top, only 68 were able to answer. Over 700 were killed or wounded. For a province the size of Newfoundland, the loss of life on this scale was devastating.
Those who survived the first day of the Somme would go on to be a part of a rebuilt regiment. The Newfoundlanders would go on to serve with bravery later in the war, particularly during battles at Ypres and Cambrai; the only British Army unit to do so during the war.
In total, over 6,000 Newfoundlanders would serve in the trenches during the war. Half of this number would be killed, wounded or captured. This scale of killed and injured men would have a profound social impact on the colony in later years, but the sacrifice of so many will never be forgotten.
The Newfoundland regiment has its own memorial near to the battlefield where so many of its sons fell. It is a powerful reminder of how many young, optimistic men travelled thousands of miles to fight in a foreign field. Like so many during this futile war, thousands would never return home.