On July 1st, most Canadians will be celebrating the 149th anniversary of Canada (Dominion) Day. However, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, there will be more solemn commemorations. July 1st is the 100th anniversary of the horrific Battle of Beaumont Hamel, in Northern France, which was one of the opening engagements of the infamous Battle of the Somme of the First World War.
Beaumont Hamel was not the first action for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The Regiment had served during the long, bloody and futile Battle of Gallipoli in what is now Turkey. In particular, the men had been part of the landings at Sulva Bay in the late summer of 1915.
The Newfoundland Regiment suffered a number of casualties. However, most of the losses were due to disease, frostbite and exposure due to the appalling conditions in the trenches. The British commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frederick Stopford, was dismissed for incompetence.
After the disaster at Gallipoli, there was still optimism that the next major battle would be more successful. The Allied Forces were planning a new major assault. Dubbed ‘The Big Push’, the High Command felt that this would finally break the great stalemate on the Western Front that had persisted since the fall of 1914.
The Newfoundland Regiment was selected to be part of the assaults along the Somme River in Picardy, France. Their objectives were near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The position was a difficult one. The Germans were well entrenched. A deep V-shaped ravine made the site one of the strongest enemy positions along the battlefront.
A massive artillery barrage was used to soften the German defenses before the battle commenced. More than 1.5 million shells were blasted at the lines, the greatest number ever fired at one time.
Tragically, the impact was far less than expected. The Germans were well protected in deep dugouts. Moreover, many of the shells were defective.
The great assault of the British army commenced at 7:30 a.m. The first two waves met with disaster. A great many men were killed or wounded within minutes by a devastating blast of German artillery and machine gun fire.
Tragically, the commanders mistook German flares for signs that the assaults were meeting with success. Consequently, the Newfoundland regiment was ordered into the battle as part of a third wave.
Again, the results were disastrous. Many men were mowed down as they proceeded down the exposed slopes of the ravine. Most had 32 kg packs on their backs and were under orders to walk steadily towards the enemy lines. This made them even easier targets for the German machine guns.
For the few who made it to the enemy lines, they found that the big artillery barrage had failed to cut any major holes in the barbed wire. Consequently, several of the survivors were cut down as they tried to make it through the few gaps that did exist.
Finally, the order for retreat was given. However, the extent of the disaster was overwhelming. Of the nearly 800 men from the Newfoundland Regiment, 664 became casualties (83%). The day was also a disaster across the Somme battlefront. More than 57,400 men became casualties, the greatest one-day losses in the history of the British army.
Tragically, the disaster did not cause the British High Command to reconsider their plans. Instead, assaults were renewed, day after day, for several weeks. It has been calculated that an average of 2,943 men were lost, each and every day, before the Battle of the Somme finally ended in November, 1916.
The impact of Beaumont Hamel was immense. All of Newfoundland and Labrador went into mourning. As word of the disaster spread, it also hit places such as Horn Hill, east of Penhold, where there were a large number of settlers from Newfoundland.
People were determined that the Battle never be forgotten. Hence, there is a beautiful and moving monument, crowned with a sculpture of a caribou, on the site of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel.