The fighting that occurred at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st 1916 was some of the most destructive of World War One. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment is forever associated with Beaumont-Hamel and in Newfoundland today, July 1st is known as Memorial Day.
Newfoundland was not part of Canada when World War One was declared. It was a dominion of the British Empire. When war was declared on August 3rd 1914 many men in Newfoundland volunteered to fight. In fact so many joined up that the traditional khaki uniform was not available to all and some men had to use blue puttees. This is why the men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were nicknamed the ‘Blue Puttees’ when they were first sent oversees. Before fighting in France, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment fought at Gallipoli. However, in the spring of 1916, the regiment was sent to France to take part in what was called the ‘Big Push’.
The 1st Newfoundland Regiment was ordered into battle at the village of Beaumont-Hamel as part of the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme. At 07.30 on July 1st a co-ordinated attack against German lines started.
However, the very nature of warfare then meant that the Germans knew when an attack was going to start. Allied commanders had ordered a seven-day artillery bombardment against German lines. However, their trenches were well dug-in and while the bombardment must have been terrifying, many Germans were deep underground in relative safety. The Germans also knew that once the artillery bombardment stopped, an infantry attack would follow. Therefore when the Allied artillery attack ceased, the Germans made their way to their posts in their trenches to await the attackers. In common with many other sectors, the slaughter at Beaumont-Hamel was appalling.
The 1st Newfoundland Regiment started their attack at Beaumont-Hamel from a position – known as ‘St. John’s Road’ – that was actually behind the front line. The reason for this was that the front line was so full of casualties from previous attacks that day that fluid movement of able-bodied men was all but impossible.
Because their access to the front line was effectively impossible if they were to maintain any form of fighting ability, the Newfoundlanders had to move across more than 200 meters of open ground in full view of German machine gun and artillery positions before they even got to the accepted front line. From here, German trenches were a further 500 meters away down a slope.
Today at the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park, visitors can walk by what at first glance appears to be a curious bit of dead tree stuck into a concrete block next to a pathway. This is, in fact, something that is highly significant in the history of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the fighting at Beaumont-Hamel. The original tree had somehow survived the intense fighting in the area. As the Newfoundlanders advanced down the slope to the German trenches, the tree offered the only form of shelter in any part of the battlefield. However, the Germans also realised that the area was where the Newfoundlanders would group together before making any further advances and proceeded to heavily shell the land that contained what was to become known as the ‘danger tree’.
The 1st Newfoundland Regiment started its attack at 09.15. By 09.45 many of the men in the regiment were either dead or wounded. 801 men went into battle at 09.15. By next day only 68 men were at roll call. 255 men had been killed, 386 men were wounded and 91 were classed as missing.
The action of the1st Newfoundland Regiment was recognised by the senior commander of the 29th British Division, which the Newfoundlanders were attached to. However, the words spoken about the endeavours of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were indicative of the way senior army commanders thought then. Described as a “magnificent display of valour” (which no one would argue with), the word “magnificent” somehow encapsulates the mentality of senior commanders then. No one seemed to think that, in fact, the loss of so many men in such a small part of the front line was unacceptable and that somehow tactics had gone seriously wrong. This same approach would result in 57,000 British and Commonwealth casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and ultimately 650,000 British and Commonwealth casualties in the duration of the battle.
By the end of the war, the Newfoundlanders had received royal recognition when it was allowed to add “Royal” to its name – the only unit that was allowed to do so in the war. Today the area where the fighting took place is surrounded, as before, by farmland. The Memorial Park is one of just a few places where the lay of the land has been kept as it was in the summer of 1916. The Canadian flag flies outside the entrance and the highest point of the park is dominated by a statue of a caribou that looks out over the land where over 600 men were killed or wounded in just 30 minutes. Their names are on three brass plaques at the base of the monument. Nature has retaken the trenches but they can still be seen and the park is littered with the craters of where shells landed.