This Week in History
Remembering Beaumont-Hamel on Canada Day
For the week of Monday, June 27, 2016
On July 1, 1916, a generation of Newfoundlanders was lost at Beaumont-Hamel, France, on the first day of the disastrous Battle of the Somme. The first of July remains a day of mourning and remembrance in Newfoundland.
At the time, Newfoundland was a British colony, and the Newfoundland Regiment was directly involved in the First World War. Newfoundlanders fought valiantly in Egypt and at Gallipoli (Turkey), and were then sent to France in April 1916.
At the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment formed an important part of the British offensive. Any hope of success was doomed from the outset due to the fact that British artillery, which had been shelling German strategic points for weeks, had missed many of its targets. This left the British front line completely vulnerable to enemy fire.
To reach their own position on the front line, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment had to advance 230 metres, each carrying 30 kilograms of equipment, through barbed wire and a German shelling zone. With no protection, most never made it to their positions. Within a half hour, the battle was over. Of the 801 men in the Regiment, 255 were dead, 386 wounded, and 91 missing. It was said that their effort “was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
The Battle of the Somme ended in November 1916. After four months of fighting, the Allies had only advanced ten kilometres. For this small gain, over 600,000 Allied soldiers died in addition to more than 600,000 German soldiers.
For their bravery, the Newfoundland Regiment was the first colonial regiment to be given the prefix “Royal,” and it was renamed the “Royal Newfoundland Regiment.” At the battlefield, many of the trenches have been left intact and the names of the 1,305 Newfoundlanders who died during the First World War are inscribed on a bronze plaque.
In 2014, Thomas Nangle was designated a national historic person for his work commemorating Newfoundland’s contribution to the First World War. He worked to find and identify the graves of Newfoundland soldiers in Europe, and he proposed the Caribou statue monuments seen today at the Somme and four other battlefields where Newfoundlanders fought. Beaumont-Hamel was designated as a national historic site in 1996. Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge are the only two national historic sites located outside Canada.
This is the third year of the centennial of the First World War. To learn more about some of the Canadians who participated, read A Missed Memo: Japanese-Canadians Enlist in the First World War, and The First Black Battalion in Canada in the This Week in History archives.
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