Remembering Beaumont Hamel

September 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine


by Victoria Fulford

A view of the Beaumont Hamel monument from the trenches preserved at the memorial park.

They came from across the sea. The first Newfoundland detachment of two infantry companies sailed from their native land in October of 1914, outfitted with khaki wool that would identify them as soldiers and the navy blue leg coverings, or puttees, that would mark them as the famous first 500 Newfoundlanders to enlist. They were also known as the Blue Puttees of the Newfoundland Regiment.

As the war machine shifted into high gear, future contingents from the colony would be supplied with the standard issue khaki puttees similar to those of their British counterparts. Though now not as easily identified without their signature blue, the Newfoundlanders would soon distinguish themselves on the fields of battle in other ways.

Their efforts during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 earned the regiment the title “Royal,” a rare honour awarded among British regiments only twice before during wartime. However, before the highs of Cambrai, there were invariably some great lows. The Battle of Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916, continues to be remembered as one of the darkest days in Newfoundland history.

On this day, in a field nine miles north of Albert, France, 801 Newfoundlanders went over the top in broad daylight to face the German forces firmly entrenched in the infamous Y ravine. Within 30 minutes the regiment would be annihilated. Only 68 would answer the roll call next day, the rest killed, wounded or missing in action. In less time than it takes to watch today’s evening news, the futures of families in a small colony of approximately 240,000 people would be changed forever. The scars from the wounds inflicted on that day would last many generations.

July 1, 2001 marked the 85th anniversary of Beaumont Hamel. On a day most Canadians observe as a celebration of their nation’s birth, a delegation gathered in that same French field, now a national historic site and a memorial park, to pay tribute to those brave soldiers of the past. The delegation, part of the June 29-July 2 Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to France, were also there to open a new visitors centre that sheds light on the way of life the Newfoundlanders knew before and after they arrived in France.

“What the interpretation centre does is bring to life these individuals who died as they went over the top,” explained Industry Minister Brian Tobin in an interview with Legion Magazine. “It is a slice of the song, the poetry, the written word, the music, the dance and the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador so that those who visit this battlefield in future will understand that those who died were not just men in uniform…. It puts a face and a personality on the sacrifice that is otherwise far more difficult to imagine.”

Tobin, a native Newfoundlander and former premier of the province, led the delegation on behalf of VAC Minister Ron Duhamel. Newfoundlanders formed the majority in the group that also included Legion Dominion First Vice Allan Parks and a number of representatives from Newfoundland and Labrador Command. Prior to the centre’s opening, the delegation visited three battlefield memorials dedicated to the exploits of Newfoundlanders as well as the monument at Vimy that commemorates Canadians who fought and died in World War I.

The wreath placing ceremony at the Beaumont Hamel monument was televised live in Newfoundland via satellite through the efforts of the lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Arthur Maxwell House, a member of the delegation and honorary patron of The Friends of Beaumont Hamel. The satellite images, made possible through partnerships with the telemedicine program at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Industry Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador can be viewed at www.stemnet.nf.ca/beaumont_2001.

In his speech prior to the ribbon cutting, House spoke for all Newfoundlanders when he described July 1st “as our day of infamy.”

“We are here at Beaumont Hamel today with feelings of awe and reverence. We are in awe because this is the very place where 85 years ago today so many of our young men lost their lives in that terrible summer of 1916. In reverence because for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador there is no place on earth more sacred than this blood-washed field of battle.”

The site exists as one of the few in France and Belgium where visitors can see a relatively unaltered example of a WW I battlefield. This is largely due to the efforts of St. John’s landscape architect R.H.K Cochius who in contrast to his contemporaries, preserved the battlefield largely as it was so that future generations could better understand what happened to the regiment that July day.

On their tour the day before the ceremony, the delegation walked through trenches and viewed craters still impressively deep even though the explosions that created them occurred nearly 100 years ago. The informed commentary of head guide Matthew Janes coupled with the visible landscape made it very apparent the kind of impossible odds the Newfoundlanders were up against. “Your heart goes out to these young soldiers who must have known that day, instantly known, the hopelessness of the situation but who nevertheless went over the top anyway,”said Tobin who was clearly affected by what he saw on his first visit to Beaumont Hamel.

Especially moving was the tour of the cemetery where members of the regiment lay, often in nameless graves with one or more of their comrades. Among them, Private Francis Lind, known to readers of the St. John’s Daily News for the letters he wrote describing the life of a soldier.

Janes explained that subsequent battles fought on the land, the number of dead and the passage of time made the recovery and identification of bodies difficult. Many were never found, making the park a kind of mass grave in itself. A poem by John Oxenham at its entrance acknowledges this fact, urging visitors to “Tread softly here! Go reverently and slow!”

More than 300 people gathered at the Beaumont Hamel monument in the hot sun. Beneath the caribou–the symbol of the regiment–they paid tribute to Newfoundland’s fallen WW I heroes. Wreaths were placed at the bronze tablets that are set in stone at the foot of the monument. The tablets list the names of 814 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regt., the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Mercantile Marine who died during WW I and have no known grave. Among those present were French Minister of State for Veterans Jean-Pierre Masseret, Canada’s Ambassador to France Raymond Chrétien, Newfoundland and Labrador Command President Rex Babstock, members of the Royal Newfoundland Regt. and cadet Chief Petty Officer Lisa Fowler who recited the Act of Remembrance with Babstock during the ceremony.

VAC Deputy Minister Larry Murray was also in attendance. A veteran of several overseas pilgrimages and ceremonies of this type, he said he didn’t expect to see such a crowd of Canadians and non-Canadians alike. “I think that really moved everybody, it was a wonderful turnout.”

In the morning, prior to the ceremony at Beaumont Hamel, the delegation visited another monument instantly recognizable to Newfoundlanders and people all across the Canada. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial pays tribute to the Canadians who fought and died in WW I. It is a breathtaking structure that’s perched upon the highest point of Vimy Ridge, overlooking the Douai Plain.

Created by Toronto sculptor Walter Allward and officially unveiled on July 26, 1936 after 11 years of construction, the pylons and the sculptures are made of 6,000 tonnes of special stone. Guide Peter Wright explained that at certain times of the day and in varying weather conditions the stone in the upper reaches of the monument appears to glow. At the time of the visit, scaffolding was erected at one side of the structure, where work is under way to restore the names that have been slowly fading from the stone.

After exploring the monument, the delegation moved to the visitors centre, somewhat similar to the one being opened at Beaumont Hamel. They were also treated to a tour of a section of the intricate underground tunnel system built by the Allies to aid them in their efforts to overtake the German forces. The group ended their day at Vimy with a remembrance ceremony.

The morning visit to the Vimy memorial, the afternoon ceremony at Beaumont Hamel and the opening of the visitors centre capped off a whirlwind schedule that included visits to other noted Newfoundland monuments. The first stop by the delegation was a quiet country lane called Rue de la Chaussy. It is in this somewhat unlikely spot a Newfoundland caribou stands defiant upon what was once a German stronghold.

The Monchy-le-Preux caribou, one of five such monuments in Belgium and France that commemorate the Newfoundland Regt., marks the regiment’s struggle to capture Infantry Hill in April 1917. On the day of their attack, the Newfoundlanders advanced quickly to the first trench behind the German front line and unknowingly into a trap. In the German counter-attack, 460 Newfoundlanders were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner, representing the regiment’s second heaviest losses of the war. Against impossible odds a handful of men managed to maintain the key Allied position on the hill and keep the German forces at bay until reinforcements arrived. Following a description of the historical significance of the site, a ceremony of remembrance was conducted by the Newfoundland Legionnaires and cadets. The group then boarded the bus for the monument at Masnières

Located on the banks of the Saint-Quentin Canal, Masnières was one of the main German strongholds in the fall of 1917. The heavily fortified towns of Masnières, Marcoing and Crèvecoeur formed the Masnières-Beaurevoir line that shielded the town of Cambrai. As part of a general attack on the Cambrai front the Newfoundlanders took control of Masnières on Nov. 20, 1917. Nine days later the Germans would launch their first counter-attack, but the Newfoundlanders continued to hold their position, stubbornly resisting nine German attacks on one day alone. They would lose more than 200 men, but their actions during the Cambrai battle and their reputation as tough and tenacious would earn their regiment royal designation in 1918.

A surprise awaited the delegation at their next stop, the caribou monument marking the Newfoundlander’s actions at the village of Gueudecourt. Travelling down a country road to a small park located in the midst of farmers fields, the delegation left the bus to find an unexploded shell propped up against the fence. A fairly common occurrence in France, the shell had probably come to the surface as the farmer tilled the soil. Curious enough to take pictures, members of the group were careful not to disturb the rusty, but quite possibly deadly antique.

It was the Newfoundland Regt.’s mission at Gueudecourt to advance a distance of 400 metres to seize a series of trenches held by the formidable German “Iron” division. The Gueudecourt monument itself marks the spot where, in October 1916, the Newfoundlanders played a decisive role in the capture of a German strongpoint named Rainbow Trench. Traces of a trench remain today at the base of the monument. The victory was at great cost, however, with more than 230 soldiers killed or wounded in the battle.

In his speech at a formal dinner which followed the trip to the monuments, Newfoundland Minister of Municipal and Provincial Affairs Oliver Langdon related his personal realization of the sacrifices made by his fellow Newfoundlanders in the Great War. Growing up in the small community of Seal Cove, Nfld., Langdon remembers veterans such as John Loveless, awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Cambrai and whose name now adorns the local school. He said he remembered meeting him as a child and viewing his pronounced scars and not really understanding what they meant. In high school, poems such as Thomas Hardy’s The Man He Killed with its lines “Staring face to face, I shot at him as he at me, And killed him in his place,” began to make the cost of freedom more apparent to his teenaged self.

Now many years later he was able to see the scenes of battle first hand and said it “sent chills” down his spine. “I will leave here with a deeper sense of pride and appreciation because of their accomplishments.”

No longer that boy, or a teenager, but a father and a grandfather, Langdon said he has a better understanding of the physical and emotional scars men like Loveless suffered. And he also has greater appreciation for what those same men contributed in the name of freedom.

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