There is no living memory of what happened July 1, 1916, on the Beaumont Hamel battlefield in France, the day 801 members of the Newfoundland Regiment walked into a hailstorm of machine-gun bullets. History books record the facts and figures—it took only half an hour to decimate the regiment; only 68 answered roll call the next day.
But there are those who mean to augment the dusty facts, to keep alive the memories of the Newfoundland townies and baymen, brothers, uncles, fathers and sons; the men and boys who volunteered to fight in the Great War—men like Leonard True Rendell who was 25 when he enlisted on Sept. 2, 1914.
“If I am able to stand in front of you today, it’s in part because my great-grandfather Rendell and so many others, fought in the First World War,” explained Andrew Redmond, 17, of Middle Cove, Nfld. On the 95th anniversary of the battle that laid the foundations of the formidable reputation of the Newfoundland Regt., given the designation “Royal” in 1917, Redmond paid tribute to his ancestor at the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France. “Their sacrifices helped us live in a free country.”
Redmond joined other proud Newfoundlanders, including former Royal Newfoundland Regt. 2nd Battalion commanding officer retired Colonel Maurice Hynes, bugler Sergeant James Prowse of the Royal Newfoundland Regt. Band and RCMP Sgt. Sue Efford of Foxtrap, Nfld., part of a Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) delegation that paid homage June 30 through July 3 to the vanished generation of soldiers who fought on the Somme. The delegation was led by Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, accompanied by Deputy Minister Suzanne Tining and ministerial staff. The Royal Canadian Legion was represented by Dominion President Pat Varga. Also participating were Eugene Heesaker of the National Council of Veteran Associations, Neil McKinnon of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans Association, Jarrott Holtzhauer of the NATO Veterans Organization of Canada and Allan Glass of the Gulf War Veterans Association, parliamentarians Brian Jean, Peter Stoffer and Sean Casey and senators Donald Plett and Joan Fraser. There were also youth, regimental and Department of National Defence representatives.
“It was an honour to represent the Royal Newfoundland Regiment,” said Prowse, who played at half a dozen delegation ceremonies at monuments and cemeteries on the Somme. “Everybody has some sort of connection to the regiment going back a couple of generations. I’m very proud to be here and to wear the hat badge” sporting a forget-me-not, worn by the regiment every year on Newfoundland’s Memorial Day, July 1.
The battle of Beaumont Hamel was fought on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the “Big Push” meant to end the trench warfare stalemate of the First World War. British and French troops began their advance at 7:30 a.m. in broad daylight, resulting in the heaviest single-day combat losses in the history of the British Army (Slaughter On The Somme, July/August 2011).
The battlefield was near the northern end of the 45-kilometre front. Artillery had pounded the German lines for five days prior to the attack, intended to destroy the barbed wire in no man’s land and kill and demoralize German troops. But German troops were safely dug in deep underground and the razor wire was barely affected by the bombs. At 7:20 a.m. a mine detonation gave the head’s up to the Germans, and 10 minutes later, the first waves of attackers met unexpected machine-gun and rifle fire. Soon the battlefield and front trenches were littered with dead and wounded.
The 1st Newfoundland Regt. waited in a trench out of sight of the battlefield. Averaging 5 feet, 2 inches in height, the men were weighed down by 27-kilogram backpacks filled with food, water, supplies and trench-digging tools. Their objective was to take and hold the German second position roughly two kilometres away. They were also carrying ladders meant to help them manoeuvre through and over trenches. But when they advanced at 9:15 a.m.—from their support trench nicknamed St. John’s Road—the trenches in front of them were filled with dead and wounded, forcing the soldiers to proceed above ground, unprotected. They were silhouetted against the sky when they crested the slope of no man’s land, and became easy targets for machine-gunners and riflemen entrenched 500 metres downhill.
Rendell was wounded in the arm and shoulder, likely a common wound because of the way many Newfoundlanders entered the battle, with their chins tucked in, as if encountering a storm. “Bullets were flying by them like the wind,” said Prowse. “In Newfoundland it’s natural to put your arm up to cover your face against the cold winter wind, and this was their reaction facing the bullets.”
Survivors advanced despite the hail of steel. “I’m always amazed at the courage to keep going,” said Hynes, who represented the Royal Newfoundland Regt. Association on the tour. “Maybe you’re afraid to stop, and you are trained to keep going…when things happen all of a sudden your training kicks in; it’s called the Black Spot. Your attention is focused, the adrenaline is pumping. There’s also the feeling that ‘it won’t be me;’ when you’re 18, 19, 20, (you think) you’re invincible.” Despite comrades falling around them, the Newfoundlanders continued towards the German line as long as they could still walk, some vainly sheltering behind The Danger Tree halfway down the slope, attracting concentrated fire. Eventually, no man was left standing.
Shiny metal triangles were attached to their backpacks so commanders behind the lines could follow their progress using binoculars. “Of course, 15 minutes into the battle,” said Hynes, “there was absolute devastation and the glinting pieces of metal became targets for snipers.” Hynes passes along stories he heard from Walter Tobin, last survivor of the Newfoundland Regt. from Beaumont Hamel, who died in 1995 at the age of 97. Withering fire prevented recovery of wounded during the day, and Tobin recalled the voices of teenaged soldiers crying out for their mothers. Many wounded were recovered, said Hynes, “but they had to wait until after dark” and there were so many it took several days, during which many died. That day 255 died, 386 were wounded and 91 were missing; it took the regiment months to rebuild.
Newfoundland, then a dominion of Great Britain, immediately answered the call when war was declared. “It was a higher calling, something more important than yourself,” said Hynes. “People thought it was your duty to serve God, King and Country and their families.” Because they came from isolated communities, “they also felt it was their duty to answer calls for help,” including that of Britain when it declared war.
For some the war promised adventure. “Many were fishermen and had not travelled farther than their boats could take them,” said Beaumont Hamel guide Allison Stentaford of Manuels, Nfld. “They wouldn’t even have travelled to Canada.” For others joining up meant a steady income, since most Newfoundlanders made precarious livings from fishing cod, hunting seal and felling trees.
The regiment was raised and outfitted so quickly that puttee material had to be borrowed from the naval reserve, thus earning the moniker The Blue Puttees for the first 500 who signed up. Fathers and sons, uncles and nephews and cousins signed up together. “Everybody knew everybody,” said Hynes. “It was a family regiment.” Few families, therefore, were unaffected by loss. Recruits for the Newfoundland Regt. came from 800 of the 1,200 communities across the island. In 1918, Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche said there were very few districts not mourning lost sons. “The war is an all absorbing topic. It is never absent from our thoughts. It is like some dreadful nightmare that we cannot shake off.” The impact from losing so many sons in the Great War is still felt today, added Hynes of Stephenville, Nfld.
A verse from the Newfoundland Book of Remembrance, 1867-1949 reads:
Where a man died bravely
At one with his destiny, that soil is his.
Let his village remember.
Though feelings run deep, 95 years provides a long stretch of time for memory to fade. Veterans Affairs Canada’s remembrance program helps Canadians keep the memories alive. Hynes added to his knowledge by accessing the Canadian Virtual War Memorial www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/sub.cfm?source=collections/virtualmem to learn more about his great-uncle George Emberly of Fortune Bay, Nfld., killed Oct. 8, 1917. During the tour, the Dominion President visited Drummond Cemetery which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Situated along the Arras-Cambrai road near Raillencourt, France, it is surrounded by peaceful fields where poppies grow wild. Varga’s great-grandfather, Lance Sgt. Patrick Rudden of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, is buried “in the company of 87 others…all killed on Sept. 29, 1918.”
The ceremony honouring the 95th anniversary of the battle was held at the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, about nine kilometres north of Albert, France. A great bronze caribou, emblem of the Newfoundland Regt., stands atop a mound, defiantly facing in the direction of the foe. At the mound’s base, three bronze tablets memorialize the names of 820 members of the Newfoundland Regt., the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Mercantile Marines who died and have no known grave. One of them is William Jones of Pilley’s Island who enlisted in the Naval Reserve at age 23 and was lost at sea during a rescue attempt in December 1915. His great-great-granddaughter, 21-year-old Beaumont Hamel guide Shaundel Leamon of Little Rapids, Nlfd., told his story during the ceremony.
Among those placing wreaths were Blaney; Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale; the representatives of the veterans organizations and youth representatives Redmond and Sydnie D’Aoust of London, Ont. “It was a loss felt in every corner of Newfoundland—we can only imagine the darkness that fell across the island that day,” Blaney told the crowd. While other Canadians celebrate Canada Day on July 1, “ceremonies in Newfoundland are marked by both joy and sadness. We rejoice in our Canadian nationhood, but in our hearts is also the remembrance of young boys lost to…war….
“We return here to pay homage to those brave young men who gave up their futures for the generations to come. The story of Beaumont Hamel will continue through time only if we continue to retell and chronicle the event.”
Dunderdale thanked those who paid a tremendous price to end tyranny, both those who fought with resolve and courage and the hundreds of families who also paid the price upon hearing “the heartbreaking news their sons would never return.…”
The commemorative tour began June 30 with a ceremony at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery near Vimy Ridge. A grave in the cemetery marks the original resting place of Canada’s Unknown Soldier whose remains were repatriated in 2000 and transported to Ottawa, where they now lie in a sarcophagus before the National War Memorial. Several pilgrims lit candles in memory of the nearly 40,000 French dead interred at the French National War Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette. The first day ended with a wreath-placing ceremony at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial where all four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time in 1917.
On July 2, delegates and guests from surrounding communities participated in remembrance ceremonies at the Courcelette Memorial and the nearby Monument aux Morts in Courcelette. The battle of Flers-Courcelette marked the beginning of the last great attempt to break through the enemy lines. On Sept. 15, 1916, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions attacked along with nine British divisions. Advancing behind a creeping barrage along a two-kilometre front and aided by tanks, the 22nd French Canadian and 25th Nova Scotia battalions regained Courcelette. Describing the fierce fighting at Courcelette, the Van Doos Commanding officer, Lt.-Col Thomas Tremblay said: “If hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette, I would not want my worst enemy to go there.” More than 300 Van Doos were killed or wounded. “This is the place where the Van Doos started to make their name,” said Mario Forest, representing the Royal 22nd Regt. Association. “They repulsed 13 counterattacks.”
After Flers-Courcelette, fighting moved to the Regina Trench, the longest German trench on the Western Front, where wave after wave of Canadian attackers were wiped out. The trench finally fell in November, 1916. In four and a half months of fighting at the Somme, the front line had advanced only about 10 kilometres at a cost of more than 620,000 Allied casualties, more than 24,000 of them Canadians.
After signing of the Armistice, Canadian remains from battlefields and small cemeteries near Courcelette were moved to Adanac Military Cemetery. Here, following a July 3 remembrance ceremony, youth representative D’Aoust, 16, presented the story of James Cleland Richardson. The 20-year-old piper was with the 16th (Canadian) Scottish Battalion and was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Ancre Heights. Richardson played as his comrades first went over the top on Oct. 9. Heavy casualties, including the death of the commanding officer, demoralized the attackers, so Richardson volunteered to play again, coolly striding up and down outside the wire, inspiring his comrades to a second attack. Later, after participating in bombing operations, he went missing in action while going back to retrieve his pipes.
Delegation piper Sgt. William MacDougall of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in Ottawa, played Richardson’s selections from that fateful day. “It’s very stirring to be on the same ground as men from our regiment…for some of them, it’s the final thing they saw,” said MacDougall.
The tour’s last service was at the Gueudecourt Newfoundland Memorial, site of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s assault during the Battle of Le Transloy and capture of Hilt Trench on the German front line, Oct. 12, 1916, at a cost of 239 casualties.
After Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundland Regt. rebuilt, and “this was the very next battle for the regiment afterwards, and it was a victory,” said Prowse. “By October they were back in it again, and one of the few units that obtained their objective on that day, and they continued the war that way.” Prowse wishes more Canadians knew this. “There are so many other stories of the bravery and victories of the Royal Newfoundland Regt., but too often all you hear about is the 68 who answered roll call after Beaumont Hamel. But the regiment fought right to the end of the war….”
The Legion’s Dominion President wishes more Canadians could see the overseas battlefields, monuments and cemeteries. “I always thought I knew what remembrance was…until I came over here the first time and walked in the cemeteries and heard the stories. I think you look differently on it after that.… It’s not just numbers and statistics and dates when you start putting faces on the people.”
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