“Young people lay wreaths during a service to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial in Thiepval, France.” [Source]
This past Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916 was one of the worst days in British military history. Of the 57,470 British casualties on that one day, 19,240 were killed; most of which occurred within the first two hours. Within those numbers lies the majority of the First Newfoundland Regiment. Before the soldiers went over the top, they were over 800 strong. How is that only 68 men were able to answer roll call the following day? What exactly went wrong and why does the disaster at Beaumont-Hamel still resonate today?
Battle of the Somme: Overview
British soldiers leave their trenches during the Battle of the Somme. (c. 1916) [Source]
From July 1 to November 18, 1916, the area surrounding the River Somme in northern France became the site of the largest battle of the First World War and one of the deadliest in human history. There were over 24,000 Canadian casualties by the end, but this was just a small fraction of the 1.25 million who were either killed or wounded on both sides. Although a few historians argue that the Somme was a success for the Allies because it laid down the foundations for Germany’s defeat two years later, most consider it a failure. After all, what did the Allies gain from the 12 battles that made up the Somme Offensive? Six miles.
The Somme Offensive was meant to turn the tide of the war. Things had not gone well for the Allies up to this point. The optimism of the early days was long gone. The Germans had successfully marched through Belgium and had invaded France. The war on the Eastern Front was a disaster and all along the Western Front soldiers were hunkered down in trenches, locked in a stalemate. British and French commanders began to plan the Somme Offensive in the Winter of 1916, but the German attack at Verdun changed things as that battle tied up the bulk of French troops for ten months. The Somme became a largely British operation as a result.
Newfoundland and the Great War
Newfoundland Regiment Soldiers. (Both photos from 1915). [Source]
The Canadian Forces did not enter the Somme until August 30th. At this time, Newfoundland and Labrador were still an independent British colony and had a population of about 242,000 in 1914. When Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Newfoundland had no army or even a militia, but that did not stop them from offering their full support to the British military. A volunteer regiment of over 500 men quickly came together and more followed after they were first sent over to Europe in October of that year. The First Newfoundland Regiment participated in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, before being transferred to the Western Front in March of 1916. They trained for three months for the Battle of the Somme.
The Plan for July 1st
Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, called the Somme Offensive the “Great Push Forward” as the overall goal was to relieve some of the pressure on the French at Verdun by breaking through the German lines. Leading up to July 1 was an eight-day artillery bombardment. This was supposed to disseminate German numbers, cause chaos in their trenches, and destroy their barbed wires. On the day of the battle, they would detonate the mines in the tunnels dug along enemy lines and then the troops would attack in waves. This would break through the first German line and bring them into the second by the day’s end. The plan for the First Newfoundland Regiment, (who were part of the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division), was for them to be part of a third wave of attack to overtake enemy trenches near the village of Beaumont-Hamel.
What Really Happened
This map shows just how badly things went. You will notice though that south of the Albert-Bapaume Road there were some decent gains. French troops were successful in overwhelming the German forces. [Source]
On July 24th, the eight-day massive artillery bombardment of the German front lines began. Along the 18 mile front, thousands of British and French guns fired for eight days. Reportedly, the bombardment was so loud that it could be heard all the way in London. It was all for naught though. Although it reduced German morale and prevented fresh supplies from reaching them, the bombardment failed its objectives. The shells were not strong enough to destroy the wire, rather they made it even more tangled. They were also too weak to reach the German trenches which were 9 metres deep. The enemy just rode out the bombardment and waited for the right moment to attack.
Prior to the attack, Newfoundland Soldiers stand in St. John’s Road Support Trench, (July 1, 1916). [Source]
That opportune moment came when the Allies made the mistake of detonating the mines at 7:20am, 10 minutes before the launch of the attack. The mines did succeed in blowing up some strategic German strongholds, including the Hawthrone Ridge near Beaumont-Hamel. However, the main thing that the mines did was alert the Germans that an attack was coming. They quickly set up their machine guns.
18,000 kilograms of explosives detonate under the Hawthorn Ridge (July 1, 1916). [Source]
At 7:30am, the men went over the top. They were ordered to march in a traditional straight line, shoulder-to-shoulder, and make their way across No Man’s Land. They were slaughtered. If the soldiers were not killed by the initial machine gun fire, they got caught up in the twisted barbed wire along the way and got picked off there. “We were very surprised to see them walking,” wrote a German machine gunner after the battle. “They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.” (Eksteins, 145). The same thing happened to the second wave of troops. The British soldiers who were not killed immediately did adopt the French tactic of rushing, hiding, and crawling under the cover of smoke, but getting across was still no easy task. It still got to the point where subsequent waves of soldiers had to climb over the corpses of those who went before them.
No Man’s Land at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916. [Source]
The First Newfoundland Regiment were still waiting in the trenches to advance at this point. Unfortunately for them, British commanders received conflicting reports what was going on and they mistook German flares as a sign of success. Communication problems were one of the big problems that day. Some units advanced too quickly or not at the right time. Also, poor communication led to poor artillery coordination.
The Regiment went over the top at 9:15 am and most of them were shot down before they even reached No Man’s Land. If they made it to the battlefield, the eight-day artillery bombardment had leveled the land and so there was nowhere for them to take cover. Most were killed within 30 minutes. Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Hadow, the Regiment’s commanding officer, reported that the attack had failed by 9:45am. Originally he was told by his superiors to send any remaining troops to continue the attack, but fortunately they changed their minds when the reality of the situation set in.
How did the 68 survive? Luck and perseverance. They had to slowly crawl back across No Man’s Land and not get picked off by snipers or artillery fire along the way. One harrowing example of this is Private James McGrath’s 17 hour journey back to safety. He only had his left arm to move him across the muddy, crater-ridden field because he had been shot in his other limbs, as well as his hip. He was one of the 386 who were wounded; 324 men were killed or presumed dead.
The slaughter happened all along the advancing British line because it had been a poor plan from the start. The Germans had been in the area long before the Allies, so they held the best positions. The soldiers were supposed to cover 4,000 yards to reach the first German line. Not only was that a great distance across a hostile landscape, but they had to do so in out-dated military formations and while being weighed down by 30 kg backpacks. Their bombardment not only failed because of the poorly made shells they used, but it made the battlefield even worse for themselves to cross. Finally, the artillery that was to cover troops as they made their way forward was spread too thinly along their advancing line and it shifted away from the German front trenches too early, which left the British exposed. The French were more successful and had fewer losses that day because they took a more heavy-handed approach with their artillery and attacked in rushes from the get-go.
Lance Corporal Ernest Kelly (second from the right) was one of the 386 who were wounded at Beaumont-Hamel. He stands with fellow survivors at Wandsworth Hospital, London. Kelly survived the war. (July 5, 1916). [Source]
Sadly, some of those who survived Beaumont-Hamel were killed over the course of the four and a half months that the Somme Offensive dragged on for. Newfoundland went into a state of mourning. Letters of condolence and praise for the Regiment from Allied leaders and officers poured in. Even Douglas Haig had a message addressed to the families of the fallen in the Evening Telegram, a British newspaper, stating that “Newfoundland may well feel proud of her sons. […] Their efforts contributed to our success, and their example will live.”
Rather than discourage future recruits, the disaster increased the number of volunteer troops from Newfoundland. The Regiment went on to be successful in subsequent battles and played a crucial role in the Battle of Arras in April 1917. As a result in December 1917, King George V recognized the sacrifice that the small population of Newfoundland made to the war effort by giving the Regiment royal designation. They were the only unit to receive the honor in WWI and are now called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
A Ceremony of Remembrance at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial to mark the centenary. [Source]
Each year on July 1st, along with celebrating Canada Day, Newfoundland and Labrador also hold Memorial Day to honor the fallen. In France, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial was opened in 1925 to honour all those who died at the Somme whose graves are unknown. As a result of this year being the centennial, a number of commemorations took place across the country. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute at the Canadian War Museum. “July 1, 1916, marked a pivotal moment in time, a moment that has since entrenched itself in Newfoundland and Labrador identity and history.”
Trudeau’s speech is reflective of what is arguably the biggest legacy of Beaumont-Hamel, the place it holds in Newfoundland’s collective memory. The battle outshines all of the other victories and losses that the Dominion experienced during the war. The reason for this is two-fold. The first is that the battle is symbolic of the futility of the Great War on the whole. The other is the idea that WW1 and Beaumont-Hamel in particular killed off the generation of men who could have led Newfoundland out of the dark times that followed the war and into a future where they were still independent and self-governing. The circumstances surrounding Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949 are complicated and people argue over the validity of the Beaumont-Hamel-was-the-beginning-of-the-end stance, but it is a highly popular sentiment. As such, the battle is tided up with not only a sense of loss of life, but also of independence, which makes its memory all the more enduring.
Bailey, Sue, “Newfoundland honours those who ‘fought like lions and died as heroes’ 100 years after Somme battle,” The Canadian Press. July 1, 2016, Accessed from: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/newfoundland-honours-those-who-fought-like-lions-and-died-as-heroes-100-years-after-somme-battle
Clare, John D., “First Day of the Somme” GCSE Modern World History. 2002-2014. Accessed from: http://www.johndclare.net/wwi2_FirstDay_map.htm
Domonoske, Camila, “A Century After The Battle Of The Somme, Europe Gathers To Honor The Fallen,” NPR. July 1, 2016. Accessed from: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/01/484344178/a-century-after-the-battle-of-the-somme-europe-gathers-to-honor-the-fallen
Eksteins, Modris, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Toronto: Knopf Canada, (2012).
Everett-Green, Robert, “July 1, Memorial Day,” The Globe and Mail. July 1, 2016. Accessed from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/why-july-1-means-something-very-different-for-newfoundland-andlabrador/article30717153/
Hart, Peter, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front, Berkley: Pegasus Books, (2010).