Warning: Yet another meandering post about WWI.
July first is Canada Day, formerly known as Dominion Day, the 141st anniversary since Confederation in 1867. At the time, only four provinces elected to enter into the new Dominion- Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland opted to stay out. Prince Edward Island joined the confederation a few years later, and was later joined by BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Newfoundland, the last to join, only joined the Dominion in 1949 after a hotly contested plebiscite won by the narrowest of margins for the Dominion side. There are those in Newfoundland who believe the plebiscite was rigged by the British government who wished to shed themselves of a poor colony.
For Newfoundlanders, July First holds a double meaning. It is Canada day, but the day holds another meaning to which they are dedicated- memory. It is the memory for which the provincial university- memorial university- is named and dedicated: to perpetuate the memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment and the events of July First, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme has its roots in 1916's other and greater bloodbath, Verdun. The French were sustaining huge losses at Verdun, to the south of the British sector of the Western Front. The French appealed to General Haig, the British commander, to launch an offensive in his sector in an attempt to draw German units out of Verdun and to relieve the pressure on the French. According to legend, Haig took a pushpin and placed it randomly on the map. "We will attack there," he said. "At the Somme."
By this time, the war had reached a stalemate. Each side had adopted defensive trenches as a way to fortify their position, and no advance was made on either side. The trenches were a complicated affair. Each side laid out series of parallel trenches to create a defense in depth. Running perpendicular to the front line, second line and third line trenches were another series of trenches allowing movement back and forth between the trench lines, called communication trenches. The ground between the trenches was often covered in barbed wire, as was the area in front of the front lines. It was a formidable defense.
The battle plan, such as it was, called for the largest bombardment yet to destroy the German lines- trenches, barbed wire and all- at which point the British forces would push through unopposed and continue straight on to Germany. The British quickly amassed the shells necessary for the bombardment, and began the shelling on June 24, 1916. The attack was originally scheduled for June 29, but inclement weather caused the attack to be postponed. The delay also allowed an additional two days to the bombardment. So confident were the British of the utter destruction of the Germans that the units of the first wave of the attack were told they could walk upright and erect to the German lines. The trenches, the barbed wire, the Germans themselves would long since have been destroyed. The British generals even ordered the men to sew metal reflective plates onto their backs that would flash in the sunlight as they moved, so the generals could better observe their advance from aerial reconnaissance photographs they would peruse from their safe positions far in the rear.
In the meantime, the Germans stayed in their bunkers. The Somme region was known for having a bedrock of chalk, which could be easily excavated and provided excellent protection from shelling. The Germans dug their bunkers deeper and moved in more troops, as the French had desired. Far from obliteration, the only result of the bombardment was to warn the Germans of an impending attack, and allowed them time to reinforce their line. It did not destroy the trenches. It did not clear the barbed wire. The German position was actually stronger after the bombardment than before.
On the morning of July 1st at about 7:30 the guns fell silent, whistles were blown, and the British climbed from the trenches and began their advance. The Germans could not believe their eyes- thousands upon thousands of British troops advancing in parade ground marching formation, many of them lead by bagpipers. Their shock did not last long. They reached for their rifles and machine guns, sent signals to their own batteries, and opened fire.
It was a massacre. For almost the entire length of the Somme sector, the first wave was wiped out. The second wave was ordered over the top and met the same fate. Communication was a shambles. The only reports that reached the British Command came from the few units who had succeeded in their attack. Thinking the attack was successful, the third wave was ordered to prepare to go over the top.
The Newfoundland Regiment was at a place called Beaumont Hamel when orders came through at 8:45 am. The command had confused flares sent up by the Germans to their gunners to be flares from British troops calling for reinforcements, and believed the first and second waves had been at least partially successful. They issued the orders for the third wave go prepare to go over the top. The 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex were to move forward and occupy the enemy's first line of trenches. At the time they were about two hundred metres back from their own front line, out of sight of the enemy. The Newfoundlanders tried to move to the forward trench, but the communication trenches were clogged with wounded and under shell fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hadow, decided to move immediately to attack positions by ordering his men out of the trenches and to march on the open ground above the trenches to the front lines. Meanwhile, the first Essex decided to try and move through their communication trenches, and as a result were not in a position to launch an attack until 10:30. At 9:15 The Newfoundland men, about 780 of them, rose from their trenches. Colonel Hadow gestured with his stick the in the direction of the Germans, and gave the order. With that, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment began to move in rehearsed formations through their own front lines to the jump off point.
At first they were protected by a small rise that lay in the middle of the British trenches, but before long they crested the top of the little hill and were completely silhouetted against the morning sky. By then, they were the only thing moving on the battlefield. Every German gun in the sector turned towards them and opened fire.
Men began to fall. Men from tight knit communities, men who had served together, knew each other as friends and as brothers fell to the ground. Those who remained continued on. As one witness later said, they moved forward "with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard". More men fell. They continued their advance. They had not yet cleared their own front lines.
They marched on because they believed. They believed in courage and honour. They believed in truth and justice, they believed in their cause. Those who had been educated had learned the words "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"- "it is sweet and just to die for one's country" These words had meaning, such meaning that men were prepared to die for these words, and also for an empire that would shake off their beloved homeland the first chance it got. They were men of a generation that proved beyond all others that they believed. And because of days like this, because of four years of days like this, they were the last generation that could believe so honestly, so naively, so blindly, and so totally.
They marched deeper into the storm. By the time they had cleared their own barbed wire and crossed into No Man's Land they had suffered perhaps 30 per cent casualties. With every step they drew closer to the German guns. The fire became more accurate, more concentrated, more deadly. They stepped over the dead and wounded from the earlier attacks, swelled the number of dead and wounded with their own, and pressed on. There was no cover. There was no retreat. There was no escape.
Perhaps forty or fifty men made it to the German trenches. They fought bravely, aided by a few of the survivors of the earlier attacks, but the end was never in doubt. Their fate had been sealed when they first rose from their trenches. It was over by 9:40.
For the wounded in the field the nightmare continued. As a final, terrible joke the wounded found thy could not move at all. The metal plates sewn onto their backs so the Generals could observe their movements also betrayed their movements to the German snipers. They had to lie still on the field, and hope they survived until nightfall. In the Northern Hemisphere, July First is one of the longest days of the year.
The 1st Essex attack was cancelled, but due to the communications chaos of that day, the order never reached them. They went over the top at 10:30, and suffered 280 casualties before the attack was called back.
July First remains the greatest one day disaster in the history of the British Army. Up and down the Somme front the casualties totalled 57,470, of which 19, 240 were fatal. For the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 780 went over the top on July First. The next day, 68 answered roll call. The Regiment suffered the second highest rate of casualties of all the units that went over the top that day. Ultimately, tragically, the day was merely a prelude to slaughter. Before the Battle of the Somme was finally ended by Autumn rains it would claim over a million casualties. It was second only to Verdun for blood.
News of the disaster soon winged its across the Atlantic to the Island home of the men in the form of telegrams telling their families and friends of their death. To an Island of small tightly knit communities, everyone was touched in some way by that day. The British tried to put a good face on the disaster by invoking the words that once meant something in ways that ring hollow today. The Divisional commander paid a grim tribute to the men: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Later the reconstituted unit received the unique honour of adding the word "Royal" to its name, so they were now the "Royal Newfoundland Regiment". More men signed up, followed their people back across the ocean to the desperation of No Man's Land. The war would continue for another two years.
After the war Beaumont Hamel was ceded to the Newfoundland Government. The ground of the attack was preserved as much as possible as it was during the war. The government placed a statue of a caribou, the regimental symbol, standing over the British trenches, forever facing the German foe. The ground has been cared for, as a reminder of that desperate morning 92 years ago. Near the entrance to the park an epitaph is inscribed in Bronze. It reads:
And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and right willingly for you and me.