Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment: July 1, 1916

Unveiled at Beaumont Hamel in 1925, The Caribou "like
monarch of the Topsail" became the mark for five
Newfoundland memorials along the Western Front.
Talk about a brand: the Somme!  

Where a year later, in 1917, Passchendaele would become synonymous for the wretchedness and brutality of the conditions at the front, the Somme was to be identified for its bloodiness, sheer waste, and  stupidity. Designed primarily to relieve the embattered French troops at Verdun, by the time the four month offensive petered out in November 1916, 400,000 Commonwealth soldiers had been killed, wounded or were missing; 60,000 of them the first day. . . and among these 680 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment  - the hardest hit battalion of any on that day.

While much of the attention of the British Army was pointed towards the Somme in the summer of 1916, the Canadian Divisions were occupied in Flanders for much of the Spring and Summer months and wouldn’t make their way south until later in August.

For the individual soldier, moving from Flanders to the Somme was often viewed with relief as they escaped the claustrophobia of the fields around Ypres and moved to a region characterized by wide open expanses and rolling hills.  

“The whole field of the Somme is chalk hill and downland, like similar formations in England. It has about it, in every part of it, certain features well known to every one who has ever traveled in chalk country. . . Where two slopes adjoin, such plowing steepens the valley between them into a gully, which, being always unsown, makes a track through the crops when they are up. Sometimes, though less frequently, the farmer plows away from a used track on quite flat land, and by doing this on both sides of the track, he makes the track a causeway or ridgeway, slightly raised above the adjoining fields. This type of raised road or track can be seen in one or two parts of the battlefield (just above Hamel and near Pozières for instance), but the hollow or sunken road . . . are everywhere. One may say that no quarter of a mile of the whole field is without one or other of them.”  This description taken from The Old Front Line, written in 1917, is as apt today as it was then. 

It's what strikes you as you drive down the Albert-Baupaume Road;  bright yellow fields of mustard sweep across the horizon in great arcs that drop off in to valleys, abruptly changing colour as they blend seamlessly with the opposite incline. But looking at the rolling hills of the Somme one can imagine the labour in having to charge across these fields in the heat of the summer, straining up and down the slopes, achievements measured in yards.  

The Germans, who had controlled the Y Ravine since the
early days of the War, took advantage of its steep banks
to build deep bunkers, impenetrable to artillery.
As they had in so many places along the front, the Germans had occupied the best defensive positions in the area, digging deep trenches and bunkers, reinforced with seasoned wood, iron girders and concrete.  The Y Ravine, with the high ground of Hawthorne Ridge to the west was a natural defensive position. Just below us on the lower slopes of this Hawthorn Ridge he had one vast hiding place which gave us a great deal of trouble. This was a gully or ravine, about five hundred yards long, well within his position, running (roughly speaking) at right angles with his front line. Probably it was a steep and deep natural fold made steeper and deeper by years of cultivation. It is from thirty to forty feet deep, and about as much across at the top; it has abrupt sides, and thrusts out two forks to its southern side. These forks give it the look of a letter Y upon the maps, for which reason both the French and ourselves called the place the " Ravin en Y" or "Y Ravine".  The Od Front Line

Today the Ravine is still off limits, protected, ironically, by barbed wire and signs that warn of unexploded munitions.

The 29th Division, of which the Newfoundland Regiment was a part, had to that point been serving in Gallipoli, but embarked for France in mid-March, arriving in Marseilles on the 22nd and boarded a train for Arras.  The Regiment was often referred to by others in the division as the “f....’g five bobbers” for the higher rate of pay they received. Responding to the proclamation from the Colonial Secretary, issued on 14 August, 1914, volunteers were “to serve abroad for the duration of the war, but not exceeding one year”, and would receive “pay at the rate of $1.00 oer day and free rations from the the date of enrolment.”

The Newfoundland Regiment was created in August 1914 in responset to a proclamation by the Colonial Secretary, that called for volunteers who would “serve abroad for the duration of the war, but not exceeding one year”, and would receive “pay at the rate of $1.00 oer day and free rations from the the date of enrollment.”   They were often referred to by others in the division as the “f....’g five bobbers” for the higher rate of pay they received.  The Proclamation announced that Newfoundland would “enlist, equip and dispatch to England the First Newfoundland Regient of 500 strong.” By 1st September, 1914, within two weeks of the proclamation, 597 men had “answered the call”.

The fields of Beaumont Hamel: Hawthorne Ridge is beyond the trees to the left; the communication
trench and the British front line is just in front of the sheep, in No Man's land;  the Danger Tree (marking
the hole in the Newfoundlander's wire)  is to the right of the farmer's van. This was the field that faced
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment on July 1, 1916.
Unlike the men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd South Wales Borderers, both scheduled to attack in the first wave, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment, waiting 200 yards behind the front line in the newly built St John's Road, did not see the mine explode along Hawthorne Ridge to the West.  The plan said they had a two hour wait before they could get in to the fight.

The blast was the signal to move, but as the first wave climbed over the top and headed to the British wire, German machine gun fire and artillery ripped apart the columns. The men of the Inniskilling Fusiliers fell back into the trenches as soon as they raised themselves above the parapet.  The commander of the 1st Border Regiment waited patiently for the white flare that would signal the capture of the German front line. He didn't have long to wait. Within minutes of the first wave going over, white flares were seen and he ordered his men to attack, crossing bridges that had been built to carry them over the British front trenches. 

The Danger Tree, marking the hole in
the wire and the farthest point of
advancement - an iconic symbol
for Newfoundlanders
But as machine gun fire continued to rake the advancing troops, the German commander fired a flare, a white one, to call in more artillery. By 8:00 the Borderer’s attack was at a standstill and 530 of them were dead, wounded or missing.  Thirty minutes after the first wave, the men of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, followed in the footsteps of the Fusiliers to a similar fate. And like the Fusiliers, many of the Regiment’s dead and wounded, which would amount to 550 men, fell back in to the trench that they had just left.

And finally, at 8:45,  the Newfoundland Regiment got the word to move off.  It would have been  unnerving to have waited for so long that morning, just a few hundred yards from the bloody chaos that was taking place along the front line; continuous machine gun fire, artillery blasts and the screams of the men who preceded them. And moving forward they had to make their way over the bodies of the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Scottish Borders that were piling up, the wounded among the dead. Eventually the congestion of dead and wounded was too much, and they climbed out of the communication trench to go the last 200 yards to their front line in the open, exposed to the german guns.

And of all accounts the lasting image is of men, walking through the gunfire towards their own wire, the objective 600 yards further on, their chins tucked in to their right shoulder, braving a blizzard.

Beaumont Hamel Park
The Memorial Wall lists the names of men from
Newfoundland, from all services, who have no
known grave.
“No doubt long before now you have been scanning the Casualty List but hope you did not see mine. Guess you will say how did I escape with such a big list. At any rate all that I can do is to thank God. I came through O.K. without a scratch, but a good many near ones. Well with all my experience or warfare, I felt in the best of spirits, in fact everyone felt the same and you can take it from me that every man went right to it, and not one funked. I being with Headquarters (that is the C.O. and Adjt.) we were first to get up, and the C.O. gave a wave of his stick, (that was at 9:15 am you know the date) and they all mounted the parapet and away they went and the bullets flying around, just like hail, up went the hand, as if it was raining hard, to keep the rain off. No doubt you have full particulars of it by now. There is a good account of it in the Daily Mail July 8th edition. The Corps. Commander came down a few days ago and gave us as good praise as any one could give and said we were second to none. God bless you all.” 
Private A.J. Stacey, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, July, 1916

In 1919 Lt Col. Thomas Nangle, the former Roman Catholic priest for the Regiment was appointed as Newfoundlan’s representative to the Imperial War Graves Commission. In this capacity Nangle would oversee the design and development of  five battlefield memorialst. Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park, the largest of the memorials, and the only one in which a portion of the battlefield itself was preserved, was unveiled in July, 1925.

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