Newfoundland soldiers at the Somme: the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel

Article / June 30, 2017 / Project number: 16-1047

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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Canada’s military history is filled with courage and sacrifice. Since Confederation, two million Canadian sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen of many backgrounds have served Canada with distinction overseas. More than 100,000 of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. To help commemorate that heritage and mark Canada’s 150th year as a nation, we are presenting a series of stories to salute the bravery of our military predecessors who fought to defend Canadian values at home and abroad. In this installment, we look back at the Battle of the Somme.

Ottawa, Ontario — While Canadians can look back at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and take some comfort in the popular idea that the sacrifices made there at least solidified the notion of Canada as a sovereign nation, there is little to relieve the sense of loss – particularly for the people of Newfoundland – that inevitably comes with pondering the Battle of the Somme.

Though it began on Canada’s national holiday, July 1, the story of the Somme is not an especially Canadian one. It was the British, seeking to break a long-standing stalemate that gripped the Western Front in 1916, who led the ill-fated campaign, which was an offensive in the Somme River Valley of Northern France.

Newfoundland would not formally become a part of Canada until 1949, but hundreds of volunteers were raised from the future province at the start of the war. Members of the First Newfoundland Regiment took part in the opening attack of the campaign, which took place around the village of Beaumont-Hamel.

It was preceded by a massive, week-long artillery barrage, but the British arsenal was full of dud shells that failed to explode. So, when British troops emerged from their trenches and charged, they faced a mostly unscathed enemy.

The Newfoundlanders were ordered to attack across open ground just after 9 a.m. and were cut down in massive numbers in just 30 minutes. By the end of the first day of battle, fewer than 70 of the Regiment’s 800 members were able to fight another day.

This was not the end of the First Newfoundland Regiment, however: refreshed with personnel from back home, it would fight in key battles at Gueudecourt, Ypres, Arras, Courtrai, and Cambrai. At Cambrai, the regiment fought so well that it was subsequently re-named The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the only regiment to receive such an honour during the war.

Three divisions of Canadians were moved to the Somme region in August. And, while they did capture several strategic points from the Germans, when rain and snow finally necessitated an end to the battle, just 13 kilometres of the 35-kilometre front had been taken. Total Allied losses were over 600,000; some 25,000 of which were Canadians and Newfoundlanders.

Today, just outside Beaumont-Hamel, is a park which includes a memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Sitting at the park’s highest point, this National Historic Site features a statue of a caribou, the regiment’s emblem, and the names of the dead on brass plaques. The Government of Canada marked the 100th anniversary of the Somme and Beaumont-Hamel with a commemorative ceremony on the site on July 1, 2016.

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