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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

July 1 - Beaumont-Hamel, Beyond the Wire

With Canada Day approaching I’d like to beg the indulgence of our readers for a moment by asking, during this time of celebration, that we take a moment to remember how that day also marks one of the most solemn in Newfoundland and Labrador’s pre-confederation history.

When people today consider Newfoundland and Labrador’s military legacy they’re likely to think of the men and women serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. Few think of the time before the province’s Confederation with Canada when, in 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment faced the bloodiest day in its history.

The Regiment was comprised of some of the best and brightest Newfoundland and Labrador had at its disposal. Many were athletes, scholars and aspiring business leaders. All were determined to fight for the Dominion of Newfoundland.

By the end of 1915 the war was going badly for the Allies. The Eastern Front was in disarray, the Gallipoli campaign had failed and Allied commanders desperately wanted a major success. To this end they concentrated their efforts on the Western Front. Beaumont-Hamel sprang from that plan.

German forces had been deeply entrenched at Beaumont-Hamel for some time and although an Allied assault there had been planned for an earlier start, bad weather postponed the offensive until July first of 1916. This delay gave the Germans plenty of time to re-enforce their defenses and prepare for the assault.

At 9:00 p.m. on June 30, the Newfoundland Regiment turned out for roll call with a head count of 25 officers and 776 NCOs or other ranks, 801 in total.

The plan of the British command was to penetrate a section of enemy lines that had previously been targeted by a week-long artillery barrage. As a result there was expectation among the ranks of limited resistance, but all was not as the men hoped.

A 10 minute delay in advancing took place after the suspension of artillery fire. Such a short period of time might seem insignificant to a civilian but for many on the battlefield that day it turned out to be a lifetime. The extra 10 minutes allowed the enemy the time they needed to evaluate the situation at hand and make ready for battle.

Of the delay, Private John Ryan would later recall thinking, “That’s it, we’re licked”.

He was right.

In reality the week-long “softening” of the lines had been largely unsuccessful and most of the German defenses remained intact. With the enemy aware of the upcoming ground assault the odds were stacked against the men of the Regiment.

It was a recipe for disaster most of them could not have been aware of as they dutifully followed orders to leave the relative safety of the trenches.

The men, each carrying nearly 70 pounds of gear, spilled over the side and advanced across more than 500 metres of open grassy slope, in broad daylight, with no artillery cover and in full view of the enemy.

As they moved down the exposed slope towards “no man’s land” a murderous cross-fire cut through their ranks. Almost immediately men began to drop, at first slowly but then in larger numbers as they approached the first gaps in their own wire. Many fell while they were still behind their own line of defense.

Private Anthony Stacey, who watched the carnage from a forward trench, later said, “The men were mown down in waves.” The gaps cut the night before were “a proper trap for our boys as the enemy just set the sights of the machine guns on the gaps in the barbed wire and fired”.
With Dogged determination the survivors continued onward, many stumbling or stepping over the bodies of fallen friends.

Ahead lay the German front lines, a three-tiered system of forward trenches, well dug in and protected by expanses of barbed wire. Past the first line of defense, at ranges between 2,000 and 5,000 metres, the Germans had constructed a second line of trenches and were working farther back on yet a third.

The German lines were manned by tough and experienced soldiers who had turned a natural Y-shaped ravine into one of the strongest positions on the entire western front. The network of heavily protected lines presented a formidable obstacle to any attacking force as the fighting Newfoundlanders learned the hard way.

As the only large body of troops moving across the battlefield that morning the men of the Regiment were clearly visible to the enemy who subjected them to the full brunt of their weaponry.

Most of those who succeeded in escaping the volley of fire concentrated on the gaps in their own wire made it no further than the now infamous “danger tree”, a landmark between the two sets of enemy combatants that had served artillery commanders as a landmark.

The few who eventually reached the German lines were horrified to discover that the week-long artillery barrage had failed in opening up the German barbed wire. As a consequence the majority of the soldiers who reached their objective were killed as they became entangled.

The condition of the enemy wire had been known by commanders the night before the attack, thanks to a report by a Newfoundland reconnaissance team, but that report was dismissed as little more than “nervousness” by men “facing battle…” It was a decision by British Commanders that amounted to a death sentence.

In the end the Regiment was decimated.

Beaumont-Hamel turned out to be more of a slaughter than a battle. In less than 20 minutes most of the men were either dead or wounded. It was all over in under half an hour.

Of the 801 men who had charged the German lines most were killed or seriously wounded and only 68 were able to make roll call the next day, a casualty rate of over 90%.

In time the Regiment rebuilt its ranks and through its actions at Beaumont-Hamel and in other campaigns the soldiers ensured their place in military history.

During the war the Regiment earned no less than 280 separate decorations, 77 of which were awarded to original members of the “first 500” who set sail from St. John’s in 1914. In fact, one in every seven men among the original force received some sort of military honor.

For their bravery and sacrifices, in September of 1917, King George the Fifth bestowed upon them a “Royal” prefix that would continue to be used from that day onward. This was just the third time in British military history that such an honor was awarded during a time of conflict, the last occasion having been more than a hundred years earlier.

Of course all of those men who served at Beaumont-Hamel are long gone now but their fighting spirit lives on to this day in the men and women from Newfoundland and Labrador who serve with Canada’s forces.

We may not be able to express our gratitude directly to those who gave so much on that dark day but we can certainly honour their legacy. On July first and throughout the year take a few minutes to visit a local legion or war memorial, stop and chat with an aging veteran and offer a simple thank-you for the sacrifices they’ve made on our behalf.

It only takes a few minutes to shake a veteran’s hand or buy one a cold beer. And, as we go about our celebrations this Canada Day weekend it only takes a few seconds to quietly remember those who suffered on that faraway battlefield on July first 1916.

Beyond the Wire

The big guns cease and silence falls,
My heartbeat sounds to fill the void.
Just ten short strokes upon life’s clock
‘Till I am ordered o’er the side.

The smoke has cleared above the field,
I wonder who will tell our tale.
I fear my best is not enough
But fear still more that I might fail.

For Country I must fight or die
Like countless others gone before.
Eight hundred others face my fate,
Young blood to spill on foreign shores.

As one we rise and find our feet.
The trenches fall behind us fast.
The wire cuts we hope to breach
As one by one our fate is cast.

Blood rushes through our beating hearts
Like bullets coursing through the air
Laying low our charging ranks,
My heart beats yet, but some no more.

Wire gates make targets clear
We blindly charge toward them still
Trampling men for whom we care
Cast away upon the till.

Blood and mire are as one.
Angry hornets mow us down.
Charging hard my only hope
Upon this hell of earthly ground.

Stealing glances left to right
As near the ragged tree I draw
Where once eight hundred souls advanced
So few have made it out this far.

Yet on I race toward the fire
Across the field where corpses grow,
If I can reach that tangled line
My safety I might then secure.

Cries of anguish hard at hand
My breath grows ragged, strained and raw,
My mind is numbed with blinding fear,
My boots are now in full command.

Ahead the wire barbed and sharp,
Standing strong, no way inside.
My charge is such I cannot halt,
The bastards at command have lied.

Leggings snared within its grasp,
Struggles fail to set me free.
With desperate rage I fight for life
But fate has different plans for me.

My body feels the first report.
I know no pain, just anger now.
The second turns the sky to red,
And darkness falls forever more.

On next day’s dawn they’ll take the call.
Those sixty-eight remember me.
I gave my best until I fell.
No voyage home across the sea.


Ussr said...

Je me souviens , Canada !!!

NL-ExPatriate said...

Another nation was in charge of us than as they are now in charge of our fishery/continental shelf!