July 1st, 1916
A day that became synonymous with remembrance, loyalty and sacrifice.
The plans for the “Great Push” came off the end of Gallipoli and the successful pushbacks of the Germans on Allied forces on both Eastern and Western fronts at the end of 1915. Originally, it was a co-operative offensive between the British and French armies to retake the Somme, breaking the streak and pushing the Allied forces one step towards victory. The plan was scheduled for around July 1st, 1916. However, an ill-timed major attack by the Germans on Verdun, France on February 21, 1916, caused the British to bear the brunt of supplying soldiers.
At this time, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was still serving with the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division. They received word of their involvement in the “Great Push” and travelled from Egypt to France. In the time leading up to Z-day, the Regiment trained vigorously. Simultaneously, German trenches were bombarded with artillery to weaken barbed wire and other obstructions in No Man’s Land. In the few days before, June 26th and 27th, the Newfoundland Regiment was involved in two German trench raids (see this post for more details on the raids).
It began on the morning of July 1st, 1916. First, they detonated the explosives laid beneath Hawthorn Ridge that had been placed over the past few weeks. The hope was the explosion and subsequent crater would enable their forces to more easily storm and capture the ridge. The timing of this detonation was of debate but they ultimately agreed upon 10 minutes before zero hour. This was a grave mistake. The explosion not only alerted the Germans, but the delay gave them time to reclaim the crater and get their heavy guns in place (namely, machine guns).
The first two waves of troops met the same fate: killed or wounded by intense enemy fire within minutes. Meanwhile, the Newfoundlanders remained in their trenches, waiting for their signal to proceed. Eventually it came but with a break away from the initial plan. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was meant to attack alongside the Essex but were now ordered to move independently. Frost details in his memoir that Lt. Col. Hadow (in charge of the Newfoundlanders) “was a regular British Army Officer of many years’ service, and I suppose he held strictly to the rule that ‘in battle an order from a superior officer must be obeyed, regardless of the consequences”*.
As the men charged out of the trenches they were met only with German gunfire (before they moved past their own lines of barbed wire). With no allied forces to lay down suppressive fire and with the small sections of barbed wire cut, the Newfoundlanders were caught in a funnel. One of these points was by a battle-charred and bent tree. The ground around the tree quickly became ladened with the bodies of slaughtered Newfoundlanders trying to fulfil their orders. The tree itself became a symbol of this day and the sacrifice of the soldiers that died there. It became known as The Danger Tree.
The Battle of the Somme lasted months after July 1st. Although it was thought to be completed in a day, it did draw German forces away from Verdun and aid the French in their defence of the city. On the last day of battle in November, the British finally captured Beaumont-Hamel.
The Reason We Remember On This Day
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment participated in numerous battles across the First World War. All contained blood, loss, and sacrifice. Some ended in victory, however small.
July 1st was chosen for a day of Memorial because of the immensity of the tragedy that day was. It illustrates the horrors of war and the unyielding loyalty of the Newfoundlanders who fought.
When you honour those that died in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, remember those that fought at:
- Beaumont-Hamel, France (Battle of the Somme)
- Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey
- Ieper, Belgium
- Gueudecourt, France
- Kesboeufs, France
- Le Transloy, France
- Sailly-Saillisel, France
- Monchy-le-Preux, France (First and Second Battle of the Scarpe)
- Steenbeek, Belgium (Battle of Langemarck)
- Broembeek, Belgium (Battle of Passchendaele – Battle of Poelcappelle)
- Marcoing – Masnieres, France (Battle of Cambrai)
- Bailleul – Armentieres, Belgium
- Keiberg Ridge, Belgium
- Ledeghem, Belgium
- River Lys and Vichte, Belgium
What We Choose to Remember
The Valiant and the Forgotten
Those who most remember. Soldiers who went beyond, who took initiative, who put their lives at risk to save comrades, complete objectives, or simply get back home.
Remember these men. Remember those, too, that are unknown, without names and with forgotten identities.
When faced with danger and fear, it is human to put on a mask. To hide the anxiety below the surface and put on a veil of confidence. Many soldiers wrote and sent letters back home during the war. These letters kept communities and families connected. They let soldiers focus on things other than war or to share
An essential fact of being human is that, when faced with even the most dangerous scenario, you find humour. Humour is a major catharsis, a stress reliever. Private Francis T. Lind, also known as Mayo Lind, wrote letters that were published in the Daily Mail. In them, he described life at war. The following is a beautiful summary of what it is to be human, and in the face of regular danger. You find humour where you can, in the obscurity of the situation.
“I wish I could illustrate to you just what it is like, but I cannot. No pen could describe what it is like, how calmly one stands and faces death, jokes and laughs; everything is just an every day occurrence.You are mud covered, dry and caked, perhaps, but you look at the chap next to you and laugh at the state he is in; then you look down at your own clothes and then the other fellow laughs. Then a whizz bang comes across and misses both of you, and both laugh together.”***
Remember the soldiers as human. They laughed, cried, felt afraid, exhilarated, and were proud of their service.
Those Who Tried
When the First World War broke out, there was an expectation for all able-bodied men to sign-up to defend their country. Men would get harassed if thought to have avoided enlisting. It became bad enough, the military issued a pin to give to those who tried to enlist, to serve and defend their country, but didn’t meet the requirements (usually for medical reasons). These pins are symbols of the loyalty these men had, and the intense expectation that surrounded enlistment into the army. These pins continued into the Second World War. They became a staple to prove you showed up and tried.
Remember these men. Despite being turned away, they tried. They showed up, possibly knowing they would be denied, and demonstrated the call to arms. Remember these men.
When we talk about Memorial and Remembrance, it is often pointed at the soldiers, sailors, and flyers. Those that fought and faced the full force of harm. There are others. Nurses and doctors who volunteered not to fight, but to heal the injured. They witnessed the tragedy of war from a different side. Soldiers came in, wounded and dying. Nurses healed them, treated their wounds and their minds, then watched them leave and go back into harm’s way.
Remember these men and women. The healers who had to watch brave men come in and out on a revolving door. Who risked their lives so soldiers had a safe(r) place to retreat and become new (as new as they could become).
The Caribou is a symbol that has long been a symbolic representation of Newfoundland. Naturally, it became associated and served as a lasting symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. When choosing a symbol for the Newfoundland memorials around the world, it was only fitting for it to be a Caribou. After the First World War, six statues were erected, each overlooking a battlefield fought on by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Memorial Day is the anniversary of that tragic day at Beaumont-Hamel. But, like these Caribou statues, it is a day to memorialize and pay tribute to the actions and sacrifices of all Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers, sailors, and flyers, across the First and Second World Wars.
*Frost, Sydney. A Blue Puttee at War: The Memoir of Captain Sydney Frost, MC. Roberts, Edward (ed.) St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2015, p. 192.
**Gogos, Frank. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War: A Guide to the Battlefields and Memorials of France, Belgium, and Gallipoli. St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2015, p. 119.
***Lind, Francis “May”. The Letters of Mayo Lind. St. John’s: Robinson & Company, p. 161. Retrieved from: https://collections.mun.ca/digital/collection/cns2/id/67101
Gogos, Frank. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War: A Guide to the Battlefields and Memorials of France, Belgium, and Gallipoli. St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2015.
Heritage Newfoundland. “Beaumont Hamel: July 1, 1916”. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/first-world-war/articles/beaumont-hame