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(November 16, 2000, Gazette)

A Visit to Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park

Part two of a two-part series

By Dr. John Edward FitzGerald

On Nov. 11, Canadians remembered the bravery and selflessness of those who fought in the two World Wars and other conflicts of the 20th century. Memorial University was established to honour those men and women, creating a living monument that recognizes their enormous contribution. For Newfoundland and Labrador, the Battle of Beaumont Hamel in July 1916 remains one of the most painful episodes of World War I, claiming the lives of more than 700 men. In part two of a two-part series, historian Dr. John FitzGerald recounts a recent visit to the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park in France.

The Caribou
The Caribou

Today, the caribou stands atop an artificial hill of boulders and low shrubs designed in the 1920s by landscape architect Rudolph Cochius, who had previously designed Bowring Park in St. John’s. Cochius was guided in his work by the Regimental Padre, Father Thomas Nangle, who in the years following the war was entrusted by the Newfoundland Government with purchasing the fields, preserving the trenches, and creating Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park. But the park was not constructed immediately after the armistice. Memories of the war were bitter and painful. In 1921, three years after the armistice, the Newfoundland politician Sir William Ford Coaker visited the site and found “several unburied bodies of our lads laying side by side, with the words ‘Newfoundland Regiment’ on the brass buttons and iron helmets of their outfits.” Only in the mid-1920s, after it was exhibited in London, was the great bronze caribou removed from its packing crate and set atop the mound.

The monument towers over the battlefield, which slopes gently downhill across no man’s land towards the German front line, a line of trees delimiting the park, and a ridge beyond. I had expected to discover an enormous battlefield, stretching on for acres, but the line of mature trees encircling the park made it seem smaller, more intimate. We walked on through the trenches, then up onto the field, where rusty iron “corkscrew” barbed wire holders remain twisted into the soft chalky earth, their coils of wire long gone. We moved across the field towards the famous Danger Tree, the trunk of a tree near a gap in the British barbed wire, the place where a great many had fallen. The grass was wet, and small low electric-wire fences were set up to contain the sheep which now keep the fields neatly mowed, and well-fertilized with sheep buttons. Beyond the Danger Tree lies no man’s land and the German Front Line, with trenches that zig-zag much more than the British trenches. Beyond this lies the deep Y-Ravine, behind German lines, into which they had burrowed tunnels, which offered good defensive cover.

Had any Newfoundland boys ever met a German soldier? Did they know that they were Christians, too, and just as scared of dying? The refrain of a Newfoundland war song went:

And when those Newfoundlanders start to yell, start to yell,
Oh, Kaiser Bill, you’ll wish you were in Hell, were in Hell.
For they’ll hang you high to your Potsdam Palace wall,
You’re a damned poor kaiser after all!

Did any of them remember that Kaiser Wilhelm was King George V’s cousin? Did any of them on either side really know what were they fighting for?

The Danger Tree
The Danger Tree

Near the Danger Tree lies the cemetery at Y-Ravine. Not long after the war began, it was realized that it would be very costly to repatriate the remains of dead soldiers, especially overseas. So it was decided that the dead would be buried near where they fell. In the cemeteries at Beaumont Hamel, Newfoundlanders are buried alongside the soldiers of the other battalions, and the Newfoundlanders are discernable because of the caribou carved on their gravestones, facing in the direction in which each man fell. I read on the stones the names of those killed that July morning: Hubert Herder, Augustus Lilly, and a little further on, the famous Frank T. ‘ Mayo’ Lind, whose letters back to the St. John’s Daily News kept Newfoundlanders apace of their war effort and whose complaint that good Mayo tobacco was hard to find in Europe sparked a flood of funds to supply plug tobacco to the troops. Small clumps of blue forget-me-nots and daisies bloom near Lind’s marker.

We walked on down into the Y-Ravine, and past the Highlanders’ Memorial, and the cemeteries at Hawthorn Ridge. I saw only a few more Newfoundland headstones, which prompted me to ask where the rest of the Newfoundlanders were buried. They were buried intermittently throughout the cemeteries, others were buried in a mass grave marked by side-to side headstones, but many others were never found and to this day lie where they fell, out in the field. The whole park is a cemetery. So is the whole Western Front. Even last year a visitor came across the remains of an allied soldier at one of the nearby memorials.

For a Newfoundlander, no amount of reading and study can replace the personal experience and emotion of seeing Beaumont Hamel. We walked back to the caribou and read the memorial plaques before returning to the kiosk. The tour guides again expressed how happy they were to meet Newfoundlanders, and they kindly offered to drive us to see the Canadian Memorial at Vimy. With their walkie talkies we cancelled our taxi and we spent the afternoon seeing British and German war memorials and cemeteries on the way to and from Vimy, before driving back to the train station at Albert.

Beaumont Hamel remains a little part of France that is forever Newfoundland. Vimy Ridge is much better known to Canadians than Beaumont Hamel, but these two memorial parks are the two largest World War I allied monumental parks in a continent full of war cemeteries and monuments. Compared to Vimy, Beaumont Hamel’s trenches are better preserved. While Vimy commemorates the Canadian victory at Hill 145 — albeit a victory purchased at great price Beaumont Hamel commemorates a massacre. The spirit of each place is very different. Even though both parks are administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and staffed by the employees of Veterans’ Affairs Canada, the Newfoundland park has not been “Canadianized”, for this would have been foreign to the men who fought and died there. Vimy’s towering monument sprawls over acres and commands the Douai Plain, and is a fitting testament to the honour due Canada’s war dead. But it was built as late as 1936, by a much more affluent government than Newfoundland’s. Beaumont Hamel was built in 1924, but in its own modest way it is every bit as impressive. It was built at great cost by a small colony with scarcely 300,000 inhabitants. No other allied country, per capita, incurred such a high toll of human lives in that war.

So what was gained out of Beaumont Hamel, and World War I? Militarily, the battle was an exercise in futility: so many lives were lost and not a single yard was gained. What would Newfoundland have been like, had not the best of a generation of potential leaders been mowed down? Politically and financially, the war sounded the death-knell of independence for the Newfoundland state. It can be argued that Beaumont Hamel marked the end of the colonial age and the beginning of its citizens thinking of themselves as a country. But the importance or worth of the park cannot be measured solely in these terms, for they politicize and attempt to quantify what was ultimately an apolitical sacrifice. The park and its name — and the other four caribou Newfoundland monuments sprinkled throughout France and Belgium — represent in a most dignified way the spirit and the loyalty of the Newfoundlanders who fought there, and the love of those who lost them. Beaumont Hamel was the antecedent tragedy without which Newfoundlanders might not have been so adamant that their country have a living memorial, its own university. Wars result from hatred, ignorance, misunderstanding, and the abandonment of hope. Universities exist in direct opposition to these things. Opened in 1925, Memorial University College was intended to be an institution and a community which many of those who died that morning might otherwise have lived to cherish.

In that sense, Memorial University is Beaumont Hamel’s permanent gift. Everything the university is able to do today is due to the response of Newfoundlanders to the sacrifice of the hundreds of those young men who died on that July morning in France. And everything the University does, it does in their memory. If they could see their university now, the lads of July 1 would probably blush at the honour, and then heartily approve. What better memorial could there be?

Dr. John Edward FitzGerald is a post-doctoral research fellow and sessional lecturer in the Department of History. With Dr. David Facey-Crowther, History, he is co-editing for publication the proceedings of the Newfoundland and the Great War Conference.

Further reading on Newfoundland, World War I, and Memorial University College:

John Gallishaw, Trenching at Gallipoli (Toronto, 1916).

F.T. Lind, The Letters of Mayo Lind (St. John’s, 1919).

Richard Cramm, The First Five Hundred (Albany, N.Y, 1921).

W.F. Coaker, Sir William Coaker Reviews Recent Visit Abroad (Port Union, NF, 1924).

G.W.L. Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander (St. John’s, 1964).

Arthur Raley, “The Deadly First of July Drive”, Book of Newfoundland, Vol. 6 (St. John’s, 1967)

Christopher A. Sharpe, “The ‘Race of Honour’: An Analysis of Enlistments and Casualties in the Armed Forces of Newfoundland, 1914-1918,” Newfoundland Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1988).

Malcolm MacLeod, A Bridge Built Halfway: A History of Memorial University College (Montreal, 1990).

David Macfarlane, The Danger Tree: Memory, War, and the Search for a Family’s Past (Toronto, 1991).

W. David Parsons, Pilgrimage: A Guide to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War One (St. John’s, 1994).

David R. Facey-Crowther, Better than the Best: The Story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1795-1995 (St. John’s, 1995)

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