16, 2000, Gazette)
A Visit to Beaumont
Hamel Memorial Park
two of a two-part series
John Edward FitzGerald
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 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. Johns.
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 mans 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 mans 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, youll wish you were in Hell, were in Hell.
For theyll hang you high to your Potsdam Palace wall,
Youre a damned poor kaiser after all!
Did any of
them remember that Kaiser Wilhelm was King George Vs cousin?
Did any of them on either side really know what were they fighting
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. Johns 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 Linds 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 Hamels
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. Vimys
towering monument sprawls over acres and commands the Douai Plain,
and is a fitting testament to the honour due Canadas war
dead. But it was built as late as 1936, by a much more affluent
government than Newfoundlands. 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 Hamels 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?
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.
reading on Newfoundland, World War I, and Memorial University
Trenching at Gallipoli (Toronto, 1916).
F.T. Lind, The Letters of Mayo Lind (St. Johns,
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. Johns,
Arthur Raley, The Deadly First of July Drive,
Book of Newfoundland, Vol. 6 (St. Johns, 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 Familys Past (Toronto, 1991).
W. David Parsons, Pilgrimage: A Guide to the Royal Newfoundland
Regiment in World War One (St. Johns, 1994).
David R. Facey-Crowther, Better than the Best: The Story
of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1795-1995 (St. Johns,