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(November 2, 2000, Gazette)

A Visit to Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park

Part one of a two part series

Y Ravine Cemetery, Beaumont HamelY Ravine Cemetery, Beaumont Hamel

On Nov. 11, Canadians will remember 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 this, part one of a two-part series, historian Dr. John FitzGerald recounts a recent visit to the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park in France.

 

By Dr. John Edward FitzGerald

In his book The Fighting Newfoundlander, G.W.L. Nicholson remarks that no other unit which fought in World War I was so identified with the community that raised it. Why do Newfoundlanders still identify so strongly with Beaumont Hamel?

Like most Newfoundlanders, I had never really thought or known a great deal about the history of World War I until I had to present a paper two years ago at a local conference organized by Memorial’s Department of History on Newfoundland and the Great War. My paper was on the connection between Newfoundland’s war debt and its loss of self-government. By 1933, World War I had cost Newfoundland just over $37 million in expenditures, pensions, and interest on the war loans, out of $101 million in total national debt.

Finances and politics were one thing, but the conference made me think about other meanings behind the centrepiece of that war, the massacre of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel. I promised myself that the next time I was in England on research, a trip to northern France would be in order. I wanted my own mental map of that battlefield, to get the feel of the place, to understand the sacrifice. That opportunity presented itself about a month ago, in early October.

In Britain I met up with some fellow Newfoundlanders and from London we took the train to Dover, the ferry to Calais, and the train to Amiens. Travelling this way, the journey from London to Amiens took a whole day, and we arrived in Amiens in the pouring rain at dusk on a Saturday evening. The next morning it was still raining as we took the twenty-minute train from Amiens to Albert (pronounced “Al-bear”), the closest town to the Newfoundland park at Beaumont Hamel. Travellers need to note that Beaumont Hamel is not easy to reach. Europe is a continent of memorials of one sort or another, and there are no signs at Calais telling one how to get to Beaumont Hamel. A detailed map of France, a lunch and some water are essential, for Beaumont Hamel is in the middle of nowhere and there are no buses or restaurants. And first, one has to survive Albert.

Finding the way to Beaumont Hamel
Albert at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning was empty. The aluminum garage-door tambours pulled down over every storefront and doorway rattled in the wind. We strolled through the deserted cobblestone streets in search of a taxi. We found the only place open in town, a smoky pub, where a handful of locals were having their morning constitutional of the Belgian beer Stella Artois, with complete disregard to the rule of the sun crossing the yard-arm. (That was a British rule, anyway, and this was France.)

“Excusez-moi, Madame,” I asked the bartender, “Où est-ce-que on trouve un TAXI?”

“Que cherchez-vous?”

“Beaumont Hamel.”

“Ah! Le Cariboo! Le Cariboo!”
she exclaimed. The famous caribou! Were we from Newfoundland? She liked Newfoundlanders! She would go wake up her husband!

The Caribou, Beaumont Hamel
The Caribou, Beaumont Hamel

Twenty minutes later her sleepy husband was outside the door in his taxi. A short drive and he dropped us at the entrance to Beaumont Hamel Park.

No sooner had we arrived than the wind picked up and the rain began to blow sideways. Dead leaves sailed past us horizontally. A raw cold gripped the back of my neck. For a moment it felt like St. John’s in November or March. What was worse, intermittent loud bangs resounded off the rolling farmland hills surrounding the park. Had the war really ended? Perhaps the ghosts were still fighting.

We went into the park, found a tiny cinder-block information kiosk, and discovered huddled therein four Canadian tour guides — all students from the University of Ottawa — vying for the comfort of a single, clanging radiator. We were their first visitors that morning, and they told us that they would be happy to give us a tour. They were even happier to discover that we were Newfoundlanders.

We walked through some low rolling trenches, covered in deep lush green grass, surrounded by a thicket of trees. This was St. John’s Lane, on the way to the Front Line. We went on a little further through the trees, to the right, and then fell silent. There stood the great bronze caribou, the symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Sculpted by Basil Gotto some 80 years ago, this bronzed creature holds sway over the battleground, its feet resting firmly on the edge of a precipice of boulders. Could this not be the barrens of the Avalon Peninsula? Limned against a brooding sky, its great antlered head thrust upward proudly and defiantly, a reminder that this is a special place of memory, the final resting place of hundreds of young Newfoundlanders who made the supreme sacrifice in July 1916.

The trenches of Beaumont HamelThe trenches of Beaumont Hamel

The morning of battle

In 1916, there were no trees or caribou, just rolling farmland already pock-marked with craters from a prelude of shelling. July first, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, was sunny, though it had rained for some days previously. At 7:20 am an enormous mine was detonated at nearby Hawthorne Ridge to signal the start of the battle. At 7:30 whistles sounded and the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers, and the Lancaster Fusiliers went over the top. They were decimated. At 8:05 more battalions went over the top, and then at 9:15, 801 Newfoundland soldiers obeyed orders and went over the top.

The roar of guns was deafening. Some soldiers gained only a few yards before they were cut in two by enemy fire. Some were caught in a storm of bullets and shrapnel and fell into the bloodied muck. They gasped for air, spit-up their own gore, and screamed for their mothers. Some became entangled in barbed wire, and struggling like animals trapped in a snare, made it worse and never escaped. Others dove for the shelter of water-filled craters, only to make the slightest movement and be picked off by the enemy. All were required to wear tin triangles on the back of their packs, cut from biscuit boxes, to help British forces identify them from the air and track the progress of the battle. But the glint of light off these only helped reveal their movements. That, along with the fact that every movement was silhouetted against the sky as the Newfoundlanders came over the top of the hill and down the slope, meant that it was a massacre. Seven hundred and ten officers and men were wounded, killed or missing, and only 68 answered roll call the next morning. A few more straggled in over the next several days....

In part II, to be published in Nov. 16 Gazette, Dr. FitzGerald describes how the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park appears today.

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. Photos on this page were taken by Dr. John Edward FitzGerald.

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