2, 2000, Gazette)
A Visit to Beaumont
Hamel Memorial Park
one of a two part series
Y 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
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 Memorials Department of History on Newfoundland and
the Great War. My paper was on the connection between Newfoundlands
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.
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?
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
minutes later her sleepy husband was outside the door in his
taxi. A short drive and he dropped us at the entrance to Beaumont
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. Johns 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
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. Johns 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
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....
II, to be published in Nov. 16 Gazette, Dr. FitzGerald describes
how the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park appears today.
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.