Of all the battles that the Newfoundland Regiment fought during the First World War, none was as devastating or as defining as the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Regiment’s tragic advance at Beaumont Hamel on the morning of July 1, 1916 became an enduring symbol of its valour and of its terrible wartime sacrifices. The events of that day were forever seared into the cultural memory of the Newfoundland and Labrador people.
The Newfoundland Regiment, still with the 88th Brigade of the 29th Division, received word on February 25, 1916 that it would be part of the Somme offensive. It departed Egypt on March 14, 1916 and arrived at France eight days later. For the next three months, it readied for combat. The men trained rigorously, did tours of duty on the front line, dug trenches, strengthened defences, and observed the enemy.
Although the battle would not begin until July 1, the months leading up to it were dangerous. The Germans often shelled Allied trenches, and snipers were another threat. On April 24, the Regiment sustained five casualties when German bullets wounded four men and killed Private George Curnew. He was 19 years old. More casualties followed in the coming weeks.
Newfoundland Regiment Advances
The men left their trenches at 9:15 a.m., with orders to seize the first and second lines of enemy trenches. But as they moved down the exposed slope towards No Man’s Land, no friendly fire covered their advance. Instead, German cross-fire cut across the advancing columns of men, killing or wounding most of them before they even reached No Man’s Land.
Private Anthony Stacey described the advance in his Memoirs of a Blue Puttee: “the wire had been cut in our front line and bridges laid across the trench the night before. This was a death trap for our boys as the enemy just set the sights of their machine guns on the gaps in the barbed wire and fired.”
There were other flaws in the Allied strategy. The weeklong bombardment that preceded the attack did not weaken German defences as much Allied commanders had hoped. Instead, it had the unexpected effect of leveling the landscape of No Man’s Land, which deprived the advancing men of any cover from enemy fire.
About halfway down the slope between the British and German trenches, however, a blasted apple tree did survive. Now known as the Danger Tree, it became a rallying point for the men of the Newfoundland Regiment who had made it into No Man’s Land. But the tree provided meagre cover and the men became silhouetted against the sky as they approached it, making them easy targets for the German gunners. Many men died near the Danger Tree, including Private Francis Lind. He was 37 years old.
The few men who did reach the German lines were horrified to discover that the week-long artillery barrage that preceded the attack had not cut the German barbed wire. Allied leaders had already obtained this information, thanks to a series of raids that reconnaissance teams had carried out in the nights before the attack. However, commanders had dismissed the reports, convinced that the raiders were inexperienced and the artillery bombardment much more effective than it actually was. As a result, the majority of the soldiers who reached the enemy trenches were killed, tangled in the uncut wire.
The attack was a devastating failure. In a single morning, almost 20,000 British troops died, and another 37,000 were wounded. The Newfoundland Regiment had been almost wiped out. When roll call was taken, only 68 men answered their names – 324 were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded.
July 1 remains an official day of remembrance in Newfoundland and Labrador. Every year, people gather at the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s and at other locations across the province to remember the soldiers who fought at Beaumont Hamel, as well as the many other men and women who have served in other forces and other wars.