Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, National Historic Sites of Canada, France - An Easy Day Trip from Paris

In Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park, officially opened by Earl Haig on June 7, 1925, stands the monument of the great bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. At the base of the statue, three tablets of bronze carry the names of 814 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, and the Mercantile Marine who gave their lives in the First World War and have no known grave. It was at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, the opening day of the great Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme, that the Newfoundland Regiment fought its first engagement in France – and its costliest of the whole war. The Regiment was one of four battalions of the 29th Division's 88th Brigade. The assault was an unmitigated disaster.

German riflemen and machine-gunners, protected from allied shelling, emerged from their deep dugouts and shelters and opened fire on the advancing troops. At the same time, a number of German heavy guns, which had escaped the British counter-battery fire, began shelling the 29th Division's positions catching the follow-up companies as they climbed out of their trenches into the open. From their starting position in the British support trench known as St. John's Road, the Newfoundlanders had to cross some 230 metres of fire-swept ground before they reached even their own front line. As they made their way through zigzag lanes previously cut in the British wire, casualties came with increasing frequency. Those of the leading companies who finally emerged into No Man's Land could look down an incline to see for the first time the barrier of the German wire more than 550 metres away. Nevertheless, holding the parade-ground formations prescribed for assaulting infantry by the General Staff as best they could, the thinning ranks plodded steadily forward.

In less than a half-hour, it was all over. The Commanding Officer, who from a support trench had watched the destruction of his Regiment, reported to Brigade Headquarters that the attack had failed. Afterwards the Divisional Commander was to write of the Newfoundland effort: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further."

The casualties sustained on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme totaled 57,470, of which 19,240 were fatal. No unit suffered heavier losses than the Newfoundland Regiment, which had gone into action 801 strong. When the roll call of the unwounded was taken next day, only 68 answered their names. The final figures that revealed the virtual annihilation of the Battalion gave a grim count of 255 killed or dead of wounds, 386 wounded, and 91 missing. Every officer who went forward in the Newfoundland attack was either killed or wounded.

It is for this reason that the government of Newfoundland choose the hill south-west of the village, where the front line trenches ran at the time of the battle, close to the headquarters dugout of the 88th Brigade, of which the 1st Battalion of Newfoundland was apart, as the site of their memorial to the soldiers, and sailors of Newfoundland.

It is one of the few WWI battlefields where the visitor can see much of how it was. The actual trenches and shell holes are still there evoking the reality of the terrible problems of advancing over such terrain by the soldier.

On a mound, surrounded by rock and shrubs native to Newfoundland and transplanted to France, there stands a great bronze caribou, the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment, facing north, raising its head in defiance, towards the German lines and the ground over which the Regiment advanced at such a heavy cost.

In 1921 the Government of the Dominion of Newfoundland, as Newfoundland was not apart of Canada until confederation in 1949, purchased the land from local landowners and began construction. Included in the design was the “Danger Tree” a lone shattered tree in the middle of no man’s land which was used as a visual landmark by both German and Allied artillery observers, as a result it was there that was the largest concentration of casualties.

In 2001 a Visitors Center was added explaining the historical and social circumstances of Newfoundland at the beginning of the 20th century and the history of the Regiments from its formation in 1914 to the end of the Great War.

Including Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial the National Historic Parks of Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada oversees close to 80% of conserved First World War Battlefields

The Park is located 9kms north from Albert, France outside the hamlet of Beaumont-Hamel.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is open to the public all year from sunrise to sunset and is free of charge
Between April 1st and November 30th there are a number of Canadian students, through Veterans Affairs Canada, on the site who provide guided tours and explanations of the battlefield daily from 10:00 to 18:00 hours

Getting there and away:
From Paris there are direct trains from Gare du Nord to Amiens and then transfer trains from Amiens to Albert where one can take a taxi to the site.

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