WWI was a pointless war. Archaic alliances and posturing lead to mass conflict between old countries that had no idea how to use new weapons and military technology. This was not the battles of armoured knights of old, this was battle with heavy artillery, machine guns, chemical weapons, but the powers behind it didn't seem to know what they were getting into. The ruling governments of the day maneuvered themselves into a massive, continent-spanning war that no one could win. In four years, it left 17 million dead and more than 20 million injured.
At the time, Newfoundland was a separate colony of Great Britain, completely independent of Canada. Even though Newfoundland hadn't maintained a standing army in nearly 50 years, like many other countries, we were required to send troops to Europe to defend the British interests. One thousand men from the small island volunteered, enough to form a dedicated Newfoundland Regiment. After short stints in Egypt and Gallipoli, the Regiment was moved to the front lines in 1916, near the village of Beaumont-Hamel in the North of France at the head of the Allied offensive for the Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme was a massive joint British and French offensive designed to quickly push back the German Empire. It ended up lasting five months, killing or injuring over one million men, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The Newfoundland trench, just before the attack on July 1, 1916.
Photo credit: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/first-world-war/assets/img/articles/road-support-trench.jpg
The offensive began on July 1st after Allied forces spent a week bombarding the German front lines to weaken their forces. Tunnels were dug beneath their emplacements and huge explosives were set to go off in conjunction with the assault to cause further damage and confusion. Everything was in place for a strong Allied advance. Then everything fell apart.
The first British troops advanced as planned, but met with far heavier resistance than expected. It seemed the heavy bombardment did little to weaken the German emplacements, and intelligence reports were inconclusive as to what ground, if any, the first wave gained.
Instead of waiting for better intel, British Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lovell Hadow ordered the second wave - which included the Newfoundland Regiment - to advance and take advantage of the actually non-existent gains of the first wave. The mine that was supposed to cover their advance detonated early and only succeeded in alerting the Germans of their impending assault. Still they were ordered to press on.
When the Regiment reached No-Man's Land, they found it devoid of cover, having been flattened by the earlier Allied bombardment. They were completely open to German machine gun fire. Worse, the battlefield was so littered with bodies from the first wave that they troops were tripping over the dead. Those few that made it any distance discovered the German barbwire - which earlier recon had pointed out was still intact but the officers chose to ignore - blocking their final advance.
It was a massacre. Out of some 780 men who went over the top that morning, only 68 were able to answer roll-call the next day. The Newfoundland Regiment was no more.
Some choose to remember that day as the valorous sacrifice of courageous soldiers. Others remember it as a senseless loss of human life, ordered by incompetent commanders that gained nothing for the war efforts. Either way, Newfoundland remembers. It was the first great conflict experienced by the dominion, and the losses were felt by an entire generation on the sparsely-populated island. The severe post-war depression only compounded the heavy toll.
In 1921, Newfoundland purchased the land where the failed attack took place and established a memorial site that continues to be maintained by the province and Canada to this day. It is one of only two National Historic Sites of Canada located outside of the country.
Further reading: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/first-world-war/articles/beaumont-hamel-en.php
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