Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 18-21st March 2006

France - Vimy Ridge, Albert and Somme Tour - Monday 21st March

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Newfoundland Park, Beaumont Hamel

(click photo for panorama of the site today)

Situated some 6 miles north of Albert, this is of the most-visited places on the Western Front. Now owned by the Canadian Government, the Park has been left as far as possible in a preserved state since 1918. Within the boundary of the site are the front and support lines of the British and German positions as they were on 1st July 1916, the day that the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment suffered grievous casualties as they attempted to advance.

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park was officially opened by Earl Haig on June 7, 1925. The monument of the great bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, stands on the highest point overlooking St. John's Road and the slopes beyond. 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.

The Area Today

On entering the site today, the trench by the entrance, running parallel to the road was the reserve trench from which the Newfoundlanders attacked. Moving along the main path, the main position to view the Memorial Park is from the statue of Caribou.

The Caribou incidentally is the national emblem of Newfoundland which was a separate dominion of the British Empire during the First World War (It did not become became part of Canada until 1949).

Immediately in front of the caribou is the support trench for the British front lines. The British trenches are still there in the classic layout of the 3 line system, front line, support and reserve all linked by communication trenches.

Looking away from the Caribou and over the British front line is No Man's Land. About 150 metres away is a small bush marked by a sign. This is the Danger Tree. Between the front line and the Danger Tree are lines of metal spikes sticking out of the earth. These are the remains of the screw pickets, the supports for the British front line barbed wire.

The Danger Tree

This marks the spot where the Newfoundlanders emerged from a narrow corridor cut through the British barbed wire and where they took their heaviest casualties. Just beyond the Danger Tree and running diagonally across No Man's Land is a trench that is rather misleading. It was dug for the November 1916 attack and was not there in July.

The German Front Line

A small section of this still exists. On an imaginary line from the Cross of Sacrifice below the caribou to the grey statue visible away to the left. This is the line of the German front line trench. Behind the German front line the land drops away into a natural 80ft deep dry valley in the chalk, Y Ravine. This had been incorporated as a strong point in the German defences and the dug outs ran into its base, well over 100ft below ground level.

The grey statue visible to the left is a Highlander and commemorates the 51st Highland Division who finally took Beaumont Hamel in November. Beaumont Hamel village could be seen through the trees beyond the Highlander, while the left of the statue was Hunter's Cemetery, one of the four examples of a British mass burial of 46 Highlanders killed in the November attack.

The Attack

The Hawthorn Redoubt mine was blown early at 7.20am. Although it destroyed a German strongpoint, this was a costly mistake as it gave a warning to the other defenders in the area. The two brigades who attacked at 7.30 were consequently slaughtered for no gain.

In front of the village, the Lancashire Fusiliers had moved some men out by tunnel to a sunken road in the middle on No Man's Land. The troops that attacked from there were practically wiped out within a few yards. Troops attacking from the front line suffered the same fate as they neared it. The sunken road was clogged with dead and wounded falling into it from both sides. A second attack took place from here at 8.15, with similar results. The Lancashire Fusiliers gained 120 yards for a loss of 528 men.

At the Hawthorn crater, the British held one lip of the crater and the Germans the other. There was heavy fighting all day.

The Newfoundland Attack

Front Line, British Position, Beaumont-Hamel (click to enlarge)

In front of Y Ravine, the attack at 7.30 had ended in disaster. At about 8.15 the two reserve battalions, the 1st Newfoundland and 1st Essex, whose original target had been the German second line 4kms away, were ordered forward.

The communication trenches were clogged with wounded from the first attack, so the Newfoundlanders decided to leave the reserve trenches and move above ground to the front line. They immediately drew fire and many were killed before they reached the British wire, where too few gaps had been cut, and where they were forced to bunch up.

Most of those who survived that were hit, near the spot marked today by the Danger Tree, as they passed through the gap in the British wire. A few made it to the German wire, which was still intact, before they too were shot. The Newfoundlanders had lost nearly 700 of the 800 original attackers, for virtually no gain.

(above) No Man's Land, Beaumont-Hamel

(above) Newfoundland soldiers in St. John's Road support trench. This picture was taken before the start of the attack, July 1, 1916.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said that other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also, I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . ."

Wilfred Owen

The view through the gap in the trees from the British lines reveals the Thiepval Memorial

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Updated 8th April 2006 by Mike Royden
The Whitby High School, Cheshire County Council.