Chez WW in England

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Beaumont Hamel, France

30 August 2011

Tears streamed down my face. The lump in my throat got bigger. And we had only just entered the parking lot.

Growing up I had visited our town library a lot. Behind the desk was a plaque filled with names. Names of all of the men from Grand Bank who had died fighting in World War One, World War Two and the Korean War. For a very small town there were a lot of names. Those names were a part of my life growing up. It is one thing to see all of those names in a library in Newfoundland and quite another to visit the place where so many of them died. Beaumont Hamel is a pilgrimage site for many Newfoundlanders. On the morning of July 1, 1916, the men of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top. A great tactical error led to a bloody slaughter. My great-grandfather, George Riggs was one of those men. He was found days later in a trench, shot and lying under his dead comrades. The Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on that morning. The Dominion of Newfoundland answered England’s call when war broke out. But, Newfoundland did not want to have their soldiers swallowed up by the British or the Canadians. Newfoundland wanted her own regiment and to fight together. The Newfoundland Regiment was made up of volunteers and not professional soldiers. After the massacre at Beaumont Hamel, the Newfoundland regiment continued to fight. The distinction of “Royal” was bestowed on the regiment. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment earned a reputation of being fearless – of being “Better Than the Best”. The battle at Beaumont Hamel marked Newfoundland as much as it marked the landscape in France. Entire communities had lost all of the men of that generation. Long before Canadians wore a poppy for Remembrance, Newfoundlanders wore the forget-me-not.

The trenches that were there on that July morning in 1916 are still there. Newfoundland had no money to build an expensive monument so the battle field was left as it had been. It is still possible to see the stakes that held the barbed wire that filled no man’s land. No amount of money could have built a memorial as touching as the site that greets visitors to Beaumont Hamel.

The Newfoundland Regiment began that fateful day in a trench that they had dug earlier – St. John’s Road. It was a supply trench back from the front lines. The plan was to use the communication trenches to reach the front line.

The metal spikes that held the wire that littered no man’s land is still visible. The Y Ravine can still be seen.

The men were unable to go through the forward trenches to reach the front lines. The trenches were filled with the dead or wounded from the first two attacks. The Newfoundland Regiment did not let this stop them. They had a job to do and were determined to do it. The Newfoundlanders went over the top at St. John’s Road and were met with the full force of the German guns. The Essex Regiment was supposed to go over the top at the same time but found the trenches blocked with bodies and stayed put. Some managed to reach the front line trenches and fought their way to the small area where the wires had been cut. A bottleneck was created and the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were sitting ducks. The Germans just had to aim their guns at these gaps. There was one place where the guns were not aiming for. A lone treee. The Danger Tree. The men made for this tree as a safe place. The Germans saw the men gathering at the tree. The aim of the guns was changed. No where was safe. The soldiers were wearing bright metal triangles on their backs to identify them to their own aircrafts. These same triangles acted as a perfect target for the German guns. There was no going forwards. There was no going backwards. There was only the hope of a quick death. A few Newfoundlanders made it to the German lines. The German barbed wire was not cut by previous bombing as planned. The men were tangled in the wire and killed. In just 30 minutes the Newfoundland Regiment had been descimated. An order was issued to gather up the unwounded and to carry on with the attack. This order was revoked by wiser heads. That night, the search for survivors began. Only 68 men answered roll call the next day. In just 30 minutes 710 men were killed, wounded or missing. Most were struck down before they even reached their own front lines. The Regiment had been wiped out. Just as they had not let the blocked trenches stop them, the annihilation of their regiment did not stop them. Newfoundlanders are made of stronger stuff than that. The Newfoundland Regiment, comprised of all volunteers, went on to fight until the end of the war.

Beaumont Hamel still has the scars of all the shelling that took place during the battle.

Sheep graze on the battlefield. The land is too riddled with craters and un-exploded bombs for lawn mowers. The battlefield is also the final rest place for many soldiers. So far not one sheep has been blown up.

The original Danger Tree was lost. A replica stands in that infamous spot. The day we visited Beaumont Hamel a mist hung in the air. On that day, the air would have been filled with the smoke of battle. Guns would have been firing non-stop. Men would have been cut down by bullets. Blood from your comrades would have covered you. If there is a hell on earth, Beaumont Hamel on that morning would have been it. Today, the site is peaceful and respectful. You can still feel the presence of all of those men as easily as you see the mine craters. Despite the sadness, peace reigns at Beaumont Hamel today. Finally, the men are at peace.

The caribou is the emblem for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. A proud bronze caribou stands atop a cairn of Newfoundland granite, facing the enemy with his head held high in defiance, facing the direction the Newfoundlanders were headed. There are four other caribou memorials in France and Belgium. The sixth caribou is in Bowring Park in St. John’s.

On the other side of the battlefield, in the countryside of France, many Newfoundlanders were laid to their final rest. We did a tour of the site with one of the young Canadian guides. With the exception of one, everyone else was from Newfoundland and had family who had taken part in the battle. Many Newfoundlanders make this same pilgrimage to find the grave of a family member. These soldiers are not forgotten. Tears streamed down all of our faces as we looked at all of the graves. Emotions overflowed as a family found the graves of their long dead family members. I read every name. Wanting so much to take them home with me. To that home by the sea. The home that they no doubt had longed for. The home that kept them going as they lived through hell. So many of them did not have names. To be buried with no name. That affected me more than anything else. A name tells the world who we are, who we belong to. I know that it is not true, but to see all of those graves with no names, felt like they did not matter, that they were not important, that they did not exist. I wanted with all of my heart to give them back their names. To give them back the life they had, to give them back their families.

Headstones touch when people have died together – have died together in such a way that it is impossible to completely separate them. So, they are buried as they died. Together. Side by side.

There is a beautiful visitor centre at Beaumont Hamel which resembles a traditional Newfoundland saltbox house. University students from across Canada do 6 month stints in France as tour guides. In charge of the students is an employee of Vetrens Affairs Canada who is in France for a one year posting. The staff is only too happy to help find information on family who fought at Beaumont Hamel.

Pilgrimage A Guide to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War One, revised edition by W. David Parsons traces the regiment through the Great War. I will be using this informative book to visit other battlefield sites.

This is one of the hardest things I have ever written. I am so afraid. Afraid that my words will not capture the courage of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Afraid that my words will not due these brave men the honour that they deserve. A picture is worth a thousand words. My pictures were taken with tear filled eyes, sobs fighting to be released. How can mere words convey the hell that was Beaumont Hamel on that bloody morning? How can mere words describe a battle that changed Newfoundland forever? How can mere images capture a place that so many travel to even today with tears rolling down their faces?

War erases people. War takes away names. War takes away dignity. War takes away families. War takes away. War takes.

On our trip to France and Belgium we saw many memorials from both the First and Second World War. None struck my very heart and soul as much as Beaumont Hamel. I have poured all of my heart into this post and I hope that I have created a fitting tribute for the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment

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