On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment (designated the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1917) participated in the massive Allied advance toward German lines. They were part of the 88th Brigade in the 29th Division of the British Army, under command of Major General Beauvoir De Lisle. Within 30 minutes, all but 110 of 780 men were dead or wounded.
It was the single worst day for casualties in the history of the British Army, which had about 60,000 killed or wounded that day. (Total casualties in the five-month-long battle, on both sides, were around a million.) Although the Germans were forced back from lines of defense in one sector, from Foucaucourt-en-Santerre to the Albert-Bapaume Road, Allied forces did not fare so well between the Albert-Bapaume Road and Gommecourt.
At the time of the war, Newfoundland was not a Canadian province but a British Dominion (a colony until 1907). It would not join Canada until 1949. Its population numbered 240,000, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 living in the city of St. John’s. Outside the city, which boasted electric lights, trolleys, and a moving-picture theatre, most people lived in small fishing villages around the coast. The interior remained wild, and famous sportsmen such as Frederick Courtney Selous ventured there to hunt caribou and fish the streams.
In the villages, residents joined hands in working in seasonal activities such as preparing the stage in May where cod would be split, salted, and dried over the summer. When the fishing season ended, many of the men would go to their “tilts” (log cabins) in the woods to cut firewood and staves for the barrels used to ship the fish. By the late 1800s, lumber mills and mines also provided employment. Women tended garden plots of turnips, carrots, parsnips, and beets, which were harvested and kept in root cellars. Wives and children also carded and combed fleece to make woollen clothing.
Although no formal military organization existed in Newfoundland at the time of the war, the government of the dominion was able to recruit volunteers to serve in the British Army. They trained in the UK and reached battalion strength of 1,000 before being deployed as part of the 29th Division at Suvla Bay in the Gallipoli Campaign. They fought in the Second and Third Battles of Krithia in May and June 1915. The experience inspired a line in a Newfoundland song titled “Recruiting Sergeant”: “And on the sands of Suvla, they entered into hell.”
The 29th remained in Gallipoli until it was evacuated January 1916 and transferred to Egypt before going to France in March. The division spent the next three months behind the lines in training to prepare for an offensive planned against the German-held village of Beaumont Hamel—just one small part of the overall offensive of the Somme.
The Newfoundland men found life there to be a strange combination of tedium and fear—nearly every day shells came over into the trenches, killing or wounding another few men. Lt. Owen Steele of St. John’s wrote home almost daily, and there were usually two subjects: the incidence of casualties from shelling, and the food. Pork pudding was a favorite. A third subject was invariably addressed in the final line: the weather. “Dull but no rain today. Cold at night.” Perhaps this faithful report of the weather reflected the importance of that subject in a place so dependent on fishing, logging, and other outdoor activities.
One of the perennial notions of military strategy is to soften up the opposition with an artillery bombardment before sending in the infantry. For seven days in advance of the attack British artillery laid down a barrage, but its effectiveness was limited by the deep dugouts and tunnels the Germans had constructed during their 20-month occupation of the Beaumont Hamel area. The finishing touch of the “softening up” phase was the detonation of a 40,000-lb. mine under the German Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt.
This was the signal for the 86th and 87th Brigades of the 29th to rush toward the German lines. Unfortunately, it also served as a signal to the Germans of the 119th (Reserve) Infantry Regiment of the Wurttemberg Division to prepare for an attack. The defenders rose from their dugouts, went to the firing lines, and effectively stopped the British advance. The Tommies were not even able to occupy the mine crater as they had planned. The first two brigades got no further than the German barbed wire—many of them indeed were mowed down well short of the barbed wire in No Man’s Land.
General De Lisle is said to have received conflicting messages from observation posts. Among other things, it’s possible that German flares were mistaken for signals from his own brigades, giving him the mistaken impression that his men had broken through the German line. He ordered two battalions to press through these perceived breaks in the line: the Newfoundland Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment.
From the Newfoundland Regiment’s own “St. John’s Trench,” the communication trenches leading forward were virtually filled with dead and wounded men of the 86th and 87th who’d been shot just as they’d gone over the top or perhaps gotten a bit further and crawled back to shelter. And with shellfire also making the trenches a rather unpleasant environment, battalion commander Lt. Col Arthur Hadow decided to have his men advance over the surface. They came under heavy fire before they even reached their own barbed wire defenses. With the first two brigades essentially out of action, the men advancing now were the only troops visible to the Germans. Most of the Newfoundland Regiment died or fell wounded within 20 minutes of leaving their trench. Some made it as far as the Danger Tree, a limbless, shell-damaged stump in No Man’s Land.
It is estimated that 22 officers and 758 men of other ranks participated in the advance. All of the officers and 658 other ranks were killed or wounded. The loss to the close-knit communities of Newfoundland was incalculable.
In 1921 the people of Newfoundland purchased a 74-acre site on the battlefield as a memorial to the men killed or wounded there on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which continued to be fought until November 18, 1916. A statue of a caribou was chosen as an appropriate symbol of their homeland, and the Beaufort Hamel Newfoundland Memorial site was officially opened June 7, 1925, unveiled by Field Marshal Douglas Haig.
It is the largest battalion memorial on the Western Front and the largest portion of the Somme battlefield that has been preserved. It is still possible to see the outline of the trenches, as well as to visit a number of memorials and cemeteries. But I would tread carefully there, for the place is haunted by countless ghosts.
“the communication trenches leading forward were virtually filled with dead and wounded men”
Horrible. To think of them all filing past that scene minutes before. I can’t understand how they were mentally capable of going forward after that, knowing what would result so viscerally.
I wonder why mining worked so much better at Messines Ridge?
The planning for Messines was extremely complex, and I am not an expert on that event. I like to think that the fact that General Sir Herbert Plumer was in command made a difference—in my opinion, based more on my knowledge of the Boer War, he was one of the best British generals of the early 1900s. You may recall from my post about the Relief of Mafeking on “Endless Streams and Forests” that Plumer led the relief column that made the more difficult journey, by way of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia. As against the apparently superior planning for Messines we have to factor in short-sightedness in the early stages of the Somme. The Germans had been in the Beaumont Hamel area much longer than the British and were deeply dug in to the point they were relatively impervious to bombardment and the mine explosion.
I’ve stood in the crater of one of the Messines mines – it turned “Hill 60” into “Hill 55”. Trees grow in it now, but I could imagine how things would have been in 1917. There’s no question in my mind that Plumer’s planning made the difference that day; the timing was carefully organised to take advantage of the stunning effect of the explosion, and his ‘bite and hold’ tactic for taking defended ground actually did work. He looked the archetypal ‘Colonel Blimp’ but was, I think, one of the most capable tacticians on the Western Front. I covered this off in a book I wrote about 10 years ago on the New Zealand experience – our division took Messines village itself, which wasn’t easy. The initial advance was straight-forward; the Germans who’d survived the mine blasts were dazed and stumbled into captivity. But resistance soon stiffened and they were reduced to some very messy house-to-house fighting. (The book, ‘Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18’ is about to be re-released for its 10th anniversary, which I’m quite pleased about).
Another fine piece. Thank you.
A fine piece indeed.
Compounding the tragedy of the war, Newfoundland actually reverted to colonial rule in the 1930s due to the financial crisis of the Great Depression. in Newfoundland’s case, the financial crisis was made worse by the impact World War One had on the dominion’s finances.
Yes, I understand Newfoundland was in a very bad economic situation, due to decline of the fishing industry as well as the problems of losing a relatively high percentage of the younger male proportion of its population, and was forced to ask for support from Britain for a while. Unfortunately the problem of the fishing industry continued for a long time and still hasn’t been resolved. I lived in Gloucester Mass. from 1993 to 2009 and saw the problem play out there. The only solution in places like this seems to be to substitute tourism for the past real working industry. This seems terrible to me, but I can’t propose any other realistic solution.
I hear you re the fishing industry, and frankly I lament the substitution of real (rural) labor for tourism. It doesn’t seem very “real” to me.
At least at one time there was a Canadian government program that was actually buying Atlantic coast fishing vessels from their owners in order to retire the owners from fishing. Of course, they have to move on to something else. It is a sad state of affairs. I could go on, but then I’d start lamenting the loss of individual rural work everywhere in favor of cubicle work, and sound like a radical Distributist.
The symbolic change has been farms (usually not far from urban areas) that partially depend on tourism, kids having their pictures taken with the farm animals, and so on. Hay rides, etc . At the other extreme, you have enormous enterprises growing corn or wheat for the “agribusinesses.” I am not either for or against either of these particularly (you can easily see the political fault lines here). Do we just live in an unfortunate period of history?
“Do we just live in an unfortunate period of history?”
Well, I suppose the answer to that question is subjective. A happy Capitalist of the American mode would note the poverty has decreased globally, wealth has increased globally, and generally a capitalist system such as we have, which is completely dependent upon a species of state support in the form of recognizing the legal fiction of corporations, has brought about prosperity on an unprecedented level. As part of that, they’d happily argue that the modern corporate capitalist economy that we have forces the closure of small enterprises in favor of large ones, operates against small towns in favor of big cities, and forces small agriculturalist off their land in favor of sending that demographic into the cities to work more “lucrative” occupations. Viewed in this fashion, this is all a good development and good for everyone, as it measures these things in purely economic terms.
On the other hand, if you take the Wendell Berry view that life is for the living, and the individual happiness of the person matters the most, you may be distressed. The majority of American workers report being dissatisfied with their jobs and traditional occupations that were once viewed as economic and employment safe havens are experiencing the same thing. Based on the reports of the workers, they not satisfied with the situation, and would prefer one where they work their own, whatever that own may be.
So, if you look at it that way (and if you do, you may be a Distributist. . . order your copy of Chesterton today), the answer would be yes.
I am a huge fan of Chesterton. And Evelyn Waugh, similar in his beliefs and superior in his sarcasm. My painful difficulty is that I cannot share their religious beliefs. Through a long and rigorous exercise in self-examination, I find myself completely alone and without any source of consolation—but honesty is my highest value, so I have to persevere with that. We’ve come a long way from the initial subject, but this has been interesting.
“I am a huge fan of Chesterton”
My too, although I share his other convictions.
” We’ve come a long way from the initial subject, but this has been interesting.”
Maybe not as far as we might think. Distributism was on the rise in that era of waning rural majorities, and would be put on hold by the second great war of the 20th Century that followed this one. It’s never returned in strength thereafter, although recently we’ve seen some comments in international venues that somewhat recall it.
Nothing wrong with being a Distributionist.
The town I live in is a tourist town that used to be a logging/ranching town that is now trying to attract light industry/tech.
All times are unfortunate in their own way. I have been accused of romanticism about the past. Maybe. The period covered in this blog certainly resonates with me, in many ways more so than today. And if I could time travel, I’d probably head for East Africa c. 1921 for a safari. Not that those days were any less fraught than today — often worse. They’re just troubles and trials that I can relate to better than those of our post-modern day.
That’s a good point, Jim, about each historical period having its own difficulty. One thing I remind myself about from time to time as a woman is that the status of females has improved fairly steadily in the western world, though in many parts of the world women still play a subservient role. So even though there are many things about contemporary culture that I don’t like, I can be thankful for certain changes. Even looking at divorce laws of the Victorian period as illustrated for instance in the works of Anthony Trollope provides a sense of how far things have changed.
Indeed, while we should acknowledge that history isn’t a straight line, and that things don’t universally improve for all, some things do indeed truly improve, and the past was not as rosy as some folks might imagine it to have been. I posted on that topic a while back here:
Still (and I suppose something I may add as a topic), the opposite isn’t always true on all topics either.
I often tell my daughter that this is the best time (in America) bar none to be a woman. Her opportunities are so much wider than they ever were before. (Although style-wise, the 1940s will never be matched 😉 ).
Indeed, it the options for women in the present era are far greater than they have been at any time in the past, although the reasons are sometimes obscured.(http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2013/11/women-in-workplace-it-was-maytag-that.html)
At the same time, it may also be the case, ironically enough, that the burdens on women for a variety of social reasons, or at least on some women, are at a potentially historically high point in some ways as well.
I looked at your interesting “Maytag” post after I commented on your “romanticizing the past” item—I see we’re on the same page concerning how technological change helped free women from round-the-clock domestic chores. My mother in the 1950s thought frozen food was just wonderful as a time-saver—she certainly wasn’t a “foodie”! I’d be interested in anything more you have to say about the burdens on women nevertheless being “at a potentially historically high point in some ways as well.” Possibly you are thinking about the working mother. And of course in all this we are talking primarily about industrialized regions. Women in Afghanistan, or women in rural areas of India, know little of progress.
Jenny, I will do an entry on my comment, as it does require explanation, but basically you anticipated my thought there. It isn’t an easy topic, but a combination of factors have opened things up for all, transferred some burdens on all, and great burdens on some with particularity, while, perhaps ironically, freed men from some burdens.
And I’d agree on the third or developing world. There are many regions of the globe that liberalizing Western thought has penetrated, some of which are very surprising, but at the same time there are many regions where the status and even daily lives of women have not changed in centuries, or even millennia in some ways.
My followup entry: http://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2014/07/men-women-work-and-careers-work-in-age.html
War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.
Your article is very well done, a good read.
What beggars the imagination about the Somme battles, particularly, was the scale of casualty relative to the forces involved. Newfoundland especially! And that made it personal for a LOT of Newfoundland families. New Zealand experienced the same thing about 15 months later at Passchendaele. These days, looking back, it’s too easy to view what happened through the lens of those casualties and their social impact; to portray the whole thing as a fruitless, hopeless expression of madness by ‘chateau generals’. The ‘Blackadder’ interpretation. At the time it wasn’t; they were on a learning curve – a very cruel one – wrestling with the fact that industrial-age machine guns, dugouts and wire, coupled with the expanded scale of the battlefield on the back of longer-range weapons – gave the defence a colossal advantage. This was particularly so on the Western Front where the defence was asymmetric; the Germans were largely focussing on their eastern war and had focussed on creating concrete defences in the west. Whereas the Allies retained their earthworks-and-wood, on the theory that they would soon be moving from them.
The problem boiled down to the fact that industrial technology could move people to the battlefield, and supply them, to a scale – and with a speed – unthinkable in earlier times. But it couldn’t move them ON it. That had to wait on new technology and new tactics – combined warfare involving aircraft, artillery, tanks and infantry. That was deployed in 1918, ending the period of trench warfare and also bringing the First World War to an end. But until then the war was a slugging match; and political pressure, as much as anything else, compelled the generals to keep trying to find clever ways around the tactical problems they faced. Haig, later, suggested that the whole thing from 1915-18 had been akin to a single colossal battle, with its deployment phase, its attrition phase, and finally its decisive movement.
The cost of doing this was manifest at the time, and the obvious question is why a political solution wasn’t found. That, I believe, has yet to be fully explored by historians – it’s only lately that some of the deeper drivers for the war, such as the perception of German ambition, have begun to emerge for historians. Such has been the power of the ‘sorrow’ aspect, which has otherwise dominated the study. And understandably so.
Isn’t it amazing that we are still trying to understand an event that occurred 100 years ago? And yet, on the other hand, we will continue to reinterpret those big battles and huge numbers of casualties in every period that comes along, seeing WW1 in the light of the current dominant perceptions. These days we are inclined to see WW1 in the framework of meaningless suffering and absurdity. I explored this idea (and argued against it) in a series that starts here: https://streamsandforests.wordpress.com/2010/02/01/deneys-reitz-in-wwi-introduction/ . I can certainly see that “sorrow” aspect that you mention, but I think you are right in saying that we can’t just stop there, we need to keep exploring.
“I can certainly see that “sorrow” aspect that you mention, but I think you are right in saying that we can’t just stop there, we need to keep exploring.”
Indeed, one of the aspects of our understanding of World War One has been that the war tended to receive a great deal of reinterpretation both immediately after the war, and then again soon after World War Two, with the second reinterpretation being particularly prominent in Europe. The second reinterpretation was done though the very heavy filter of World War Two, and so the war was re-caste as a tragedy that was the preamble to World War Two, which unfairly charged the participants of the Great War with responsibility for foresight that they couldn’t possibly have possessed.
It isn’t that the two wars aren’t related, which they very clearly are, but there’s come to be a view that World War One was obvious folly, as World War Two occurred along with all of its results. That isn’t a fair reading of the first war.