Cars

A NEW VINTAGE

KATHERINE MACKLEM July 1 2004
Cars

A NEW VINTAGE

KATHERINE MACKLEM July 1 2004

DEATH IN THE MUD

History

JOHN DEMONT

Beaumont Hamel devastated the proud Newfoundland Regiment

On the morning of the 26th, we had a battalion parade and were addressed by General de Lisle, G.O.C. of our 29th Division. He said he was pleased to have the honour of addressing us as a battalion for the first time, on the eve of what was going to be the greatest battle in the history of the world.

—Sgt. James R. Steele, 1st Newfoundland Regiment, in a written reminiscence of the speech before encountering the German army at Beaumont Hamel, France

DID THE BRITISH general’s ringing words echo through Steele’s mind as he climbed out of St. John’s Road, the trench from which the Newfoundlanders began their fated sprint across no man’s land just after 9 a.m. on July 1, 1916? It’s hard to imagine they did. How, after all, could a man feel anything but cold fear as he navigated his way through the machine-gun riddled bodies of the British troops who had not even made it past their own barbed wire in the first wave of the disastrous attack? “The enemy’s fire was so great that immediately our boys climbed on top of the parapet, they were mowed down hither and thither,” Steele wrote after the war in an unpublished account.

By the time he came within 20 m of the German trenches, Steele saw that no more than a few dozen members of the 801-man Newfoundland Regiment were still standing. Even then, not for long: Steele took a piece of shrapnel in the head, then lay in the

mud unconscious as his regiment was torn apart by gunfire. “He never talked about it [Beaumont Hamel],” son James Jr., now 79 and living in St.John’s, says of his late father.

No wonder. Within 30 minutes the proud Newfoundland outfit had been all but annihilated. Many were killed within steps of their own battlements. Row after row of them—an entire generation of Newfoundlanders, nearly—fell in the wet ground in

‘IT WAS a defining moment. We were still a British colony. But here was an effort we had made as a community.’

front of the barbed wire of the untouched German trenches.

The final tally showed 233 dead, 386 wounded and 91 missing. Every Newfoundland officer who went over the top was either killed or wounded: the Ayres, a prominent merchant family from St.John’s, lost four members that morning. Steele survived, only to be wounded again and finally shipped back home to St.John’s. His older brother Owen, a lieutenant who stayed back to defend the trenches, was killed by a stray shell a few days after the engagement. “There

wasn’t a community that wasn’t affected,” says Newfoundland historian David FaceyCrowther. “The casualties for such a small place were incredible.”

In fact, the July 1 assault, part of the larger Battle of the Somme, was expected to face little opposition. But the Allied artillery siege had failed to soften up the enemy lines. So when the Newfoundlanders went over the top, they marched into certain slaughter. “It was a defining moment,” says Ed Roberts, the province’s lieutenant-governor and an honorary colonel in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. “We were still a British colony. But here was an effort that we made as a community.”

The sacrifice at Beaumont Hamel is remembered by a memorial park there and the annual Commemoration Day ceremony— a sombre, Remembrance Day-like event— every July 1 morning in St.John’s. It draws crowds rivalling those for the Canada Day festivities that afternoon and evening.

No one seems to care that the regiment is only a militia unit now. But its spirit lives on. Recently, several of its 272 members served on United Nations peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Haiti, Afghanistan and on the Golan Heights. “It’s an example of the province’s courage and dedication,” says Sean Leonard, a 38-year-old St. John’s firefighter who is also the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s commanding officer. “We have the kind of resolve that if we believe in something we’re committed to it.” U]