Voices from the Fields banner

Intro | Poetry | Sketches | Links | Contact | Comments | Home

Brian Pohanka
The Western Front:
- Belloy-en-Santerre
- Flaucourt, Bray, Albert
- Y-Sap, Lochnager
   Craters

- Memorials, Thiepval
- Ulster Tower,
   Beaumont

- The Somme
- The Fallen Soldier
- Mametz Wood
- Delville Wood, High
   Wood

- Newfoundland Park
- Hawthorne Crater
- Arras
- Proyart, Chevauchee
- Mort Homme, Fort
   Vaux

- Verdun

Comments

 

Visit to the Western Front
Part 10: Newfoundland Park

By Brian Pohanka - October 28, 1999

This brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

For those visitors to the Somme who have only a day, or part of a day to spend there, and for those who want to see something of the landscape that evokes the torment of the First World War, a definite "must see" is the Newfoundland Memorial Park, just north of Beaumont Hamel.

In 1925 a parcel encompassing 84 acres was set aside and deeded to the Government of Canada, at the site where the Newfoundland Regiment sustained some of the heaviest losses of the British offensive on July 1, 1916. At a time when the Somme was being reclaimed for villages, forests and farm fields, those acres were designated to left "as is" -- that is, cratered, trenched, upheaved. This is a rather heavily visited spot, so be prepared for the tour busses and the tourists. But it is well worth seeing.

It is odd in a way, another of the ironies of the Western Front at the cusp of the Millenium. For while the craters and hummocks and trench lines are there, they are covered with grass -- much like a golf course that consists of sand-traps only -- minus the sand. And it is grazed by flocks of sheep -- a convenient way of trimming the grass. And there are groups of visitors, in couples or small groups or by the busload, ambling over it. But that does not deny it its power. Because one can make the -- accurate -- assumption that the entire Somme battlefield must have looked like this in the 1920s, even later.

On July 1, 1916 the 1st Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went "over the top" in the second wave of the assault. The 87th Brigade, who'd preceded them, had been mown down. Ten minutes before H-hour, another of those huge mines had been exploded -- 41,000 pounds of ammonal tunneled under a German bastion called the Hawthorne Redoubt. There is a famous WWI newsreel showing the hundreds of feet tall up-surge of earth and debris from the explosion. But while quite a few Germans were obliterated by the explosion, it gave them warning. And when the British troops started forward, the Germans
were ready and waiting.

The Newfoundlanders started out from the second line British Trenches. They were still working their way through their own wire when the German Machine guns caught them in a deadly vortex of fire. They made it no more than 300 yards, and got nowhere near the German lines before they were chopped down like those who'd preceded them.

"On came the Newfoundlanders," Pvt. F.H. Cameron of the King's Own Scottish Borderers recalled, "a great body of men, but the fire intensified and they were wiped out in front of my eyes. I cursed the generals for their useless
slaughter, they seemed to have no idea of what was going on." (Martin Middlebrook, First Day on the Somme -- a great book by the way.)

Every officer of the Canadian Battalion was killed or wounded. We will never know the exact casualties. At the site today the literature states that of 801 men who went over the top, only 68 came back unscathed. Another source says of of 752 men, 674 were killed or wounded. Most of the casualties were killed. Very few wounded were able to be evacuated, perhaps no more than two dozen. And all this happened in something like a half hour at most -- more likely about 20 minutes.

The dead would lay out there in no-man's land for weeks. And by the time they could be buried very few were identified. There is a horrific account by one of the burial detail describing the way the skeletons and mummified remains would move and rattle when the burial parties came up to them -- the rats had made nests inside the rib-cages, tented by the fabric of the uniforms. So they merely scraped what was left into shell holes and buried them en masse.

Yes, by all means visit the Newfoundland Memorial Park, and amidst the chatter and laughter of the school kids, and the more pensive shamble of the old folks there -- some of whom have come from Canada to see where relatives perished -- and the sheep grazing on the lawn -- there is something so tragic...it cannot be pinned down in one's mind, exactly. There is no glory there, only sadness.

After that sobering visit, we got back into the tin-can Citroen and headed toward Auchonvilliers. I had read of a "bed and breakfast" there, that was built atop a cellar that still had graffiti and relics of the British soldiers who'd sheltered there. I thought it worth a visit. But first I wanted to try and find the crater left by the mine explosion under the German bastion -- The Hawthorne Crater. I knew it was somewhere out in the fields nearby, and one of the very nice Canadian girls who staff the Newfoundland Park, told me how to find it.

red poppy by DLO

Previous Page | Next Page


Copyright 2003
1st Dragoon's Great War Site. All rights reserved.
Spider Map Index