to the Western Front
Part 10: Newfoundland Park
Brian Pohanka - October 28, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
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
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
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.
Page | Next