April 9, 1997
Memorial to fallen Newfoundland soldiers declared National Historic Site
Premier Brian Tobin said today that he is delighted with the federal government's designation of the Newfoundland Beaumont Hamel Memorial in France as a National Historic Site.
The designation of the Beaumont Hamel Memorial and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was announced today by the Minister of Veterans Affairs in Parliament and by the Governor General in France.
"We have long recognized the enormous contribution made by the soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment," said Premier Tobin. "This designation is one further step in commemorating the bravery and sacrifice of those young men who served faithfully and gave their lives."
Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge are the only National Historic Sites outside Canada. This was possible because France has gifted the free use of the lands associated with these two battlefields to Canada in perpetuity.
"More than 700 men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were killed, injured or missing when the smoke cleared at the Battle of the Somme," said Art Reid, Minister of Municipal and Provincal Affairs. "They paid dearly so that we might have freedom, and it is right that we should honour their memory in this way."
Official plaques designating the memorials as National Historic Sites will be unveiled later in the year.
Contact: Cathy Dornan, Director of Communications, Premier's Office, (709) 729-3564.
It has been called Newfoundland's saddest day. On Saturday, July 1, 1916 at 8:45 a.m., the 1st Newfoundland Regiment - part of the 88th brigade in the 29th British Division - went over the top in the first day of the Battle of the Somme near Beaumont-Hamel, France. That morning, 801 members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment left the relative safety and protection of a trench named St. John's Road. By 10:00 a.m. - a scant 75 minutes later - seven out of every eight men in the Regiment had been either killed or wounded. Two hundred and thirty- three were killed. Only 68 men survived without serious injury. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment had been annihilated.
The 1st Newfoundland Regiment had arrived at Marseilles in March 1916 after service at Gallipoli and Egypt and had entered the line in France for the first time on April 22. They arrived at the trenches of the Somme at 2:00 a.m. on July 1 following a five-hour march. Their objective - as part of a massive 100,000 strong Allied offensive along a 40-kilometre stretch of the Western Front called the Somme - was to take the third enemy line together with a battalion from the Essex Regiment. It was confidently assumed that this would occur some 70 minutes after platoons from the 87th Brigade set out at 7:30 a.m. to capture the first two lines of German fortifications at Beaumont-Hamel.
At 7:20 a.m., a huge mine was ignited that destroyed a German trench but also served to warn them of the imminent attack. The German soldiers - who had been long forewarned of an infantry assault - prepared to defend their positions and unleashed an artillery barrage on Allied Regiment and the Essex Regiment were ordered to provide them with support. Their battle lasted less than 30 minutes.
The advance of the Essex Regiment was delayed because the forward trenches were clogged with bodies and debris, and the Newfoundlanders were forced to cross 900 metres of exposed front independently. Many were killed as they clambered out of their trenches. Few made it to the beginning of the Allied barbed wire entanglements 230 metres beyond their starting point. Fewer still progressed far enough to hurl bombs at the first line of enemy trenches another 550 metres away. By 10:00 a.m., little remained of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment.
Back home in Newfoundland, news of the tragedy arrived on July 13, nearly two weeks after the battle of Beaumont-Hamel. Almost every family on the island had been touched by the losses. Almost a generation of Newfoundland's potential leaders was lost at Beaumont- Hamel and subsequent actions. Since then, July 1 has become a day of mixed emotions for Newfoundlandlers.
A second major offensive was launched by the Allies at the Somme on September 15, 1916. The following month, the reinforced Newfoundland Regiment returned and distinguished themselves in action near Gueudecourt. When the brutal Somme campaign finally ended in November, the Allied forces had gained only 10 kilometres of ground at a terrible cost of 600,000 casualties.
By the end of the Great War, 6,000 men had served in the Newfoundland Regiment and at least one in five had given their lives. In 1918, in recognition of the Regiment's battlefield contributions, King George V granted the addition of the title "Royal" to its name. When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was re-formed as a militia unit and exists to this day.
After the war, the Government of Newfoundland purchased property in France and Belgium to establish five battlefield parks. The largest of these is a 40-acre site located nine kilometres north of the town of Albert, France where the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park was officially opened on June 7, 1925. At this site stands a great bronze caribou - the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment - which overlooks the site of St. John's Road and gazes defiantly in the direction of the former foe. At the base of the statue, three bronze tablets carry the names of 814 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Mercantile Marine who gave their lives during the First World War and have no known grave.
In the lodge which houses the reception room for visitors to the park, a bronze plaque, unveiled in 1961 by then Premier Joseph Smallwood, lists the battle honours won by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and pays tribute to its fallen. The construction of a representative part of the battlefield preserves in its original state the shell-pitted ground between St. John's Road and the Y Ravine across which the heroic advance of July 1, 1916 was made. In the park, two small cemeteries, Hawthorne Ridge No. 2 and Y Ravine, contain the graves of many who fell on that fateful day.
Newfoundlanders are understandably proud of their two First World War recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for bravery. Born in Little Bay, Newfoundland Private John Bernard Croak of the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for most conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918. Born in White Bay, Newfoundland, Private Thomas Ricketts of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on October 14, 1918 at Ledeghem, Belgium.