Scars of World War I: The Battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel

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The village of Beaumont-Hamel, in northern France, was one of the fortress villages located just behind the German lines during the Battle of the Somme. It was here, on July 1st 1916, one of the most destructive battles of World War One took place where nearly an entire regiment of the Canadian Army was wiped out.

On the morning of July 1st 1916 the 1st Newfoundland Regiment of the Canadian Army was ordered into battle as part of the opening phase of the Battle of the Somme. Their assignment was to seize control of the German trenches near the village of Beaumont Hamel. It was a strategically difficult assignment. The German front lines were about 300 to 500 meters away from where the Newfoundland Regiment was stationed, down a grassy slope and heavily guarded by a three-tiered system of well dug forward trenches shielded with extensive protective wire, that presented a formidable obstacle to any attacking force. Besides, the Germans knew when an attack was going to start.

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The battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel is still pockmarked with craters and trenches. Photo credit: Michael St. Maur Sheil

In the preceding week, the allied forces had carried out a textbook style artillery bombardment against German lines. The Germans knew that once the artillery bombardment stopped, an infantry attack would follow. During the bombardment many Germans were deep underground in relative safety, and when the artillery attack ceased, they made their way to their posts in their trenches to await the attackers.

At zero hour, the allied forces detonated 18,000 kilograms of explosives under Hawthorn Ridge, an important German stronghold on its frontline, creating a huge crater which they planned to take under control. But they made another terrible mistake here: they blew the explosives 10 minutes before zero hour. The explosion alerted Germans that a land attack was imminent, and the 10-minute delay gave them just enough time to strengthen their defenses and ready their machine guns.

The slaughter at Beaumont-Hamel was appalling. The allied troops had to move across more than 200 meters of open ground in full view of German machine gun before they even got to the accepted front line. From here, German trenches were a further 500 meters away down a slope. The men became silhouetted against the sky as they approached it, making them easy targets for the German gunners. Of the 780 men who went forward that day, 324 were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded. When roll call was taken the next day, only 68 men answered their names.

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The explosion of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt on July 1, 1916. Photo credit

Today the area contains numerous cemeteries and memorials related to the Battle of the Somme, with the thirty hectare Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park being the largest where one can see the trench lines and the related terrain in a preserved natural state. On a mound, surrounded by rock and shrubs, stands a great bronze caribou, the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment. At the base of the mound, three bronze tablets carry the names of 820 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, and the Mercantile Marines who gave their lives in the First World War and have no known grave.

The crater blown at the Hawthorn Ridge can still be seen today, although it is very difficult to see because of all the trees and the thick undergrowth.

Another memorial is the so called “Danger Tree”, which was originally a lone apple tree that was used as a landmark and gathering point by the men of the Newfoundland Regiment who had made it into No Man's Land. The tree provided meager cover, as a result of which, the regiment suffered a large concentration of casualties around the tree. Now a replica representation of the twisted tree stands at the spot.

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The central memorial mound at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. On the mound, surrounded by rock and shrubs native to Newfoundland, there stands a great bronze caribou, the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment. Photo credit

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A view from the top of the central memorial mound at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. The remains of some of the World War I trenches are very visible from here. Photo credit

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A memorial for the 29th Division at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Photo credit

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The remains of some of the World War I trenches at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. After the war these trenches were let untouched all over this huge area. Photo credit

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The Danger Tree. Photo credit

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The trenches of the battlefield. Photo credit

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Sources: Veterans Affairs Canada / www.heritage.nf.ca / History Learning Site

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1 comment:

  1. Newfoundland didn't join Canada until 1949, and only by the slimmest of majorities. During the First World War, Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire.

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