In all of Canada, July the First is a national holiday. It’s called Canada Day. In Newfoundland, which is part of Canada, July the First is called Memorial Day. That’s because in 1916 Newfoundland was not part of Canada. As the Dominion of Newfoundland its troops came under the authority of the British Army. July the First in Newfoundland is the day everyone remembers the awful Battle at Beaumont Hamel, in the Somme.
I went to Beaumont Hamel one July day a few short years ago. Here is what I wrote:
Wounded at Beaumont Hamel
Canadian shrubbery is planted all around the car park at Beaumont Hamel in the valley of the Somme – salal, maple, some pine. A deep-chested caribou, cast in blackened bronze, stands on top of a mound at the crest of the slope, surrounded by neat, sub-alpine rockery plants. The sun is fierce.
The Newfoundland Regiment was destroyed here on 1 July 1916.
The killing field falls gently away to a small copse. Sheep are grazing. The sun beats down and the air is thick with flies, and no-see-ums which bite like tiny piranhas.
When the soldiers were here the air buzzed with bullets. The Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out in less than 30 minutes.
The field is open. There is no cover. Two ravines fork into its base from a single stem at the foot of the slope. This was called 'Y’ Ravine. Even an amateur soldier would see little profit in sending men over such ground to attack machine guns dug into the sides of the ravine.
It is hot. I take off my shoes and socks and listen to the gentle, tearing noise of sheep cropping the grass. It is peaceful, dreamy; on this high summer day, 70 years on, this place presents no dangers. Everything is forgiven, most of it forgotten. I walk down the hill to a lone tree. It is a skeleton, bare as midwinter, stuck with red poppies centred on small crosses made of lollipop sticks. Some of them carry messages.
'I’ll always remember you Johnnie'
'I wish I’d known you Grandad. With love...'
This is the Tree of Death. Once it was an apple tree and bore fruit. Then this whole area was pulverised by shellfire and machine gun bullets. The tree died, and became petrified.
A sharp lick of pain stabs through my foot: blood soaks onto the grass, my blood. I drop onto my knees and feel the wound with my fingers. The blood makes them sticky. Slowly, carefully, I pull out a piece of ragged metal no bigger than a shirt button, but sharp around its edges like a scalpel. It is such a tiny piece to have caused so much pain, spilled so much blood.
All over this field thick, intertwined grasses cover old shell holes and disguise detritus, expired ordnance; the garbage of war. Shrapnel and barbed wire hide in the undergrowth. Screw pickets lie at angles, pitted and rusting. Once they held coils of impenetrable barbed wire, and funnelled the Newfies into the muzzles of the guns.
My shoes are up at the caribou monument. I make my way gingerly back across the field, checking each footfall. The Newfie boys who crossed this place had no such latitude, forced to maintain a steady, prescribed military walk when their wits screamed at them to run, through flying razor shrapnel the size of dinner plates; red hot, jagged metal as big as roof slates, window panes, kitchen scales. More than anything else, the men who fought here needed generals who could read maps, understand the most elementary aspects of terrain, cover, camouflage, stealth.
It’s said that 100 men died for every yard of ground in the Somme valley, which would mean that a mile cost roughly 176,000 men. The field at Beaumont Hamel is about a hundred yards across. Seven hundred and thirty-three men were lost here in half an hour – less than that demented average – and they failed to take the objective, a ravine with no military value, in the Valley of the River Ancre. It was detached, careless slaughter engineered by generals who were decorated after the war with baronetcies and estates and medals; no mistakes admitted and no inquiries into the heedless carnage. Endless death was the accepted face of war.
My shoes are sitting between the hooves of the Newfoundlanders’ caribou, which continues to gaze nobly across the battlefield. The handkerchief I tied round my foot is red with blood. There are band-aids (elastoplast) in my bag but it seems churlish to apply them to my little wound. I fold the handkerchief and tie it on again.
The Newfoundland Regiment was under British command in the great war. Newfoundland didn’t become part of Canada until 1948. Ironically Remembrance Day is observed in Newfoundland each year on 1 July in recognition of the slaughter at Beaumont Hamel. The rest of Canada celebrates Canada Day on that date – with fireworks and street parties.