800 Men Charged 86 Returned

WWI trenches and no-man’s land

28 Mar: This description is a tough one. It’s about hundreds of men from Newfoundland killed in 1 day, in an attack that failed. It’s also about graves with no name. I’m going to focus on the Newfoundland Regiment for most of this description, but tens of thousands of others fell on 1 July 1916, on the battleground at Beaumont Hamel and Theipval. This is where I spent my day, walking in the places where men fell wounded and in the cemeteries where the less fortunate are buried.

The Newfoundland Regiment wasn’t the battalion that had the most casualties and fatalities on that day. The 10th West Yorks suffered more. The West Yorks and other British regiments had tens of thousands of casualties on 1 July 1916 during the same attack. I’m focusing on the men from Newfoundland for a few reasons.

One is that their losses are very similar to the attack of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, worth reading about in Wikipedia for all Minnesotans who don’t know of their heroic and battle-saving charge. Another reason I’m drawn to the Newfoundland regiment is the same reason their largest memorial is at Beaumont Hamel. When this attack took place, Newfoundland was a small colony of Britain. People of Newfoundland valued their uniqueness, and they could keep more of it by staying a British colony and not becoming part of Canada. They were a small colony, from towns where everybody knows everybody else. A common phrase was that no street in Newfoundland was unaffected by the losses on 1 July.

The previous paragraphs are based on a some documents I picked up at the Newfoundland Memorial, from the same manager who arranged a campground for me. I’m not going to focus on as many facts now. Other people have done a better job summarizing the battle than I can, as I sit in my tent and write. You can probably find more information in Wikipedia. I want to focus on what stayed with me as I took a tour of the area around the Newfoundland Memorial.

The place caught my attention for a few reasons, primarily because it reminded me of home. As I mentioned in a past description, I can’t make it to the American cemeteries on this trip because they are out of range for my cycling and number of days off. I hope to make it there on a future trip. The reason this memorial reminded me of home was the small town feel of the Newfoundland Regiment and the “woodsy” feel that is intentionally part of the memorial, by the Newfandlanders who created it after the war. And of course, the centerpiece of the memorial feels very much like Minnesota, shown below.

It’s a caribou. In addition to being a symbol of Newfoundland, it was chosen because caribou group together when they are attacked. Other animals scatter. The symbolism seems perfect for a regiment of men from a small colony.

The tree in the picture below represents a tree in 1918 called the Danger Tree. It’s located where many men stopped, tried to find cover, and where one officer tried to rally them men. Unfortunately, German machine guns and mortars were focused on this site, directly in front of the officer, to his front-right, and front-left. The Germans knew this was an effective place to focus their fire because it was near the exist point from the barbed wire of the Newfoundland trenches.

I may have added too many pictures of no-man’s land, in past descriptions, but I’d like to add a couple more to show where the men of Newfoundland and many more from Britain fell on 1 July 1916, near Beaumont Hamel. This is my last day in the battleground area, so these are the last photos of no-mans land that I’ll add.

Later in the day, I went to Lochnagar Crater, which was also part of the attack on 1 July 1916. This crater was caused by several tons of explosives, which the British placed under the German lines with tunnels.

The plan was that the explosion would occur just before Allied troops arrived, so there would be a hole in the German lines and a crater for Allied troops to fight from. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work. Troops arrived much later than planned, so the explosion warned the Germans of a large attack, and the Germans then used the crater’s walls to fight off Allied troops.

A final place I visited was the Franco-British memorial at Thiepval. It’s a massive and beautiful memorial located on a former German stronghold, sometimes called a fortress. It memorializes all the soldiers who have no grave.

The size and design of that memorial did catch my attention, but for me, some simple headstones were just as moving. Most headstones have the soldier’s regiment at the top and his name at the bottom. The headstones below are some of the simple ones that made me stop and wonder.

The bottom part on those headstones is important. I’ll describe it, in case it’s not visible in the photo. It says “Known unto God”, meaning that only God knows who this man was. The absence of a division or battalion at the top suggests there was too little of his uniform left to provide that information. All the headstones shown here are to men known only unto God.

2 thoughts on “800 Men Charged 86 Returned

  1. I agree, Barb. It is somber. I’m glad to hear you’re interested in learning more about WWI. When I see the black and white photos of that time, I’m starting to see faces that are more like the ones I see every day. I just like to seriously think about that time once in a while, to appreciate what they did.

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