The St John's Road trench, departure point of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment
July 1, 1916: the Battle of the Somme. Having arrived during the night, the soldiers of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment launch a second attack from a back-up trench. Their objective: to consolidate the positions taken by the brigade during the previous wave and attack the third German line. While all the neighbouring trenches bear British names, mostly from parts of London, this trench is more closely associated with the residents of Newfoundland.
First visual contact with reality on the front
The Newfoundlanders have to grope over nearly 250 metres of ground on a slight incline. They have no idea of what awaits them until they reach the first support trench at the front. Beyond that point, the downward slope of the terrain makes the soldiers vulnerable to the fire of German machine guns positioned on the surrounding elevations.
A portion of the Allied front line
During the Battle of the Somme, the front line is nearly 40 kilometres long. The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial site corresponds to the area of engagement of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. The front line is shaped like an elongated S. From this trench, the Regiment rushes towards a specific goal: to move into the valley ahead, while beyond the road leads to the train station and the railway line.
Crossing No Man's Land
The expression leaves no doubt: a soldier advances at his own risk. Advancing from his front line, the soldier, weighed down by 30 kg of equipment, must cross Allied barbed wire through which small lanes have been cut to allow "easier" passage. With no cover whatsoever and exposed to enemy machine gun fire, few men cross this territory since they must advance slowly, following orders, with their bayonets raised.
"Danger Tree" or the halfway point between the two front lines
This is the soldiers' name for the grove. Beyond that point, they become especially vulnerable in view of the marked slope of the terrain. They are not only "commanded", that is, exposed to the enemy positioned above as a result of a topographical feature, but are also subject to enfilade fire from both sides. This grove, of the plum-tree family, could very well have grown from the original tree, since this species regenerates easily.
The valley or the path to the objective
By July 1, 1916, few Newfoundland or Allied soldiers were able to reach this point. On the back slope, they had to dodge bullets from nearby high points. One soldier who reached this point is said to have taken refuge in a shell hole to avoid machine gun fire. Once spotted, he became the target of German soldiers firing at the perimeter of his hiding place to eliminate any protective cover. With his haversack riddled with bullets, the soldier had to wait for nightfall to make his retreat.
The German front line cuts across elevated terrain in front of the "Y" ravine
At this point, the German line is furthest from the Allied line. To the northwest, they are only 200 metres apart, while they are 400 metres apart here. The German trenches extend not only along each side of this road, but also onto the nearby hill. There is a striking view from here of an attacker venturing into No Man's Land.
The "Y" Ravine and its communication trench
At first glance, from the base of the caribou, one can well imagine this position being the target of Newfoundland soldiers. The trees on the perimeter draw the eye to this point. On Allied maps, however, this branch of the ravine appears as a communication trench which enabled German troops to reach the front line underground.
German tunnels provide quarters for a battalion
The topographical feature known as the "Y" ravine is an ideal place to camouflage the entrance to underground shelters. While the Allies suspected that they existed, they were apparently not aware of their extent. Deeply buried, these shelters remained intact in spite of a week of intensive bombardment by British artillery. After capturing the area later in the War, the Allies used them as quarters for a battalion. Military maps of the day show up to eight separate entrances on both sides of the ravine.
Hawthorn Mine and the signal of engagement on July 1, 1916
Following seven days of sustained but ineffective bombardment, German troops are alerted to the imminent attack, when an incredibly strong mine explodes on the morning of July 1, just a few minutes before the beginning of the battle. The avenue of trees in this sector guides one's glance to the site of this crater formed by the mine. The treetops call attention to it from far away. The view from this location also shows how the front line branches off to the north in this sector.
The avenue and the caribou, planned features
In planning the layout of the site, the landscape architect Rudolph Cochius designed this treed avenue. At its northern end, it draws one's attention to the Hawthorn crater and, at the other end, to the symbol of the Newfoundland regiment, the caribou monument. There are other views as well, such as those of the Thiepval Memorial and the village of Beaumont-Hamel. But in spite of these views, one must not forget that under our feet are such features as this Allied shelter, whose entrance is just a few metres away.
The caribou, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment's emblem
In accordance with the wishes of the Regiment's chaplain and designer of the memorial, Thomas Nangle, the commemorative park is designed to preserve the site on which the Newfoundlanders fought and died. Rather than using the contemporary obelisk, the battlefield is preserved. In his park design, landscape architect Rudolf Cochius was influenced by Nangle's ideas, and also featured the monument of Captain Basil Gotto. Surrounded by shrubs native to Newfoundland, the memorial, consisting of a stone mound topped by a bronze caribou, the regimental emblem of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, evokes the scenery of Newfoundland.
Back to Beaumont Hamel: July 1, 1916