War: the tie that binds

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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Ninety-eight years ago this Tuesday, on July 1, 1916, as every Newfoundlander throughout the world is aware (or should be aware), the Newfoundland Regiment was massacred in 30 minutes, a half-hour of unspeakable bloodletting that is still difficult to comprehend.

The Newfoundland trenches at Beaumont Hamel, looking towards the Caribou memorial.
— Telegram file photo by Glen Whiffen

Just ponder this piece of reality for a moment: in the time it takes to drive from St. John’s to the Salmonier Line turnoff, on a patch of farmer’s land in France the mere size of seven or eight football fields, 733 young men from the sparsely populated country of Newfoundland were riddled with bullets; all but 68 of the 801 members of the Regiment who went over the top that morning either killed or wounded.

It was a slaughterhouse, and no wonder it’s often described as the most tragic day in Newfoundland history; it was, to say the very least, a day of profound sadness that should never, ever be forgotten.

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions in the past — and will continue to do so every year at this time for as long as I have a journalistic vehicle available — Beaumont Hamel, in our Flatrock home, is about much more than statistics of dead and wounded; it is personal, it is intimate, as it is for so many families in the province.

My grandfather, Joe Judge, a native of Point Verde who had moved to Grand Falls to work in the mill before enlisting at the beginning of the First World War, was wounded at Beaumont Hamel. Two of my wife Heather’s great-uncles, Will Knight of Southside Road and Norm Coultas of Patrick Street, were killed.

All three are framed in pictures on a wall in our home, proud as peacocks in their Newfoundland Regiment uniforms, young and handsome, unaware of the event that would see them bonded in Newfoundland history for time immemorial.

They were, of course, oblivious to what was to occur years later, that their families would be directly connected through marriages: Norm’s brother Herb married Will’s sister, Leona. And, of course, Herb and Leona’s granddaughter, Heather, married Joe Judge’s grandson, yours truly. Three wartime comrades, participants in a half hour of unadulterated carnage, all of them ultimately reunited.

I’ve wondered over the years whether Joe, Will and Norm may have known one other — perhaps they were even buddies — whether they drank beer and chased French women together, taking advantage of the odd lull in battle to have some fun, to seek a spark of sanity.

Did they, by chance, huddle near each other in that muddy trench early on that July 1 morning, did they exchange petrified glances, frightened beyond comprehension, acutely aware that at least one British regiment had attacked German lines nearby and had been wiped out?

What was going through their minds? All three, I’m sure, had to have been thinking of Newfoundland, of their loved ones back in Point Verde and St. John’s.

I have an accurate account of what happened to my grandfather once the attack began at 9:15 a.m. Pop Judge, as we called him, was carrying one end of a pipe-like piece a weaponry, a device used to blow holes in barbed wire. The man carrying the other end was shot and killed, and as Pop was shouting for someone to replace the downed man, he, too, was hit, a bullet piercing his hand, the force of the shot driving him into a crater.

But I have no idea exactly what happened to Will and Norm. There were no first-hand accounts of how they were killed, how far they made it out of the trench, whether they died instantly. Their bodies were never found or identified, having been blown to bits in the days after July 1 by German bombs.

I do know it took some time for Norm’s mother to receive death benefits; his records in the archives at The Rooms contain letters from her to the government inquiring about the money she felt she was owed. But the government insisted it could not pay her until it had determined whether Norm had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Eventually, she received word that she would be paid; Norm had not been a prisoner of war. Norm was dead on that farmer’s field.

Will’s body was never identified either. His and Norm’s remains lie just below the surface at Beaumont Hamel. The whole field is a graveyard. That’s one of the reasons it’s thought of as sacred ground.

As for my grandfather, he lay in that crater all day, under the hot sun, bandaged his hand, and must have gone half crazy listening to his wounded buddies screaming, Pop absolutely helpless as he became aware that German snipers were finishing off any soul who moved in No Man’s Land.

Eight or nine hours later, when darkness descended on Beaumont Hamel, Pop crawled back to the Newfoundland lines, and was taken to hospital.

Beaumont Hamel, I would re-emphasize, is not some detached history lesson; these were men with direct links, the most personal of links, to Newfoundlanders still living. My mother, for instance, still active and smart at the age of 88, can recall how her father and other veterans of what they called the “July Drive” would congregate each year in his Monchy Road home after the July 1 ceremonies in Grand Falls, drink a lot, sing a lot, and remember their dead comrades.

In two years from now, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy at Beaumont Hamel will be commemorated in a big way in France. I have no doubt officialdom will be well represented (Premier Dwight Ball will be there. What? You think it’ll be Premier Steve Kent?) There’ll be politicians galore. It’ll be the place to be seen.

But here’s a suggestion, as self-serving as it might sound on the surface: why not ensure there are hundreds of direct descendants of the Beaumont Hamel 801 on that field on July 1, 2016. Charter a flight. Take as many as possible. Perhaps use a lottery system to determine who goes.

I’ll conclude my annual piece on Beaumont Hamel this way: my grandfather talked to me when I was a youngster about some of what happened to him during those godawful years in Gallipoli and France. We even had a ritual in which I’d order him to show me his wound from Beaumont Hamel, and wounds in his lower leg and elbow from two subsequent battles.

Pop obviously wanted to ensure I never

forgot.

I never have. I never will.   

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a

journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: The Rooms

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, France, Point Verde Grand Falls Southside Road Patrick Street Monchy Road Gallipoli

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Recent comments

  • Memorial Day
    July 01, 2014 - 12:44

    Great piece Bob.

  • A. Aguathuna
    July 01, 2014 - 08:59

    Newfoundlanders commenting in this paper seem far too concerned about the end of Marie Wadden's 37 year career at CBC than with Beaumont Hamel and the supreme sacrifice made there. Surely Newfoundland is more thsn a province full of luxuriously retired civil servants and those who are forced to serve them as lesser minions, the real hired help.

  • Gerald Wakeham
    June 28, 2014 - 16:28

    Thanks Bob for the wonderfully written piece of reflection.

  • Madeline Wadden
    June 28, 2014 - 11:18

    My father, Richard Roche, was wounded, in the left shoulder, on July 1st at Beaumont Hamel. I used to wonder why he never went on parade to the war memorial. He sat in the kitchen and listened to the whole ceremony and when I was older I found out why. I caught him many times with tears on his cheeks. Four of his five children have visited the scene of carnage. I brought back a couple of flowers from the field, one was for the only member of his family who didn't get there.

  • Women and children dying from allied bullets everyday, you sappy moron!
    June 28, 2014 - 09:59

    They were uneducated about geopolitics and used as nearly conscripted white trash bullet absorbers. You don't have the luxury of that excuse Bob unless you willfully refuse to educate yourself or your family and buddies pressure you to enlist; both highly unlikely. Also, you are to be kicked in the balls for dragging the likes of Ball and Kent into this article and suggesting that we charter planes to remember a blood sacrifice engineered by peerage assholes and enacted by homegrown dummies when EVERY needed gov. service is sacrificed to budget cuts. This patriotic bullshit is getting old and I really don't care if your whole lineage was sent to their demise by General Haig - people die when they volunteer to kill other humans - get us over it by writing realistically about it. All the more reason for the likes of you to grow a brain and stop pandering to war mongering by selling out your dead relatives to the 5 eyes! You Could write better than this. But. Maybe. You can't even fight your way out of an editorial meeting without becoming Bartletts stooge? Stupidity is the tragedy and you are playing your part here by standing on the broken backs of your blood-sacrificed ancestors in order to contribute to war mongering sentimental bullshit. Anyone who goes to war today is not fighting for freedom or democracy, but oil and economy, just like 100 years ago. 100 years from now, we will be at the same crass stupid justification of mutual State-sanctioned Mass-Murder as economic panecea for the peerage. Write something less sentimental, and more thoughtful toward those populations still catching bullets next year.

    • AM
      July 02, 2014 - 07:56

      Anger issues much?