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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.