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On March 14, the Newfoundland Regiment
embarked H.M.T. Alaunia and left Egypt for the last time. They were headed
for France to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force in preparation
for a joint offensive which was to start on July 1st, 1916.
It was a six day journey across the Mediterranean and on March 22nd the Alaunia steamed into the Marseilles harbour. The troops disembarked and after a short wait they all boarded trains and headed north through France. They were headed for Pont Remy, half a dozen miles from Abbeville. The journey took them through the Rhone Valley, past Lyons and around Paris. The Newfoundlanders detrained and had to cross a bridge over a river that most of them had never heard of but most would remember for the rest of their lives. It was the River Somme.
After a short march the Newfoundlanders arrived at the village of Buigny l'Abbe where they would set up "living quarters". Here they stayed till the end of March. They trained, and cleaned, and trained some more. Their days were taken up with exercise, inspections, lectures, and more exercise. The next move was to Brucamps where they stayed overnight. It was now April 1st, 1916. The Newfoundlanders continued to move east across France to Bonneville village, 15 miles north of Amiens. They stayed until April 4th when they were ordered to Louvencourt. They had been placed in divisional reserve. This was their chance for some well earned leave. Over the next four weeks most of the men managed to get some "rest and relaxation". The final move came April 13th. The Newfoundland Battalion moved to Englebelmer, a quiet village that provided good accommodations. This was their last stop before going to the front lines. The next Sunday was Palm Sunday and the Newfoundlanders attended mass and received absolution from the Battalion chaplain in an old parish church that would eventually be destroyed by German shells.
April 22nd, 1916 and the Newfoundlanders were back in the trenches. Behind them was the Auchonvillers-Beaucourt road. On their left was the Hawthorn Ridge. The German front line was 500 yds to their front. They stayed for ten days after which they were replaced by the South Wales Borderers. This tour of duty and rotation to the "reserve" continued for the next couple of months. The Newfoundlanders were kept busy with improving existing accommodations and digging new trenches. Meanwhile the plans for the "great offensive" were being drawn up by the Allies.
On June 7th the Battalion received it's "orders". They immediately began training and rehearsing for the final attack. They trained night and day despite the weather. Every man knew exactly what was expected of him. They trained individually, as a Battalion, and with the Brigade.
June 15th, they moved back to the front trenches for the last tour of duty. They left behind a group of men under the command of Captain Bertram Butler. Their task was to make raids into the German lines at Beaumont Hamel to bomb the enemy trenches and take what prisoners they could. They conducted two separate raids and both were unsuccessful in bringing back prisoners. The other Battalions of the 29th Division also failed in their raids. One could assume from this that the enemy was "strong and alert". Yet Sir Douglas Haig was of the mind that the raiders were "inefficient" and he was "dissatisfied" with their efforts. Prior to going into battle the divisional order stated: "Each infantryman will carry rifle and equipment (less pack), 170 rounds of small arms ammunition, one iron ration and the rations for the day of assault, two sandbags in belt, two Mills grenades, steel helmet, smoke helmet in satchel, waterbottle and haversack on back, also first field dressing and identity disc. A waterproof sheet should also be taken. Troops of the first and second waves will carry only 120 rounds of ammunition. At least forty per cent of the infantry will carry shoves, and ten per cent will carry picks". This list did not include the items that the Battalion had to carry and distribute amongst its soldiers. These items included: flares, wooden pickets, sledgehammers, wire cutters, mauls, gloves, bangalore torpedoes, trench bridges, and haversacks. June 26th the Newfoundlanders paraded for General de Lisle's inspection. It was raining and would continue to rain for the next three days. The attack was postponed. The artillery barrage continued but with less effectiveness because the pilots couldn't fly and the artillery depended on the pilots for their aerial reports.
June 30th the sun came out. 776 Newfoundlanders were on parade at 09:00 hrs to answer the roll call. 25 officers took their posts. The CO mounted his horse and led his Battalion down the rode from Louvencourt to their fateful rendezvous at Beaumont Hamel. Arriving in the trenches the men were tired and hungry. The battle was at hand and everyone was confident that the artillery bombardments would ensure their success. It was July 1st, 1916, 07:20 hrs. The mine at Hawthorn Redoubt exploded and shook the earth all around. It created a crater 130 feet wide and 60 feet deep. It was the signal for the infantry attack to begin. Unfortunately it also alerted the Germans who were waiting for the unsuspecting troops. What followed is recorded in many history books. The men were simply massacred as they tried in vain to cross No Man's Land.
The Newfoundlanders started their attack at 09:15 hrs. The Germans had their machine guns trained on the gaps in the wire. As the Newfoundlanders tried to get through, the gaps quickly filled with the dead and slowed the advance. Many reached a small copse of trees that had been devastated by the artillery and rifle fire. One tree in particular marked the final resting place for many of the Newfoundlanders. That tree still stands today and is known as "The Danger Tree".
The battle was over in half an hour. The attack had failed. Days later a final count ws compiled. 219 men and 14 officers were dead. 374 men and 12 officers were wounded. 91 men were missing. 68 men answered the roll call the next day. Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig cabled Sir Walter Davidson the following message: "Newfoundland may well feel proud of her sons. the heroism and devotion to duty they displayed on 1st July has never been surpassed. Please convey my deep sympathy and that of the whole of our Armies in France in the loss of the brave officers and men who have fallen for the Empire, and our admiration for their heroic conduct. Their efforts contributed to our success, and their example will live." On July 1st, Canada celebrates it's birthday. Meanwhile, Newfoundland remembers and honours its fallen heroes. They call it Memorial Day. The Memorial University and the Memorial Stadium in St. John's were dedicated to the memory of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The Newfoundland Park in Beaumont Hamel, France, is another memorial. The entrance is inscribed with an epitaph composed by John Oxenham.
Tread softly here-
Go reverently and slow,
Yea, let your soul go down upon its knees,
And with bowed head and heart abased
Strive hard to grasp the future gain in this sore loss.
For not one foot of this dank sod
But drank its surfeit of the blood of gallant men
Who for their Faith, their Hope, for Life and Liberty
Here made the sacrifice.
Here gave their lives, and gave right willingly for you and me . . . .
Military Records Contact: Daniel B. Breen
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