Memorial Day, July 1, is a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. (Some reports say more went over the top, with a result of 85% casualties. But still …) All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate.
The National War Memorial (“national” because Newfoundland was not then part of Canada) is in downtown St. John’s, overlooking the harbour at King’s Beach between Water and Duckworth Streets. It was unveiled on July 1, 1924 by Field Marshal Earl Haig.
The monument stands in a semicircular plateau approached by a series of stone staircases. Four bronze male figures represent the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, Forestry Corps, Mercantile Marine and Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The centre granite pedestal is topped by a female figure holding a torch in her left hand and a sword in her right – she symbolizes Newfoundland’s willingness to serve and the spirit of loyalty to the Empire. British sculptor Gilbert Bayes designed the standing male figures. Ferdinand Victor Blundstone designed the female figure and the figures on each wing. Newfoundland nurses and VADs did not rate a place on the monument.
A bronze plaque is ringed by a wreath topped with the caribou symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and marked by five arenas of battle – Egypt, Gallipoli, Belgium, France and the seven seas. The dedication reads:
To the glory of God and in perpetual remembrance of 192 men of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, 1300 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 117 men of the Newfoundland Mercantile Marine, and of all those Newfoundlanders of other units of His Majesty’s or Allied Forces who gave their lives by sea and land for the defence of the British Empire in the Great War, 1914-1918. For enduring witness, also, to the Services of the men of this Island who, during that war, fought not without honour, in the navies and armies of their Empire. This monument is erected by their fellow countrymen and was unveiled by Field Marshal Earl Haig, K.T., G.C.B., O.M., etc First of July 1924.
Let them give glory unto the Lord and declare His praise in the islands. Isaiah 42-12
Scroll down on the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage web site for photos of the 1924 unveiling.
Kevin Major’s No Man’s Land recounts the Newfoundland Regiment’s final day of preparation in Louvencourt, the march to the front, the waiting overnight in the trenches, and the battle at Beaumont-Hamel.