This past Saturday, July 1, marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, a day for the country to rejoice, reflect and reconcile. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was also Memorial Day, 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%. 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.
After the war, the Newfoundland government erected five Caribou Memorials at sites in France and Belgium where the (now) Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought: Beaumont-Hamel; Gueudecourt; Masnières; Monchy-le-Preux and Courtrai (Kortrijk). A sixth is in Bowring Park, St. John’s NL.
The Beaumont-Hamel memorial was unveiled by Field Marshal Earl Haig on June 7, 1925. The monument designed by Basil Gotto is a bronze caribou (the Regiment emblem) standing on an outcrop of Newfoundland granite and said to be “facing the former foe with head thrown high in defiance.” Three bronze memorial tablets name 814 men from the Newfoundland Regiment, Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and Mercantile Marine who died in WW1 and have no known grave.
The caribou overlooks one of few preserved battlefields of the war.
A poem by John Oxenham welcomes visitors to the park:
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.
From this vast altar-pile the souls of men
Sped up to God in countless multitudes:
On this grim cratered ridge they gave their all.
And, giving, won
The peace of Heaven and Immortality.
Our hearts go out to them in boundless gratitude:
If ours—then God’s: for His vast charity
All sees, all knows, all comprehends – save bounds.
He has repaid their sacrifice: – and we—?
God help us if we fail to pay our debt
In fullest full and unstintingly!