Video taken at Cemetery No. 2, 4,000 kids filing into the cemetery to honour fallen Canadians.
BEAUMONT-HAMEL, FRANCE — It’s a battle sacred to Newfoundlanders, but virtually unknown to most other Canadians. But on Easter Sunday, students from across Canada joined together at Beaumont-Hamel, France, to ensure that together, the memory of the soldiers would fought and died at that 1916 battle would live on.
“I feel so emotional,” said Kristyn Chaffey, a student at Frank Roberts Junior High, Conception Bay South. “I can’t even put it in words. It’s incredible, absolutely incredible; I can’t even put it in words.”
The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel was part of the Somme offensive against the German forces in northeastern France. In 1916, Newfoundland was still an independent dominion, on equal status with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. At the time, the population was 240,000. The dominion sent the 1st Newfoundland Regiment to the Somme and on July 1, 801 men went over the top along with their British allies.
The day before the battle, Lieutenant Owen Steele had written in his diary, “It is surprising to see how happy and light-hearted everyone is, and yet this is undoubtedly the last day for a good many.” His words were prophetic, because the battle was a slaughter.
A week’s worth of artillery bombardment was ineffective. The Newfoundlanders were met with a hail of bullets from machine guns and other arms. In The First Day of the Somme, British historian Martin Middlebrook writes of a soldier who witnessed the slaughter firsthand.
“On came the Newfoundlanders, a great body of men, but the fire intensified and they were wiped out in front of my eyes,” Private F. H. Cameron of the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers is quoted as to have said. “I cursed the generals for their useless slaughter, they seemed to have no idea what was going on.”
All told, the regiment suffered 710 killed, wounded or missing in action. The next day, only 68 men were fit enough to make roll call.
Sunday’s event was held at Beaumont-Hamel National Historic Site, one of only two Canadian national historic sites located outside of Canada.
A crowd more than 400 strong marched through a bomb-blasted landscape to the majestic Beaumont-Hamel monument. There, situated on a ground mound of rock and shrubs native to Newfoundland, stands a statue of a bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The ceremony began with playing of the national anthems of France and Canada. Then, a succession of speakers took the podium to pay their respects to the fallen.
“These soldiers served with courage, tenacity and distinction,” said Governor General David Johnston. “Through their enormous sacrifice … they have made our country more caring, and more sensitive to the cost of war.”
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney was celebrating his birthday on Sunday, and told the crowd he was immensely proud to be able to mark the anniversary with the students assembled at Beaumont-Hamel.
“You are the future, and you make me proud by your presence here,” he said under cloudy skies. “The veterans of the First World War are all gone… but by your presence here, you make them alive for today and tomorrow.”
Joshua Thomas, a Parks Canada interpreter who works at Beaumont-Hamel, hails from Newfoundland. The 24-year-old reminded the students that if they had lived a century earlier, it might have been them or their brothers who would have donned the famed blue puttees and sacrificed their lives here. Calling Beaumont-Hamel a “heart-wrenching” moment for Newfoundlanders, he added, “We will remember them.”
Students and dignitaries laid wreaths as members of the Newfoundland pop band Hey Rosetta sang a somber new song, called The Reckoning. It was a fitting accompaniment to one of the most solemn moments in Newfoundland and Canadian history.
The ceremony ended with the crowd of Newfoundland students and teachers singing “Ode to Newfoundland,” the province’s former national and now, provincial anthem.
As the students sang the refrain “We love thee, Newfoundland,” tears rolled down the cheeks of some students.
Later Sunday night, the Governor General and Minister Blaney travelled to the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, to take part in the Last Post Ceremony for men who died in the Ypres Salient during the war. Among the thousands of names etched in the walls are 6,940 Canadians. The names represent the men who died, but whose bodies were lost and were not given proper burials. During the special ceremony, Johnston read the poem In Flanders Fields before a crowd of several hundred, including many Canadians. Incredibly, this was the 28,811th time the Last Post ceremony has been performed since the end of World War I.
The Beaumont-Hamel event, organized by EF Tours, is part of a weeklong tour of key First World War battlefields. It will culminate on Monday, April 9, at Vimy Ridge, where approximately 4,000 students are expected to gather to mark the 95th anniversary of that seminal Canadian victory.
— Mark Reid