For many, this province’s narrative of the First World War begins with the Blue Puttees and ends on July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel.
But the story of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment does not end there.
The Battle of the Somme continued as a prolonged, grim struggle until the third week of November. The Regiment would rejoin the battle in the first few weeks of October near a town called Gueudecourt.
Where once they stood
Their ranks were filled with new recruits from home. Beaumont-Hamel spurred the men and boys still living in the towns and coves to take the place of their brothers, cousins and fathers. By September a larger number of men, as a proportion of population, had enlisted in the army and navy from Newfoundland and Labrador than from any other part of the British Empire.
“Our ranks were eager to avenge as far as possible our comrades who fell on July 1.”
On Oct. 12 the Regiment was ordered to seize two main German trenches. The first was the heavily fortified Hilt Trench, 400 metres in the distance; then the enemy’s second line at Grease Trench, another 400 metres beyond that. The attack began at 2:05 p.m. By 2:30 p.m., less than half an hour later, they had secured their initial objective: Hilt Trench in the German front line.
The victory was not without a terrible cost. The Regiment suffered 239 casualties — 120 killed, 119 wounded. According to the commanding officer, “The Regiment held the front line trench under heavy shell for up to some 40 hours and then repelled a counter-attack. Nothing could have been finer than the way in which every officer and man acquitted themselves in this strenuous task.”
N.L. esprit de corps
Just like Beaumont-Hamel, the courage of the Regiment was extolled, even by the enemy officers. Two German officers captured at Gueudecourt expressed surprise at the vigour with which the Newfoundlanders attacked, declaring that such esprit de corps could not have been surpassed.
According to one Regimental commanding officer, “Our ranks were eager to avenge as far as possible our comrades who fell on July 1.”
Another wrote, “The success was the more gratifying, as it was the only real success recorded on that day.”
Ironically, Gueudecourt was five miles from the front line at Beaumont-Hamel — and the farthest advance of the Somme offensive.
The end of the Somme
Fifty-five hours after they began their advance, weary from sleeplessness and strain, the Regiment handed over responsibility of the trench and went into reserve.
On Nov. 18 the weather turned to a cold, dismal rain. Although none of the Newfoundlanders knew it at the time, the break in weather meant the end of the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
Today, the Regiment’s action at Gueudecourt is commemorated in a small park in the French countryside with a Caribou statue identical to the one at Beaumont-Hamel.
‘We never forget’
Memorial University College was created to honour those men, and the thousands of others who fought in the Great War and subsequent conflicts.
At the 2016 Ceremony of Remembrance, President Kachanoski reflected on what this means at Memorial.
“No matter how much we grow, no matter how many national and international successes we enjoy, we never forget the foundation of who we are and our special commitment to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.”