The Guns of 1917: Newfoundland at the Somme

A special six part series of columns by William Roubicek on Vimy Ridge

William Roubicek is a recent graduate of Charles Hays Secondary School and member of the Captain Cook Sea Cadets. This is the third of six columns that chronicle the journey by his corps to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

When the rest of the country celebrates Canada Day, the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador observe Memorial Day.

The holiday commemorates a fight that took place on July 1, 1916 near the tiny township of Beaumont-Hamel, two hours north of Paris. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, an engagement that would last for more than four months.

The Newfoundland Regiment, which served with the British 29th Division, sent 810 soldiers into action that morning.

Newfoundland was still a British Dominion. It would not become a province of Canada for another three decades.

Despite its modest population of 241,000, more than 8,500 Newfoundlanders enlisted to fight during the First World War. By way of comparison, all the students and staff of Prince Rupert Middle School would represent the same proportion of our city’s population.

By 10 a.m., all but 68 members of the Newfoundland Regiment had been killed or wounded in the failed attack.

Today, the scarred landscape of Newfoundland Memorial Park is crisscrossed with reconstructed trenches. The Great Caribou Monument stands on a block of granite, facing the direction of the Regiment’s advance. A bronze arrow embedded in the wall shows it is 2,500 miles to Newfoundland.

As I walked through the graveyards, I noticed that the men who died were my age. They would have been my peers. I couldn’t imagine the horror those soldiers must have felt seeing their brothers and comrades gunned down.

They had family, friends, favourite foods, treasured books, embarrassing stories, entirely unique outlooks on the world. And in less than 30 minutes, their entire regiment was extinguished.

I hope these men would have been glad to know that their sacrifice was not in vain. Their courage bought the freedom we have to visit these grass-covered battlegrounds in peace.

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