In a previous series of posts, I wrote about Canada’s contribution to the War effort and how I came to realize that the contribution of Newfoundland to the War and the War’s after effects on this small British Dominion deserved some special attention. So I am happy to offer this snapshot of a very complex corner of what is now Canada.
As a reminder, at the start of World War 1 on 4 August 1914, the population of Canada was just under 8 million and that of Newfoundland was just 242,000. Both Canada and Newfoundland were Colonies of the British Empire and, as such, when Britain declared war on Germany both Canada and Newfoundland were also at war.
The question for Newfoundlanders was “to what extent are we involved?” Almost 12,000 Newfoundlanders would answer that question by enlisting; most in the Newfoundland Regiment. The Newfoundland Regiment along with other Newfoundland units were ostensibly British units, formed within the British Army and commanded by British officers. The Regiment’s first contingent set sail for Britain on October 3, 1914 and more soldiers would soon follow. The Newfoundland Regiment would continue their training in England and Scotland before finally seeing action on an unexpected front—the eastern Mediterranean.
After almost a year of continued training, the regiment saw its first deployment. It landed at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula on 20 September 1915, where the British, French, Australians and New Zealanders had been attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles Strait from Turkey since April. The Galipolli Campaign was a fiasco; a major setback for the Allies, with more that 110,000 Allied soldiers killed in action.
While the Newfoundlanders were not involved in the major fighting, they faced snipers, artillery fire and severe cold. During their three months in Turkey, thirty soldiers of the regiment were killed or mortally wounded in action and ten more died of disease.
When the decision was finally made to evacuate allied forces from the area, the regiment was chosen to be a part of the rearguard, finally withdrawing from Gallipoli on 9 January 1916. Following the Gallipoli disaster, the regiment was sent to France’s Western Front for the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in March 1916.
Beaumont-Hamel and the Battle of the Somme
By mid 1916, the Western Front had become stalemated in trench warfare with opposing armies facing one another from complex trenches systems across a devastated ‘No Man’s Land’. The generals saw only one way to end this stalemate — brutal frontal assaults in the face of intense fire. For the Allied Armies in 1916, the Somme was chosen as the site for a major joint French and British assault.
At 7:30 a.m., on July 1, thousands of British and French troops began their advance across No Man’s Land in broad daylight toward the German positions. The result would be a slaughter — more than 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed, wounded or missing—the heaviest combat losses ever suffered by the British Army in a single day.
At about 9:15 a.m., the Newfoundlanders attacked from a support trench nicknamed St. John’s Road. Almost 800 members of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of the trenches at Beaumont-Hamel. Only 68 answered roll call the next day. In the span of just 20 minutes an entire generation of Newfoundland men was wiped out.
1 July 1916 was the first day of more than four brutal months of fighting at the Somme. By the time it was over, both the Allies and the Germans would each lose about 200,000 lives. During the battle, the Allies advanced the front line by about 10 kilometres – the equivalent of about 20 lives, Allied and German, per metre.
The Newfoundland Regiment would be practically wiped out, but reinforcements would come to help rebuild the regiment. In just 2 two weeks, the survivors of Beaumont-Hamel would see action again near Auchonvillers and a month after that were fighting off a German gas attack in Flanders.
The Battle of Arras
On 14 April 1917, during the Battle of Arras, the Regiment suffered high casualties after a failed attack on a section of German trench with the 1st Essex. Despite this, ten soldiers from the Regiment were able to hold off a counterattack of over 200 German soldiers attempting to capture the village of Monchy-le-Preux. Later estimates suggest that if the Newfoundlanders had failed to hold the village and the Germans had captured and fortified it, it would have taken 40,000 British soldiers to recapture it. During the battle 166 men were killed, 141 were wounded and 150 were taken prisoner.
In recognition of its gallant actions in these battles and at Arras, Ypres and Cambrai later in the war, the Regiment would go on to earn the official designation “Royal” was bestowed on the Regiment by King George V in December 1917. They were the only unit of the British Army to earn that distinction during the war years.
Private Tommy Ricketts (later promoted to Sergeant) was awarded the Victoria Cross and French Croix de Guerre avec Etoile d’Or (War Cross with Gold Star) for his actions during an advance from Ledeghem, Belgium, on 14 October, 1918.
At 17 1/2 he was the youngest soldier to earn the VC during the First World War and the youngest army recipient fighting in a combatant role.
By the end of the war, more than 6,200 Newfoundlanders had served in the Regiment, with more than 1,300 of them losing their lives and another 2,500 being wounded or taken prisoner. Overall, some 35% of men aged 19 to 35 had served. This would have a profound impact on the colony for many years afterward.
The Aftermath of the War
The financial burden of the war effort would eventually bankrupt Newfoundland. This led the colony into decades of extreme political turbulence which, in turn, led to the collapse of the state and eventually Newfoundland lost its Dominion status and reverted to British home rule as a colony. By 1942, Newfoundland began to regain a prosperous state. With this economic improvement, a move to regain Dominion status grew. Britain called for a National Convention would be formed to advise regarding its future. Canada extended an invitation to Newfoundland to join Canada. On 31 March 1949, Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province with Joey Smallwood as its first Premier.
Membership as a province of Canada, came with its own problems. The First of July is a complicated day in Newfoundland and Labrador. The incredible sacrifices of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel still echo. For Newfoundlanders, 1 July is a day to remember those who gave so much to help protect the peace and freedom people that they enjoy today. However, since Confederation, 1 July is also a day of celebration as Canada Day (previously Dominion Day).
For the 100th anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel, the CBC presented a documentary on the battle and its aftermath for the people of Newfoundland. In this presentation, they brought together a number of the ancestors of the soldiers who were part of that ill-fated day. The video is the trailer for the documentary. You can see the entire show at Armageddon.
In another CBC production, Newfoundlander celebrities, Mark Critch and Allan Hawco, offer a compelling story of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment from the start of the war, through their deployment to Europe, Gallipoli, France and Belgium.