Their Last 30 Minutes

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Jim Desautels photo

It was the first Sunday in July, a cold, overcast day with the threat of rain. The year was 1939 and I was at the War Memorial on Duckworth Street in St. John's for the annual commemoration of the First World War action known locally as "The First of July Drive."

I was six years old at the time and I was participating in the ceremonies with my Boy Scout troop. Virtually every organization in St. John’s that wore a uniform was there. It was my first time at an event I would attend for each of the five years I was a Boy Scout.

The day began with the various uniformed groups attending church services, then marching to the War Memorial where bands played, speeches were made, hymns sung, prayers offered, wreaths laid and salutes fired. It seemed that about half the population of St. John’s was crowded onto side streets, straining to get a view of the proceedings. It was a solemn occasion intended to honour those who had been killed on July 1, 1916. On that day, close to 800 Newfoundlanders went “over the top” and into history. They became the most devastated regiment in the history of the British Empire.

Growing up in St. John’s in the 1930s and ’40s, the trappings of the Great War were everywhere. The War Memorial on Duckworth Street was an awe-inspiring array of granite and bronze that consumed an entire city block. There was an artillery gun in Victoria Park and another in Bannerman Park. There was a battle tank at the courthouse. In Bowring Park stood a bronze statue of a Newfoundland Regimental soldier. People wanted to honour the memory of those who had died and to believe that their sacrifice had accomplished something worthwhile.

My strongest memory of those Sunday morning commemorations was the profound sadness exhibited by all who attended. I lost a maternal uncle that day. His body was never found. A handful of faded photographs was all that I ever saw of him. Over the years I was troubled by the nagging question of why so many had been killed in a battle that achieved nothing. More recently, after the truth had finally surfaced, my curiosity turned to anger. This is what I learned.

In the summer of 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment was in France, in the Somme River Valley near the village of Beaumont-Hamel. The war in Europe had stalemated along a front that stretched across France to the North Sea. The trenches of the British and German armies were separated by a treeless wasteland aptly named “No Man’s Land.” To allow the British infantry to cross No Man’s Land and break the stalemate, a massive five-day artillery bombardment was laid down to destroy the German defences.

Unfortunately for the British infantry, the English generals who commanded the operation were completely out of touch with reality. The Battle of the Somme had started badly when the generals refused to believe their scouting reports that showed the artillery bombardment had failed. In a vain attempt to salvage a badly flawed battle plan, at 7:20 a.m. they ordered the first wave of infantry into No Man’s Land. Those men were immediately cut down by well-positioned German machine guns and artillery. No objectives were taken.

A reasonable person would have been forced to conclude that the German defences had not been destroyed and that it was impossible for the British infantry to cross No Man’s Land. The commanding generals did not see it that way, though, and at 8:05 a.m. they ordered the second wave of infantry into battle, with the same result. Unbelievably, at 9:15 a.m. the third wave of infantry was ordered into No Man’s Land.

On that day the Newfoundland Regiment occupied the third row of trenches. When the whistle blew they went over the top with the third wave. The Regiment’s losses were horrific. A total of 233 were killed or died of wounds, 91 were missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded. At 9:45 a.m. the English officer commanding the Newfoundland Regiment reported to his superiors that the attack had failed. 

The near annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment had taken less than 30 minutes. - Submitted by Arthur W. Curren of North Vancouver, British Columbia (formerly of St. John’s)