On the 101st anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme it seems appropriate to visit one of its most famous sites. Plus today is also Canada Day.
The Memorial to the Missing at Beaumont-Hamel in France is not maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). It’s situated in the Newfoundland Memorial Park which is administered by the Canadian Department of Veteran’s Affairs, just like the Vimy Memorial. However, within the site there are four CWGC cemeteries.
The memorial commemorates 809 Newfoundlanders lost in WW1 who have no known grave. Here’s a fair question: if all of the 11,169 Canadians missing in France are commemorated at Vimy Ridge, why there is a different memorial to just the Newfoundlanders? Here’s a short history lesson:
Founded in 1583, Newfoundland was the Crown’s oldest colony when it was granted Dominion status in 1907 (Confederation with Canada didn’t come until 1949). In August 1914, in response to patriotic urgings, the smallest Dominion stepped up and created the Newfoundland Regiment, and as a Dominion, it was expected to bear all of the costs.
The Newfoundlanders never served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and the regiment was much too small to form even a brigade, and so it was part of the British 88th Brigade, 29th Division. They served with notable heroism and distinction; on Sept. 28th, 1917 they were designated by King George V as a Royal Regiment, the only regiment to be so honored during the WW1 (only three Royal designations have ever been bestowed during wartime).
They landed at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915, then went on to their tragic and heroic attack at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st, 1916, where they lost 680 killed and wounded, including all of the officers, out of an attack strength estimated at 790. Later there was the April 1917 Battle of Arras where they stopped a German counterattack at Monchy-le-Preux, losing 485 men, then they attacked with the tanks at Cambrai in October 1917 and finally in 1918 they helped chase the Germans away from the Ypres Salient.
About 8,500 Newfoundlanders served in the Great War (the exact number of sailors is unknown), 1,570 were killed or died and 2,314 were wounded.
In 1919, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s Catholic Chaplain, Lt. Col. (Hon) the Rev. Thomas Nangle, who had also been designated as the NF Director of Graves Registration and Enquiry and NF’s representative on the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), predecessor of the CWGC, determined to create an impressive set of Newfoundland memorials outside of the IWGC.
His plan had three parts:
- to honor all who served, a traditional-style war memorial in the center of St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, (dedicated on July 1st, 1924 by Field Marshal the Earl Haig);
- to honor the sacrifices of the Regiment; the acquisition and preservation of the entire Beaumont Hamel battlefield and the erection of six distinctive Caribou statues following ‘the trail of the Caribou’ through every major site where the Newfoundlanders served; and
- to provide for a brighter future that the fallen would never see, the establishment of the first college.
To achieve these goals, Fr. Nangle founded a public charity to raise funds by subscription. Every family in the country was asked to give NF$1, and NF$35,000 was raised. Additionally, the Fisherman’s Protective Union kicked in NF$10,000, and the government eventually contributed substantially from the sale of the Tobacco Monopoly.
By 1921 Fr. Nangle had completed the purchase of 74 acres at Beaumont Hamel (10 more acres were acquired later), having come to terms with nearly 250 claimants, and thus the largest preserved area of the Somme Battlefield was created. His group paid cash for all of the memorials and sites, which a country with a population smaller than Delaware could ill afford. Canada, on the other hand, was later given the 250 acres at Vimy Ridge by France ‘freely and for all time’.
Sixteen memorial designs were submitted and British sculptor ex-Captain Basil Gotto’s plan to erect identical bronze caribou statues at locations where the Regiment played a significant role was chosen. Fr. Nangle wrote that Gotto’s design was ’most distinctive, his idea being a giant caribou somewhat like the “Monarch of the Topsails” carved in bronze on a rough cairn of Newfoundland granite about ten to fifteen feet high. This will be distinctive of the Regiment and of Newfoundland. It will be artistic and cheap, all five being cast from the same mould’. The statues cost approximately £1,000 each.
In the end, six were cast – one for each of the five European sites and one envisioned for Gallipoli but which ended up at Bowring Park in St. John’s. Local landscape architect R.H.K. Cochius designed all of the parks. The Caribou in Europe overlook battlefields where Newfoundlanders fought and died. They were dedicated on June 7th, 1925, again by Haig, in a ceremony at Beaumont-Hamel.
Hard times were ahead for the little nation that tried so hard. In 1932 the government declared insolvency, and Newfoundland reverted to Crown control, much to Whitehall’s chagrin.
There were several reasons for the failure, and unfunded war costs, generous military pensions and the memorials program were on the list.
Impressive as the Beaumont-Hamel Park and the Caribou are today, the unmatched and everlasting remembrance to Newfoundland’s service and sacrifice will always be Fr. Nangle’s little college, which opened in 1925 with 55 students to prepare young Newfoundlanders to teach or to attend British universities. Ninety-two years later the Memorial University of Newfoundland has over 18,000 students and 1,100 faculty at four campuses, including one in the UK, and is one of Canada’s leading universities, internationally recognized in education, engineering, business and medicine, and recently ranked 5th in Canada by Macleans Magazine.