Britain: Declared war on Germany and sent out the call for aid, in which Newfoundland responded. At this point in time, Britain was one of the most powerful empires around the globe.
Newfoundland: A small British colony located on an island along (what is now) Canada’s eastern coast. Despite having no military experience, hundreds of men volunteered to join Britain in war.
Germany: Fighting the British in pursuit of the control of more land and with it, more resources. The enemy of the British empire was therefore the enemy of Newfoundland and it’s soldiers.
In 1914 Britain declared war against Germany. Along with the war declaration, Britain sent out a call to their allies and colonies to help fight in the war. Newfoundland at this time was still a British Colony and was filled with english loyalists. Despite having no army and no militia, hundreds of men volunteered, creating the First Newfoundland Regiment.
In the spring of 1916, the Newfoundland regiment was transferred to France in order to prepare for an offensive in Somme valley. The Newfoundlanders were told to attack German troops at the village of Beaumont-Hamel. This battle was the initial phase of The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was one of the most tragic loses of the first world war (look at Elyjah’s blog for more) and the Battle of Beaumont was the first name in the list of lost battles.
The battle commenced with 801 Newfoundland men charging the field. Tragically, 30 minutes later only 68 men were able to report for duty.
This loss devastated Newfoundland families and people and is still felt today in the province and descendants.
Beaumont-Hamel is in north-eastern France, in the fields of WWI.
Going in to the Battle of Beaumont, the French and British side of the war needed a win. Germany had taken control of Belgium and some of Northern France and many of the British attempts to take more control of the war had failed. The Germans were positioned near the river Somme so the French and British troops were to attack the Germans together.
The plans were disrupted when Germany launched an attack on French forces near Verdun. In consequence, the British were left to fight at the Beaumont themselves, leading to the loss of most of the Newfoundland Regiment.
The battle happened on July 1st, 1916 – Two years after the start of WW1 and two years before it would come to a close. This was also the first fight in what is called, the Battle of the Somme
First of all, Newfoundland was considered a British colony, and didn’t join the rest of Canada until the mid nineteen hundreds. Newfoundlanders were devastated by this Battle. Their losses were astronomical – not just emotionally and socially with the loss of family members, but also the loss of so many men who were the breadwinners of families now left behind who couldn’t support themselves.
I learned about these perspectives by reading through stories of different families and descendants from the war. One story was from Dean Brinton, CEO of the museum the Rooms, who, like so many Newfoundlanders, discovered a story about his own great uncle, Saule Keefe, who volunteered for the war, sent money back to his family, and then lost his life, leaving his family devastated. Brinton claimed that “Everything about his family made sense once [he] discovered the story of Keefe and what he did during the Great War. As he explains, ‘Thousands and thousands of families have a similar story. That’s why Beaumont-Hamel is so close to our hearts.’”
Continuity and change?
This battle brought Newfoundland to its knees, and is seen as the beginning of the end of Newfoundland’s independence. The tragedy experienced by so many families from this event demanded strong will and perseverance to get them through it as well as deepened their need for outside support. Eventually, Newfoundland would join Canada in 1949, ultimately connecting Newfoundlanders with other Canadians in the shared experience of loss and tragedy as well as heroism and fighting for one’s nation. Economically and socially, Newfoundland needed Canada to survive, but ended up bringing in a unique, independent group of people that contributed to Canada’s diverse social and cultural landscape. This completed the country from sea to sea.
As stated by Duffet, a Ph.D student at Queens University, “Today, Beaumont-Hamel is widely perceived as the beginning of the end of Newfoundland’s nationhood, that the loss of so many good men, bestowed with the title “the best of Newfoundland,’ sent the dominion down the road to economic and political ruin that led to it joining Canada.”
This illustrates the great impact this war had on Newfoundland and in turn the economic and social need for support from Canada. When Newfoundland joined Canada, they not only joined a new nation, but separated from Britain. This separation was another step towards Canada’s autonomy. Up until they joined Canada, the British colony of Newfoundland was the last tie to Britain in North America. So even while Canada was its own functioning Nation, in Newfoundland, they still had Britain looking over their shoulder. Without as much of a pressing english presence, Canada was forced to be even more autonomous from the rest of the world.