There’s something to be said for the ability of a simple monument to deeply move you.
So it is with the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Atop a stone cairn, up a small hill, a bronze caribou sits facing the old German lines, howling at the sky.
In that caribou the agony of a generation of Newfoundlanders who were cut down in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, of one of the most senseless slaughters—in a conflict best known for senseless slaughter—of the First World War.
It’s the contrast, though, between the epic grandeur of Vimy and the raw pain of the caribou that make such a deep impression. The Vimy monument’s twin spires loom over the former battlefield. It has a number of carved marble statues, all deep with symbolism and metaphor. The names of the entire war’s dead are carved into its base. But it’s hard to separate the solemnity with the underlying fact that comes up, again and again: Canadians won the battle of Vimy Ridge. As much as it’s a memorial to the dead, it’s also a memorial to victory.
By contrast, nobody won at the Somme. Almost 20,000 men died in the first day of fighting. Waves of Allies went over the top, marching shoulder to shoulder, before being caught up in intact lines of barbed wire and being cut to shreds by still-alive German machine gunners.
Scenes like this one played out up and down the lines:
“I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the ‘patter, patter’ of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I’d gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.” — A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish, as told in John Keegan’s 'The Face of Battle'
When you travel to Beaumont-Hamel today, you can still see what were once trenches. The tour through the memorial park starts on the Newfoundland lines, and makes its way into what was then the bloody-maw of the German Imperial Army. A petrified tree stands at the spot called “Danger Tree” out in what was once No Man’s Land where several Newfoundlanders sought cover as they, and their attack, fell to pieces. Of the 800 men of the Newfoundland regiment that left their trenches that morning, fewer than 70 would report in the next day.
But the full scale of the tragedy of the Somme is hard to get a handle on. Before we arrived at Beaumont, after a morning at Vimy, we found ourselves standing on a slight ridge in the middle of farmers field, at the gate of a cemetery with the graves of a few hundred men. My wife and I were on the Redan Ridge, cemetery No. 1, another part of the sprawling Somme battlefield.
There on that hill, surrounded by blooming rapeseed fields, you could look off in the distance, left and right, and see cemeteries just like the one we were standing next to, dotting the fields into the distance. One hundred and fifty-four Britons were buried beneath us, another 67 just down the small farm road. At each white cluster along to the horizon, it’s hard to guess at how many more were buried within view. Thousands, surely. The weight of that really settled into my gut.
So when we arrived not long after at the Beaumont-Hamel memorial, there was something about that place, so much pain bottled up there, that came through.
History is a funny thing, especially history about your own country. In the case of Canada, we’re taught a broad, shallow narrative. I could rattle off all the familiar strokes, but you’ve no doubt heard enough of them this year.
This problem—and it is a problem—extends to how we talk about, and think about, the Canadian experience in the First World War. So while the glorious Canadian victory* at Vimy Ridge takes centre stage in our national memory, Beaumont-Hamel is at best a footnote.
One of the side effects of Newfoundland and Labrador joining Canada so recently, is much of our national narrative had already been set out by 1949. By then, the Second World War had been over for several years, and the stories we told ourselves about the First had long been decided.
As VICE writer Drew Brown put it last year, in a remarkable piece to mark the battle’s centennial:
Memorial Day exists in a strange space where a dead nation bleeds into a living one. It is the site where you can feel most acutely how pre-Confederation Newfoundland history has been papered over with the Canadian story. Canada Day retroactively draws us into Ottawa's vision of manifest destiny after Newfoundland's Year Zero in 1949.
So we don’t often hear of how practically the whole Royal Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out that July. Their names can be read in a book of remembrance in a small chapel off the site’s museum.
The Somme offensive was a failure. After atrocious losses to both sides, Field Marshall Douglas Haig** called a halt to the battle in November of 1916, four and a half months later. In that time more than a million men were wounded or killed. This gives another striking contrast with Vimy. There, in the three days of fighting, there were some 10,000 casualties, about 3,600 of those were deaths.
Vimy was a part of my pilgrimage. I wanted to see the same ground my great-grandfather had seen a century before. But it was important we made time to go to Beaumont. Brown’s piece stuck with me the last year, and had I not visited, I think would have been denying witness to one of the most painful parts of our history in the Great War.
It ties back to something in my neighbourhood. I live just around the corner from Montreal West’s war memorial. On it are inscribed the words:
Dedicated to the memory of the sons of Montreal West, who gloriously laid down their lives in the Great War and in honour forevermore of all those who served therein. This tribute is erected with full hearts by their fellow-citizens.
That last part always sticks with me. “Erected with full hearts by their fellow-citizens” is a phrase that manages to evoke a feeling of gratitude and an understanding of sacrifice, without being maudlin about it. It’s atypically Canadian in its dignity and grace.
That’s part of what I saw in that caribou at Beaumont-Hamel last month. The full but ragged hearts of a hollowed-out country, howling with rage.
*There’s plenty of debate over whether Vimy was as important as our national mythos would make it seem. That the Allies took the ridge, and stopped there is perhaps telling.
**Fear not, Haig did okay for himself. He’s got a noble and glorious statue riding his horse down Whitehall Street in London, following just behind the British Cenotaph.