NOW AVAILABLE: Meet the men and women of Newfoundland who lived through the Great War by following 29 journeys inspired by real events and the stories on our Newfoundland at Armageddon interactive feature.
One hundred years ago, on July 1st, 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment took part in a massive First World War offensive on the Somme, led by the British to liberate France and Belgium from the claws of the Germans. Some 800 soldiers from the Regiment went over the top that morning, near Beaumont-Hamel in France. The following day only 68 were able to answer roll call. Because of that battle, nothing about Newfoundland would ever be the same.
To commemorate the one hundredth anniversary, Brian McKenna’s latest feature documentary film Newfoundland at Armageddon tells the story of this epic tragedy. Using a technique he perfected during his 2007 project, The Great War, 21 descendants of soldiers who fought with the Newfoundland Regiment were recruited. They were offered a unique opportunity to relive the experience of their ancestors in trenches built specifically for this event, on a National Defence of Canada rifle range near St. John’s in Newfoundland. Four of the descendants travelled to Europe to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps from landing in England, training in Scotland and finally marching on the field of Beaumont Hamel.
MORE: “I gotta admit, the hair on the back of my neck started standing up.” Bryan Manning talks about walking in the steps of his ancester during World War I
Photo by Stephen Thompson.
Through descendants’ eyes, and with the guidance of regimental records, historians’ research, soldiers’ files, diaries, letters and family stories, the documentary recreates the battle and its aftermath in Newfoundland. With the help of dramatization, we go behind the scenes of history and visit General Haig as he’s planning the battle with his generals; we’re also confronted to the hardships of a family who sent a son to war.
On August 4, 1914, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, all of the British Empire, including Canada and Newfoundland, was at war. Every colony sent troops to fight for the Empire. At the time, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and the small island of only 242 000 inhabitants did not have its own infantry. In less than a month, the first 500 soldiers were recruited, with volunteers coming from all corners of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Throughout the course of the war, almost half the men eligible for military service in Newfoundland stepped forward. By the end of the conflict, close to 9,000 Newfoundlanders had served overseas, 6,000 with the Newfoundland Regiment and about 3,000 with the Canadian, British and American Expeditionary Forces.
Women also joined the war effort. Some volunteered as nurses and aides overseas, but others shouldered the burden of their society on the home front. Not only did they take on the work of the absent men, they created the Women’s Patriotic Association. Through the WPA, they knitted socks, sewed clothing, gathered medical supplies and raised enormous sums of money for the regiment. After the war, their central role became a catalyst for a political awakening and the suffragette movement.
WATCH: TRAIL OF THE CARIBOU
Allan Hawco and Mark Critch tell the story of what happened at Beaumont-Hamel when more than 700 young men from Newfoundland were wounded or died. Learn more.
The Somme Offensive of the 1st of July was the single bloodiest battle in Britain’s military history, with nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day. In less than 30 minutes, the Newfoundland Regiment lost nearly 90 per cent of its troops. The British commanders called it a noble sacrifice. For Newfoundland it was a tragedy. In practically every household, people lost a son or a brother.
The British army was under the command of General Douglas Haig. He believed he had been chosen by God to lead the British empire to victory. Haig also believed in the supreme power of cavalry and called the machine gun an over-rated weapon. These ideas and his unwillingness to acknowledge losses and defeats granted him the unofficial title of “Butcher of the Somme”.
After the war, the massive debt taken on to fight for the Empire led Newfoundland to declare bankruptcy and eventually to join Canada. However, many Newfoundland nationalists never considered themselves Canadians and, for some, it is still hard to think of July 1st as a day for celebration and not a day to commemorate the Beaumont-Hamel tragedy.
Directed by Brain McKenna for Galafilm Productions and Morag Loves Company in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corportation.