Victims, not heroes: The unsettling truth behind Beaumont-Hamel's carnage

One hundred years after Beaumont-Hamel, it’s time to view the soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment who were killed or injured on that day for what they really were: Victims.

'Our greatest debt to the young men who were sent to their deaths is historical honesty'

Anthony Germain during a visit to Beaumont-Hamel earlier this year. (CBC)

One hundred years after Beaumont-Hamel, it's time to view the soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment who were killed or injured on that day for what they really were: Victims.

Historian/dramatist Kevin Major has described the battle as "the single greatest tragedy in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador." And, this place has known its share of tragedies: The eradication of the Beothuk, the Great Sealing Disaster, the sinking of the Caribou, the Ocean Ranger, to name just a few. 

Beaumont-Hamel tops a long catalogue of sorrow.

For years the trench slaughter has been cloaked as valour and glory. Yet for many of the men who volunteered, a primary impulse was not patriotism, but rather a desire to escape one of the poorest places in North America and to seek adventure.

How Beaumont-Hamel battle defined Newfoundland

7 years ago
Duration 7:15
July 1 marks the 100th anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel, the First World War battle that left 684 men of the Newfoundland Regiment killed or wounded

Suicidal mission

To question motivation and events is not to question individual bravery. A terrified man who runs into storms of enemy machine gun fire believing he can change the outcome of battle even if he dies is, by definition, brave. But individual acts of bravery do not justify the destruction of a generation of men in a pointless war that nobody understood.

At Beaumont-Hamel, the distance the Regiment's soldiers were expected to cover to reach the Germans was at least three football fields long. This was because the support trenches they should have used were clogged with dead and injured soldiers. The sight of the dead, the maimed, and the dying were indicators of a suicidal mission over open ground.
Soldiers who went into the July 1, 1916 battle were not prepared for the sight of trenches filled with dying or wounded men. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

At Vimy, frontline trenches were so close together that the Canadians and Germans could lob grenades at each other. The point is that the Newfoundlanders never had a chance. There is no evidence that any soldier in the regiment got off a clear shot, let alone killed a single enemy.

After sending 324 Newfoundlanders to die in futility and injuring another 386, the responsibility for the devastation of human life doesn't lie with the regiment but with the incompetent British generals who devised a catastrophic "Big Push" strategy that was doomed.

In a grim attempt to mollify the regiment's obliteration, one British commander noted that the failure happened at Beaumont-Hamel because "dead men can advance no further." Sure, the b'ys in the regiment gave it their all, but for what?

Newfoundlanders are fiercely proud of the fact this place was a separate colony, its own country. But unlike real sovereign countries at the time, another nation had complete control over our international affairs. The assassination of a noble in the Balkans triggered a series of events in which London decided it must honour a treaty signed with Belgium in 1839.

Soldiers from Newfoundland and Labrador got sucked into a bloody meat grinder in France because of an obscure 19th century treaty over a country few could locate on a map.

Need for historical honesty

Of all the arguments used to rationalize the sacrifice at Beaumont-Hamel, the assertion that these men died "for our values" or "for our way of life" is the shakiest.

Recently, a former Canadian general told me that the men who died at Beaumont-Hamel "protected the freedoms we enjoy today." But what is true about the Second World War, is not true about the First. In 1914, Europe plunged into war because of an antiquated diplomatic system. Kaiser Wilhelm's next stop was not St. John's.

For most of the last century we have needed to cling to the words such as those uttered in 1920 by the Reverend Canon Jeeves at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John's: "What you enjoy is only yours today because they laid down their lives on the National Altar".

The battlefield today is a tourist attraction, where visitors can walk through the trenches and visit the cemetery. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

The notion that the Regiment died for freedom and liberty carries additional irony. In the 1920s and 1930s the island's ravaged economy, and the cost of paying off the Mother Country's war debt drove the colony bankrupt. We surrendered our sovereignty to the country that dragged us into the Great War.

Was this the liberty the men died for at Beaumont-Hamel? 

We have needed to believe in bravery and heroism because to think otherwise was unthinkable. One hundred years after their sacrifice, our greatest debt to the young men who were sent to their deaths is historical honesty.

What did the men in the Regiment really die for? Nothing.