Nfld. & Labrador

French connection: A Beaumont-Hamel survivor's family remembers

As the centennial anniversary of the First World War battle approaches, the family of soldier Eugène Cornect still bears the scars of that deadly day.

Port au Port Peninsula man's bravery on the battlefield lives on

Beaumont Hamel survivor

6 years ago
Duration 6:18
The family of a French Newfoundland soldier remembers his fight at Beaumont Hamel and still bear the scars of the battle.

One hundred years ago, the poverty of the Port au Port Peninsula on Newfoundland's west coast was as pervasive as its spectacular scenery — and for its young men looking to find a better way through the world, the battlefields of the First World War offered a way out, albeit a brutal one.

A young Eugène Cornect, a Francophone soldier from the Port au Port Peninsula. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

In September 1914, 21-year-old Eugène Cornect, out mowing hay on Cape St. George, saw a recruitment ship along his beautiful coastline, and soon became soldier 429 of the Newfoundland Regiment's First 500, a fighting francophone member of the Blue Puttees.

"He wasn't fighting for the British — well, in a way — but he was for Newfoundland," his daughter Marina Cornect said from the kitchen of her white saltbox home on the Port au Port Peninsula. 

As the 100th anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel approaches — the regiment's most brutal battle, and Newfoundland's defining moment of the war — she and the rest of the family still bear the scars of what Eugène survived on that fatal day of July 1, 1916.

The poverty on the beautiful Port au Port Peninsula forced many to leave. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

Battlefield survivor

Eugène Cornect had already endured battle at Gallipoli and a bout of dysentery when he arrived at Beaumont-Hamel as a scout, given the unenviable task of being one of the first soldiers over the top of the trench on July 1, meant to cross No Man's Land and conquer the Germans on the other side. 

A mission cut short by the enemies' artillery: only 68 of almost 800 men answered roll call the next morning.

The fields around Beaumont-Hamel after the Battle of the Somme. November 1916. From the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-09) (Wikipedia)

"They were all mowed down like sheep to the slaughter," said Marina Cornect, whose father was hit by shrapnel in his ankle early on in the fight, spending the next 20 hours among the dead.

"He just laid there and stayed there, because he knew if he if he stayed immobile, he may be able to survive," she said.

At dawn, Cornect began crawling back to safety, meeting a similarly injured German solider amid the destruction.

"[They] just stayed there and stared at each other, he said, and [they] shook hands and then said goodbye," said Cornect.

"We were just fighting for the country, he said, not against the man right? That's the way he put it."

Marina Cornect says her father spent hours playing dead on the Beaumont Hamel battlefield. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

Father and son soldiers

Eugène Cornect made it back to Newfoundland, but the battle came with him. He eventually lost his leg to his injuries, as another pain lingered underneath. 

"He was a bit of a pest when he was drinking," said his son, Robert Cornect, admitting their relationship could be a rocky one. 

"Rowdy when he was drinking, but when he was sober, he was a pretty good guy."

Robert Cornect followed in his father's military footsteps, fighting in Korea. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

Despite their differences, battle proved to be a uniting force. Robert followed in his father's footsteps and became a soldier himself, fighting in the Korean War. In fact, seven of Eugène's eight sons joined the military.

"Genetic, it's in your blood," said Robert Cornect, adding when he returned home, his father was the only person on the Port au Port Peninsula who understood him.

"He was infantry too, see? And I was infantry, but I wasn't in a war like he was in."

A composite photo Robert Cornect has hung in his home, of himself and his father. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

Following Eugène's footsteps

Eugène Cornect never wanted to revisit the French battlefield that shaped the rest of his life. But as Marina Cornect witnessed its impact, she became filled with a urge to see Beaumont-Hamel, a journey her father gave his blessing to.

In 2006, for the battle's 90th anniversary, she and her sister made the transatlantic journey along with other veterans' families to mark that historic moment.

A memento of Marina Cornect's trip to France. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

"I was calm as anything, just trying to take it all in. I came home and for weeks after all I saw was white crosses and poppies," she recalled, her emotions easily bubbling up a decade later.

Those feelings surface with more frequency these days, as the hundredth anniversary looms, as she remembers what her father strove to leave behind.

"We went, we saw, and we remembered."

With files from Philippe Grenier