WW I slaughter of Newfoundland Regiment a case of 'strategic stupidity': Rick Hillier

Retired general Rick Hillier says the battle of Beamont Hamel disaster was caused by "horrible decisions" from top commanders. He is in France to honour the 684 men killed or wounded during the First World War.

Newfoundland's top ranking officer to pay tribute to fallen on 100th anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel battle

Remembering Beaumont Hamel 100 years on

7 years ago
Duration 9:09
Retired General Rick Hillier pays tribute to the lessons and legacies of the pivotal battle.

As Canadians celebrate the country's 149th birthday tomorrow, Newfoundlanders will mark the sombre 100th anniversary of a brutal battle that sacrificed a generation of men and defined Newfoundland for decades.

Retired general Rick Hillier, Canada's former chief of defence staff and the highest-ranking officer from Newfoundland and Labrador, has travelled to France to honour the fallen at the sacred ground of Beaumont-Hamel, where 684 men were killed or wounded.

He will be among an estimated 3,000 people taking part in the commemorative event.

The battle was a tactical military disaster, for which Hillier blames "horrible decisions" from top commanders.

Commemorative ceremonies are taking place in Canada and France to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle at Beaumont-Hamel. (Submitted by Derek Winsor)

"They committed troops without supporting fire in many cases, in bright sunlight, across open ground, in bunched-up groups into machine gun fire, into sniper fire and into artillery fire which was concentrated on them. Trying to find their way through narrow gaps even in their own barbed wire in front of their own positions made them obvious, easy targets for the enemy," he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton.

"I'll give you a word: stupidity. Strategic stupidity, and hopefully we'll never see that again."

Devastating loss of life

It was the most devastating battle of the First World War for the Newfoundland Regiment.

The fight began July 1, 1916, near the River Somme. Two waves of Allied soldiers left their trenches and were mowed down by German artillery fire.
Retired general Rick Hillier has travelled to France to honour the fallen Newfoundland soldiers at the sacred ground of Beaumont-Hamel. (CBC)

The Newfoundland Regiment was part of the third wave.

After they were ordered over the top, they were quickly met by a catastrophic barrage.

Most of the men were killed or wounded before they could reach no man's land.

Within half an hour, more than 85 per cent of the battalion were either dead or wounded.

Of the nearly 800 Newfoundlanders involved in the advance, only 68 men were available for roll call the next day.

Hillier said the massive loss of sons, brothers, husbands and fathers took a toll on every family and community and meant a huge loss of leadership for the next 50 to 60 years.

"It was an incredible negative legacy in that way," he said.

Hillier's great uncle died from wounds in Belgium during the First World War, a loss that was remembered and honoured by his family and influenced his military service.

After the war ended, the Newfoundland government purchased the land where the battle was fought.

Caribou was regiment's emblem

A statue of a caribou — the regiment's emblem — now stands watch over the ground where the battalion made its advance.

"We have made a significant commitment that we are going to remember, we are going to appreciate, and we are going to live our lives in a way that befits their great sacrifice," Hillier said.

In France, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr will lead a delegation that includes veterans, youth and military officials.

There will also be events in St. John's and in Ottawa, where a national ceremony will take place at the Canadian War Museum. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and the Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance will be present.

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador will broadcast live from the National War Memorial and The Rooms in St. John's for a special news event, Beaumont-Hamel 100th, on July 1 beginning at 10:30 a.m. 

Half an hour of this period will be a full-network special inside the CBC Canada Day coverage hosted by Peter Mansbridge.

The program will be broadcast throughout Newfoundland and Labrador on CBC Television, CBC Radio One, CBC N.L. YouTube and available online.

Anthony Germain and Heather Hiscox will host the news special, along with Krissy Holmes and Zach Goudie.