The Battle of the Somme stands as the most infamous of all battles fought during the First World War. Deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of Commonwealth nations are the sacrifices made by forces fighting for British Empire on July 1st, 1916.
The first day at the Somme stands as the bloodiest day in British military history. The B.E.F threw 13 Divisions into the fray, and suffered a devastating 57,470 casualties - including 19,240 dead.
July 1st holds a special place for Canadians, as the date of our country’s confederation. In Newfoundland, the date holds a somber and solemn meaning.
Newfoundland had not chosen to confederate with the rest of Canada in 1867. As such, it still operated as a British dominion, separate from Canada. The small dominion proudly fielded a separate Regiment for the Empire’s war effort.
As a unit in the 29th British Division, the Newfoundlanders had participated in the Gallipoli Campaign through 1915. The failure of the campaign led to the 29th’s being recalled to the Western Front.
French General Joseph Joffre had called for an attack on the Somme for months. A joint Anglo-French Offensive would shatter the German lines, and reclaim France’s industrial base.
However, the German Offensive at Verdun disrupted the Entente plan for the Somme. What was originally a joint operation became increasingly more British. As French units were shifted towards Verdun, General Douglas Haig was forced to commit more and more divisions towards the offensive. Amongst them was the 29th Division.
The Newfoundland Regiment was tasked with capturing German positions along Beaumont Hamel. Formidable German defences made this a difficult operation; deep rows of barbed wire would hold up attacking troops as machine guns cut them down.
Across from the Canadians were men of the elite 119th German Reserve Regiment.
An artillery barrage commenced at 6 am, saturating the German trenches with shrapnel and high explosive shells. An hour and twenty minutes later, the Allies detonated over 18,000 kilograms of explosives. Though effective, the blast had made certain to the Germans an Allied attack was coming.
The Newfoundlanders went over the top at 9:15 AM. Stiff German machine gun fire killed or wounded most of the men as they advanced into No Man’s Land.
Men rallied towards the charred remains of an apple tree. Machine gun fire followed them, cutting down hundreds of Newfoundlanders before they could reach the German lines.
After only 30 minutes, Regiment C.O Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Hadow reported to British HQ that the attack had failed.
The Newfoundland Regiment had been nearly annihilated. Out of 800 men who had gone into battle, only 68 men showed to roll call the next day. 324 Newfoundlanders had been killed, or went missing, while suffering 386 more wounded.
The total failure of the first day at the Somme was followed by equal failures in the coming months. Although the Canadian Corps had not taken part in the initial operations along the Somme, they would soon find their way into the lines.
Canadian forces relieved the 1st Australian Corps early in September 1916. On the 15th, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette began along an 11km front. The Canadians assaulted Courcelette, closely following a strong creeping barrage. The attack was a resounding success - however, the capture of Courcelette had cost the Corps 7,230 casualties.
The victory at Courcelette was followed by an assault at Thiepval Ridge on September 26th. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions engaged in three days of brutal fighting, and again attained success, though on a lesser scale than the Courcelette operation. The Corps had taken over 10,000 casualties in September alone.
After several months on the Somme, the 3 Canadian Divisions were pulled out of the line. The once 65,000 strong Corps had suffered nearly 20,000 casualties in their campaigns along the Somme River. This would not be the end of Canadian activity on the Somme, though; David Watson’s 4th Division would assume their fellow Canadian’s positions in the line.
Though untested in the field, the 4th Canadians succeeded where their comrades had failed. They captured their objectives of Regina Trench and Desire Trench before the entire Somme Offensive ground to a halt.
Haig’s offensive at the Somme had netted the British 9.5 kilometres of ground, at a cost of 432,000 casualties. The Canadians suffered 24,029 casualties out of their operational capacity of 85,000.
Four months of campaigning along the Somme had resulted in no breakthrough. The war would carry on. However, the Canadian Corps emerged from the Somme with an experienced and fire-hardened Force, who would be called upon time and time again to bring Allied forces to victory in the First World War.