Among the most infamous battles of the First World War and the most emblematic of its horrific slaughter, the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916.
The attack was launched along a 30-kilometre front in northern France. Initially planned by the Allies as a French-British assault, it was intended to divert German forces from their ongoing siege at Verdun. The expectation was that an eight-day preliminary artillery bombardment would destroy the German wire and the forward German lines, allowing advancing forces to simply walk in and take possession of the territory. The artillery, however, failed to destroy either of these targets and at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, when the bombardment lifted, German infantry emerged from their bunkers to aim their machine guns at the gaps in the otherwise intact wire. An estimated 60,000 British and Allied troops, including close to 800 Newfoundlanders, were killed or wounded on that one day alone. The Battle of the Somme lasted until November 18, 1916. Only 12 kilometres of ground were gained, with 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German casualties.
Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire during the First World War and its volunteer soldiers served as part of the British 29th Division. On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment was charged with taking the German support trenches at Beaumont-Hamel following an initial attack on the positions by the British 86th and 87th brigades. The German trenches, however, were heavily defended. From their position in the reserve trenches, the Newfoundlanders watched as the two waves ahead of them were shot down within metres of their own trench. At 8:45 a.m., the regiment received orders to move forward over land rather than through the support trenches, which had become packed with wounded soldiers. This meant crossing an additional 250 metres of open ground in order to reach no man’s land. The Newfoundlanders were effectively the only men moving in the battlefield and were clearly visible to the German line. Most were killed or wounded before reaching the British front lines. None made it further than the skeleton of a tree, dubbed “the Danger Tree,” midway across no man’s land.
An estimated 22 officers and 758 other ranks took part in the Newfoundland Regiment’s advance. Of these, all officers and 658 other ranks were to become casualties. Only 68 men were able to respond to roll call the following morning.