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News Article / April 24, 2015

From Royal Canadian Air Force Public Affairs

During the First World War, British forces, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment (attached to the British 29th Division) fought side by side against the Ottoman Empire in Gallipoli. The long, disastrous battle began with the landing of ANZAC forces on April 25, 1915, and lasted until January 1916. The Newfoundlanders entered the fray on September 20. The casualties among the Allies were staggering; among the Newfoundlanders some 30 men died in action and 10 more died of disease. Hundreds more were hospitalized for wounds or disease. But a few months later, the Newfoundlanders would face even greater peril at Beaumont Hamel in France, during the Battle of the Somme.

On April 25 each year, Australia and New Zealand mark ANZAC Day to commemorate the gallant soldiers who gave their lives in the trenches and on the mud hills skirting Suvla Bay, Turkey. Until Newfoundland joined Canada, her citizenry observed Memorial Day on July 1 in commemoration of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, wearing the small blue flowers of the forget-me-not plant to honour the men of the 1st Newfoundland. Today, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still wear forget-me-nots on both Memorial Day and on Remembrance Day.

Although the following is not a Royal Canadian Air Force story, it is a story of true Canadian military courage and valour. Its inspiration came when a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force staff in Ottawa visited Newfoundland on Remembrance Day and noticed Newfoundlanders wearing blue forget-me-nots, as well as poppies, on their lapels and asked about their significance.

At 11:59 p.m. on March 31, 1949, the island nation of Newfoundland, lying outside the mouth of the St. Lawrence River off the east coast of Canada, officially became the tenth Canadian province. She brought with her a multicultural society drawn from among the fisher folk, the adventurers and the outcasts of Europe – a proud history of individualism, courage and ingenuity. Her citizens, residents of “The Rock”, as they call Newfoundland, were stalwart with a capital “S”.

These traits were never so apparent as within the ranks of the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, which became the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1917.

In February 1916, the surviving soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, were some of the last to be withdrawn from the Gallipoli Peninsula following a terrible defeat under the guns of the Ottoman Empire. What remained of the regiment was returned to Egypt to rest, rebuild and refresh their training. 

On the Western Front in France, near the small town of Beaumont Hamel, the Germans had hunkered down in two rows of trenches (with a third under construction) running parallel to the River Somme. The battle there had almost ground to a halt, and British forces, regrouping in anticipation of a summer campaign, called for reinforcements. After only eight weeks of rest following the Gallipoli campaign, the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, joined the line at Beaumont Hamel.

The Battle of the Somme reflected the Allies’ pressing need to end the First World War. By December 1915, just 18 months into the war, things were going badly for the Allies. The Gallipoli offensive had failed miserably in what amounted to a massacre of Commonwealth and Allied forces. The Allies, desperately pursuing a success to bolster the war effort, refocused on the Western Front.

Along the Somme, British artillery had been bombarding the German lines and no man’s land for weeks, and the British advance was expected to be smooth and clean with little resistance from the enemy. But the bombardment had churned no man’s land to soup and demolished every scrap of cover save one battered apple tree. In a feat of engineering that would make matters worse for everyone, British sappers had dug down and tunneled forward to place 18,000 kilograms of explosives under the German lines.

Early in the morning of July 1, 1916, the explosives were detonated with devastating effect. Located just west of Beaumont Hamel, the resulting crater, 40 metres wide and 18 metres deep, claimed many German lives but also moved the 1st Newfoundland’s advance from the realm of difficult to nigh on impossible.

At 9:15 a.m., on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, soldiers of the 1st Newfoundland went “over the top”, to be met by terrible fire from rifles, machine guns and artillery inexplicably undamaged by the bombardment and the explosion.

At 9:45 a.m., of the 801 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who went over the top, 324 were killed outright or were missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded.

Six weeks later, the men of the 1st Newfoundland successfully beat back a gas attack in Flanders. In October 1916, they were back on the Somme, at Gueudecourt. In April 1917, 485 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians gave their lives during the Battle of Arras, at Monchy-le-Preux, but the Battalion held off a German advance despite overwhelming odds. In November 1917, at Masnières-Marcoing during the Battle of Cambrai, they stood their ground although they were outflanked. In April 1918, the men of the 1st Newfoundland helped to halt the German advance at Bailleul.

Such was the heritage, and the mettle, of the population that Newfoundland brought into Canadian Confederation just 31 years later.

Until Newfoundland joined Canada, its citizenry observed Memorial Day on July 1, wearing the small blue flowers of the forget-me-not plant to honour the men of the 1st Battalion, Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. Today, while the province observes Remembrance Day with the rest of Canada, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians still wear forget-me-not pins on July 1.

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