Dispatches from Normandy: Wheat and Graves

Pamela Broderick

Normandy is full of wheat and graves. I wasn’t expecting all the wheat fields and it reminds me of home.

I am from the prairies in Saskatchewan, where it is easy to see that you are on the bottom of some huge dried up prehistoric sea.

But here, in Northern France, the plains roll dramatically to form a series of ridges. The river valleys are lush and green. Oak and beech trees abound.
And everywhere along the roads, even amongst the wheat, poppies bloom. A symbol from a poem; reminders of bloodier days.

The Somme region, north of Paris, was the site of some horrific World War I battles. It is here that I start my Canadian pilgrimage of battle sites. Long before D-Day and Juno Beach, there was Flanders and the Somme and Vimy Ridge.

And long before Canada Day was ever celebrated in Newfoundland, July 1 was an important day. It marked a day not of celebration, but one of somber remembrance.

The memorial at Beaumont-Hamel is a peaceful park-like site. The Canadian, Newfoundland, and French flags stand at the entrance. Families picnic; visitors quietly walk the grounds. Grass and trees cover acres of uneven soil.

These mounds of preserved earth are the remnants of trenches from a century ago. The craters’ edges and the trenches’ miseries have softened now with time.

As I walk into the park, it starts to drizzle softly. How fitting, I think, as it reminds me of a summer’s day in Newfoundland. I pass “St. John’s Road”, the name given to one of the trenches.

Towards the center of the park, a large bronze statue of a caribou rises dramatically above an open field. Today it overlooks a pastoral setting, complete with grazing sheep.

But on July 1, 1916, that gentle pasture was a muddy hell: the space between two trenches, known as “no man’s land”. The First Newfoundland Regiment would go into battle that day. And despite a brave stand, the regiment from the island colony would be decimated before the morning’s end.

It was a doomed endeavor from the start. Initial bombardments had failed to damage the German defenses, the assault happened behind schedule, and they did not have the element of surprise on their side. Commanding officers were killed quickly and confusion reigned supreme.

The Newfoundlanders had to attack from rear trenches because the front line trenches were clogged with the dead bodies of earlier attacks. This meant that they had to advance in the open for 200 metres before even reaching no-man’s land.

There were only so many places where the barbwire had been cut, so men were picked off easily at these spots by machine gun fire. In a half an hour, the regiment was almost wiped out. Of the 801 who went over the top, only 68 were alive and not wounded.

The assault near Beaumont-Hamel was part of a large Allied offensive known as the Battle of the Somme. The battle would last four months and see thousands of men die for only a dozen kilometres of territory gained.

Unfortunately, it was a scene that would repeat itself over and over again in the Great War. Mechanized weapons had made traditional military advances obsolete. But generals stubbornly refused to change their tactics.
They engaged in a war of attrition, each side repeatedly attacking the other until one side ran out of bodies. Soldiers had to dig down, literally, to survive. That is why World War I is characterized by trench warfare. The Western Front was a defensive stalemate.

World War I is both an interesting and difficult topic to teach. In World War II, the script is easier to understand. There were good guys and bad guys, and we were the good guys fighting to rid the world of evil.

World War I is a messy mix of old school empires jockeying for power and land. And we Canadians, colonials ourselves, were fighting for, well, our King?

For certain, WWI’s end marked a shift in world powers and a new recognition of nationalist desires. It is also certain that it set the stage for World War II. For Canada, WWI marked our debut on the world stage. But the futility of the individual battles is hard to comprehend. I have often wondered about the mentality of the soldier in the trench. Logically, how could soldiers continue to “go over the top”? Why would you rush into a hale of machine gun fire? And why would the generals continue to use these tactics? Beaumont-Hamel was a blood bath. It makes me angry. How can I teach that part of it when I can’t even wrap my head around it?
But in that quiet, rainy, park in France, I think I caught a glimpse of understanding.

Those boys were far from home, and they were thrust into a surreal world. They had nothing but each other, a strong sense of duty, and strong backs. There was nowhere to go but forward.

According to records, on the morning of July 1, 1916, the Newfoundlanders put their heads down, tucked in their chins as if bracing themselves for a “Nor’easter” back home, and advanced into the hell of gunfire. They failed only because “dead men can’t advance”.

It was a display of valor that would repeat itself again and again amongst all Canadian regiments in World War I. Despite tragedy and loss, Canadian troops distinguished themselves in battle.

The First Newfoundland Regiment would go on to fight in other battles. They would also earn the official designation of “Royal” Newfoundland Regiment from the British Crown for its gallant efforts—the only unit of the British Army to earn the distinction during the war.

The caribou is the symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Five majestic bronze caribous were erected to honour the Newfoundlanders after World War One. The caribou at Beaumont-Hamel is one of four statues located at battle sites in France. At the base of the statue are the names of over 800 Newfoundlanders who died and have no known graves.
The bronze caribou is impressive, but equally touching is a small house in the corner of the park. Inside is a reproduction of a Newfoundland kitchen, complete with woolen socks hanging above a wood stove. The name of every town from around the bay is proudly displayed.

I can question the futility of war, but I can’t question the efforts of so many brave Canadians. I gained a greater appreciation that day of all who serve our country, past and present. I saw, that day, the very thing that makes our country great.

A day after my trip to Beaumont Hamel, I receive a text from my husband, 2500 miles across the Atlantic. He couldn’t have known, but the text gives me pause. He has sent me a photo he has snapped of the kids in Bowering Park in St. John’s.

There are my children, standing in front of a majestic bronze caribou, the fifth and final caribou of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.