Today is Canada Day – our 150th birthday in fact. Something I didn’t know until this year is that, in Newfoundland, it is also Memorial Day. You see, on July 1st. 1916, about 780 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment climbed out of their trenches near Beaumont-Hamel, France and charged their objective on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Only 110 survived the day, with a total casualty* rate of almost 90%.
Since 1917, July 1st has been designated as Memorial in Newfoundland, a Dominion of its own until 1949 when it became a province of Canada, with forget-me-nots used as poppies are on Remembrance Day. It is one of only two National Historic Sites of Canada outside of Canada (the other is Vimy Ridge).
Getting to Beaumont-Hamel
I’ve wanted to go to the Beaumont-Hamel memorial for quite a while; it’s one of the handful of sites from my European tour this year that I hadn’t been to before. It was, in fact, the reason I chose the GoAhead tour of two choices I’d narrowed the list down to.
Unlike other tours I’ve been on, our guide – Paola – encouraged everyone to take over the microphone and share our stories. They could be stories passed down to us of our family who had fought in the First and Second World Wars, or perhaps the story of why we chose to come on this trip. Paola told us stories that she had heard growing up of Italy in the First World War (when they were our allies) and the Second (when they were not), and stories that she had only unearthed as she prepared for this trip.
I ended up getting called up to the mic.
I think it was punishment for my questions about this part of the itinerary. Our schedule said “Beaumont-Hamel”. Every day, she would talk about what we’d see in the following days. Never once did she mention Beaumont-Hamel specifically. So I asked her to clarify that we were actually going there. “Yes,” she assured me.
After that, she included that we were going there, but only mentioned visiting cemeteries, and not the caribou monument. So again, I asked for clarification and she again assured me, and asked why I was so interested. Had I lost someone there?
I was the only person on our bus from east of Ontario, and I work with several Newfoundlanders. I felt it was kind of my duty to visit this place for them. And so she asked me to share that story with the group.
Beaumont-Hamel National Historic Site of Canada
After all that, unfortunately, we didn’t have much time there. I went on a guided tour of the site, walked through a small section of the trench and around the monument itself, and then it was time to return to the bus. I didn’t have a chance to visit the cemeteries, the danger tree, walk the battlefield, or look through the small visitor’s center.
But I laid a poppy (I didn’t have a forget-me-not) at the base of the Caribou and returned. Paola allowed me extra time to quickly visit the Centre, which was nice of her.
I hope I’ll be able to return one day.
*For those who don’t know, ‘casualty‘ includes killed, wounded, and missing.
Have you been to the Beaumont-Hamel National Historic Site? I’d love to hear your stories.