In the spring of 2008, I visited France and Belgium with my sister. Among our many stops were the D-Day beaches at Normandy and several World War I battlefields and memorials, including Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, although in truth most of northern France seems like one never ending memorial. The place is heavy with history.
I published this article in The Newfoundland Quarterly later that year. In honour of Remembrance Day, I’m posting it here.
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
– Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Commander British 29th Division
The case arrived by courier one day in April, all the way from Ottawa. The General Manager called me into his office to open it.
Inside were the medals of Tommy Rickett’s, on loan from the Canadian War Museum. They were nestled inside on the foam padding: The Victory Medal and the British War Medal, the “Mutt and Jeff” of First World War military medals. The French Croix de Guerre with star, and one other.
The Victoria Cross looked small in the case. If you didn’t know that it had a story to tell, it could almost be insignificant, just a piece of bronze and crimson ribbon.
Two weeks later I was driving from Normandy to Belgium, roughly following the route of the Canadian Third Infantry Division in as they moved across Europe towards Germany in 1944-45. One look out the window and you know this is tank country, rolling fields divided by roads and hedgerows.
Suddenly in the distance were the pylons of the Pont de Normandie, big inverted Y’s reaching up from the ground to carry the A29 Autoroute over the great River Seine. It looked mystical in the mist, the biggest bridge I had ever seen.
I was traveling with my sister, and she had the same reaction. ‘Do we get to cross that?’ she asked. After the next turn, the next crest of the hill, the river came into better view.
Yes, we do.
The speed limit on the autoroutes is 130 kilometres an hour, and we were across the two kilometre bridge in less than a minute. The big Y pylons soared above us, while below us the Seine moved lazily towards the English Channel and sea.
This trip was a succession of bodies of water to be crossed: the Atlantic, the English Channel, the Seine River. We had taken the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham and the Normandy landing beaches, Juno Beach and Pointe du Hoc and later Mont St. Michel where the Couesnon River empties on the salt flats.
But those were all behind us now. Ahead of us lay Belgium, french fries and good beer. But we weren’t leaving the battlegrounds of France just yet.
We eventually made our way off the wonderful autoroutes and onto the back roads of France. We followed the road signs to the small, quiet town of Albert.
From there the way to the Newfoundland Memorial Park was easy after the narrow, winding roads of Normandy. The soft surrounding countryside was green and peaceful, broken only by scattered stands of trees.
The Newfoundland Memorial Park was one of the achievements of Father Thomas Nangle. Nangle had been the regimental padre, served as Newfoundland’s representative on the Imperial War Graves Commission, and had spearheaded the effort to built the War Memorial between Water and Duckworth Streets in St. John’s. In later life he would become a farmer and Member of Parliament – in Rhodesia.
Nangle had joined the Newfoundland Regiment in the fall of 1916, after the Regiments decimation at Beaumont Hamel. But how could he not be deeply affected by that action? Half the faces in the Regiment were as new as he was, replacements for those who had not made it past the Danger Tree.
He secured the funds, bought the land from French farmers (who were probably glad to be rid of it and the thousands of bodies and unexploded shells that it now contained) and commissioned the design of the Newfoundland Memorial Park.
We got out of the car and surveyed the landscape, trying to decide how to feel to be here. This place is legendary, a sacred place from which our very identity originated, a few dozen acres of battle scarred fields amidst the tranquil French countryside.
Although even these battle scars have healed with time. It looks more like the carefully planned park that it is than a battlefield. It takes a few moments to realize that the sheep are grazing amidst trenches and shell holes and rubbing themselves on rusting barbed wire pickets.
We met our tour guide at the visitor centre, a modern building, quiet sitting in the corner of the park. He lead us down the gentle dirt trail, roped off on both sides to keep us from trying to explore the trenches that still divide the landscape.
There are newborn lambs in the field, grazing on the grass, and I ask the tour guide why the sheep are there.
They’re more respectful than lawnmowers, he said. And less likely to detonate any of the high explosive shells still buried in the fields.
In the centre of the park stands the caribou, symbol of the Regiment, symbol of Newfoundland, commanding the view. It reminds me of the caribou in Bowring Park: head thrown back, legs arrayed on the rocks in a manner meant to assert dominance, rising upward. But the caribou in Bowring Park lacks the regal air of his Beaumont Hamel counterpart, hidden as he is amongst the trees. The caribou in Beaumont Hamel surveys the park. I earned this, he seems to say. This is my land.
The guided tour of the park is meant to recreate the attack of the Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st, 1916. We started at the western end of the park, near St. John’s Road trench, where the quiet French country road passes by on its way north. This was a support trench on July 1st, 1916, when the Newfoundland Regiment mustered here on their way to the attack. The crest of the western ridge along this trench is lined with birch trees. Each is about the size of a man’s leg.
I don’t know whether the trench was named St. John’s Road by the Newfoundlanders, or whether it had that name before any of them arrived in the vicinity of Beaumont-Hamel. Strangely, I forgot to ask. Somehow it just seemed to make sense here.
Already deafened and confused by the artillery bombardment that preceded the attack, the men would have gone over the top of the trenches behind the front lines, the front line trenches being already clogged with dead and wounded. Moving at a walking pace, they moved away from the support trenches and down the gentle slope towards Y Ravine and the German lines at the other end of the park.
At places the guide stops to tell us the story, to update us on the status of the attack as it progresses, and as we progress along with it.
We reached No Man’s Land, seemingly no distance from the starting point, and then the Danger Tree, dead and skeletal, that marks the farthest point of advance for the majority of the Regiment that day. By the time they made it this far, 75% had fallen.
Farther down the slope, beyond Y Ravine, the German machine gunners were sighting along the crest of the ridge. Each of those trees along the ridge, about the size of a man’s leg, stands out clearly against the grey French sky. There could be no mistaking the shapes of visitors moving against that background, a few hundred metres away, easy targets. The machine gun fire had come mainly from fields that seemed impossibly distant, but a German machine gun in 1916 had an effective range of several kilometres.
We left the last of the Regiment behind and continued down the slope, towards the cemetery.
There are three cemeteries within the Newfoundland Memorial Park: Hawthorn Ridge No. 2, Y Ravine, and Hunter’s Cemetery. They are laid out in intervals that seem appropriate, belying the fact that they were makeshift graves, sites chosen for their convenience and proximity to the dead.
The grave markers are laid out in the perfectly straight rows that one expects of a military cemetery, but, strangely I thought, they are not spaced evenly.
The original graves, buried just hours or days after the battle, were were torn open again by artillery fire when the fighting resumed.
When the fields were finally silent, the task of reburying the uprooted bodies was undertaken again. But the men were no longer laid out in neat rows, and had to be reburied as best as circumstances allowed. Hence the proximity and uneven nature of the headstones. Many contain bodies that could no longer be identified. Many contained more than one.
In Hunter’s Cemetery, there are no neat rows of crosses, no true distinction between resting places. A monument rises from the centre of a circle of gravestones, many marked with the caribou head of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, others with the insignia of various British regiments.
This grave was originally a massive shell hole, a crater in which fallen soldiers were laid out in a circular pattern and then buried collectively.
Collectively, the stones tell the story.
2618 Private W. King
541 Private F. T. Lind
Royal Newfoundland Regt.
A Soldier of the Great War
Royal Newfoundland Regt.
Two Soldiers of the Great War.
Known Unto God.
Looking out over the fields, past the grazing sheep towards where the ground drops sharply away at Y Ravine, I was trying to imagine what a young man, standing here like me, would have felt thought on that morning. But I realize it is impossible to imagine. It is impossible to imagine because, were I standing here then, I would already be dead.
I was shivering in the drizzling rain, so reminiscent of St. John’s in April that I almost smiled. The tour guide said he would hurry the rest of the tour so we could go back. I said no.
Who knows when we may pass this way again?
By midnight that night we were sitting quietly in a pub in Belgium. The country we had come through was full of stories.
Driving north from Beaumont Hamel we had passed Vimy Ridge, another cemetery, another country’s story. We passed a dozen small cemeteries, one hundred or two hundred crosses. They dot the landscape as casually as ponds or groves of birch.
This morning there was a school tour in the museum, grade ten and eleven students from Bell Island (Private Cahill and Sergeant Carroll, Private Jackman, Privates Lahey and Sparkes). The boys were staring into the case that held the medals of Sergeant Tommy Ricketts, fascinated by the few ounces of bronze and crimson ribbon.
He was my age, they said, when he went to war. My age. To war.
Cars pass outside on the street, people traveling to and from their jobs, to and from their homes and their families, taking children to school and rushing to make their appointments on time. They have the privilege of not thinking about the rows of white crosses in the fields or thinking about how this, too, is sacred ground.