Canada Day 2016 is also a moment of great reflection and commemoration. July 1st, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of one of the most traumatic and devastating battles in the history of civilization and among the worst of the moments of the Great War: The Somme.
In 1916, the normally placid and verdant fields along the river Somme would become a 34-kilometre-long charnel house of human misery, degradation and trauma. The Somme offensive was intended to end the deadlock on the Western Front by breaking the German lines and relieving the French forces at Verdun. At the close of the 141-day campaign, the Allies had advanced nearly 10-kilometres across a 32-kilometre front line.
Fought between July and November 1916, this battle was the largest battle on the Western Front, with both sides suffering over 1 million total casualties. On the first day alone, almost 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were in killed in action, with another 37,000 wounded. Just under half of the total number of soldiers engaged in battle survived Day One.
July 1st became the deadliest day in the history of the British army, and an apocalyptic moment in the history of Newfoundland. The Newfoundland Regiment was nearly wiped out. Only 68 members were standing at first light for roll call on July 2nd; 90% of the regiment had been killed or wounded at Beaumont-Hamel. CBC will air Newfoundland at Armageddon tonight at 8PM to commemorate the terrible legacy that is the Somme.
Most casualties at the Somme and particularly on Day One were the result of The Devil’s Paintbrush: the machine gun.
Armed with rifles and bayonets, carrying up to 66-pounds of gear, the Allied soldiers were ordered out of water-logged, rat-infested trenches to go over the top in broad daylight. The German lines lay ahead, uphill and across churned-up land where a week-long artillery barrage had failed to destroy most of the barbed wire and the German fortified trenches. The Germans had hidden in deep dugouts during the shelling and when their spotters sounded the alarm that the Allies had launched their attack, their machine-gunners took up their positions once more.
It was hell on earth.
Most soldiers across the Somme on July 1st were killed or wounded within minutes of leaving their trenches and mostly by machine gun fire. For one unit, even before they had advanced 18 metres, 123 of its men were killed or wounded in the first 3 minutes by the Devil’s Paintbrush.
Snipers picked off many of the wounded in No Man’s Land.
Tomorrow on Canada Day, please spare a thought for the men who sleep in the Somme; 72,000 officers and infantrymen have no known grave and still lie interred where they fell in 1916. Their only memorial is their name, inscribed on the monument to the missing at Thiepval.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.