It was over in 30 minutes.
But 85 years later, the destruction of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel is not forgotten in this pastoral village in northern France, which tomorrow welcomes Canadians for the opening of a museum dedicated to Newfoundland's valiant war effort.
On July 1, 1916, 798 members of the Newfoundland Regiment left the trenches to attack the German enemy. So confident of victory were their commanders that the soldiers were ordered to walk, not run.
Most never even made it to enemy lines. They were mowed down by German machine-gun and shell fire, many caught on barbed wire like bullet-ridden scarecrows. The regiment reported 310 killed and 374 wounded, a casualty rate of 86 per cent.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme came to be known as the bloodiest day for the British Army in the First World War. For the colony of Newfoundland, 33 years before it joined Canada, it represented an unmitigated tragedy that affected every community on the island and still casts a dark cloud over Canada Day.
"July 1 for me is Memorial Day first, above everything else," said Ruth Scott, who will go to the site of the tragedy as part of a 100-member delegation led by Federal Industry Minister Brian Tobin and Newfoundland Lieutenant-Governor Arthur House to open a $4-million museum and interpretation centre devoted to the regiment. Mrs. Scott's father, Captain George Hicks, was wounded at Beaumont-Hamel and won the Military Cross twice. He died in 1980 at 93.
For Newfoundlanders, Beaumont-Hamel is part of their collective identity, the way the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge is for all Canadians. But where Vimy represented victory, Beaumont-Hamel came to symbolize bravery, and above all, loss, some say senseless loss because the battle achieved so little.
"Rarely can a battalion have been so completely smashed in such a short time," wrote Martin Middlebrook, author of The First Day on the Somme. "It's my contention that not a single German soldier was killed in that attack by the Newfoundlanders."
General Beauvoir de Lisle, British divisional commander (also known for inventing polo), praised the troops in a letter to Newfoundland's prime minister. "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further."
While Canada built a soaring monument at Vimy, Newfoundland bought 80 acres of the Beaumont-Hamel battlefield in the 1920s and established a park in honour of their dead, with a bronze caribou, the regimental symbol, standing proudly atop a cairn of granite.
But unlike other memorials, which were transformed into lush parks, the trenches and craters are retained. Time has smoothed their contours and carpeted them in grass, but Beaumont-Hamel remains one of the few places on the Western Front where it's easy to see the opposing lines of trenches. It's one of the most popular sites in burgeoning First World War tourism, with 140,000 visitors a year.
"It's by far the most impressive of the memorials from the self-governing dominions," said Nigel Cave, a British historian and consultant to Veterans Affairs Canada.
The interpretation centre is designed to evoke the feeling of a Newfoundland outport, with small, clapboard-clad buildings clustered around the entrance. The exhibit introduces visitors to the Newfoundland of 1914, and follows the lives of 32 men who signed up soon after war was declared.
Newfoundlanders were quick to respond to the call of the Empire. "They were a colony of Britain. They were more British than the British," said David Panton, senior officer of the commemorations division at Veterans Affairs. "It was going to be a great adventure: We'll beat the Huns and be back by Christmas."
The exhibit leans heavily on the remarkably good-natured letters of Private Francis (Mayo) Lind, which were published in the St. John's Daily News to provide a view of the life of a soldier. The nickname Mayo came from the brand of Canadian tobacco that Private Lind told readers he missed most.
From the outset, the Newfoundlanders made it clear they didn't want to be confused with those loud, pushy Canadians, as Mayo Lind recalled in one letter. "On entering the front, the band played The Maple Leaf. They did not seem to know that Newfoundland is not Canada. . . ."
The Newfoundlanders didn't want to fight alongside the Canadians and were thrilled to be assigned to the 29th Division of the British Army.
A long time in the planning, the Battle of the Somme was designed to relieve the French, who were facing huge losses at Verdun.
The long-anticipated attack along the 40-kilometre Somme battlefield began just after 7:30 a.m. on July 1. Yet despite days of advance pounding by British artillery, German positions remained largely intact and British soldiers were stopped in their tracks.
The losses were horrendous everywhere, but at Beaumont-Hamel, for reasons still not clear, the order was given to launch a second wave.
Perhaps knowing better, professional British soldiers delayed their move, leaving the Newfoundlanders exposed and alone when they attacked at 9:15 a.m.
Even getting through their own lines to No Man's Land proved a problem. Paths had been cut through the wire but were so narrow they simply provided a convenient concentration of men for German gunners. At one break in the wire, 66 Newfoundlanders were found dead.
The soldiers were given small tin triangles, which they tied to the backs of their rucksacks so their progress could be monitored from the air. But when the wounded tried to retreat, the shiny metal tags became excellent targets.
"On came the Newfoundlanders, a great body of men, but the fire intensified and they were wiped out in front of my eyes. I cursed the generals for their useless slaughter, they seemed to have no idea what was going on," wrote Private F. H. Cameron, a British soldier who watched the battle.
"In my dad's case, he didn't get far before he got hit in the left shoulder," said Mrs. Scott, a retired teacher from Grand Falls, Nfld. "The bullet went right through his shoulder and came out his back."
Capt. Hicks managed to crawl back to a first-aid post. Within six days he was in a London hospital. But most of his buddies were dead.
After he recovered, Capt. Hicks returned to Newfoundland on a recruitment drive. "He went around to many outports and got something like 250 more men and brought them back to England," his daughter said.
Capt. Hicks returned to the front, where he distinguished himself in battle, as did the entire regiment, which was given the coveted "royal" designation, making it the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. After the war, he became a shipping agent for the pulp mill in Grand Falls, married and had six children.
Capt. Hicks brought back a trunk full of souvenirs, including the uniform he wore at Beaumont-Hamel, with the bullet holes clearly visible and its left sleeve stained with blood. Now it has found a new home at the interpretation centre. "We decided the best place for this jacket should not be a closet but where it all began," said Mrs. Scott.
Matthew Janes, the park's chief guide, knows every inch of the site. He's an articulate, 20-year-old French literature student from Memorial University, which was named in honour of the island's fallen in the Great War.
Usually he guides British students around the site, but he was thrilled recently when two high-school groups from Newfoundland arrived. He took them to the memorial plaque, which includes the names of 821 Newfoundlanders who died in the war and have no known graves.
"As soon as you line the kids up in front of the memorial, they're going to see their last names," he said, pointing to the three of the dead with his surname. As he walks slowly past the headstones of the Y Ravine cemetery in what was once No Man's Land, Matthew pauses and points to the grave of a 19-year-old soldier.
"It starts to hit home when you see them younger than you are." 'Here we face danger' Excerpts from the last letter of Newfoundland Regiment's Private Francis (Mayo) Lind, dated June 29, 1916: "Did I tell you about the mud here yet? Well just a word; it is mud and slush from head to toe. We are quite used to it now, and would you believe it, we enjoy it. Yes, it is great fun, for believe me, a man can get used to anything, and when this bunch gets back they will be the hardiest lot of men in the world.
"Here we face danger, awful danger, every hour looking over the parapet sometimes during a beautiful clear sky, gazing across No Man's Land to the enemy's lines, perhaps at just before dawn. It is wonderful how our boys have hardened to this life -- shots and shells -- and some shells, you bet, flying all around them, yet not a flinch.
"Ah, I wish I could just, in imagination, take you into the trenches. I wish I could illustrate to you what it is like, but I cannot. No pen could describe what it is like, how calmly one stands and faces death, jokes and laughs, everything is just an everyday occurrence.
You are mud-covered, dry and caked, perhaps, but you look at the chap next to you and laugh at the state he is; then you look down at your own clothes and then the other fellow laughs. The whizz bang (a kind of shell) comes across and misses both of you and both laugh together. . . .
"I will ring off this time but will write again shortly, when I hope to send you a very interesting letter. Tell everybody that they may feel proud of the Newfoundland Regiment, for we hear nothing but praise from the Divisional General down. With kind regards."
Mayo Lind never wrote that next letter. He was killed on July 1, 1916. He was 37. He lies buried with an unidentified fellow soldier in a cemetery on the battlefield. His headstone reads: "How closely bravery and modesty are entwined."