Beaumont Hamel: A Battle to Remember Instructor: Matthew Trudgen Ph.D.
Course: HIE340, History of the First World War
Date Submitted: 30 November, 2014
The 1st of July is a day of tremendous importance to Newfoundlanders. For most of the country it is Canada Day and a day to celebrate the Dominion's birthday. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it is also remembered as the anniversary of the Newfoundland Regiment's deadliest engagement during World War I. For those who observe Memorial Day, it is a sombre occasion which remembers the Great War as a tragedy for Newfoundland, marked by the Regiment's slaughter at Beaumont Hamel, France, on 1 July 1916. The attack at Beaumont Hamel warrants study in order to benefit from lessons learned from the many breakdowns in command, control and communications (C3) that took place on that day. As such, the following paper endeavors to answer the question of whether the tragedy of Beaumont Hamel was preventable. In doing, so I will look at the German’s 119th (Reserve) Infantry Regiment, the strength of their reaction, its impact on the troops of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers of the 86th Brigade, and why they were unable to provide the planned support. Next I will examine the untimely detonation of the Hawthorn Mine, followed by the debatable communication breakdown experienced at Command Headquarters. Finally, I will present examples of flawed decision making and discuss how these instances further exacerbated an already helpless situation. I contend that the events which unfolded at Beaumont Hamel were preventable and should serve as a lesson for future commanders and military planners.
Beaumont-Hamel is located near the northern end of a forty-five kilometre front which was to be attacked by British and French forces. Originally, the attack was planned for 29 June 1916, subsequent to an extraordinary five day artillery bombardment. This was delayed until 1 July, 1916, partly on account of inclement weather and to afford more time for artillery preparations.1 The 29th British Division was positioned at Beaumont-Hamel, and boasted three Infantry Brigades, the 86th, the 87th and the 88th.2 Here it was said that the 29th’s brigade faced the battle hardened troops of the German 119th Reserve Infantry Regiment, who had spent much of the last 20 months, “converting their position into a veritable fortress.”3
Here is where I would like raise my first argument regarding the plethora of bad decisions made by the 88th Brigade’s leadership. In light of the experience of the 119th Reserve, I question the logic behind employing two drafts of RNR troops that only just arrived on the eve of the battle?4 Surely, the officers in charge must have considered the fact that these men would not benefit from the month of training and preparation that preceded the battle. However, I am not the first to question the skill of the Corp’s senior leadership. On the eve of the battle, the last words written by Sir Douglas Haig, who had previously expressed dissatisfaction with the Corps staff, were, “The only doubt I have is with regard to the VIII Corps Staff, which has had no experience of the fighting in France and has not carried out one successful raid.”5 There is no doubt that the brave Newfoundland troops would have balked at the idea of waiting for the next big push but senior decision makers should have thought twice before essentially throwing them under the bus.
As planned, the offensive was to be preceded by a pounding artillery barrage meant to destroy the enemy wire, degrade their defences and morale.6 On 24 June 1916, the artillery bombardment commenced.7 In all, some 800 field guns began the task of systematically cutting up the German wire. Estimates of the damage done were hard to draw from the photographs taken by the Allied Flying Corps. A more reliable assessment came from the various raiding parties…