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Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Great War- Part 1 The Newfoundland Regiment

     When the Great War started in August 1914, the area we know know as Newfoundland was still part of Great Britain and not Canada. When the call for volunteers came out in 1914  following the annihilation of the regular army in Belgium and France, nearly 1,000 men out of the 250,000 people in Newfoundland came forward to answer the call. There had been no military unit from the area in 45 years, but soon the men found themselves on transport ships heading east toward the old world and a continent tearing itself asunder. They saw limited action in support of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) at the failed Gallipoli campaign against "Johnny Turk" in an attempt to take control of the inlet to the black sea away from the Ottoman Empire so that ships could reach Russia and lend support to the Czar. They soon found themselves transferred to the Western Front in preparation for "the big push" against the Germans.

    1916 was a year of massive bloodshed the likes that had not been seen since at least Napoleon. The failure to end the war quickly in 1914 had led to trench warfare, and in 1915 the introduction of poison gas failed to change the situation, merely adding yet another horrible way to die in the first industrialized war Europe had seen. For the Germans the idea was to bleed France white and sap their will to fight, leading them to sue for peace. If the Germans could not break through and make it to Paris to win the war like they had done in the war of 1870, they would simply kill so many Frenchmen that they would lose the will or ability to fight. So the Germans started a massive offensive aimed at Verdun, a historical fortification going back to the days of the Carolingian dynasty. This however upset British plans for an offensive to the north in an area known as the Somme. For months the British had been coordinating a massive attack with their allies the French and the remaining Belgian forces against Germany. Tunnels were dug under German mines with the intent of blowing up key points along the German line to create a gap that British troops could pour through. At the same time months of British artillery shell production were stockpiled for a massive bombardment that would shred German barbed wire defenses, forward machine gun positions, and hopefully kill a large amount of the men manning the forward trenches. By summer 1916 the modified offensive plan was put in place. On July 1st men were set to storm no mans land.

   Well the problem was the Brits used the wrong kinds of shells to shred the barbed wire so it was still in tact. The German trenches were so good that most Germans survived, and the barrage along with the explosion of charges under parts of their trenches gave them ample warning of an impending attack. So when the Newfoundland Regiment and its 780 men fit for duty went "over the top" and advanced the couple hundred yards towards the German trenches that first morning, the Germans were prepared and their barbed wire was largely intact. Within 30 minutes it was all over, out of 780 men only 68 would be fit for duty the following day. Most of those lost never made it past their own barbed wire. Some died along the way in the open of "No Mans Land", and others died on the German wire. To this day it remains the worst casualty rate for any unit for a single days action in modern warfare. The men, being part of the "new army" were generally not trusted to be as disciplined as the "old army" of professionals in 1914. They were trained to advance straight forward in a fast walk, in close formation, towards the enemy. This made them easy targets for German machine gunners, many of whom often stopped shooting when the British started to retreat having tired of killing so many. It was a gallant show of discipline and valor by the Brits. One person remarked that this sort of thing was evidence that "Lions were led by Asses" and that the Generals of the British Army had no idea how to fight this kind of war and were destroying good men needlessly in the pursuit of a failed strategy.

   The Somme was a complete failure. The allied forces suffered almost 630,000 casualties to the German 400,000. That first day alone, when the Newfoundlers died, 57,000 other British casualties were suffered. To put that in perspective that is roughly the casualties suffered by both sides over three days at the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War.









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