Europe – Where now? Part V

Part IV – Shifting Sands | Part V – Children in the Trenches

Children in the Trenches

Just outside Beaumount-Hamel, on the banks of the River Ancre in Picardy in France, the Canadian Government maintains a permanent memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment, who suffered 85% causalities on July 1st 2016, as they attempted to storm nearby German trenches on the first morning of the Somme offensive.

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

Looking to the future, over the lip of a trench

The soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment, who had volunteered from practically every fishing village along the Newfoundland coast, were victims of both circumstance and incredibly bad luck.

Their planned attack was part of a wider attack along the entire front, but due to delays and various reverses, the other units who were supposed to attack at the same time were unable to do so.

Furthermore, the Newfoundlanders were not able to move up to the forward trenches, due to congestion from earlier attacks, and were forced to go over the top from a trench several hundred yards to the rear of the front line. These difficulties were compounded by the poor standard of field communications, where prevented seniors commanders from informing the unit to postpone its attack.

The result was that when the citizen soldiers of Newfoundland climbed out of their trench, they were the only unit visible from the enemy’s trenches, drawing fire from German machine gunners and artillery along a front of almost half a mile. They were also exposed for considerably longer than was necessary, having had to attack from a trench in the rear, which unknowingly silhouetted them against the skyline behind them.

Within 20 minutes, the unit was practically wiped out. No man reached his objective. Of the 780 men who had gone over the top, only 110 survived unscathed, and only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

The memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment is unique in the catalogue of memorials in the area of the Somme Offensive.

The area of the front across which the unit advanced was purchased by the Canadian Government shortly after the war, and is preserved today in much the same condition as existed at the end of the war. This includes the network of trenches which were used in the offensive, through which visitors can walk and peer over the lip.

It is difficult to imagine how any soldier could have had the courage to relinquish such cover, and expose themselves to the horror of German machine gun fire, which would have been fully apparent, given that the Newfoundlanders had remained in their trenches for nearly 2 hours after the general advance began.

Of all the memorials in the area of the Somme offensive, the Newfoundland Memorial Park is by far the most popular. During my visit to the area, it was one of only two memorials (the other being Thiepval) at which I saw children on school tours. It was perhaps inevitable that their attention was divided between the mass grave beneath their feet and their mobile phones, but it was at least encouraging to see that they were there.

The children on the school tours were British, both at Thiepval and the Newfoundland Memorial. I also encountered British school tours at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, which commemorates action from the Battle of Arras in 1918.

North Eastern France is a short ferry and coach trip from anywhere in southern England, so the prevalence of British school tours is inevitable, but it nonetheless gave me pause of thought.

Of all the European Union’s member states, the UK is clearly the most reluctant. Such is the antipathy towards the Union of British voters that the Conservative Party leader David Cameron has been forced into promising on referendum on European Union membership should the Conservatives form the next British Government.

On the one hand, this antipathy is understandable. Britons fought two wars against Germany during the 20th century (not to mention wars with France during the 19th century), so ongoing harmony between these neighbours was always going to be hard won.

On the other hand, it seems illogical. Britons who died in the European wars between 1914 and 1945 died because the political structures of Europe in the early part of the 20th century were incapable of dealing with aggressive nationalism. The self-interest of nation states was more powerful than any obscure concept of unity, and only when there was no one left to fight did the idea of unity gain any traction.

Today, that vacuum has been filled. The European Union has condemned militaristic nationalism to the scrap heap of history, for now at least anyway.

As they plot their way through the trenches of the Newfoundland Memorial, tapping messages on their smartphones and joshing with their classmates, I wonder does this conundrum reveal itself to any of these children. Do they regard the lives of the soldiers who died here, some of whom were their own age, as in any way relevant to the political choices they will have to make in future years?

And if they do, either now or as they reflect on their trip at some point in the future, will they be able to distinguish the significance of unity amid the noise of day to day politics and economic reality?

Their ability to do so, and that of their peers in other member states, which seems lost on many of our current politicians, will determine whether the Union survives for their children.

3 thoughts on “Europe – Where now? Part V

  1. Pingback: Europe – Where now? | Garreth McDaid

    1. admin Post author

      Where was he from? My family are all from Donegal. I don’t recall any mention of a Ted McDaid. I’d love to know more.


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