On the face of it, the Somme today seems much as it must have been before 1914—a tranquil, verdant region in northern France distinguished by rolling landscapes and farmscapes, bountiful forests and quaint villages, and by the lazy, winding river that bears its name. But look closer: wrapped in the green blanket, nestled beneath the chalky soil enveloping the Somme, lie dark secrets—twisted and corroded remnants of war surrounded by the remains of 300,000 soldiers who died there during less than five months of brutal fighting in the summer and fall of 1916.
Vast cemeteries in Beaumont-Hamel, Courcelette, Beaucourt, Delville Wood and other places stand as memorials to the fallen, the patterns of their white crosses and pale headstones undulating over the broad expanse, the very essence of McCrae’s “row on row.”
By July 1916, the First World War had by turns been raging and simmering for two years. The advent of modern weaponry and tactics—the machine gun, field artillery, poison gas, airplanes and sophisticated communications—had turned battlefields into killing zones as never before. Much of the war had become a deadly waiting game punctuated by the pounding of millions of artillery shells.
The Newfoundland Regiment was already battle-tested by the time it marched three hours out of Louvencourt on June 30, 1916, to the front-line trenches near Beaumont-Hamel. The Germans were well dug in with machine guns positioned behind extensive barbed-wire entanglements. The British attack was a devastating failure. The 710 casualties suffered by the Newfoundland Regiment were among the worst of the day. Newfoundlanders had endured many a tragedy at sea, but nothing like this.
“All my friends have been either killed or wounded,” wrote Frank Maheux of the Quebec-based 22nd Battalion (French Canadian). “My dear wife, it is worse than hell here.” For disproportionate periods of the war, the battlefield was cold, wet, muddy, disease-ridden and rat-infested. The stagnant nature of so much of the conflict meant that the same ground absorbed repeated pounding and battles could be fought over the same territory many times.
In late August, the first three divisions of the Canadian Corps began shifting to the Somme front near the French village of Courcelette, taking some 2,600 casualties before the major offensive they had been tasked with even started. On Sept. 15, the Canadians joined a large-scale attack, pushing forward at dawn at Courcelette under the covering fire of a newly developed tactic called the creeping, or rolling, barrage.
The Somme was neither a clear Allied victory, nor was it a debilitating loss. It failed to achieve the breakout General Douglas Haig and his generals had hoped for. But for the Canadian Corps, the Somme was a coming of age, setting the stage for their seminal victory at Vimy Ridge the following spring and the war’s final Hundred Days Offensive in 1918.