Finishing up at the Wellington Quarry we realized we needed to get a wiggle on if we wanted to get back on track with our Western Front itinerary for the day or we wouldn’t make it to the cathedral in Reims before it closed so we headed off to our next stop- Beaumont Hamel.
The Beaumont-Hamel Memorial is the second of only two Canadian National Historic Sites outside of Canada with the other being the Vimy Memorial that we visited on our first day.
The memorial is a special tribute to the Newfoundland Regiment in the Battle of the Somme because of the heavy losses that they suffered. The Regiment fought in the Great Somme defensive where, on July 1, 1916, they made some tactical miscalculations that led to a terrible slaughter. Despite this they continued to fight bravely until 1918. For their valour the Regiment won the right to add “Royal” to their name, an honour bestowed during WWI.
What was once a battlefield became the memorial in 1922 to those that fell in battle with no known grave. There are also three bronze tablets that bear the names of the Newfoundlanders buried elsewhere. The memorial itself is designed to reflect the Newfoundland environment with native plants surrounding the granite base and a bronze caribou overlooking the battlefield.
There is also a visitor’s center with lots of information about the battle and the Regiment. As it is a Canadian site it is staffed by young people, usually university students, from Canada and the girl that was working there on the day we visited was from my hometown! Of course we had to swap a few stories and chat. It’s not usual to meet someone way off in France from the little city one grew up in so far away in Canada.
From Beaumont Hamel it was a lovely drive through pretty French countryside to the Thiepval Memorial. Perched high atop a hill it would be hard to miss even if it wasn’t the largest of the Commonwealth memorials.
On July 1, 1916, this heavily defended German position was attacked not only by the French from the south, but also by 13 divisions of the Commonwealth forces from the towns of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite the bombardment the German defenses were barely touched and there were catastrophic losses with about 60,000 either killed, wounded or missing in action. The initial attack was a failure. Finally though in September, after weeks of attacks and counter attacks the original objective of July 1 – Thiepval- was finally captured. Battles then continued through October and November when the Battle of the Somme finally ended.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme before March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of these men died in just the few months between July and November 1916.
The memorial is also an Anglo-French Battle Memorial that recognizes the joint venture of the 1916 offensive with both the British and the French flags flown on the memorial. The British flag is flown on the north side and the French on the south side to represent the sides of the River Somme where they each saw action. There is also a small cemetery with an equal number of Commonwealth and French graves at the base of the memorial.
The memorial was designed to pay tribute to the many quiet, rural villages in the area that became associated with the well-known battles of 1916 with their names inscribed on the memorial. Names such as Albert, Gommecourt, Serre, Bazentin Ridge, Delville Woods, Pozieres, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcellette, Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy, and Ancre Heights are found on the memorial and are synonymous with the sacrifice and bravery of the officers and men of the British Army and Dominion Forces.
Each year on July 1 there is a major ceremony to commemorate the battle so with this year being the centenary the memorial is being renovated and cleaned so some areas are closed or have restricted access. I can only imagine how the light stone will gleam in the sunlight from the top of the hill once that is completed.
Both Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval have visitor centres on-site with information as follows:
Beaumont Hamel Visitor Centre
Open daily from 0900 to 1700, except Mondays open from 1100 to 1700.
Address: Rue de l’église (route D73), 80300 Beaumont-Hamel
Parking: Free on-site
Thiepval Memorial Visitor Centre
Open daily from March 1 to October 31 from 0930 to 1800 and from November 1 to end February from 0930 to 1700. It is closed from mid December to mid January.
Address: Rue de l’Ancre, 80300 Thiepval, France
Parking: Free on-site
There is also a well stocked shop selling books and maps related to WWI and the Battle of the Somme.