11:11/11+100: The Unluckiest Country

When the sun rose on July 1, 1916, the First Newfoundland Regiment prepared for a glorious battle.

When the sun set, 0.1 percent of the entire population of Newfoundland was dead.

Photo of 22 soldiers in dress uniforms
Part of the First Newfoundland Regiment before the Battle of the Somme
Courtesy of the Rooms of the Provincial Archives Division (NA 3847), St. Johns, NL

In between was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest days in human history.

On Monday, I talked about how the petty feuds and drama of just two families spun out of control into a World War. The problem was that the families were deeply linked with their countries, so King George’s problems and Britain’s problems were one and the same. It was the inevitable consequence of associating a leader with a country – and it should worry us today as non-monarch leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro try to convince voters to link their identities with those of nations like the United States and Brazil.

Back in 1914 Europe, though, these monarchs weren’t just leaders of their own countries, they were absolute rulers of world-spanning empires. And so George V’s problems were not just Britain’s problems, they were the problems of the entire British empire. Even far-flung former colonies like Canada and Australia sent troops. Each corner of the British Empire wanted do its part, even the tiny Dominion of Newfoundland.

This is Newfoundland
(click “View larger map” to explore in a new window)

Then as now, Newfoundland consisted of two disconnected pieces: an island (also called Newfoundland) at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and a stretch of rugged coastline to the north, called Labrador. When Europeans first found North America, 400 years before Columbus, they found Labrador. The Vikings didn’t stay, but European fishing crews soon discovered the island, and in 1583 it became a British colony, thus part of the British Empire. When the rest of the nearby colonies became independent(-ish) in 1867 and formed the new country of Canada, Newfoundland decided to remain a full British colony.  

By 1914, Newfoundland was one of the more far-flung outposts of King George’s Empire. Its population of 240,000 – smaller than the modern population of Buffalo, New York – supported itself mostly by fishing.

Newfoundland had attained some self-governance, but still fell under the British Armed Forces. And like everywhere in the British Empire, everyone was excited for King George’s War. The Dominion’s government put out a call to raise a local regiment for the British Army. A popular song of the day (popular throughout the Empire, not specific to Newfoundland) encouraged young men to sign up for the fun. It went like this (not ironically):

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
and smile, smile, smile!

Hundreds of young men joined the Newfoundland Regiment the first day. When soldiers stepped onto their ships to go to training in England, it must have felt like they were off to summer camp. Eventually, nearly 12,000 Newfoundlanders sailed off to Europe to fight – more than a third of the service-eligible male population. 

When they arrived, they found trench warfare: dig a trench, then live in it for months in all weather without a change of shoes. When it’s your turn to shoot, peek out over the top of the trench with your rifle. When it’s your turn to dig, advance your army six inches a day. Know that the enemy is doing the same a few hundred feet away. This went on, day after day, for years. But the worst was yet to come.

Seventeen soldiers in dirty clothes standing in a trench only a little taller than they areWhat happens in the trench stays in the trench.
Day after day until it kills you.

Rifle fire from the trenches was supported by artillery behind the front lines, aiming shells at the enemy trenches. But there was no Google Maps back then, and even airplanes were new, dangerous to fly, and well within the shoot-down range of enemy artillery. So often “aiming shells at the enemy trenches” meant “let’s take our best guess and see what happens.” Once the commanding officers – safe in their tents behind even the artillery – decided that the bombardment and rifling had worn down the enemy enough, they would order the soldiers to climb out of the trenches, run through gunfire across “no-man’s land,” jump into the enemy trenches, and shoot, stab, or punch them to death.

If this seems like a questionable battle plan, know that it was selected because the Allied commanders thought that the enlisted men were too dumb to do anything else.

Along the front lines near the Somme River in Northern France, the battle plan for July 1, 1916 was the same as ever – full infantry charge to try to encircle the German line. As luck would have it, in an incredible statistical improbability, the exact center of the attack would come from the spot occupied by the First Newfoundland Regiment.

The Newfoundlanders knew that they were the heart of the plan, and that the plan would be risky, but hopefully also glorious. One wrote in his diary on June 20th:

“Everyone seems so cool about it all, quietly preparing for what is going to be the greatest attack in the history of the world.”

Lieutenant Owen Steele, First Newfoundland RegimentThe battle began at 7:20 AM with a diversion, when the Allies set off an enormous bomb on a ridge a few hundred yards away. The generals had debated whether to start the infantry attack immediately, or whether to wait an hour. They compromised at 10 minutes, which was the worst possible choice: the bomb was like a giant flashing neon “we’re going to attack now” sign, and ten minutes is enough time to set up and aim all your machine guns.

At 8:45 AM, 780 men the First Newfoundland Regiment leaped out of their trenches to join the ongoing battle. No one was there to photograph them, but this still from a contemporary film re-enactment shows what it must have looked like:

Soldiers in helmets with bayonetted rifles climb up the wall of their trenchClick on the photo to see it in the archives of the British Imperial War Museum

They crossed into No Man’s Land and ran across, about the length of a football field – but miscommunicated orders meant that the unit that was supposed to back them up never showed. The few who survived the run through enemy gunfire then discovered, to their horror, that two weeks of artillery bombing had completely missed the barbed wire protecting the German lines. They had nowhere to go.

The First Newfoundland Regiment on July 2, 1916 Dead: 324 (42%), Wounded: 388 (50%), Remaining 68 (9%)
Because I can’t resist a data visualization:
This chart shows the regiment the next day

The following morning, the brigade commanders held roll call, because all of the regiment’s officers had been killed in the battle. Only 68 enlisted men answered roll. Of the 780 members of the First Newfoundland Regiment, 388 had been wounded, and 324 killed. Remember that the population of Newfoundland was only 240,000.

This video, produced by the provincial heritage trust, tells the full story of the battle (length 11:17, click to play):

The First Newfoundland Regiment remained active on paper, and in fact it’s still around today as a unit of the Canadian Army, but the survivors were absorbed into other units. The war went on for another 2 1/2 years.

News of the tragedy reached home and devastated the country. Had history continued its prewar course, Newfoundland probably would have eventually achieved independence – but suddenly one out of every 800 Newfoundlanders was dead in a single day.

The country now had too few young men to do the hard manual labor of fishing and shipping required to sustain its economy. The survivors (including many people who served in regiments other than the First) suffered from a variety of health problems, including “shell shock,” which now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their military pensions, along with the reduction in work force, bankrupted the country. In 1949, Newfoundlanders voted to join Canada, and were welcomed as Canada’s tenth province.

Newfoundland maintains a proud regional identity, its citizens have represented Canada well in Important Canadian Things. Newfoundland ended up doing well, but there is no way to know what would have happened otherwise. Without question, nowhere else in the world suffered such great loss in such a short time.

Newfoundland will never forget World War One, and neither should you.

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