Commemoration of the Battle of the SommePublished on 20 June 2016 Hansard and Statements by Senator Serge Joyal
Hon. Serge Joyal:
Honourable senators, July 1 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, the first great Anglo-French offensive of the First World War and a turning point in the course of the war.
On July 1, 1916, British and French troops launched a concerted attack along the 45-kilometre front, which halted the German advance in France’s Picardy region.
The carnage that day was the worst of the war: 58,000 British and 1,600 French casualties, including 20,000 dead in a single day of fighting. Entire regiments were decimated within a few short hours.
The 1st Newfoundland Regiment — Newfoundland at that time was an independent colony — was part of the 29th British Division. The 800 men of the Newfoundland Regiment launched an attack on open terrain in Beaumont-Hamel, resulting, within a mere 15 or 20 minutes of fighting, in a tragic 710 casualties — 324 dead, 386 wounded — almost wiping out the entire regiment on that very first day of the battle.
Our Newfoundlander fellow citizens still remain devastated by this painful memory, one among the many First World War atrocities. July 1 is Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador before being Canada Day.
As the battle commenced, the soldiers were sent over the top, clambering over piles of rubble, only to be caught like flies in webs of barbed wire. German machine guns effortlessly mowed them down by the thousands, and the battlefield quickly became a bloodbath.
The Battle of the Somme lasted nearly five months, from July 1 to November 18, 1916. Without heavy artillery and shells to answer enemy fire, the British suffered devastating losses. The death toll after the long months of fighting at the Somme was over 600,000 for the Allies and 450,000 for the German soldiers.
Military censorship prevented the dissemination of images from that horrible slaughter. It was the tomb of an entire generation of young soldiers who went overseas to uphold rights and civilization.
Look at the large painting of the ruins of the Arras Cathedral here above this chamber, painted by James-Kerr Lawson and hung in our chamber in 1922. It is a continuous reminder of that tragedy, allowing us, even today, to bear witness.
When the Senate returns next fall, we will launch a book entitled Canada and France in the Great War, co-edited by military historian Serge Bernier and me and published following the symposium held in the Senate on November 11 and 12, 2014, and at the National Assembly in Paris on May 18, 2015. Honourable senators will have an opportunity to truly grasp the great and defining impact that the War of 1914-1918 had on Canada, its Parliament, its institutions, its people and its economy.
Let us not forget the sacrifices of those who, with so much conviction and generosity, gave their lives, thereby allowing us to live in a society of peace and freedom.