01 July 2006

Commemoration Day, 2006

Some time ago, I planted Forget-me-nots on my front lawn. Each June, they sprout and spread wildly. They get cut when the lawn is mowed but they always come back.

The pretty blue flowers are small but they never fail to catch the eye across the deep green of the lawn. In a little ravine just a few hundred metres from my house, the little flowers grow wild along a small stretch of river that flows, ultimately past Bowering Park and on to St. John's Harbour.

It's easy to understand why Forget-me-nots were chosen as the flower for Commemoration Day. Aside from their name, they are everywhere by July 1st, the anniversary of the opening day of the Somme offensive in 1916 when the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out in their assault on German trenches near Beaumont Hamel.

On July 1st, 1916, the Somme valley was not the muddy pile of trenches so familiar as an image of the Great War. Rather, the lush farmland was largely untouched by heavy shelling even after the massive preparatory bombardment that lasted the entire week before the infantry assault on the fateful Saturday morning. Green grass was everywhere.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the tragedy in which the 1st Battalion, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered the highest casualties of any battalion in the British Army at the time. Virtually every man who stepped over the parapet and advanced toward the German lines was killed or wounded that morning. Only the 10% cadre left out of battle and the battalion headquarters escaped the slaughter.

The casualties included:

- 14 officers and 219 other ranks killed or died of wounds;
- 12 officers and 374 other ranks wounded; and,
- 91 other ranks missing

Miraculously, some men did manage to escape unscathed. Lieutenant Owen Steele, serving as officer commanding D Company recorded after the battle that 16 men of the company returned to the Newfoundland trenches unwounded. Steele, whose brother was wounded in the assault, was injured by German shelling on 7 July 1916 and died of his wounds.

The last survivors of the battle died more than a decade ago. Abe Mullett, the last of the original recruits, known as the First 500 or the Blue Puttees for the navy coloured material of their original leggings, died in 1993. The last known survivor of the battle, Walter Tobin, passed away in 1995. Ron Dunn, died in 1993 as well, having survived the battle in 1916. He was wounded in the stomach and staunched the flow of blood with the field dressings from his pack and clumps of grass torn from the French soil.

Newfoundland's participation in the Great War produced profound changes in the small Dominion. The regiment marked the first national effort that was not divided or organized along sectarian lines. Efforts at home to assure the appointment of officers based on sectarian lines was firmly resisted by serving officers on the grounds that ones religious beliefs were irrelevant in wartime. One was only concerned that an officer or soldier was capable to doing his job.

Commemoration Day was established by an act of the House of Assembly in 1916 to be held on the Sunday nearest July 1st each year. It was one of the first Great War remembrance days established in the Commonwealth. Although the statute remains in effect, common practice has been to hold a remembrance parade and wreath-laying on the morning of July 1st each year with the remainder of the day devoted to Canada Day.

In the 1920s, memorials were erected by the Newfoundland government at five sites in France and Belgium. Each marks a significant moment in the regiment's history during the Great War. At each stands a life-size bronze caribou looking toward the German position. The main Newfoundland national memorial is fittingly located at Beaumont Hamel. A sixth caribou (right) stands in Bowring Park, in the west end of St. John's facing across the ocean toward northwest France and Flanders.

The National War Memorial was erected on Water Street in St. John's in 1924.

Most significantly though, survivors of the war and their fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians chose to establish as a permanent memorial to the fallen a new non-sectarian college that later became Memorial University.

The Somme offensive and the British Army's performance in the Great War continue to be a source of controversy. More recent scholarship has taken very different view than the one commonplace in the anti-war climate of the 1960s. The Newfoundland Regiment's experience in the Great War has largely escaped examination by Canadian historians. Comparing the experience of the Newfoundlanders and Canadians might serve to temper some of the interpretations that have been applied t Canada's war effort at the time.

Historians from Newfoundland and Labrador have given the history of the Dominion's war effort some attention, but by no means to the depth it deserves. Popular attention continues to focus on Beaumont Hamel.

Some continue to abuse the events of 1916 for their own purposes and ascribe to the war an effect on Newfoundland and Labrador it did not have. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador did not pay for their sacrifice with a loss of democracy. This is merely a dolled up version of a convenient townie myth that has existed largely unchallenged since the 1920s.

Such an interpretation, which sadly will be broadcast across Canada this weekend as if it were credible, makes a mockery of what did occur.

Regardless, the Forget-me-nots will bloom again next year at this time, as they have for decades. It is hard to forget what occurred almost a century ago, even if some find it inconvenient to remember.