29 April 2010

Newfoundland and the Great War

There’s a new exhibit available online from The Rooms that shows two contrasting things.

On the one hand, it is an excellent example of what can be done using modern technology to make available The Rooms diverse collection of materials and in the process help people to understand the past.

There are video, stills and audio, although the latter seems to be missing from some of the spaces.  The text is simple and crisp which is not surprising given that is written, as the news release announcing this website states, to support the province’s Grade Eight curriculum.  Some of the materials come from within the Rooms while others come from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment museum and and the Canadian War Museum.

In a section labelled ‘Database” both the casual searcher and the dedicated researcher will find a genuine treasure trove.  The website contains scans of the Provincial Archives’ collection of regimental records including soldiers’ individual personnel records.  This will be of tremendous value to both family researchers and to anyone doing work on everything from recruiting patterns to deaths, injuries and illness within the regiment.  The personnel records aren’t censored:  if great-grandfather Jack had venereal disease, the treatment is noted.

There are also some wonderful video “overviews’ or short summaries of major events.  Beaumont Hamel, Gueudecourt,  Cambrai  and Monchy are covered in tidy little summaries of no more than five minutes or so. The narration involves a female voice giving the overview and a male voice reading what appear to be first-hand accounts.

That’s all the positives and they are considerably more than that brief description might suggest.

The negatives are glaring.

The first sentence of the second paragraph is simply wrong: cabinet determined the shape of the country’s war effort, not the governor.  Likewise the third sentence is grossly misleading at best and as wrong as the first sentence of that paragraph at worst.

This is basic stuff and the evidence to prove it is wrong is there in plain sight in the archives at The Rooms.

This point is also crucial to an appreciation of the role played by the Dominion of Newfoundland in the war. A reader who gets to the end of the site and the assessment of the political aftermath of the war would be misled by the introduction into believing the debt caused by the war came as the result of a decision taken by the Governor.

The surrender of responsible government and then Confederation become the result of the war (and Davidson’s decision):

Although many factors influenced Newfoundland and Labrador's choice to join Canada, most historians agree that the colony's involvement in the First War World was a significant underlying factor. Historian Patrick O'Flaherty noted, "It is apparent ... how Newfoundland got itself into financial trouble. It was not mainly through post-1920 extravagances such as ... road building or ... town halls and bridges. Fighting England and France's war with Germany and paying related costs thereafter were crippling expenditures."

And citing Patrick O’Flaherty as a source when others with far better professional historian chops exist doesn’t bolster this profoundly flawed narrative thread.  O’Flaherty’s also wrong in his conclusion which surely doesn’t help.

In the same fashion, the role of sectarian youth groups in providing recruits is grossly inadequate to the point of being misleading.  The groups did not form the basis of the First 500 merely because the unit was raised in St. John’s and these groups were around. Using the cadet corps as the bases of the regiment was an active government policy, a point again established fairly clearly in the government archives.  And if that is not enough, the whole issue of sectarianism and its role in local culture and politics ought not to be simply omitted. 

In short, the whole section on entering the war deserves the scope of the rest of the individual pages on key events.  Four paragraphs doesn’t even come close to being an acceptable minimum as they do not properly set the stage for what comes later.

Another technical shortcoming is the absence of audio in some places.  Yes, there is space for it but some of the spaces are blank.  An excellent set-up showing uniforms – presumably out of the The Rooms’ collection -  would be much easier to understand and appreciate if there was a simple audio file,  as indicated that there was supposed to be.  Again, these sorts of things can tend to be overlooked in government circles as people get busy with other work.

Social historians and those interested in the economic life of Newfoundland at the time will also miss the significance of another small error on a pop-out page that shows the supposedly diminishing medical standards applied to recruits. The 1914 figures cited are for the British Army standard. 

Because he didn’t have a copy of the army medical standards, Dr. Cluny Macpherson conducted the medical screenings of the volunteers in August and September 1914 based on a Royal Navy manual that set the minimum height at five feet two inches. 

Still, even with that lower standard, half the men who volunteered in the first weeks failed to meet them and were rejected.  Just as the rush of volunteers introduced the British Army and government to its people with an unsettling start, so too did the Newfoundland government get to see the deplorable physical state of its young men in the late fall of 1914.

For all that, the positives of this venture – including the fact it exists at all – far outweigh the negatives, as serious as one of them is.  This is good stuff and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador ought to see more of it on other topics.


  Related:  “Newfoundland and the Great War:  the beginnings