04 July 2012

Beaumont Hamel and the Newfoundland nation #nlpoli

Mark Humphries is an historian at Memorial University.  He spoke with CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates on July 1 about the impact of Beaumont Hamel on Newfoundland and Labrador.

Humphries does an interesting job of putting the 700 dead and wounded on that day into a larger context.  He likened it to 161,000 Canadian males between 19 and 45 years of age dying in 20 minutes today.

Then in response to a question from Chris, Humphries turned it into a unifying event for the country.

To be sure, the military involvement in the Great War was the first event for Newfoundland as a collective, international effort that wasn’t divided along sectarian lines.  Not that the authorities didn’t try to appoint officers based on sectarian quotas, mind you. They ran into resistance from the soldiers themselves, for one thing.

But is there a single connection between the slaughter at Beaumont Hamel and the more recent nationalism?
That would be even more of a stretch  than imagining that the dead and wounded at Beaumont Hamel came from across the country called Newfoundland.  The sectarian origin of Newfoundland’s war effort should not be so easily glossed over.

For starters, there are very few signs that Newfoundlanders  - at the time - looked on themselves any differently after the war than they did at the beginning. In 1919, for example, Newfoundland had the choice to sit at the Paris peace conference as an independent country. The Newfoundland government opted to sit with the British while the other Dominions took separate seats. 

After the war, the Newfoundland government turned its focus inward.  When it did take a shot at international dealings, the country’s government consulted with the British as often as not.  The contrast to Sir Robert Bond’s pre-war treaty-making could not have been more pronounced. The dominion government never did implement the Statute of Westminster (1931).  Instead, the country’s legislature voted itself out of existence in 1933.

The modern interpretation of July 1 is a contrivance.  It fits neatly in the same category with the pseudo-nationalism that arose in the late 20th century waving the flag of a sectarian benevolent association as their historic emblem.

July 1 is supposedly Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador. This is the day when, according to one newspaper, people “show their respect for the men who died at Beaumont-Hamel and the battle of the Somme.”

But while Beaumont Hamel is not some sort of Newfie Vimy Ridge, there is a great deal of significance in the day that has been lost.

For starters, it isn’t called Memorial Day.  The day is called Commemoration Day. There is even a law passed by the House of Assembly in 1917 - and amended a few times since - that sets down all you need to know about the day.

The second clause of a two-clause Act says it all:
In each year Sunday when it falls on July 1 but otherwise the Sunday nearest to July 1 shall be kept and observed in the province as and under the name of Commemoration Day, so that the deeds and sacrifices of those men and women of the province who took an active part in the World War of 1914-18 shall be kept in remembrance with honour and respect.

Before the war ended.

Even before people knew when the Great War would end, the Newfoundland government created a day on which to honour all the war dead from what was then the Dominion of Newfoundland.

Not just the ones who died at Beaumont Hamel.

But all the dead from their homeland.

That’s significant when you go to the service in St. John’s on July 1.  What you are seeing is not the day of remembrance created in 1917 and intended to last in perpetuity.  It is a pantomime. A group of people gather and go through the motions of a ceremony that long ago stopped having any real relevance to the modern day.

The Great War era patriotic association for women disappeared decades ago. Yet, someone still lays a wreath on its behalf each year as part of the ceremony in St. John’s.  Even the significance of the site has diminished.  The cenotaph between Duckworth and Water Streets in St. John’s is the national war memorial site. Popularly, the stone monument is regarded, increasingly, as nothing more than the St. John’s memorial.

These days, Beaumont Hamel is fast becoming just another artefact of our plastic history.  Whatever meaning people attach to it has little to do with what happened. it’s like the efforts, starting in the 1920s to blame the country’s involvement in the war on foreigners.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In that respect, Beaumont Hamel and July 1 are like a lot of other things in Newfoundland history.