01 July 2013

The Great War and Newfoundland Nationalism #nlpoli

This is a revised version of post that originally appeared on July 4, 2012.

Mark Humphries is an historian at Memorial University.  He spoke with CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates on July 1, 2012 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, who firmly rejected the idea.  A man's religious beliefs were not the basis for leading they said. His character was more important.

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.  For another, 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.

Predominantly, Newfoundlanders saw themselves as British before, during, and after the war.  They paid more attention to domestic issues after 1918.  When it did take a shot at international dealings, the country’s government consulted with the British, as often as not, and went along with the British government's suggestion.  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). By that time, the country was so heavily in debt the government could think of nothing much beyond keeping the government afloat financially. Instead of taking a step toward independence,  the country’s legislature voted itself out of existence in 1933.

Even in the National Convention (1947-48) that would determine the future of the country, the delegates did not strive for an independent country as so many other nations did at the time. Around the same time that Israel became an independent state and the millions of the Indian sub-continent became Pakistan and India, Newfoundlanders were looking for someone else to backstop their country financially.  The London delegation found the British government deaf to its demands for financial support. Canada was more willing to listen. You won't hear much discussion of that aspect of the National Convention from people like Greg Malone.  They prefer to hunt Sasquatch rather than see things as they were.

The modern interpretation of July 1 as a national day for Newfoundlanders is a post-Confederation  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 of a republic that never was nor ever dreamed of by anyone.

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.”  This too seems to be a more recent contrivance.  The provincial government’s Shop Closing Act includes “Memorial Day or Canada Day (July 1)” but other than that, there is no reference to in the provincial government’s own legislative record of a dual meaning for the same day.

There is, however, reference to Commemoration Day, established by 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  dead from what was then the Dominion of Newfoundland in a war that had not ended when they established the day.

The day is supposed to be set aside not just the for the men who died at Beaumont Hamel, but for all the dead from their homeland.  That’s significant when you go to the service in St. John’s on July 1.  It remains a travesty that the provincial government ignores its own law from the time when this was an independent country, a law established by the people at the time , and with the sole focus of honouring those who sacrificed all that they had.

What you are seeing is not the national day of remembrance created in 1917 and intended to last in perpetuity.  The memorial day has been hijacked by people with their own political agenda.  They talk of the past but what they are on about nothing more than today’s fashion.    

A once-solemn occasion has become a pantomime. In St.John’s,  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. The photograph of its unveiling tells us much about what people in the years immediately after the war thought about the war and its meaning.  These days, a few hundred will likely turn out to what many regard as nothing more than the St. John’s memorial.  Even the provincial government cannot get it right, officially, as a 2010 news release demonstrated.

These days, Beaumont Hamel has become just another artefact of our plastic history.  Whatever meaning people attach to it has little to do with what happened or what the events of almost a century ago meant to the people who lived the events. 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, the mythological version of Beaumont Hamel and July 1 are like a lot of other things in Newfoundland history:  some people invent a story to go with a set of circumstances. In the process of re-telling the story among themselves, they displace reality.  Their fabrication becomes the accepted ‘facts’.  

The official flower of Commemoration Day was the forget-me-not.  They are everywhere, growing wild, by July 1. 

There’s no small irony in that.  So many have forgotten the Great War, the men and women who fought it, and those who died as a result of it.

Perhaps before we reach the hundredth anniversary of those events, things will change.  A people who have no real sense of their own history, who prefer instead an entirely fictional story in place of the truth, cannot lay claim to being a nation.