The news release that announced a provincial commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War includes right at the start a picture of two couples, one older, and a small child.
The photograph is curious.
Look closely at it.
For one thing, it has nothing to do with the announcement. It’s just a stock shot, a placeholder. They could include it in just about any announcement at all.
We might assume the couples go together, for another. That’s the grandmother and grandfather on the right, with the younger couple bringing along the grandchild.
But that is a mistaken assumption.
If you start with the idea these people belong together, you might wonder where the other grandparents are.
Maybe they are supposed to be in the blank space to younger woman’s right. It’d an odd void that appears to do nothing but take up space.
Now take a sheet of paper and slide it so that the edge is in between the older woman and the younger man. It doesn’t matter which couple you cover. Do one and then the other. Now you see that the two couples actually can be split apart from each other. Look at the whole shot again and you will see there is nothing – not even the way people are looking in the shot – that connects one couple to the other.
While you are covering the younger couple, look at the older pair. Holding hands. But where is she looking? It isn’t at him. Do the reverse and you’ll see the younger couple isn’t necessarily connected either. The younger man isn’t holding the child’s hand. His hand is slightly hidden by the child but there’s something about it that doesn’t look right. The fellow is looking down but the angle of his eyes suggests he is looking at the woman’s shoes, not the child.
So he’s a foot fetishist?
He just appears to have been stuffed into the shot by someone with a computer and a photo editing program. There are other problems with the shot as well, like the stiff symmetry between the two men. They appear artificial.
Then there’s the announcement itself.
$3.6 million for something called Honour 100.
Honour 100 what?
There’s nothing that connects the name or the money to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and the First World War.
Supposedly there are five “pillars” to this honouring: anniversaries, legacy, education, provincial outreach, and research and development.
There’s not much to indicate what any of those might mean. The release includes some hints, such as the mention toward the end of events they describe as milestones. One of them is the parade of the first 500 soldiers from somewhere - no mention of where it was – to the ship that took them somewhere else. That was a single event but then they talk about the arrival of soldiers home in 1919. If you know anything about the war, soldiers didn’t all come home in one pile.
The release tells us that the government has a “priority” to find “existing opportunities” to include “remembrance” in what student’s in the province have for “outcomes”, but only for the “commemorative years”. What about after that?
An impenetrable pile of jargon if ever there was one.
The last one is a pledge to do something with the leading veterans’ organization to give them money for something.
And that’s it.
Now take a look at the plans announced by the provincial archives and museum for the anniversary of the Great War.
They’ve formed a committee, which says nothing at all about the actual events, of course.
They’ve raised a pile of money.
Some of it will be spent on people travelling around the province collecting stories and artefacts. The stories will not be from veterans, of course, since they are all dead. There’s something a bit more promising in the pledge to talk about the effects of the war on Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. There is precious little detail though, and the frequency that the announcement mentions Beaumont Hamel suggests that whatever the museum does will not be much beyond the current cult of slaughter built around July 1st.
What’s most striking about the museum and archives plan to mark the Great War is their plan to spend money on things that have nothing to do with the war. There’s a block of money that will go to reveal the remains of Fort Townshend, on which The Rooms is built. The fort itself was largely a ruin by 1914 and had nothing directly to do with the war. Similarly, recognising the constabulary and regional fire department seem to be about tacking personal agendas onto the Great War commemoration.
The police, Fort Townshend, and the Premier’s annual junket to France - the Legion’s existing First World War commemoration - are really on the same level as the claim that the war was about “the waste of thousands upon thousands of lives for the dubious ends of a ruling class that cared little for its cannon fodder.”
These are all about something other than one of the seminal events in the 20th century that affected Newfoundland and Labrador as profoundly as it did the rest of the western world.
The last one isn’t as completely out to the lunch as the first ones, but it is still an imported one. To be sure, some First World War veterans took cannon fodder and class perspective. But it is also a more recent hold-over from the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam war movement.
Truth is we don’t know if any locals shared the same sentiment just like we don’t know why the country went to war, how they administered it, or what were the social, political, and economic repercussions of the war on the country. We don’t know the answers about some of these fundamental questions because, for the most part, no one has researched and written about them.
Read David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree, for example, and you’ll have a hard time finding any anti-war sentiment from people at the time. Ditto Joy Cave’s What became of Corporal Pittman? Those don’t tell us everything but they do suggest that the idea that Newfoundlanders went to war because they were victims of foreign control - either London or by the Governor-dictator in a popular post-war interpretation - may be wrong.
Then there is the question of identity. We have a lot of talk every so often in Newfoundland and Labrador about nationalism. Much of the more recent stuff seems to start from a set of assumptions, relying most notably on what is is little more than a set of preliminary observations from 1979 rather than actually understanding what happened in the past.
The question remains how did the people in Newfoundland and Labrador look at themselves in the 1870s, the early part of the 20th century, and then toward the mid century? Was it as Newfoundlanders, a separate nation? Were they British with the local variation - being a Newfoundlander – of little more substance than the difference between Scousers or Geordies? Or was it something else?
What were are talking about here is related to the contemporary conventional understandings discussed in last week’s post War, Memory, and Society. Beliefs shift over time. People change their views individually. Groups of people will change their shared understanding under the influence of different things.
There is more to it than that. One of the problems in approaching the anniversary of First World War and Newfoundlanders is that so much of the past in Newfoundland and Labrador is simply blank. We do not know. As a result, the bits in the darkness that have attracted our flashlights wind up blocking everything else from our view.
Beaumont Hamel is a case in point. The slaughter on July 1, 1916 has become a hideous caricature. Mention the First World War these days and July 1 is all people can think of. The story has been written up in the Smithsonian magazine and God knows where else over the years. What became of Corporal Pittman is about a young man killed on the day. Kevin Major wrote an entirely forgettable little book about it.
Beaumont Hamel is probably what the person meant when he or she wrote these words to stuff into Terry French’s mouth for the Honour 100 announcement: “our role in this effort has gained worldwide recognition”. But “our role”, in the contemporary popular understanding, seems to be not much more than walking into machine gun fire with chins tucked into elbows as if against a winter gale. This is termed “brave” by some.
We talk about it around July 1 and that’s it, until next year. The annual “pilgrimage” goes into some other battles, all linked to the caribou memorials erected after the war, but for the most part there’s the whistle, robotically following orders, the clatter of machine guns, the Danger Tree, the dead, and the mere 68 who answered role call next day. That’s a wrap. See you next year.
But why were the men in the army and not the navy? What military experience and training did they have? Was their experience typical of soldiers in the British Army on the early part of the Somme or what about the latter part?
Remember, Newfoundlanders returned to the same huge offensive in October 1916 at Gueudecourt. They were colonials inside the British Army, unlike the Australians, or Canadians who had some measure of national control over their own forces. Were they more like the British or more like the colonials? What was the political and legal status of the Newfoundlanders in the army? What about the navy?
And what of Newfoundland as a part of the British Empire? Was it a colony? Dominion? What’s the difference? What do we know of Newfoundland’s relations with the British before and during the war on foreign policy - besides the fisheries treaties with the Americans - and defence?
As a society in Newfoundland and Labrador, our understanding of the First World War and the impact on this place and its people is as disjointed as a provincial government that will spend $3.6 million guided by an unnamed advisory committee and, at the same time, spend another $2.5 million, supposedly on the same sorts of things, guided by a second unnamed advisory committee.
One will spend money on research and development – without telling anyone what that is - while the other will mark events from 1914 to 1918 by spending money on a fort built between 1773 and 1779 that was abandoned a half century before the Great War broke out. The whole thing is an expensive charade some people will oppose because it is not a charade.
That picture from the government announcement of commemorations that we discussed at the beginning - sterile, disjointed, and unrelated to the Great War – seems to have been an inadvertent but appropriate metaphor for the whole commemoration shebang.