[The Royal Newfoundland Regiment memorial statue at the site of the Beaumont-Hamel battle in France where 324 regiment soldiers died or went missing and another 386 were injured on July 1, 1916. PHOTO: Dan Murphy]
Best friends Walter Greene and J.J. Tobin enlisted together in the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War, leaving from St. John’s on the same boat in 1914. The duo avoided the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, the deadliest for Newfoundland and Labrador. But they died together in France on the first day of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
A century later Newfoundlanders Allan Hawco and Mark Critch are also long-time friends, best known for work on CBC television shows: Hawco on “Republic of Doyle” and Critch on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”
They travelled to Europe together with another friend, musician Alan Doyle, while working on “Trail of the Caribou,” a CBC documentary about the role of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War. And that’s where they found the graves of Greene — Hawco’s great-uncle — and Tobin — Critch’s cousin — side by side in a French cemetery for war dead.
“They died in the same battle and they were buried right next to each other,” Hawco tells Yahoo Canada News. He and Critch didn’t know the conjoined fates of their ancestors, right down to the location of their headstones, until they were in the cemetery.
“To be standing with your buddy from St. John’s by your ancestors’ graves side by side, not knowing about it when we left Newfoundland, that was very humbling,” Critch tells Yahoo Canada News.
That shared connection shows just how much Newfoundland and Labrador’s participation in the Great War still resonates there today, a hundred years after Beaumont-Hamel where the province’s deadliest battle was fought.
[Allan Hawco, right, and Mark Critch, travelled to Europe with another friend, musician Alan Doyle, while working on “Trail of the Caribou,” about the role of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War. PHOTO: Dan Murphy]
“We wake up on July 1 and it’s Memorial Day,” Dean Brinton, CEO of The Rooms provincial museum, tells Yahoo Canada News. It’s only after the work of remembrance is done in the morning that Canada Day begins in the province.
This year in Newfoundland and Labrador July 1 will begin with a solemn ceremony at the National War Memorial in St. John’s as people remember how the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was nearly decimated at Beaumont-Hamel at the start of the Somme offensive a century ago.
“There’s an irony to it that our national day of memorial is the same as [Canada’s] national day of celebration,” Hawco says. “It’s a strange thing to be mourning and to be celebrating at the same time.”
A devastating day
On July 1, 1916, 801 Newfoundland Regiment soldiers went over the top at Beaumont-Hamel in France amid conflicting battlefield reports and a stronger than expected response from German forces. Only 68 answered roll call the next morning — 324 soldiers were killed or missing and 386 were wounded. In the chaos of the battle and the war itself, many bodies were never found.
The loss to the regiment itself was undeniable, but it was also felt in nearly every town in the then-dominion, which at the time had only about 240,000 residents. The deaths touched every corner of Newfoundland and Labrador’s society, from fishing families in outport towns to the merchant class in St. John’s.
“If you think about the number of young guys that were actually able to enlist at that time, it really had a huge impact on a whole generation of Newfoundlanders” Brinton says. “It left psychic wounds on our people and our culture.”
The story of the town of Three Arms Island illustrates the weight of the losses, Critch says. The son of the couple who owned the only store in town signed up for the Newfoundland Regiment and was killed. His parents, stricken with grief, closed the store — and the local residents were left without a way to buy food or fishing supplies or trade their catch. One by one they left, and the town was eventually abandoned.
“It’s one boy killed and a whole community disappeared,” Critch says. “Those repercussions happened time and time again in big ways and small ways. That was one of the key factors leading to losing our nation to join Canada.”
After the First World War ended, significant war debts had stacked up. Newfoundland and Labrador’s participation at Beaumont-Hamel and in other key battles of the First World War played a role in the loss of its dominion status, being placed under commission of government, and eventually the decision to join Canada in 1949.
“We were left to pay the full sum of what we owed, and it ultimately bankrupted us,” Hawco says.
Marking a sombre anniversary
“Trail of the Caribou,” which will air on CBC TV on July 1, is among many ways the province is marking this important anniversary of its participation in the First World War. Beaumont-Hamel is the most widely known story of that time, but there is far more to the history of the small dominion’s contribution.
“When we’re growing up we hear pretty intensely about the battle of Beaumont-Hamel and the regiments involved,” Hawco says. “I want people to feel a little bit more of the story.”
The documentary follows Hawco, Critch and Doyle as they pass through the route followed by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during the Great War, from being the only North American regiment to fight in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and into battles in France and Belgium. The 1,000-strong volunteer regiment, now part of the Canadian Army, was the only one in the First World War granted the Royal designation by King George V.
“For such a tiny little regiment to be punching so far above its weight, it’s kind of typical of us as a province,” Hawco says. “Out of all the provinces in this country we were the only one with our own nation at that time. That’s something I feel like people don’t know or think we’ve exaggerated.”
The documentary’s name comes from the caribou, the official symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Life-sized statues of the animal are located at various points along the Western Front, including at the memorial park at Beaumont-Hamel, in memory of Newfoundlanders lost during the war.
[The National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s. PHOTO: Terri Coles]
Others in Newfoundland and Labrador’s arts community are commemorating the Beaumont-Hamel centennial this year. A tribute video produced by the magazine Legion was narrated by actor Gordon Pinsent. A film, “Newfoundland at Armageddon,” following the descendants of regiment soldiers as they re-enact the experiences of their ancestors will air on CBC TV on June 30. And a full-length opera, “Ours,” commissioned by Opera on the Avalon will run at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on July 1 and 2.
The Rooms provincial museum will unveil a new exhibit focusing on the province’s role during the First World War on July 1. It’s part of the museum’s commemorative activities for the day, which begin at 1 p.m. and include musical performances and visits from dignitaries including Princess Anne. The exhibit itself, featuring personal artifacts and stories of the war collected across the province, is permanent and admission will be free for the public on July 2 and 3.
Across the Atlantic, the day will also be commemorated at Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park in France, where Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr will be part of the Canadian delegation.
At home, both Hawco and Critch plan to attend the ceremonies at the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s and at The Rooms. On Thursday Critch will have lunch with the son of Father Thomas Nangle, who worked to ensure Newfoundlanders killed during the Great War were buried with dignity and worked after the war to establish the Beaumont-Hamel park in France and to place the caribou memorial statues.
But after a sombre start for the day the ceremonies at The Rooms will end on a happy note, with a shuttle to Canada Day ceremonies at Confederation Hill in St. John’s. Hawco says that afterwards there will be some time to celebrate Canada with champagne that day as well, once the task of remembering has been properly done.
“I don’t think our forefathers would want it any other way,” he says.