New footstones part of effort to remember each N.L. veteran

·3 min read

Nine commemorative footstones were unveiled on Newfoundland's south coast on Wednesday, as part of a project to ensure every veteran connected to the province gets recognition for their service.

The footstones were installed in Harbour Breton and in Hermitage, on graves where there had been little or no indication that the deceased had served in the military.

"We're trying to record where they fell," said retired major Michael Pretty, who is leading the Trail of the Caribou Research Group and the footstone project.

Pretty and his group started the initiative in 2019, and celebrated Remembrance Day this year with four ceremonies at cemeteries in Harbour Breton and Hermitage.

"This 12 by 24 by four-inch piece of granite is not going to blow away and it's not going to fade and it's going to be there for a while," Pretty said.

Submitted by Michael Pretty
Submitted by Michael Pretty

The Trail of the Caribou Research Group takes applications from families and community members for the footstones, and were helped in Harbour Breton by resident Doug Wells.

Wells said he knew eight of the nine men who were given footstones this week, including Canadian Rangers veteran Herbert Matchem.

According to a biography compiled by the research group, Matchem worked with the Canadian Rangers for 34 years, and became a dedicated member of the Canadian Legion after that.

"I can remember getting a phone call from Mr. Matchem just a day or two before he died, and I had to guarantee him that he would receive a footstone to indicate his service to his country," Wells said. "He really wanted it, he really did."

Wells says through his research in the area, he's already identified nine more veterans who he would recommend for a footstone.

"The family, I must admit, are overjoyed, proud that their loved one is being identified as veteran in the cemetery," he added.

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

Pretty said his group processes applications in the order they are received, and is open to any family who wants to make contact.

Pretty is a veteran himself, having served with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Bosnia and Cyprus. He also worked with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment for over a decade in Grand Falls-Windsor.

He said the Trail of the Caribou Research Group was born out of a late-night phone call he had with his father, while visiting Beaumont Hamel on an organized pilgrimage.

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

"We had a little bit of a cry, because he was a soldier and his grandfather and me and my brother, and when I hung up the phone — you get that eerie feeling in Beaumont Hamel," he said.

"You feel them. It's going to sound corny, but when you're in Beaumont Hamel, especially, it's like, it's late at night, there's no noise, you feel the presence. You feel the suffering that happened there," he said. "And when you understand what happened there, and as a soldier I've seen friends hurt, I've seen a lot of nasty things in Bosnia, you just understand what they must have went through. And I think it's important that their memory is kept."

Pretty said the research group has compiled a list of more than 13,000 veterans of the First World War who were born in — or were connected to — Newfoundland and Labrador. They fought either with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, or with other Canadian, U.S. or Commonwealth militaries.

"Such a high percentage of Newfoundlanders fought. So when you walk into a cemetery I think it's really important that people know who were veterans."

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