From dev­as­ta­tion to dis­tinc­tion

Bat­tle of Beau­mont-Hamel is etched in New­found­land’s his­tory

Northern Pen - - Remembrance Day - BY MILLICENT MCKAY SALTWIRE NET­WORK

Re­mem­brance Day is an im­por­tant time to re­flect for res­i­dents of New­found­land and Labrador. But ev­ery bit as mean­ing­ful is July 1, mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Beau­mont-Hamel. And it goes be­yond that.

“Peo­ple think it’s just about the reg­i­ment on that day, when it was an­ni­hi­lated in the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme,” says Frank Gogos, me­dia li­ai­son for New­found­land Com­mand. “But in ac­tu­al­ity it was es­tab­lished for all of the New­found­land ser­vices in the First World War, even the ones that served in other coun­tries. It’s not just about Beau­mont-Hamel. In re­al­ity, it was meant to com­mem­o­rate ev­ery­body.”

It con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor re­mem­brance cer­e­mony for the prov­ince, he said.

“It’s ac­tu­ally see­ing a resur­gence since the war in Afghanistan.”

Over the last 10 years it’s gone from sev­eral hun­dred to sev­eral thou­sand com­ing out on July 1, with one of the largest turnouts in St. John’s in 2016, the 100th an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Beau­mont-Hamel.

Over the last sev­eral years, Gogos has spent July 1 at the Beau­mont-Hamel me­mo­rial in France.

“For me, per­son­ally, I’m gob­s­macked that I have the op­por­tu­nity to take stu­dents over ev­ery year. I’m strug­gling for words. I think I’m one of the most for­tu­nate peo­ple to have the op­por­tu­nity to go over there and share these ex­pe­ri­ences,” he said with a hearty chuckle.

Ev­ery year at that time he par­tic­i­pates in “The Trail of the Cari­bou.”

“The Gov­ern­ment of New­found­land erected a number of memo­ri­als in France and Bel­gium fol­low­ing The Great War. As part of the le­gion trip we take sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of youth and veter­ans over­seas to take them on the The Trail of the Cari­bou, which usu­ally runs eight to 10 days. Nearly ev­ery stop we have has to do with New­found­land’s in­volve­ment in the First World War.

The travel agenda in­cludes not just Beau­mont-Hamel, but Vimy and Menin Gate, as well as the war graves and memo­ri­als in churches in France.

While New­found­lan­ders par­tic­i­pated in other bat­tles dur­ing the war, Beau­mont-Hamel is the one that’s most prom­i­nent with peo­ple.

“It stands out in New­found­land his­tory be­cause, while New­found­lan­ders have a long his­tory of ma­jor catas­tro­phes that led to huge losses of life, I think Beau­mont-Hamel was a shocker. I don’t think any­one in New­found­land ex­pected the reg­i­ment to go out and get wiped out. They say there wasn’t a fam­ily in New­found­land that wasn’t touched by the tragedy on July 1.”

He says while the New­found­land Reg­i­ment was en­gaged in other ac­tions through­out the war, the Beau­mont-Hamel ex­pe­ri­ence came to take on a life of its own, the same way Vimy Ridge is sig­nif­i­cant to Canada, he said.

“Ex­cept Vimy Ridge is seen as some­thing pos­i­tive. It was the birth of a na­tion-type thing.”

Whereas in New­found­land the bat­tle at Beau­mont-Hamel, marked the death of a na­tion.

“We’ve kind of gone in an op­po­site di­rec­tion… One of the three things – while there are a lot more – that brought down the New­found­land gov­ern­ment was war and its eco­nomic tenets, along with the ac­qui­si­tion of the rail­way and the in­abil­ity to col­lect in­come tax.”

As the coun­try be­gan to tail­spin after the First World War, and the sub­ject of join­ing Canada be­gan after the Sec­ond World War, the evo­lu­tion from the Great War Veter­ans As­so­ci­a­tion to the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion was in sight.

“At our le­gion of­fice, we have the min­utes where they take the vote and de­cide to join the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion. Once New­found­land joined Canada, it was in the best in­ter­est of the vets to join the larger or­ga­ni­za­tion, be­cause they would have had a big­ger voice in a big­ger coun­try.

“That’s not to say they agreed with Con­fed­er­a­tion but I don’t think there would have been a lot of re­sis­tance when they joined a larger coun­try. It didn’t ap­pear to be on the ta­ble prior to join­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion.”

New­found­land also has a unique flower, em­blem­atic of re­mem­brance.

“Pop­pies were brought in to Canada as a fundraiser in 1921. The Cana­dian and New­found­land GWVA adopted it... al­most within the week of each other. It wasn’t some­thing that took much time. They saw the ben­e­fit to raise funds and orig­i­nally help the chil­dren in France.”

How­ever, New­found­land has an­other of­fi­cial re­mem­brance flower: the for­get-me-not, worn at the July cer­e­monies. Sales be­gan just be­fore July 1, 1924.

“To­day’s Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment is the only reg­i­ment in Canada au­tho­rized to wear a for­get-me-not on July 1.”

Gogos says ev­ery­one wears a for­get-me-not, and not just on July 1.

“It’s wide­spread here. Some peo­ple leave it on their coats all year long, and quite a few folks I run into have that blue flower on their coats all year long.

“Tens of thou­sands of these were made by one woman over the last 15 years. So, it’s not like there is a mass pro­duc­tion. They are hand­made. Prob­a­bly makes 10 to 20,000 a year or more.”

In the prov­ince, he con­tin­ued, a lot of peo­ple are still very much con­nected to the First World War.

“There’s al­most a sort of rev­er­ence in our story. And I guess it’s be­cause it was so tragic.

“One of the most tragic things I’ve seen is that fam­i­lies had un­cles they never talked about. They never saw their medals or their memo­ri­als. It wasn’t re­mem­bered in the house­hold and no one spoke of them.

“In some ways, it’s prob­a­bly that these fam­i­lies had more of a su­per­sti­tion or were an­gry with what hap­pened for tak­ing their son or sons away from them in some cases. Even back then, we had an in­de­pen­dent streak; so there were places that didn’t see this as our war and were bit­ter about it, whereas oth­ers wanted to fight for king and coun­try. New­found­land so­ci­ety was deeply di­vided on mul­ti­ple lev­els.”

There was a time le­gions were for First World War veter­ans. The end to the Sec­ond World War, 20 years later, brought a new gen­er­a­tion of veter­ans home.

“Now they’re the young fel­las and they go into the le­gions and the older guys are say­ing you’re not a vet­eran,” Gogos said. “So, there was that di­vide there. I know here in St. John’s we had one branch. But by 1960 a sec­ond branch opened up. The sec­ond branch be­came known as the WW2 branch and the first was the WW1 branch.

“And as the First World War branch guys pass away, the two branches be­came mainly World War II. That di­vi­sion, is still known. Now with the World War II vets pass­ing away – al­most to the last man over the last 20 to 30 years – the le­gion has changed its shift to as­so­ciate mem­bers and civil­ian mem­bers to keep the le­gions and re­mem­brance alive.”

Gogos says old an­i­mosi­ties drove veter­ans away from the le­gion.

“When the old vets are say­ing you’re not a vet, get out, that’s what hap­pens. So, when the new vets would re­tire, it was hard for them to see the le­gion as a place of their own.”

Bridg­ing that gap is some­thing that needs to be fig­ured out, he said.

“It’s im­por­tant that the legacy con­tin­ues. If it’s lost, then the vets in this coun­try will have lost the sin­gle big­gest ad­vo­cate for them­selves that they’ll ever have in their his­tory.

“If they al­low it to fail, then the veter­ans’ sup­port com­mu­nity will be highly frac­tured and they won’t have the same weight when deal­ing with the gov­ern­ment. And that’s what I tell my friends who are veter­ans. If you want to fix the le­gion, you gotta join the le­gion. If you want to change the le­gion you gotta join the le­gion. And you need to make it work.”

There are cur­rently 45 branches in New­found­land and Labrador.

FRANK GOGOS PHOTO

The Cari­bou Mon­u­ment at Beau­mont-Hamel, France, stands to hon­our those who served in the First World War and, in par­tic­u­lar, one of the most hor­ren­dous bat­tles.

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