How the New­found­lan­ders came to be at Gal­lipoli

The Compass - - OPINION -

The colours of the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment are em­bla­zoned with 10 of the 16 bat­tle hon­ours which the unit won dur­ing the Great War of 191418.

“Gal­lipoli, 191516” was the first hon­our to be awarded to the reg­i­ment. It marked their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ill-fated Gal­lipoli cam­paign, the first time that the Blue Put­tees and their com­rades faced the en­emy in bat­tle. The New­found­lan­ders were the only North Amer­i­can sol­diers to earn the ac­co­lade.

Gal­lipoli was a dis­as­ter from April 25, the very first day that the Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders, to­gether with British, French and In­dian sol­diers, stormed ashore on the western coast of Tur­key, at the en­trance to the Dar­danelles. They were met by a de­ter­mined Turk­ish army, which fought them to a stand­still.

The Aus­tralian and New Zealand Corps — the AN­ZACs — will for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with the Dar­danelles and Gal­lipoli. But many thou­sands of British sol­diers fought by their side. The famed 29th Division was chief among them. The 29th, the last division to be formed dur­ing the war from reg­u­lar bat­tal­ions of the British Army, landed on the first day of the cam­paign, and had been in the thick of the fight­ing since then. They sus­tained heavy losses, and by early sum­mer, they des­per­ately needed re­in­force­ments.

Crim­i­nal neg­li­gence

The Royal Scots, the se­nior reg­i­ment of the British Army, had been part of the 29th Division from its in­cep­tion. One of its units, the Leith Bat­tal­ion, boarded a train late in May 1915, on route to Gal­lipoli. A few hours af­ter leav­ing Ed­in­burgh, at Quintin­shill near Gretna Green in Scot­land, it was struck by an on­com­ing ex­press train. The bat­tal­ion was all but an­ni­hi­lated; of the 500 sol­diers on the train, only 58 men and seven of­fi­cers an­swered the roll call the next day.

The ac­ci­dent claimed more lives than any train ac­ci­dent in British his­tory. It was the re­sult of crim­i­nal neg­li­gence on the part of two rail­way sig­nal­men, who were sub­se­quently con­victed and sen­tenced to prison terms.

The New­found­land Reg­i­ment was in Scot­land that day, at Stobs Camp, just north of the bor­der be­tween Eng­land and Scot­land. The First 500 — the Blue Put­tees — had ar­rived in Eng­land the pre­vi­ous Oc­to­ber, af­ter their ini­tial train­ing at Pleas­antville, on Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s. Other con­tin­gents joined them over the next few months, and by June the reg­i­ment pa­raded 1,200 men. The British Army’s se­nior com­man­ders, cast­ing about for re­in­force­ments for Gal­lipoli, de­cided that the New­found­lan­ders should go to Gal­lipoli in the place of the dec­i­mated Royal Scots Bat­tal­ion.

The New­found­lan­ders left Scot­land early in Au­gust and moved to Alder­shot, the British Army’s big­gest train­ing base. A fort­night later, they were on their way to the Mediter­ranean. A short stay in Egypt com­pleted their work­ing up, and on Sept. 20 the of­fi­cers and men of the 1st New­found­land Bat­tal­ion went ashore at Kan­ga­roo Beach, in Su­vla Bay on the north­ern part of the Gal­lipoli bat­tle­field. (An­other 90 men joined them in Novem­ber.)

Fif­teen men were wounded by Turk­ish shells that morn­ing, be­com­ing the reg­i­ment’s first bat­tle ca­su­al­ties. Two days later, on Sept. 22, 1915, Pte. Hugh Wal­ter McWhirter be­came the first sol­dier of the reg­i­ment to be killed in ac­tion. Pte. W.F. Hardy, killed the next day, was the sec­ond. The bat­tal­ion, with their com­rades in the 29th, stayed in Su­vla Bay for three months.

Last to leave

On Dec. 19, 1915 the New­found­lan­ders left Gal­lipoli for Im­bros, a small is­land in the Mediter­ranean. But two days later the bat­tal­ion was or­dered to re­turn, this time to Cape Helles in the south­ern sec­tor. They were there un­til Jan­uary 1916, when the British Army ac­knowl­edged de­feat by with­draw­ing its troops.

Colonel G.W.L. Ni­chol­son, in The Fight­ing New­found­lan­der, the reg­i­ment’s of­fi­cial his­tory, recorded that “the New­found­land rear­guard, which was in the charge of Lieu­tenant [Owen] Steele, was among the very last troops to leave the penin­sula,” on Jan. 9, 1916.

The Bat­tle Hon­our “Gal­lipoli” was richly de­served, but dearly bought. One in ev­ery two British sol­diers — in­clud­ing the Aus­tralians, the New Zealan­ders, the In­di­ans and the New­found­lan­ders — be­came ca­su­al­ties; 115,000 were killed, wounded or miss­ing, while 90,000 were evac­u­ated be­cause of sick­ness. An­other 47,000 French sol­diers also be­came ca­su­al­ties. And their en­e­mies, the Turks, suf­fered 250,000 ca­su­al­ties. In all 500,000 men were killed, wounded or be­came sick dur­ing the eight months of the cam­paign.

The New­found­lan­ders bore their full share of these losses. Some 1,000 men who wore the Cari­bou badge served at Gal­lipoli; 44 of them died, and more than 500 had to be evac­u­ated from the front be­cause of ill­ness caused by the ap­palling con­di­tions in which they lived and fought.

The New­found­lan­ders served with the 29th Division un­til the sum­mer of 1918 and de­vel­oped strong ties with the Royal Scots. These were made for­mal nearly 40 years later, in 1957 when Queen El­iz­a­beth II ap­proved an al­liance be­tween the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment and the Royal Scots.

The New­found­lan­ders still play the reg­i­men­tal march of their sis­ter unit on June 30 ev­ery year, at the mess din­ner that marks the an­niver­sary of the Bat­tle of Beaumont Hamel. But few re­mem­ber that the New­found­land Reg­i­ment went to Gal­lipoli be­cause of the tragic ac­ci­dent that de­stroyed a bat­tal­ion of the famed Scot­tish Reg­i­ment.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: ed­wardm­roberts@gmail.com

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