The war that touched us all

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - OPINION - Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

Peo­ple through­out many lands will take a few mo­ments on Sun­day to mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War, that mo­ment when the guns went silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bring­ing to a halt the so-called (and dra­mat­i­cally and dev­as­tat­ingly in­ac­cu­rate) “war to end all wars” — a bloody and ul­ti­mately use­less con­flict that killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of mostly young men.

But I’ve al­ways found it’s way too easy, too con­ve­nient, to view the war — any war, I guess — in terms of statis­tics; even as grim as they might be, num­bers tend to san­i­tize the hor­ror of what men and women have been forced by politi­cians and re­li­gious zealots to en­dure for cen­turies.

Just about ev­ery adult soul in New­found­land (and the scat­tered young per­son, for sure) can rat­tle off, for ex­am­ple, the num­bers from July 1, 1916 — I know I can, and have, nu­mer­ous times in this very space of mine: 80l mem­bers of the New­found­land Reg­i­ment went over the top at 9:15 a.m., and at 9:45 a.m., all but 68 were ei­ther killed or wounded or ma­rooned on that farmer’s field near Beau­mont-hamel to be picked off by Ger­man snipers dur­ing the re­main­der of what had to have been an ag­o­niz­ingly long and tor­tu­ous day.

But those num­bers — as shock­ing as they are, and pro­vid­ing, as they do, af­fir­ma­tion that this slaugh­ter oc­curred in a star­tlingly brief pe­riod of time, a dark and tragic half-hour of blood-let­ting that still res­onates to this very day in com­mu­ni­ties and in fam­i­lies through­out the prov­ince — can some­times cam­ou­flage to a dis­com­fort­ing de­gree the gut-wrench­ing per­sonal toll those statis­tics re­flect.

And I’m talk­ing, of course, about the im­pact the Beau­mont-hamel abom­i­na­tion had on par­ents, sib­lings, rel­a­tives of ev­ery na­ture, the im­pact it had on what was then the na­tion of New­found­land, a tragedy still re­mem­bered with sad­ness and pride by the de­scen­dants of all the New­found­lan­ders who crawled out of the muddy trenches that day and into his­tory, and of all the sol­diers, in fact, from this place who fought in the First World War.

Last Sun­day, on a day when Mother Na­ture once again pro­vided less than sub­tle man­i­fes­ta­tion of why Sir Cavendish Boyle de­scribed this place in the “Ode” as a “wind-swept land,” a crowd of those de­scen­dants and as­sorted friends and rel­a­tives (and even the odd politi­cian) gath­ered in Vic­to­ria Park to view for the first time a mag­nif­i­cent piece of art that would force even the most cyn­i­cal of souls to view war be­yond the num­bers, to view the First World War and New­found­land’s role in that ter­ri­ble con­flict, in par­tic­u­lar, in the most hu­man of terms.

And I am re­fer­ring, ob­vi­ously, to the un­veil­ing of the “100 Por­traits of the Great War,” the lat­est sculp­ture by the bril­liant artist Mor­gan Mac­don­ald (although “un­veil­ing” was tech­ni­cally in­ac­cu­rate, given the fact, as the mas­ter of cer­e­monies for the event, Mark Critch, noted: any sort of at­tempt at a tra­di­tional cer­e­mony would have seen the cov­er­ing sheet end up some­where near Fogo Is­land).

But the driv­ing wind and re­sult­ing brass mon­key tem­per­a­tures were an ir­rel­e­vant sideshow, when all was said and done, be­cause this event was all about in­ti­macy and warmth and poignancy. And it was with a sense of awe that any­one there had to have viewed Mac­don­ald’s mag­nif­i­cent mon­u­ment, 100 bronzed faces of de­scen­dants of Beau­mont Hamel sol­diers, welded to­gether (for­ever, hope­fully) in­side a siz­able replica of those ubiq­ui­tous oval pic­ture frames that em­brace and memo­ri­al­ize so many sol­diers in countless New­found­land homes.

And it was all about con­nec­tions, as well, the six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion that seem to in­habit ev­ery cor­ner of New­found­land.

Among the in­nu­mer­able ways in which I could uti­lize the “full dis­clo­sure” of di­rect con­nec­tions to the “100 Por­traits of the Great War”: I co-pro­duced, with my friend and brother-in­law Bill Coul­tas, a doc­u­men­tary called “De­scen­dants,” a film that used as its cen­tral­iz­ing theme Mac­don­ald’s sculp­ture; and my niece, Sheila Coul­tas, a tremen­dously tal­ented artist in her own right, worked closely with Mac­don­ald on the Beau­mont Hamel project.

And, of course, those who have paid even cur­sory at­ten­tion to th­ese weekly epis­tles of mine over the past decade would be aware that my ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Joe Judge, was wounded at Beau­mont Hamel (and twice more in sub­se­quent bat­tles), the rea­son I proudly vol­un­teered to have my face cast and bronzed as part of the “100 Por­traits of the Great War.”

My mother, Eileen Wake­ham, 93 years young, Pop’s daugh­ter, braved the weather last Sun­day to take in the cer­e­monies at Vic­to­ria Park, in­sisted, in fact, that she be there. Her fa­ther would have been proud.

Pop and I had a spe­cial bond, and he has al­ways been, and will al­ways be, my hero, a man who re­turned to New­found­land to con­va­lesce from the wounds to his hand, his leg and his el­bow, even­tu­ally mar­ried a fel­low Pla­cen­tia Bay na­tive, Mary Dor­mody, helped raise seven chil­dren, and be­came what I have heard de­scribed as one of the most re­spected res­i­dents of Grand Falls.

I can’t help but spec­u­late what he must have thought about 100 years ago on the day he heard that peace had been de­clared.

Per­haps he sim­ply raised a glass of rum, and whis­pered to him­self: “Thank Christ it’s over.”

…Num­bers tend to san­i­tize the hor­ror of what men and women have been forced by politi­cians and re­li­gious zealots to en­dure for cen­turies.

Bob Wake­ham

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