War Wounds

A cen­tury later, the Bat­tle of the Somme still res­onates in New­found­land

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By David Mac­far­lane

A cen­tury later, the Bat­tle of the Somme still res­onates in New­found­land

The rain that June was so heavy not even Dou­glas Haig could ig­nore it. But the com­man­der of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (BEF) was not the sort to give in. Bad ­weather had to be en­dured. The rain, though, was more than just un­pleas­ant. It was ­tor­ren­tial. Trenches were waist deep in water. With the French ­fac­ing huge losses at Ver­dun, Haig had been charged with launch­ing a ma­jor of­fen­sive on the Ger­man forces en­trenched along the forty-kilo­me­tre front that strad­dled the banks of the river Somme. But the down­pour post­poned the “big push.” So Haig set an al­ter­nate date: July 1, 1916.

A reg­i­ment from New­found­land played a role. Not a key role, to be clear. There were no key roles. Haig’s strat­egy, such as it was, en­sured that com­pa­nies in the first and se­cond waves of the ad­vance would face equal dan­ger. When their time came, the New­found­lan­ders were ex­pected, like ev­ery other unit, to walk to­ward the weapon re­spon­si­ble for the long stale­mate of the Great War: the ma­chine gun.

Haig be­lieved ab­so­lutely in what he was do­ing and was un­trou­bled by its ­hu­man cost. He was not cruel. He was not in­sen­si­tive to grief. But when it came to the

­ca­su­al­ties he was will­ing to tol­er­ate, he did not think small. Like most of the politi­cians and mil­i­tary lead­ers of the day, Haig looked as if he be­longed in the nine­teenth cen­tury. He cut a fine fig­ure on a horse. But by 1914, lances and chargers were things of the past. Haig’s think­ing, how­ever, didn’t ven­ture much be­yond the con­fines of his ed­u­ca­tion. He was the kind of man who ap­plied old strate­gies to new con­di­tions. He trusted in the big as­sault — the clash of armies, strength against strength.

He wasn’t alone. Tac­tics that had been the foun­da­tion of bat­tle since Napoleon’s Water­loo were more or less trans­ferred to the first years of the conflict. The ­re­sults were hor­ri­fy­ing — and never more so than that sum­mer, in the lines of trenches dug south­west of the small French vil­lage of Beau­mont-Hamel. The first day of the Somme of­fen­sive would prove the most cat­a­strophic twenty-four-hour pe­riod the Bri­tish Army had ever en­dured. ­Al­most 60,000 of the BEF died. No unit was spared. But the New­found­land Reg­i­ment can stand as an ex­am­ple of what hap­pened that morn­ing when Haig opened his at­tack.

At 8:45 a.m., the sig­nal came for the New­found­lan­ders to go over the top. Ap­prox­i­mately 800 ad­vanced. At roll call the next morn­ing, sixty-eight an­swered.

The no­tion that a war can ever ­ac­tu­ally end is a com­fort­ing fic­tion. But if the crowds that gather silently in down­town St. John’s ev­ery July 1 prove any­thing, it’s

that wars have a way of liv­ing on long ­af­ter the guns are silent — in the be­reave­ment of fam­i­lies, in the night­mares of ­vet­er­ans. Few con­flicts have faded from mem­ory more slowly than the First World War, and prob­a­bly nowhere was its dam­age more strongly felt than on what was seen at the time as an ob­scure is­land in the North At­lantic.

That the tiny pop­u­la­tion of just un­der 250,000 raised a reg­i­ment at all in 1914 was im­prob­a­ble. A reg­i­ment — typ­i­cally a unit fiercely proud of its lo­cal roots — con­sists of about 900 men in the field and 100 in re­serve. It would have made more sense for vol­un­teers to join up with the Bri­tish Army. But Eng­land’s old­est colony, in what can only be de­scribed as a burst of ­pa­tri­o­tism, set it­self the chal­lenge of ship­ping its own sol­diers over­seas.

Sir Wal­ter E. David­son, the gover­nor of New­found­land, ca­bled the sec­re­tary of state for the colonies and sug­gested that his ­ter­ri­tory could muster a force of 500 ­within the month. His Majesty’s ­Gov­ern­ment ­grate­fully ac­cepted the ­of­fer, and from that point on, things moved ­quickly. The costs of feed­ing, cloth­ing, sup­ply­ing, and train­ing New­found­lan­ders — and then trans­port­ing them to Euro­pean bat­tle­fields — were con­sid­er­able. The is­land barely had a po­lice force. Ex­cept for the few naval re­servists who were not out on the fish­ing banks, there was vir­tu­ally no mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture — ­cer­tainly ­noth­ing on which to build any­thing so am­bi­tious as a reg­i­ment. The New­found­land Pa­tri­otic ­As­so­ci­a­tion was cre­ated to make

it hap­pen. The ­as­so­ci­a­tion be­gan the war by ­bor­row­ing $250,000—the first of many loans.

How would New­found­land pay for it all? No one had a clue. The ques­tion was the last thing on any­one’s mind when, on ­Oc­to­ber 3, 1914, the St. John’s crowd cheered as the SS Florizel headed out to sea. On board was the first con­tin­gent of men, my grand­fa­ther among them. They were called the Blue ­Put­tees, on ac­count of the most eye-catch­ing el­e­ment of their hastily im­pro­vised uni­form.

No­body ex­pected the war to last more than six months. It lasted four years and was fought at a cost — in lives, in ­ma­te­rial, and in money — that by to­day’s stan­dards is al­most unimag­in­able. More than 6,500 young New­found­lan­ders en­listed, and ­be­cause of ca­su­al­ties sus­tained at later bat­tles — at Gueude­court, at Monchy-le-Preux, at Cam­brai — 1,305 of them abruptly van­ished from a pop­u­la­tion the size of ­Regina. In the decades that fol­lowed, ­sev­eral thou­sand more wounded, dis­abled, and “shell-shocked” vet­er­ans re­quired the kind of care and treat­ment that New­found­land was too im­pov­er­ished to pro­vide.

Other coun­tries were left with enor­mous bills af­ter hos­til­i­ties ended, not least of all Eng­land. But New­found­land’s were more stag­ger­ing than most. The year it be­gan send­ing sol­diers into bat­tle, it was sad­dled with a na­tional debt of nearly $30.5­mil­lion. By 1919, it was $42 mil­lion. Then came the world col­lapse of iron, tim­ber, and oil prices (all ex­ports on which the colony re­lied). Then came the De­pres­sion.

By 1934, when New­found­land vol­un­tar­ily ab­di­cated its gov­ern­ment to a com­mit­tee of Colo­nial Of­fice ap­pointees, the is­land was on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet Bri­tain’s ac­knowl­edg­ment of New­found­land’s sac­ri­fice was never much more than cer­e­mo­nial (the New­found­land Reg­i­ment be­came the Royal New­found­land — an hon­our be­stowed by King Ge­orge V af­ter the 1917 bat­tle at Pass­chen­daele). ­Eng­land had its own war debts and by the end of the Se­cond World War was in no po­si­tion to as­sist des­ti­tute colonies — no mat­ter how bravely their sons had fought in the Great War.

In 1949, the is­land that my New­found­land grand­fa­ther con­sid­ered his coun­try bowed to the in­evitable. It be­came a prov­ince in a much larger coun­try — a coun­try that cel­e­brates its own con­fed­er­a­tion on July 1.

Haig emerged from the war a hero, which shows how con­found­ing his­tory can be. There was no doubt he was a stal­wart sol­dier. And an am­bi­tious one. But sharp as his po­lit­i­cal in­stincts were, skilled as his net­work­ing was, there’s good rea­son to be­lieve that he was, as the his­to­rian Jack Granat­stein once de­scribed him, “bone stupid.” Cer­tainly, the strat­egy he em­ployed at the Somme pro­vided no ev­i­dence to the con­trary. From the point of view of the BEF, the bat­tle was a case study in how not to fight a mod­ern war.

And yet, there was “Butcher Haig” in St. John’s on July 1, 1924, the hon­oured guest of the Do­min­ion, in­vited to un­veil the city’s war me­mo­rial. How come ­no­body booed? New­found­land suf­fered the largest loss per capita of any colo­nial par­tic­i­pant. In my grand­fa­ther’s fam­ily, five of six Goodyear sons en­listed: three were killed, and two were se­ri­ously wounded. But this wasn’t un­usual. The Goodyears were no more ill-fated than many other fam­i­lies. From St. John’s wealth­i­est to the out­port’s poor­est, the fa­tal­i­ties were every­where. Who knows how many fam­i­lies ­un­rav­elled af­ter the deaths of sons, hus­bands, ­brothers, fathers, cousins. ­Michael Win­ter’s book about the First World War’s legacy in New­found­land, Into the Bliz­zard , had its ge­n­e­sis when he moved into a house in Western Bay ten years ago. He ­wanted to buy the ad­ja­cent field and learned that it had been owned by a fam­ily whose ­nine­teen-year- old son, Richard Sel­lars, had been killed in 1916. “If Richard Sel­lars had lived and had a fam­ily, he would have had a stake in this land,” writes ­Win­ter. “To­day, my fam­ily lives our sum­mers on a land meant for a man who fought in the First World War.”

When Haig stood to speak ninety-two years ago, he was ad­dress­ing an au­di­ence made up of those whose lives and am­bi­tions had been shat­tered, largely as a re­sult

En­list­ing for a New­found­lan­der means train­ing you wouldn’t oth­er­wise get and money you wouldn’t oth­er­wise earn.

It also means ad­ven­ture — how­ever sad the ad­ven­ture’s out­come may be.

of his or­ders. He de­scribed the sym­pa­thy he felt for New­found­land’s loss and went on to praise the “high courage and un­fail­ing res­o­lu­tion all ranks set them­selves to ac­com­plish all that was asked of them.”

Why was the ar­chi­tect of a great mil­i­tary dis­as­ter in­vited to ap­pear at this event, and then, in the fol­low­ing year, to be the guest of hon­our at the un­veil­ing of the New­found­land me­mo­rial at the site of the Somme bat­tle­field? Be­cause the cost of the war was so se­vere it took gen­er­a­tions to see things ob­jec­tively. It was dif­fi­cult for those who had lost so much to ad­mit what many in the prov­ince now ac­cept as the truth: it was all a ter­ri­ble waste.

Haig was right about one thing: the New­found­lan­ders were brave. He and his com­man­ders were so con­fi­dent about the five- day ar­tillery bar­rage that had ­pre­ceded the Somme ad­vance that troops were ­or­dered to pro­ceed as if ­enemy po­si­tions were taken up by corpses. The Ger­mans — too dug in and too well ­supplied to have been greatly un­set­tled by the ­shell­fire — could hardly be­lieve their luck. An army was march­ing at a slow, steady pace to­ward them. There was no need to aim; fix­ing their guns on the gaps in the barbed wire was pretty much all the skill re­quired. The dead lay in heaps.

From a strate­gic point of view, Beau­mont-Hamel changed noth­ing. The war slogged on. Mud was won; mud was lost. But from the point of view of New­found­land, it changed ev­ery­thing. The ­is­land’s econ­omy, its pol­i­tics, and the very fab­ric of its so­ci­ety were never the same. “We are an is­land,” says Kevin Ma­jor, whose 1995 novel, No Man’s Land , cen­tred on the New­found­land Reg­i­ment’s last hours be­fore the car­nage. “And there was no place that wasn’t ripped apart by that ­bat­tle. There was no place it wasn’t marked into our con­scious­ness.”

In a uniquely New­found­lan­dish way, this is­land was ac­cus­tomed to dis­as­trous news. Fish­er­men were al­ways lost. Ships were al­ways wrecked. Men died be­cause they needed money — and they needed to im­peril them­selves in or­der to get it. In the spring of 1914, five months be­fore war was de­clared, the bod­ies of scores of seal­ers who had per­ished in a bliz­zard on the ice floes were un­loaded like stacked wood from the decks of the ships that had found them.

In the years ahead, the Bat­tle of Beau­mont-Hamel, ter­ri­ble as it was, would not seem like an aber­ra­tion of his­tory. As New­found­land’s debt com­pounded, as its ­busi­nesses foundered, as it politi­cians squab­bled, New­found­lan­ders — ­par­tic­u­larly the young — were forced to leave their homes to find work. They went to sea, of course, and to the ice floes, and later, as the wheels of New­found­land’s econ­omy ground down, to the steel mills of Hamil­ton, the auto plants of Oshawa and Oakville, the nickel mines of Sud­bury, the oil fields of ­Al­berta, and the tar sands of Fort McMur­ray.

Those dis­ap­pear­ances weren’t caused by a sin­gle de­ba­cle, as was the case at the Somme. But they are gap­ing ab­sences all the same — of youth, of tal­ent, of skill, of cap­i­tal, of ideas, of am­bi­tions, of dreams. And per­haps that is why Beau­mont-Hamel is so cen­tral to the prov­ince’s sense of ­it­self: in a place so small and so tightly knit, ev­ery loss chips away at its fu­ture. Haig’s cruel strat­egy wasn’t un­fa­mil­iar to New­found­lan­ders. In a cold, re­morse­less way, it was New­found­land writ large.

From the trenches, the New­found­land Reg­i­ment could see the stump of an old tree. It marked the east­ern pe­riph­ery of the churned waste­land over which they would cross on the open­ing day of the ­Somme. They called it the Dan­ger Tree. There is some­thing ­strangely blunt about that nick­name — ­es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the is­land’s col­lec­tive ge­nius for colour­ful proper nouns (Blow-Me-Down, Heart’s Con­tent, Sel­dom-Come-By). For once, New­found­lan­ders were un­der­stated.

And they con­tin­ued to be ­un­der­stated. Thirty years ago, I re­mem­ber ask­ing one of the few sur­viv­ing vet­er­ans of the Great War about his ex­pe­ri­ence. He said, “It’s hard to credit.” And then he stopped. There was noth­ing more to say. We can’t ever know what it was to be an eigh­teen-­yearold boy wait­ing at the wall of a trench or what it was like to clam­ber into an open field, 600 me­tres away from the Ger­man guns, and walk for­ward — chin ­in­stinc­tively tucked into one’s ad­vanc­ing ­shoul­der (as one ob­server noted) as if fight­ing against a bliz­zard in some lit­tle out­port. And most un­know­able of all: that con­vul­sion of gut and soul that would be the last thing he felt.

To­day, the bat­tle is re­mem­bered in great de­tail at the Beau­mont-Hamel Me­mo­rial in France: the bat­tle­field is largely pre­served, and the whole park is sur­rounded by 5,000 trees na­tive to New­found­land. Then there are the ex­hibits at the Rooms in St. John’s, a museum that also main­tains a web­site con­tain­ing, among other things, the mil­i­tary files of over 2,200 reg­i­ment ­sol­diers. And there’s hardly a le­gion hall on the ­is­land that doesn’t have pho­to­graphs and me­men­toes on its walls. Ac­counts of the war have also been pub­lished, from the letters of Pri­vate Frank “Mayo” Lind (so nick­named be­cause he wrote home about the to­bacco short­age at the front, which led to pack­ages of Mayo to­bacco ­be­ing sent over­seas) to New­found­land’s first nov­el­ist, Margaret Du­ley, who wrote about the war’s ef­fect on out­port com­mu­ni­ties in her 1939 novel, Cold Pas­toral (Du­ley’s older brother was se­verely ­in­jured at the Somme). The fi­nal scene of Michael Crum­mey’s 2009 novel, Ga­lore , fea­tures a sol­dier re­turn­ing home from the bat­tle­field. In Richard Greene’s 2014 poem “­Cor­ner Boys,” the au­thor ­re­mem­bers, as a boy, hav­ing seen

the last of the Blue Put­tees, the men

of Beau­mont Hamel, of Ar­ras and Cam­brai;

crutch-propped cor­ner boys on Water Street,

backs to brick and stone, their salient

a length of pave­ment and a few small shops.

Most re­cently, Cor­ner Brook’s Jackie ­Al­cock sowed thou­sands of fab­ric for­getme-nots onto an old mil­i­tary blan­ket to hon­our Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment sol­diers.

And yet, it’s still hard to credit. Be­cause his­tory is so dif­fi­cult to feel, we cod­ify it with dates and num­bers. But those dates and num­bers are use­ful only if they help tell us some­thing about what a place is like. Cir­cum­stances in New­found­land were bleak in 1914, so bleak that the ­dol­lar or so a day that a pri­vate made was rea­son enough to en­list. And that hasn’t changed. To­day, as in 1914, en­list­ing for a New­found­lan­der means train­ing you wouldn’t oth­er­wise get and money you wouldn’t oth­er­wise earn. It also means ad­ven­ture — how­ever sad the ad­ven­ture’s out­come may be.

I was in New­found­land last Novem­ber as part of a Remembrance Day assem­bly at Ron­calli Cen­tral High School in ­Avon­dale. High-school stu­dents do not al­ways make for the most at­ten­tive au­di­ences. But this group was rapt. They knew why the univer­sity in St. John’s is called ­Me­mo­rial. They un­der­stood what the mu­ral of a dead tree on the wall be­hind us rep­re­sented.

Wars aren’t an­cient his­tory in Avon­dale. A Cana­dian sol­dier named Jamie Mur­phy was killed by a sui­cide ­bomber in ­Afghanistan in 2004. He’d gone to Ron­calli. Peo­ple knew him well. His ­mother and fa­ther lived nearby. There are teach­ers at the school who had him in their classes. If re­mem­ber­ing that young man leads to the bat­tle­fields of the First World War — Beau­mont-­Hamel be­ing the most tragic of all — that’s be­cause July 1 is not sim­ply a cer­e­mo­nial remembrance. It’s a vis­ceral in­her­i­tance, the col­lec­tive ­rec­ol­lec­tion of the day New­found­land lost more than what it was. It lost what might have been.

In Memo­riam Un­veil­ing the Na­tional War ­Me­mo­rial, St. John’s, July 1, 1924.

No Man’s Land Ger­man barbed-wire ­en­tan­gle­ments, known as “knife rests,” pho­tographed in the Beau­mont-Hamel area, Novem­ber 1916.

Off to War D Com­pany, First New­found­land Reg­i­ment, lin­ing the rails of the SS Stephano , leav­ing St. John’s for over­seas, March 20, 1915.

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