Brave boys

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ian Ste­wart

TORONTO-BASED, New­found­landraised au­thor Michael Win­ter takes us along the wind­ing path the men of New­found­land Reg­i­ment fol­lowed dur­ing the First World War. Win­ter’s book is part his­tory, part trav­el­ogue and part au­thor’s mus­ings on how our mod­ern minds con­tem­plate the past. The brave men of New­found­land ral­lied to the flag when Eng­land de­clared war on the Ger­man em­pire on Aug. 4, 1914. A reg­i­ment of 500-plus men from St. John’s and the out ports was quickly formed. Many of the en­listed men were sea­sonal fish­er­men and seal­ers, and were of­ten il­lit­er­ate, while the of­fi­cers came from the town’s pros­per­ous business class. Nick­named the Blue Put­tees be­cause of their unique leg wrap­pings, the reg­i­ment set off for Eng­land for train­ing in Oc­to­ber 1914. Nearly 5,000 men vol­un­teered to serve dur­ing the war — 1,305 died, thou­sands of oth­ers were wounded, and many, it is said, be­came like strangers to them­selves. The reg­i­ment was sta­tioned in Scot­land, but when an ac­ci­dent af­fected another reg­i­ment due to go over­seas, the Blue Put­tees headed off to fight in the dis­as­trous 1915 Gal­lipoli cam­paign. After Gal­lipoli, the Blue Put­tees were sent to the Western Front. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme, the New­found­lan­ders faced a bliz­zard of steel from Ger­man ma­chine guns at Beau­mont Hamel. They never fired a shot, and the reg­i­ment suf­fered an 80 per cent ca­su­alty rate. As Win­ter bi­cy­cled though the bat­tle­fields and vis­ited the ceme­ter­ies, the New­found­land Memo­rial at Beau­mont Hamel and the Thiep­val Memo­rial — ded­i­cated to the 72,000 men who fought on the Somme but have no known graves — re­flex­ive tears freely flowed. The New­found­land dead and wounded at Beau­mont Hamel, Win­ter notes, ac­counted for less than half of the New­found­lan­ders who would die in the next two years of in­dus­tri­al­ized war. Read­ers meet many of the Blue Put­tees by way of their di­aries and the rem­i­nisces of those who knew them. Some were he­roes, some were not, some were ras­cals and some were heroic ras­cals, but most were or­di­nary men do­ing the job they signed up to do. Tommy Rick­etts was the most fa­mous of the Blue Put­tees. We might imag­ine him go­ing into the St. John’s re­cruit­ing of­fice, the ser­gant look­ing him up and down and ask­ing, “How old do ye want t’ be, boy?” Tommy said, “Eigh­teen years and three months sir.” But he was re­ally only 15 when he made his X on his en­list­ment pa­per. Two years later, the il­lit­er­ate boy from Mid­dle Arm had a meal with King George V of Eng­land, as was tra­di­tion for a win­ner of the Vic­to­ria Cross. In this cen­te­nary year of the First World War, English war po­ets Siegfried Sas­soon and Wil­fred Owen find a kin­dred spirit in Michael Win­ter. The threads of Owen’s great poem on the pity of war, Dulce et Deco­rum Est, weave their way through Win­ter’s book. Owen wrote that teach­ing a young man that “it is sweet and right to die for your coun­try” is an “old lie.” This lie is sus­tained, ac­cord­ing to Win­ter, by the mil­i­tary ideals of dis­ci­pline, esprit de corps and morale, which foster the “ma­chin­ery of the group,” pre­clud­ing in­di­vid­ual moral­ity and courage. This point of view dif­fers in kind from Canada’s John McCrae, whose iconic poem In Flan­ders Field — or Ru­pert Brooke’s The Sol­dier — saw dy­ing for one’s com­rades and coun­try as just, noble and du­ti­ful. What might New­found­land have be­come if a gen­er­a­tion of its young men had not been lost to war? New­found­land was the only do­min­ion that did not be­come an in­de­pen­dent coun­try. What would th­ese men have ac­com­plished? Th­ese coun­ter­fac­tual ques­tions can­not be an­swered; we can only know, from read­ing Win­ter’s poignant ac­count, that a dif­fer­ent New­found­land would have come to be.

Ian Ste­wart teaches at Ce­cil Rhodes School.


A panel of photographs de­pict some of the 72,000 men at the Thiep­val Memo­rial to the Miss­ing in north­ern France.

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