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.