Looking to the Legions of the past to continue into the future
Unlike many other Canadian Legions, those in Newfoundland and Labrador had a different origin.
“The first veteran’s group formed during the war in April of 1918. In Newfoundland, it was called the Volunteer and Rejected Soldiers Association,” explained Frank Gogos, media liaison for the Newfoundland Command. “By 1919, it became the Great War Veterans Association of Newfoundland, partnered with the Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) of Canada.
“It’s important to remember that at this time, Newfoundland was its own country,” said Gogos, annunciating country rather than the world colony.
“The GWVA stayed the principle veteran support organization until it became part of the Royal Canadian Legion in 1950,” he said.
But the organization had a similar mandate to that of the modern-day Legion.
“It was charged with the guardians of remembrance. Here in N.L., we have two ceremonies of remembrance – Memorial Day on July 1 and Armistice Day on Nov. 11,” Gogos noted. “Both are equal in how Newfoundlanders view remembrance.”
Currently there are 45 Legion branches in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Shifting gears, Gogos describes the murkiness of July 1.
“People think it’s just about the regiment on that day, when it was annihilated in the first day of the Battle of the Somme. But in actuality it was established for all of the Newfoundland services in the First World War,” he explained. “Even the ones that served in other countries. It’s not just about BeaumontHamel. In reality, it was meant to commemorate everybody.”
It continues to be a major remembrance ceremony for the province, he said.
“It’s actually seeing a resurgence since the war in Afghanistan.”
Over the last 10 years it’s gone from several hundred to several thousand coming out on July 1, with one of the largest attendances in St. Johns in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel.
Over the last several years, Gogos has spent July 1 at the Beaumont-Hamel memorial in France.
“For me, personally, I’m gob smacked that I have the opportunity to take students over every year. I’m struggling for words. I think I’m one of the most fortunate people to have the opportunity to go over there and share these experiences,” he said.
Every year at that time he participates in The Trail of the Caribou.
“The Government of Newfoundland erected a number of memorials in France and Belgium following the Great War,” Gogos said. “As part of the Legion trip we take significant numbers of youth and veterans overseas to take them on The Trail of the Caribou, which usually runs eight to 10 days. Nearly every stop we have has to do with Newfoundland’s involvement in the First World War.”
The travel agenda includes not just Beaumont Hamel, but Vimy and Menin Gate, as well as the war graves and memorials in churches in France.
While Newfoundlanders participated in other battles during the war, Beaumont-Hamel is the one that seems to stick out in everyone’s minds.
“It stands out in Newfoundland history because, while Newfoundlanders have a long history of major catastrophes that led to huge losses of life, I think Beaumont-Hamel was a shocker,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in Newfoundland expected the regiment to go out and get wiped out. They say there wasn’t a family in Newfoundland that wasn’t touched by the tragedy on July 1.”
He says while the Newfoundland Regiment was engaged in other actions throughout the war, the Beaumont-Hamel experience came to take on a life of its own, the same way Vimy Ridge is significant to Canada, he said.
“Except Vimy Ridge is seen as something positive. It was the birth of a nation type thing.”
Whereas in Newfoundland the battle that took place in Beaumont-Hamel, marked the death of a nation.
“We’ve kind of gone in an opposite direction,” Gogos said. “One of the three things — while there are a lot more — that brought down the NFLD government was war and its economic tenants. Along with the acquisition of the railway and the inability to collect income tax.”
As the country began to tailspin after the First World War, and the subject of Confederation began after the Second World War, the evolution from the GWVA to the Canadian Legion was in sight.
“At our Legion office, we have the minutes where they take the vote and decide to join the Royal Canadian Legion. Once Newfoundland joined Canada, it was in the best interest of the vets to join the larger organization, because they would have had a bigger voice in a bigger country.
““That’s not to say they agreed with Confederation but I don’t think there would have been a lot of resistance when they joined a larger country. It doesn’t appear to be on the table prior to joining Confederation.”
a unique remembrance flower.
“Poppies were brought in to Canada as a fundraiser in 1921. The Canadian and Newfoundland GWVA adopted it . . . almost within the week of each other. It wasn’t something that took much time. They saw the benefit to raise funds and originally help the children in France.”
However, Newfoundland has another official remembrance flower: the forget-me-not, worn at the July ceremonies.
It was first brought in, for sale, before July 1, 1924.
“Today’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment is the only regiment in Canada authorized to wear a forget me not on July 1,” he said.
Gogos says many people wear a Forget Me Not come July 1, sometimes even all year round.
“It’s widespread here,” he said. “Some people leave it on their coats all year long, and quite a few folks I run into have that blue flower on their coats all year long.”
Continuing with pride in his voice, “Tens of thousands of these were made by one woman over the last 15 years. So, it’s not like there is a mass production. They are handmade. Probably makes 10 to 20,000 a year or more.”
In the province, he continued, a lot of people are still very much connected to the First World War.
“There’s almost a sort of reverence in our story. And I guess it’s because it was so tragic,” Gogos said. “One of the most tragic things I’ve seen is that families had uncles they never talked about. They never saw their medals or their memorials. It wasn’t remembered in the household and no one spoke of them.
“In some ways, it’s probably that these families had more of a superstition or were angry with what happened for taking their son or sons away from them in some cases. Even back then, we had an independent streak; so there were places that didn’t see this as our war and were bitter about it, whereas others wanted to fight for king and country. Newfoundland society was deeply divided on multiple levels.”
Swiftly moving to changing landscape of Gogos continues.
“There was a time that the Legions were First World War Legions,” he said. “The Second World War comes along 20 years later and the boys get home. Now they’re the young fellas and they go into the Legions and the older guys are saying you’re not a veteran. So, there was that divide there.
“I know here in St. John’s we had one branch. But by 1960 a second branch opened up. The second branch became known as the WW2 branch and the first was the WW1 branch.
“And as the First World War branch guys pass away the two branches became mainly World War II. That division is still known. Now with the World War II vets passing away, almost to the last man over the last 20-30 years, the Legion has changed its shift to associate members and civilian members to keep the Legions and remembrance alive.”
Gogos noted, “It’s important that the legacy continue. If it’s lost, then the vets in this country will have lost the single biggest advocate for themselves that they’ll ever have in their history.
“If they allow it to fail, then the veterans support community will be highly fractured and they won’t have the same weight when dealing with the government. And that’s what I tell my friends who are veterans. If you want to fix the legion, you gotta join the Legion. If you want to change the Legion you gotta join the Legion. And you need to make it work.”