“I’ll be glad to catch honest cod once more” – Part I

How Newfoundland’s participation and role in the Great War changed us forever

When the colony of Newfoundland went to war in 1914 its people were no strangers to the burden of losing many lives in a single stroke.

That very spring the little country had lost hundreds to the twin sealing disasters of the Newfoundland and Southern Cross, when the former ship lost its crew on the ice and the latter went down off Cape Race as it sailed home with some of the first pelts of the season. But the “Great War” would burden Newfoundland and Labrador with an unfamiliar and uniquely terrifying kind of loss, one that its history of struggle against the elements did not prepare it for. The experience of 1914-1918 resonates with greater strength than even the Second World War, which is remembered more for the arrival of tens of thousands of Canadian, American and British troops in a ‘friendly invasion’ than any military contribution of its own. Instead, the First World War remains visceral for the unique  trauma of trench warfare; the war’s “appetite for blood,” Paul Sparkes wrote, would “carve ‘Beaumont Hamel’ into the heart of every Newfoundlander.”

A complicated remembrance

But with the passage of a century it is easy to forget that there was more to the war than the ‘Blue Puttees,’ their destruction at Beaumont Hamel, the unrealized potential of a nation that might have been, and other fragments that survive largely as myth. In a conflict with no clear moral justification there has always been cause for the distortion of history, and the manipulation of the past is no less evident in our own history than it is anywhere else. While there is every reason to take pride in the contributions and sacrifices of this province there is also reason for critical reflection; to understand the First World War for what it was — not the Great War for Civilization but pointless, industrialized slaughter — and to guard against Remembrance Day becoming a test of national loyalty and a prop for future conflicts, rather than the monument to imperial folly and human waste that it once was.

When the British Empire went to war on Aug. 4, 1914 few of its overseas possessions were as poorly prepared as Newfoundland and Labrador, and for good reason. Long ago there had been colonial wars for control of the island and its fishing grounds, and Newfoundland settlers — and Irish settlers in particular — had been heavily recruited as soldiers, sailors and marines during the War of 1812. But since the Seven Years War the island had been at peace, and in 1914 there were only the fishermen of the Royal Naval Reserve and the officers of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, as well as the paramilitary church brigades: the Church Lad’s Brigade; the Catholic Cadet Corps; the Methodist Guards; and the Presbyterian Highlanders. Under the circumstances it would have been wise for the Newfoundland government to direct its volunteers into British or Canadian units. Indeed, William Coaker, leader of the Fisherman’s Protective Union, urged St. John’s to supply the British Royal Navy with sailors, a proposal that would utilize one of Newfoundland’s great assets while having the added advantage of being financed by the British Treasury. But in St. John’s, where news of the war was met with the kind of enthusiasm more common to Europe, the colony’s leaders had already fixed their gaze on a more ambitious project: the formation of an infantry regiment that would carry the name ‘Newfoundland.’

With remarkable speed (and no public debate) responsibility for the war effort was transferred to the Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA), an extra-parliamentary committee ostensibly organized to represent all religions and classes, but in effect including not a single fisherman, miner, forester or labourer. This surprising disregard for responsible government at such a critical time was partly an outcome of the colony’s inadequate bureaucracy, but the NPA also reflected the determination of its elites to seize the war as an opportunity to raise their colony above its lowly station as a North Atlantic fishing ground, and to secure a place within any new imperial arrangement.

Building the Regiment

The idea of a regiment was most popular in St. John’s where the church brigades and a large casual labour force was available to supply recruits, and where identification with the United Kingdom was strongest. In the outports, however, where men were preoccupied with the summer fishery, recruitment in the regiment was initially limited. Indeed, for many rural Newfoundlanders, war and the excitement in St. John’s remained distant for some time. For Grand Banks fisherman Hubert Ridgely it was not until 1916, when his schooner anchored in St. John’s, that the war became “alarmingly vivid and real.” Walking the city streets Ridgely and his mates witnessed “huge numbers of young Newfoundlanders clad in the khaki uniforms of the British Army and the Blue Serge of the Royal Navy,” and the pressure to enlist suddenly became more acute. Despite the initial lag in recruitment, however, the outports supplied as many volunteers as the city, particularly in the sea services where some 2,500 outport men, accustomed to life on the water, sought familiarity in the Royal Navy and merchant marine.

The Somme stands alone in popular memory for its enormous scale, for its total lack of surprise and imagination, for its unprecedented loss of life, and, equally, for its curious sense of pride and achievement in defeat.

By the end of 1915 the Regiment was in action in Gallipoli, where they struggled to salvage Winston Churchill’s ill-conceived campaign to knock Turkey out of the war and outflank Germany — “If I can force the waters of the Dardanelles,” Churchill wrote to David Lloyd George, “I shall be the greatest man in Europe!” The navy failed, the army was summoned, and 45,000 imperial soldiers would perish before they were finally evacuated in December 1915. For the Newfoundland Regiment Gallipoli was not a particularly damaging introduction to modern war, at least by the standards of 1914-1918. And the Regiment gave the Newfoundland press some material to work with, capturing the Turkish redoubt ‘Caribou Hill’ and covering the Allied evacuation as the rear-guard. They were plucky, dependable and had earned the respect of the professional ‘old sweat’ 29th Division, to which they were attached. The colony had reason to be pleased.

In the North Sea, the renowned skill of Newfoundlanders as small boatsmen was particularly useful when boarding German blockade runners, a perilous task that saw many men crushed under the hulls of storm-tossed ships. But despite its seafaring tradition, Newfoundland’s war was always defined by its battles on the Western Front. Contrary to popular belief, Beaumont Hamel and the Battle of the Somme, of which it was a part, was not the only time the Newfoundland Regiment was confronted with complete destruction. Later in the war, notably at Monchy-le-Prieux, the Regiment would suffer almost equal losses. But those struggles came later, and on July 1, 1916, Britain and Germany began the largest battle yet fought in the history of civilization, and the Somme stands alone in popular memory for its enormous scale, for its total lack of surprise and imagination, for its unprecedented loss of life, and, equally, for its curious sense of pride and achievement in defeat.

The Caribou Memorial, Beaumont Hamel, above a dugout bearing the Memorial to the Newfoundland servicemen missing in action. Photo by J. Alexander Winter. Courtesty The Rooms Provincial Archives.

Christened the ‘Great Fuck-Up’ by its survivors, the Somme offensive threw more men and more artillery at the German lines than any previous operation, though the results differed only in the unprecedented number of dead and maimed. The poorly trained soldiers were victims of class arrogance as well as German machine guns, their generals believing that Britain’s new army of amateur soldiers — factory workers from the West Midlands, office clerks from Liverpool, fishermen from Newfoundland — “were too simple and animal,” Paul Fussell wrote, to master the sophisticated assault tactics required of trench warfare. Before the village of Beaumont Hamel the Welsh Inniskillings suffered 568 casualties as the Germans emerged from the shelter of Y Ravine. Though a spectacular failure, the Newfoundlanders were nevertheless ordered to follow up the attack, to “find a way where the Inniskillings had found none,” as John Keegan wrote. In the attempt the 1st battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment sustained more casualties — 710 in all — than any other battalion on the Somme front that day.

For a little colony of 250,000 people the loss of so many young men, a generation of unrealized economic and political potential, was a blow that Newfoundland could not absorb, and religious and colonial authorities could only hope to emphasize the bravery of the fallen, a bravery conditioned by hundreds of years of life on the North Atlantic fringe and unique to Newfoundlanders: “Forced to plough upon the sea, and reap upon the crags, her people inured hardship, unaffected by poverty, uncursed by luxury, their lives an increasing struggle.” This was not as cynical as it sounds, it cannot be dismissed as ‘propaganda.’ Beaumont Hamel had none of the redeeming qualities of Gallipoli, and when confronted with loss on the scale of the Somme people had to be given a message which, in Robert Harding’s dispassionate but accurate words, “rationalized their losses.”

Read Part II of this special Remembrance Day feature here.

John Matchim studied history at Memorial University and lives in St. John’s. He is a devoted follower of the Montreal Canadiens, Liverpool FC, and is a purveyor of lazy history.

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