John Crosbie once said “You can always tell the Newfoundlanders in heaven: they’re the ones who want to go home.”
I doubt truer words were ever said about my people. We really are drawn to our Fair Isle. This weekend I was honoured with the opportunity to return home for a show that paid honour to hundreds of boys who didn’t make it home: the brave young men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
In 1914, hundreds of members of an entire generation of young Newfoundland men were called overseas to England to fight for King and country. They were the only North American unit in World War I to fight in Gallipoli, and then, on July 1, 1916, they went down in history in the Battle of the Somme. On that date, after several miscalculations and a number of other unfortunate decisions and outright mistakes, two of the first Allied command lines to attack at Beaumont Hamel, were disastrously unsuccessful. When the Newfoundland Regiment was called upon, at around 9:15 that morning, they jumped out of their trenches to face their challenge and almost certain death, without a moment’s hesitation. Not one man cowered or even thought to turn back. The results were horrific and would affect Newfoundland and its people for more than a century.
The Newfoundland Regiment began over 800-strong. At roll call the day after the attack on July 1st, 1916, only 68 men responded to their names. The rest were wounded, missing, or assumed dead. An entire generation of young men was lost.
It was just after returning from my last visit home to Newfoundland when I received a phone call from my dear friend, and former school-mate, Kellie Walsh. Kellie is a highly respected musician who conducts several ensembles, including Lady Cove, an award-winning Women’s choir based in St. John’s. This year marks 100 years since the fateful Battle at Beaumont Hamel, and Lady Cove was planning a concert in remembrance of the soldiers who fought and lost their lives during the Great War and that battle in general. Kellie asked me to be a guest an to host the evening. We worked out the details of timing, etc., and the ball was set a-rollin’.
Over the next 2 months I learned more about the war-time history of Newfoundland than I had ever known in the past. I read stories about the support these men had from their communities at home – about songs being written for “the Brave Boys of the Goulds”, and more. I read letters from young soldiers to their families back home, telling tales of the soldiers’ good spirits and enthusiasm about joining the fight. I read letters from fathers of 16 year-old boys, asking the “powers that be” to spare their sons from active duty, as they were too young and too unprepared. I read memoirs of those who’d survived the battle, describing what it was like to see their friends and comrades dying around them.
On more than one occasion, my own tears dropped on the notes I was making, as the emotional weight of the information was just too overwhelming, and I felt a combination of tremendous pride in my ancestors, and remarkable grief over their loss. These young men were so very proud to be fighting as Newfoundlanders. (At the time of the First World War, we were not yet a part of Canada. We had been a self-governing British colony from 1855, and then in 1907 we became a British dominion. We didn’t join Canada until 1949.) Letter after letter, memoir after memoir, there was one element that was particularly clear. While these boys may have been fighting for King and Country (Britain), they were doing so representing one place and one place only: Newfoundland.
Once the music was chosen and the repertoire shared with me, my job was to weave things together; to connect what we were performing with the events of the time and to put things in proper context. The show was called “For The Boys”. It was to be the show that our boys never got because their military careers were simply too short-lived.
There is no way to convey the privilege I felt at being a part of that concert! I loved talking about the events of 1916; connecting the popularity of female film-stars to the drafting of so many men … discussing the emergence of Dixieland music at the time … introducing – and/or singing – songs like “You Belong To Me”, “K-K-K-Katy”, and “Lift Ev’ry Voice”. It all happened in front of a room of more than 400 people who sat elbow to elbow, listening intently, singing along full-voice at appropriate times, and crying together in respectful nostalgia. Lady Cove was wonderful and the concert conveyed the right tone of just enough levity to make it a “show”, and just enough gravity to convey the devastating loss we have all felt as Newfoundlanders since that fateful battle on July 1st, 1916.
At one point, various members of Lady Cove read the names of soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment who were their direct relations, an understated “thank you” to their great uncles, grandfathers, and the like who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for freedom, liberty, and fairness in the world.
The losses suffered by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment devastated Newfoundland itself. An entire generation of young men were lost; a generation of fishermen, hunters, carpenters, husbands, fathers … so many of the individuals who were unable to rebuild the island, its society and its economy … so many men unable to “come home” to resume the lives that were tragically cut short.
So, this past weekend, I “came home” … to celebrate and relish in the fact that I could … and to pay homage to those who, in their fight for liberty, were never to “come home” again.