It has come and gone again. It was July 1 and we celebrate and mourn on the same day. It is Canada Day.
I fly my Maple Leaf flag. The family comes around and we barbecue and celebrate. It is Canada’s birthday. I have visited a lot of countries over the years, and I know the genuine respect around the world there is for Canada. I know that particularly in Europe there is a real feeling of gratitude directed towards our nation. It l, among other things, makes me proud to be Canadian.
July 1, though, is always Memorial Day to Newfoundland. Until 1949 Newfoundland was a country. It was, and is, Memorial Day to us and the wounds of July 1 in Newfoundland run deep. It was in 1916 that the Battle of the Somme and a little place named Beaumont Hamel stole from Newfoundland a generation of brave young men. July 1 was one of the great tragedies of World War 1.
I am old enough to remember the family story. In 1950, Beaumont Hamel was only 25 years into our memory banks. I remember vividly my grandmother talking in her basement kitchen about ‘the Big Push’. That was what the British generals called the ill-fated Somme offensive of which Beaumont Hamel was a part. She talked in almost holy terms about our boys. She talked about “dead men could advance no further” glorifying, as always happens, some of the great failures of war. That was more than 70 years ago for me, and I have better perspective now. I understand how our Newfoundland Regiment was cannon fodder, essentially. The men were ordered to move forward like all the regiments slowly into a wall of German machine gun fire. The Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out. As I am wont to say the technology of the industrial revolution and the 20th century expertise at arms construction ran headlong into a British plan of battle from that was from the Middle Ages. Newfoundland soldiers didn’t get anywhere near the German front line that morning. They were mowed down when they were forced to abandon trenches already filled with the dead and dying of other regiments. The Newfoundland boys advanced across open ground. It was a slaughter.
This was billed in Newfoundland initially as a great victory. The Greek poet Aeschylus said correctly: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” In Newfoundland in 1916, it took a while before that awful truth of July 1st sank in. I am honoured to have known two of the survivors of the Somme and Beaumont Hamel. Walter Tobin of the Newfoundland Regiment was wounded on July 1. He told me the British always win the wars, but they don’t win all the battles and the Somme was not one of their victories. Walter lost his brother Jimmy in the war. Jimmy was killed in Belgium. Both Walter and Jimmy were like me, St. Bon’s boys. Walter remembered that July 1, 1916 was hot and cloudless. He remembered well the soldiers wore a metal triangle on the back of their uniforms to help their artillery find the range. German machine gunners found the range as well as the July sun glinted off the metal on the backs of wounded soldiers. Walter said the bullets were so frequent that morning they sounded like a fan. They were a whirring sound.
Abe Mullet was the other person I knew from the Somme, and he was more direct. He had been out on night patrol the day before July 1. He knew the Somme had been a complete debacle. He said to me over a drink of Scotch in a motel in northern France that as near as he could determine the attack was doomed to failure. He said anyone could see that and those who couldn’t SHOULD have seen it. He said, “The big fella was trying to make a reputation for himself.” It is assumed “the big fella” he talked about was Field Marshall Douglas.
My final thought on why I remember July 1st as something beyond Canada Day. I have been to that awful battlefield in France three times. On the 75th anniversary of the battle I was there in the company of both Abe Mullet and Walter Tobin. At the much storied “danger tree” – beyond which no soldier of the regiment advanced, the family of Private Steven Fallon of the Newfoundland Regiment had placed a little inscribed hand-made cross. It told us Private Fallon died there on the 1st of July, 1916. He was 16.