Soldier in the Rain | JIM FURLONG

It was entirely appropriate that it rained on July 1st this year. The rain gave a sombre air to an event that was to mark the return to our War Memorial in John’s of the body of a young man who is now our Unknown Soldier.

July 1st was always Memorial Day to me. I know Canada Day is a wonderful event and I proudly fly the flag of Canada but in Newfoundland and Labrador our thoughts are never far from the great military tragedy at Beaumont Hamel and our overall losses in The Great War. July 1st is Memorial Day.

Unlike this year, July 1, 1916, was a bright sunny and sweltering day in northern France. I know that because one of the survivors of that awful day told me so. It was hot and uncomfortable and a bad day to die.

The story of Newfoundland in World War I has been told and retold and not always told accurately. When I was a boy that war had only been over for 30 years or so. The story told in my family by grandmother and grandfather was full of phrases like “the big push” and “our boys”. They gave the war the mantle of a heroic victory that masked reality. There was even a popular beer in St. John’s called Haig Ale named after Field Marshall Douglas Haig one of the authors of the great tragedy of the Somme.

We were raised on stories that were of heroism and filled with romantic phrases like “dead men could advance no further”. Over time we did come to understand how horrible it all was. We came to appreciate that so many bodies of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment lay forever in faraway fields. We came to appreciate as well that many bodies of those young dead soldiers were never recovered or even identified from those fields of battle.

This year one of those bodies of the fallen came home to Newfoundland and Labrador. We don’t know who he was, but we know with certainty that he was one of our boys from the regiment because his identifying shoulder patch with NFLD on it was recovered. His body came home and was buried with full military honours on the first of July.

It was a sad occasion that touched our souls. The repatriation of the body of a fallen soldier from the war became a most dramatic symbol of our great loss. I have been watching over the last week tape of the ceremony at the War Memorial. It is a story filled with a dramatic sadness and meaning. It is a sadness visible at Confederation Building or even on the streets of St. John’s as the body of the Unknown Soldier was brought to the War Memorial. Even after the ceremony at a traditional “march past” on Water Street in front of the Lieutenant Governor and the Premier there was that great blanket of sadness. The sadness was in those who watched, and it was in those who marched. We had come to an important understanding and acknowledgement of something that doesn’t even need to be described by words.

The War Memorial now is more than a stone monument. It is the burial place of one of our own. He was of the Newfoundland Regiment who marched off to war and died somewhere in a faraway field of battle. His body has now returned after a century. The Unknown Soldier lies today in a place of honour that has become sacred ground. We will never pass the War Memorial again without thinking of him.

The questions asked will include who he was and how he died and who was left behind to mourn. Those are all questions that will not have answer. The Newfoundland soldier, the Unknown Soldier, however, is at last home.

You can contact Jim Furlong at [email protected]