Pride and Passion

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Sandy Gow's memorable role in The Great War

Did you see the two-part special The Great War, which ran April 8 and 9 on CBC TV?

The most powerful moment in the entire four-hour program, interestingly enough, was an appearance by a young Newfoundland woman named Sandy Gow (right), of St. John's.

Gow, 23, was one of about 150 descendants of actual war veterans who were chosen to recreate the battle of Vimy Ridge (at a location in Quebec), a grueling and eye opening ordeal in which they were housed, clothed and fed exactly as their World War I ancestors. Of those 150, 13 were chosen to fly to France to visit the various battlefields, graveyards and cenotaphs, where each person delivered a heartfelt eulogy to their relatives.

Gow was among those 13, and delivered the performance of a lifetime.

Gow does have an amazing lineage numerous relatives fought in the war, and she is related to John McRae, author of In Flanders Fields' but what really won the part were her musicals skills. She can play various instruments and has a lovely singing voice.

Gow says she saw the ad inviting descendants of war veterans to audition, but thought nothing of it. "I remember thinking, Oh that's really interesting it's a shame I can't get in on that' and I just kind of set it aside. "

But then her father saw the same ad and suggested she apply, reciting a long list of relatives who had served in the Great War. "He pulled a book off the shelf, our family history, and there was a chapter called The Gows and The Great War and it goes through this list of family members my great great aunts and uncles and great grandfather and their children and nieces and nephews and cousins plus John McRae and exactly how each one of them served and their own little interesting stories. We checked to see when the application was due, and it was due (that day) at midnight."

Gow sat at the keyboard while her dad dictated family history and submitted an application just under the wire. The producers' response was non-committal though they did ask for a video audition.

"I didn't know what to say, didn't know if I had enough (of relevance) to talk about," said Gow, who recently graduated from Grenfell College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre. "I decided to talk about my aunt, since she was a woman, and I didn't know what to do so I sang a song about the Great War nurses. They saw that and said, Okay, you're in'."

Gow played the part of great great aunt Peggy Gow, who, at 42, was too old to volunteer so she lied, subtracted 10 years from her age and went on to serve in an English hospital right up to the end of the war.

Each of the 13 who made the trip to France also delivered personal monologues, at various battle scenes and memorials, which were the most powerful segments of the show for their unscripted honesty and emotion you could see that these young people had been moved deeply by their experiences. Gow (right, photo by Nick Stanger) played a critical role throughout the program because she often provided musical accompaniment to these personal tributes.

It didn't hurt that Gow had performed for four years in Kevin Major's play No Man's Land', for which she learned a variety of wartime songs. But what made her monologue and subsequent vocal performance at Beaumont Hamel the most powerful scene in the entire production was the sincerity of her message and her pride as a Newfoundlander.

I was hoping to find the clip on YouTube, but it's not there yet. So following is a transcript of Gow's tribute to the Newfoundlanders who were killed and maimed at Beaumont Hamel. She did not read from a script; she told the story to her dozen young friends with tears in her eyes and a slight tremble in her voice.

The story of the July Drive is one I have known for as long as I can remember. The British had a bombardment set up that went on for days and this was supposed to take out the German barbed wire, machine guns but by the time we got to July 1st the barbed wire hadn't been cut and the machine guns hadn't been taken out. One Newfoundland soldier made it over to the German trenches and back again to deliver the news that the German machine guns hadn't been taken out and the barbed wire hadn't been cut, and his report was dismissed as the nervousness of men who were facing battle for the first time.

The narrator relates the scandalous story of British incompetence which led to orders to go over the top, then Gow picks up the story:

This is the Danger Tree. They called it that because it was the most dangerous place on the battlefield. It was the only place where they'd actually managed to cut the barbed wire so all of the soldiers were making their way towards here. And the machine guns all they had to do was point and fire. One of the German soldiers said that, there was so many of them coming that, if they had charged, they would have overwhelmed them. But they were still under the command to march over and not to charge. One of the soldiers who survived the advance said that the machinegun fire was so heavy, the soldiers would automatically tuck their chins into their coats, as if they were walking into a snowstorm in a Newfoundland outport. Only it wasn't snow or hail, it was machinegun fire.

The narrator then tells of the 90 per cent casualty rate, and the 710 Newfoundlanders who were killed or maimed in just 22 minutes of battle. Then back to Gow:

You've got St. John's and that's the big city, but then you've got all along the coast, the outports. And from every one, these men went and volunteered. Five hundred went right away. So there was a core group of men from each one of these communities. And they weren't coming home again. Just imagine you're a woman. Maybe you've got three to five children in a very small community where you depend on each other to sustain your life. And you lose your husband, you lose your father, you lose your two brothers. How do you get by? And that was the beginning of this downward spiral for Newfoundland. Suddenly we couldn't support ourselves any more, and eventually Confederation became an issue. You know, what do we do do we stay where we are? People are starving in the outports. Do we keep going this way? Or do we join Canada and have them help us? And I think a lot of that began with World War One, with our losses here at Beaumont Hamel. For all of us here July 1st is Canada Day but for so many people back home, it will always be remembered as the day that we lost some of the best people from our island. And for them, I would like to sing the Ode to Newfoundland"

Up to now, the tears in her eyes and emotion in her voice are evident. Yet somehow, miraculously, Gow's voice rings out, sweet and clear. I challenge you to watch her performance without shedding a tear. Near the end of the second chorus, her voice breaks with emotion, but she lifts her chin and finishes the verse. It was candid and real and I applaud the producers and Gow herself for not insisting on another take'.

"Oh my god, I wanted to run away when that happened," Gow said. "At the time I remember thinking, I hope they don't use that...' I was so nervous singing the Ode there. If you are going to get anything right in your life, get this right. So many people died here and you have a chance to sing their Ode where they died. I was almost crying from the get-go, I was trying to hold on the whole time Of course, people started to come up to me after they had seen the rushes to shake my hand and say We saw you, you made us cry' and I thought, Oh, they must have used the Ode'. It was really scary for me at the time but now looking back at it and seeing it on the screen what a privilege."

Gow said one highlight of the experience was learning so many fascinating stories about relatives who fought in the war, and visiting the places where they died or were buried. She also formed deep bonds of friendship with the 12 people who traveled with her to France.

"You spend 10 days with 12 people and you really become friends in a completely different way than you do in day-to-day life," she said.

In fact, while researching this item, I learned that Gow actually experienced a whirlwind romance with George Muggleton (left; CBC photo), a war veteran descendant who now lives in New Orleans.

"Oh no! How did you find out about George," Gow laughed, when I mentioned him. "Everyone was spending every moment together and we were going through this experience together and so we bonded very quickly. George and I were both musicians and we had that in common, so we hit it off. It happened quickly but just as quick as it happened, we had to leave again. He lived across the country and there was no option of seeing each other until we started filming again."

In the interim, to stay within character and preserve realism, they agreed to communicate only by handwritten letter. "There was none of this text messaging or Internet chat," she said. That was in September. "I think we made it to Christmas and then we were like, Oh, never mind!' and we stopped."

Gow said their relationship was no secret, and that the producers toyed with building it into the storyline to bring in the war bride angle going so far as to stage a mock wedding between the two. But it didn't make it to the final cut. "It was very romantic and a great story to tell though I think our parents were a little freaked out by it," she chuckled.

"He was a soldier and I was a nurse and here we were traveling through Europe together and seeing things we'd never seen before, making friends, and everyone was very close. And we were playing music together, sort of experiencing the war through that element. George said it himself, it was a whirlwind romance. We were both completely in the clouds. While that was happening it was quite intense. Once we went back to normal life, things were allowed to calm down a bit. We're still friends but we've moved on."

Sandy Gow is currently in rehearsal for a starring role in Al Pittman's A Rope Against The Sun', which opens June 22 at the Gros Morne Theatre Festival. Click here for more information.

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