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Dave Bartlett
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Soldier remembers First 400 on 70th anniversary

Roy Ash remembers April 14, 1940 as a cold but sunny Sunday.

It was the day he and about 400 other young Newfoundland men marched from the Church Lads' Brigade Armoury on Harvey Road in St. John's to the train station on Water Street, on their way to fight in the Second World War.

The group became known as the First 400, though various sources put the exact number of new recruits for the war at between 402 and 404.

Top photo, on April 14, 1940, more than 400 young men from the Avalon region marched from the Church Lads' Brigade Armoury to the train station in St. John's en route to Port aux Basques and later to the battlefields of the Second World War. Below, Second

Roy Ash remembers April 14, 1940 as a cold but sunny Sunday.

It was the day he and about 400 other young Newfoundland men marched from the Church Lads' Brigade Armoury on Harvey Road in St. John's to the train station on Water Street, on their way to fight in the Second World War.

The group became known as the First 400, though various sources put the exact number of new recruits for the war at between 402 and 404.

Ash was only 20 years old that day, but his memory of the march down Long's Hill and New Gower Street is still vivid 70 years later.

"All the church services were either cancelled or changed so the people could come," he told The Telegram this week. "I think all of St. John's came out that day."

In fact, Ash said people came into town from all around the Avalon, as the soldiers came not only from St. John's but towns around the region.

"The sidewalk was blocked from the edge of the buildings right to the road and onto the road," he said.

The men weren't in uniform - they wouldn't get them until landing in England on April 25 - so they marched in suits and overcoats.

"None of us knew what we were getting into," said Ash. "We didn't think the war was going to last that long. That was the feeling among most people, (that) we'd be back within the year."

As the troops neared a fire station, which used to be near Job Street, the bells started to ring.

When Ash reached the train station he saw his parents in the crowd, but they never saw him as he was jostled along with the crowd. Once the train was en route to Port aux Basques, the men relaxed. Some pulled out flasks while others played cards.

The scene was captured in a cartoon drawn by J.M. Parker, one of the soldiers.

Years later, when the war was over and the surviving members of the First 400 started marking the anniversary of their arrival in England, Parker brought the drawing to the celebration.

Ash forgot he kept that cartoon until he found it, still in good condition, about six months ago.

Ironically, he can't bring it to the anniversary dinner this year, as their are not enough members of the group left who are in good enough health to make it worthwhile.

Last year, Eric Baggs - who had been organizing the dinners - told The Telegram it would likely be the last.

Baggs and two other members, Reginald Pye and Jim Thistle, all died last year, leaving only 11 people left by Ash's count.

Two of those men now live on the mainland, three more are in the Veteran's Pavilion in St. John's and are in poor health.

The remaining six men also have a variety of health or mobility problems.

Only Ash and one other man were able to get together this year, so they decided to wait until September, when the 166 (Newfoundland) Royal Artillery Regiment holds it's annual dinner, to remember those who are no longer around.

The First 400 were all members of that regiment.

Ash will be 91 in August and is still the secretary of the 166 Association.

He said it's important to him that people remember the First 400, as there are so few of them left.

dbartlett@thetelegram.com

Organizations: First 400, The Telegram, Royal Artillery Regiment

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland, Harvey Road England Water Street New Gower Street Job Street Port aux Basques

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  • Jeff
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    I am also grateful.

    Here's the same spot in St. John's today:

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Mount+Pearl,+Division+No.+1,+Newfoundland+and+Labrador&ll=47.564785,-52.711297&spn=0,0.010986&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=47.564813,-52.71115&panoid=WcH7LaUZm_sOntHYtjobVQ&cbp=12,247.28,,0,19.68

    (If the link gets mangled by the comment system, it's the corner of Longs Hill and Long Street.)

  • Neil
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    If I had a bus not one of those guys with mobility problems would have any trouble getting there. My grandfather served in wwII and I appreciated everything those guys did. Too bad they'll soon all be gone....Alot of memories that no one will ever know.

  • Peggy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    These words are inadequate
    but very deeply heartfelt,
    GOD BLESS YOU AND THANK YOU !!!

  • Dennis
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    None of your sacrafice will ever be forgoten. Thanks to you and others like you. What a wonerfull gift freedom is.

  • Frank
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    We will never forget our young brave men and women who went of to war knowing that there was an enemy out there that was trying to take over the world. They fought for peace and we all enjoy it today because of their sacrafice.

  • Jeff
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    I am also grateful.

    Here's the same spot in St. John's today:

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?hl=en&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Mount+Pearl,+Division+No.+1,+Newfoundland+and+Labrador&ll=47.564785,-52.711297&spn=0,0.010986&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=47.564813,-52.71115&panoid=WcH7LaUZm_sOntHYtjobVQ&cbp=12,247.28,,0,19.68

    (If the link gets mangled by the comment system, it's the corner of Longs Hill and Long Street.)

  • Neil
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    If I had a bus not one of those guys with mobility problems would have any trouble getting there. My grandfather served in wwII and I appreciated everything those guys did. Too bad they'll soon all be gone....Alot of memories that no one will ever know.

  • Peggy
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    These words are inadequate
    but very deeply heartfelt,
    GOD BLESS YOU AND THANK YOU !!!

  • Dennis
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    None of your sacrafice will ever be forgoten. Thanks to you and others like you. What a wonerfull gift freedom is.

  • Frank
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    We will never forget our young brave men and women who went of to war knowing that there was an enemy out there that was trying to take over the world. They fought for peace and we all enjoy it today because of their sacrafice.