Our forgotten soldiers

Steve Bartlett
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New book looks at early versions of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Rodney Lee poses with his book at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's museum during a recent visit to St. John's. The book is available through volumesdirect.com and Chapters.- Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

Andrew Bulger enlisted at 14 and had an incredible combat career.

The young Newfoundlander was present when the American fort at Detroit was taken without a shot being fired.

He led a daring capture of two U.S. navy schooners on Lake Huron.

And, battling wounds suffered while taking those ships, he led a group that re-established order at a fort the Americans had attempted to capture.

"I suffered more ... during this voyage than you can all imagine," wrote the soldier, who travelled mostly by foot or canoe, "much more than ever I have suffered during the whole course of my life before."

Bulger was, by all accounts, a true war hero and was decorated with medals for his exploits on sea and land.

Still, few Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have heard of him or his courageous colleagues.

He's one of the forgotten soldiers with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, a group integral in helping the British protect Canada after the Americans declared war in June 1812.

A new book aims to help improve people's knowledge of these troops.

It's titled "A Directory of Officers and Men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1795-1816" and it lists the names, battles and some of the stories of the soldiers and officers who served with the earliest incarnations of the regiment, all 1,608 of them.

"I just want (people) to be aware of the contributions," author Rodney Lee says.

"I think it's important for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to know about this, as well as all Canadians should be proud of it."

Lee is not from this province and he's not an academic.

He's from Ontario and works as an oiler in the engineering room of freighters on the Great Lakes.

He considers himself an amateur historian and says interest in the Newfoundland Regiment was sparked by a genealogy display at an Ontario museum in 1990.

It led him to look into his surname and discover that his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Lee, had served with the regiment during the War of 1812.

That kickstarted a mission to learn whatever he could about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's early incarnations.

The 1795-1802 unit was primarly a home guard, protecting St. John's from the French and other threats. It was disbanded in July 1802. A total of 737 officers and soldiers had been part of it.

The Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry was formed the following year.

It left for Nova Scotia in 1805 to begin 10 years of service at Fort Anne in Annapolis Royal.

The regiment - which received the prefix "Royal" in 1806 - then became integral in the British effort during the War of 1812.

Its members were widely dispersed and involved in major battles.

A total of 861 men served with the regiment from 1803 to 1816. Eighty-one were killed in action and 114 were prisoners of war.

Lee hired researchers in Ottawa and England to dig up whatever information they could.

He also spent hours and hours of his own poring over data. He doesn't like to think about how much time he's put into it over the past 22 years, and prefers to consider it an independent bi-centennial project for the War of 1812.

"I feel like I know these guys," Lee says of the soldiers. "You sort of get to know them."

A few years back, he reached a point where he didn't think anyone else would be interested in knowing them.

Alex Brennan, lieutenant-colonel of the modern-day Royal Newfoundland Regiment, helped change his mind.

The two came into contact through the Internet and the officer encouraged Lee to continue, telling him a lot of people in Newfoundland and Labrador would be interested.

"I must have put some wind in his sails because he kept going," Brennan says.

The self-published book was released in the fall.

Lee, who was in St. John's this month, appears thrilled with the final product.

So does Brennan. He calls it a "treasure trove" of information and says the directory reads like a Newfoundland phone book because of all the common names in it.

He believes this chapter in Newfoundland's military history has faded, but it's a story people in the province really need to know.

"Like I've always said, we're all children of common ancestors and their blood runs in our veins, and we've effectively forgotten about 1812," Brennan says.

He hopes the upcoming War of 1812 bi-centennial celebrations and Lee's book will help more people remember the early regiments and soldiers like Bulger, who went on to become governor of Red River in 1822.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @SteveBartlett_


Organizations: Ontario museum, Annapolis Royal

Geographic location: Detroit, U.S., Lake Huron Canada St. John's Newfoundland and Labrador Ontario Great Lakes Nova Scotia Ottawa England Red River

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Recent comments

  • Lois Lee
    February 19, 2012 - 08:16

    Wonderful article! Rod's book is a great tribute to heroes who may otherwise be forgotten. It's great to have Rod as a twig on a branch of the Lee family tree.

  • Robin Maxted
    February 18, 2012 - 15:19

    Good job buddy nice to see some recognition for all your hard work

  • canadafirst
    February 18, 2012 - 08:07

    Thank you Mr. Lee. cfa

    • Lesley
      February 18, 2012 - 13:27

      This is a marvelous artical Rod... I gotta say I am Proud.... so glad you enjoyed your stay in Newfoundland. Keep up the good work... I hope you have other projects on the go!! Les