Where once they stood...

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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Canadian students visit the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France last Saturday. They participated in a ceremony at the site later that afternoon. - Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

Beaumont Hamel, France - My blood boiled every time a media colleague shared the story.

He had overheard a couple's reaction upon learning an interpreter was from Newfoundland.

"We love Newfies," one said.

"Sing 'I'se the B'y,'" the other requested.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are used to dealing with stereotypes and ignorance.

Some take offence, some don't. Many will react. Many won't.

It depends on the context, whether the person should know better or if a slight was intended.

In this instance, the couple likely thought their words were fine - complimentary, even.

Still, they showed their ignorance of Newfoundland history at the worst possible place - by the Caribou statue at the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France.

And hearing about it angered me, because nowhere is it more inappropriate to use the word Newfie or think of us as sou'westered singers.

Beaumont Hamel is a site of Newfoundland bravery, commitment, loss and pride.

On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, roughly 800 Newfoundlanders faced heavy German fire there.

After the last bullet was fired, more than 300 Newfoundland soldiers were dead or missing, and 386 were injured.

Only 110 survived unscathed, with just 68 answering roll call the next morning.

The First Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out, with casualties at about 86 per cent.

To honour them, King George V bestowed the prefix "Royal" on the unit in 1917 - the only time during the First World War it was given.

People have long told me the bloody battle's memorial park is an emotional, haunting place.

That's certainly true, and tears flowed from my eyes reading the names - familiar family names - on the plaques under the caribou.

And that was before I stood by the Danger Tree, where casualties were highest, and before I looked down at the still-cratered battlefield and imagined our troops, most still young men, emerging from the trenches.

The emotions continued at those sights, at the cemeteries and at a landscape forever altered.

After walking through the park, I was emotionally drained, overflowing with pride and completely thrilled.

It was an experience like no other.

In an ideal world, every Newfoundlander would have it.

That's not possible, but in the absence of that opportunity, every person in the province needs to know as much as they can about what happened.

Yes, it's taught in school and the government is making plans to mark the battle's 100th anniversary in four years, but awareness isn't the sole responsibility of decision-makers, teachers or textbooks.

People also need to take it upon themselves to learn about Beaumont Hamel, and for a number of reasons.

Our soldiers who died there gave up their lives to protect their families and future generations - basically, so you could enjoy freedom and the life you do.

It's important to know of their selfless bravery, and to remember and be proud of them.

As well - and this is a big thing I got from visiting Beaumont Hamel and nearby Vimy Ridge - it's vital we learn about the cost and horrors of battle, because after looking at rows of headstones and lists of names on monuments, it's clear war should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

On a perfect planet, every Canadian would also know about and understand Beaumont Hamel.

It's a part of their history, too, and they should be aware for the reasons above.

But as well, if people in other provinces knew of Newfoundland's sacrifices there, perhaps they'd think of something else before dropping our own N-word or requesting a stereotypical song.

Steve Bartlett was at Beaumont Hamel as a guest of EF Educational Tours. sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: SteveBartlett_

Geographic location: Newfoundland, France, Vimy Ridge

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  • Ian
    April 15, 2012 - 10:27

    I have visited Beaumont Hamel (BH) several times since establishing that my grandfather was wounded there and his name is listed at BH. Whatever the politics my thoughts are always with the grandfather that my father and I never knew and always missed. He gave his life for us and others. RIP L/Corporal Charles Leary from Brigus.

  • Mack Hall
    April 14, 2012 - 17:17

    Thanks, Steve. God bless the lads. -- Mack in Texas

  • DON II
    April 14, 2012 - 13:59

    I am sick and tired of how the media portrays the trumped up Government version of Newfoundland history. Do any of the media ever research and check the historical facts before they publish a story on Newfoundland history or do they just print whatever drivel some Government official or so called historian or archaeologist provides to them as "historical fact"? For years the Newfoundland media published the "fact" that John Guy built his "Sea Forest House" and "Sea Forest Plantation" in Cupids. The media continually reports that Cupids was also once the location of the Cupers Cove Plantation. The historical facts prove that those claims are historically incorrect. Apparently, the Prowse History was the source of some significant historical "facts" about Newfoundland history which turned out to be incorrect. Prowse even mistakenly attributed a Coat of Arms to John Guy and the London & Bristol Company when the Coat of Arms had actually been issued by the King to the Colony of Avalon which was a separate and distinct group of early settlers entirely! These blatant misrepresentations of fact distort the history of Newfoundland. Like the published nonsense about Cupids, such is the case with the so called "battle" of Beaumont Hamel. Historical "fact" has been embellished to the point where the media has turned fiction into historical fact. In fact, it appears that the Newfoundland Regiment barely fired a shot at the German emplacements during the "over the top" assault so there was actually no battle at Beaumont Hamel. The facts are that the Newfoundland Regiment was made up of poorly educated and poorly trained young men from St. John's and rural outport communities who were badly led by their Commanders. The primary British Army tactic was essentially a brainless war of attrition. Which side could sustain the most losses without surrender? Where was the British artillery support that should have been used to the maximum to eradicate or suppress the German machine gun emplacements? Where were the other units to support and assist the Newfoundlanders to gain ground without being exposed to uncontested withering gunfire?The Newfoundlanders wore triangle shaped metal markers on their backpacks which reflected the sun as they crawled or most likely ran back to their trenches. This reflecting metal made it easy for German snipers and machine gunners to mow down the Newfoundlanders as they retreated. Yes, contrary to the media and political propaganda image of the gallant Newfoundlanders fighting bravely until the last man fell, the surviving soldiers, realizing the folly of their attack and allowing self preservation to take precedence over military stupidity, retreated! The media has been duped or has willingly participated in fictionalizing and romanticizing Newfoundland history at the expense of turning historical fiction into fact. If anyone in the media had taken the trouble to research the real historical facts of both the "Cupers Cove Plantation" and the "Battle" of Beaumont Hamel they would not have published the fiction which has been substituted for historical fact in order to promote a political propaganda based version of Newfoundland history! Any real historian or well researched journalist should immediately recognize that a number of aspects of Newfoundland history is based on political propaganda, lies, mistakes, deliberate misrepresentations of fact, poorly conducted research, myths, folklore and lack of authenticity that distorts the history of Newfoundland which bears little or no resemblance to the actual historical facts. The poor unfortunate boys and men of the Newfoundland Regiment who were slaughtered at Beaumont Hamel deserve to have the facts and the truth exposed as to what really happened that day to cause their deaths! Historical fiction should never be portrayed as historical fact! If military stupidity and inexperience was involved don't report it as bravery or gallantry in the face of overwhelming enemy fire power. Tell it like it was, warts and all!

  • Robert
    April 14, 2012 - 12:23

    Born and raised in Newfoundland I do have emotional attachments to Beaumont Hamel (and all it implies) and I suppose if I had experienced the site 1st hand that sentament would be even deeper. We do well to be proud of these dear souls but we must also be careful to not get smug about it either. What do Newfoundlanders know about the costs specific regions of Canada (and certainly the world) paid? Millions of other people also died for the freedom WE enjoy. To suggest we paid the most is not right; such things should not be compared. It is very much something we should share so that we appreciate each other. I would like to add that from what I've heard around our dinner table many Newfoundlanders joined the war so that they could be assured 3 meals a day. And the risk of facing the enemy was about the same as facing the North Atlantic while hauling a cod trap. I expect all soldiers shared a common cause (the fight for freedom) but had their own reasons for being there.

  • robin
    April 14, 2012 - 11:59

    Beaumont Hamel is indeed a very special place, one that brings forth all kinds of emotions. I too was there as a Newfounflander, and yes there is a sense of pride, but in truth that pride is very much overwhelmed with a sense of loss, not just for Newfoundland, but for all people. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme there were 60,000 Birtish casualties. That figure was for the first day. That battled continued to rage for few more months, long enough to claim 1,000,000 casualties. What a loss -What a stupid war. And our guys went from their far away land - for what? For King because they were threatened? Maybe some did, but many went for the thrill, not for bravery. For many who fought the biggest fear they had was that the war would be over before they got there. That was a typical sentiment of the soldiers in gereral and one I found to be the saddest of all. That is what I thought of when I visited there with my little family. How sad, how sad.

  • Robin
    April 14, 2012 - 11:55

    Beaumont Hamel is indeed a very special place, one that brings forth all kinds of emotions. I too was there as a Newfounflander, and yes there is a sense of pride, but in truth that pride is very much overwhelmed with a sense of loss, not just for Newfoundland, but for all people. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme there were 60,000 Birtish casualties. That figure was for the first day. That battled continued to rage for few more months, long enough to claim 1,000,000 casualties. What a loss -What a stupid war. And our guys went from their far away land - for what? For King because they were threatened? Maybe some did, but many went for the thrill, not for bravery. For many who fought the biggest fear they had was that the war would be over before they got there. That was a typical sentiment of the soldiers in gereral and one I found to be the saddest of all. That is what I thought of when I visited there with my little family. How sad, how sad.

  • Politically Incorrect
    April 14, 2012 - 10:16

    "Our soldiers who died there gave up their lives to protect their families and future generations - basically, so you could enjoy freedom and the life you do." This is the line given by every government to justify every war. It is meaningless and defies an honest assessment and understanding of history. This was a war that was patently unnecessary; something that you would understand if you took it upon yourself to go beyond the jingoism and ask why the war -- not just Beaumont Hammel -- happened, who benefited, who fought for whom, and who lost. As for "freedom," the money Newfoundland borrowed from the English capitalists to fight their war for them helped pave the way for Newfoundland being the only country to voluntarily surrender its independence and put itself under the supervision of the very country it had supposedly defended. So, yeah, I agree, the history should be taught -- thw whole history.

  • Harold
    April 14, 2012 - 09:19

    thanks steve