News, Thursday, November 11, 2004, p. A1
A proud tradition of service
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment has been a part of our history for seven generations
A lot can happen in 209 years. Seven generations have passed since the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was formed, and although its role has changed over the years, its presence in Newfoundland and Labrador remains strong and deeply rooted in the community.
Dr. David Parsons, a member of the regiment's advisory council, says the role of the service today is less drastic, although still very important. He says the accomplishments and sacrifices of the regiment since its beginnings in 1795 should be cherished.
"I think it's most important now that we remember the Newfoundland Regiment," Parsons said.
"It is, I'm sure, one of the strongest reserve regiments all across Canada. Unfortunately, the history isn't taught anymore and I think it's very important that people know about the regiment and its history. For many Newfoundlanders, if they go back a little bit, there are very few families in the province that weren't affected by the First World War.
"I think anyone who visits northern France and sees the battlefields and the endless cemeteries - beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves - it's really a remarkable thing, and more and more people over there are becoming more aware of what happened."
Parsons put most of his emphasis on the regiment's involvement in the First World War, as well as some lesser-known conflicts that resulted in tragedy for many Newfoundland troops.
"They were the only North American regiment to be at Gallipoli (in 1915)," Parsons said.
"They were a new regiment but were assigned to a regular Army division with the 29th division that went to Gallipoli. Then they went to France and, naturally, on July 1, (1916), at Beaumont Hamel, that was the climax of the regiment up to that time."
He said when people attempt to categorize the most important action witnessed by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, most assume it was at Beaumont Hamel. And while the loss of life there was massive - 710 of 801 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action following the battle - the focus varied for each soldier.
"Even during quiet times," Parsons says, "people were still getting killed by shellings and snipers and, no matter when it was, for that person it was the most important time."
In 1917, members of the regiment took part in a conflict that many do not remember, Parsons said.
Many Canadians and Australians lost their lives in the Battle of Passchendaele, although many soldiers - including numerous Newfoundlanders under the 29th Division - captured all their targets.
"These were major events, but there's no monument for these events at Passchendaele," Parsons said.
"At the Battle of Passchendaele, the Newfoundlanders were going to rest camp but were called back because the Germans had started their 1918 offensive, and Newfoundlanders were thrown in and held back the Germans, but with very heavy casualties."
The regiment currently has two reserve battalions in the province, and while decades have passed since the last casualty of a regiment member occurred - 17 soldiers were killed at Courtrai, Belgium on Oct. 25, 1918 - its presence spans the globe.
The regiment is part of the 37 Canadian Brigade Group through the Land Forces Atlantic Area (LFAA).
As of this past August, LFAA operations through the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were taking place in Sierra Leone, Haiti, the Golan Heights area of Syria, and in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Gary Comerford of St. Mary's recently completed a tour in Bosnia, where he served as a weapons deck commander for 12 Platoon.
He was in charge of all heavy support weapons for the platoon in the case of conflict. Fortunately, he did not have to carry out that task during his six-month tour of duty.
Secondary to his role as weapons commander, Comerford, 26, was involved in security patrol with the force and local authorities.
The military group would inspect private homes and seize any weapons inside, but no charges were laid against the owners. It was strictly a preventative measure. In some cases, dogs were used to find suspect homes.
"Right now, (the regiment) sustains the Canadian Armed Forces with regards to placing reservist positions into the regular force when required," said Comerford, who is scheduled to begin firefighter training in January.
"Overseas, if they require personnel, we get called to do so and fill the position. For years, it's been that type of (reservist) role. You look back to the early '90s when the war was going on (in Bosnia) - we sent lots of reserves over in that capacity. Even now in Afghanistan, reserves are still being deployed there now.
"This gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment, especially after completing a tour. That's what I joined for, to do a tour and serve my country that way. ... I do hope to get more tours."
Lt. Col. Sean Leonard of the 1st Battalion in St. John's says the impact of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment is strongly felt.
"There's more of a reliance on reserves to assist and reinforce the regular (Canadian) force overseas," said Leonard, who oversees the administration of the regiment in addition to his full-time duties with the St. John's Regional Fire Department.
"We're in the neighbourhood of 15 per cent of the (Canadian military) service are reserves for overseas service. Years ago, you may have had two per cent reserves.
"That's one of our key purposes, to augment existing regular (international) forces, and the secondary one is for domestic service within the borders of Canada. Back in 1998, for example, we deployed about 142 soldiers to Ottawa to help them recover from their big ice storm."
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment's current enrolment is 144 and the unit has a maximum allowable strength of 199 personnel.
The regiment is looking to recruit 48 new soldiers by the end of this month to take part in basic military training for service in either the 1st Battalion - which operates out of St. John's - or the 2nd Battalion, which calls central and western Newfoundland home.
As Parsons stressed, however, memories of more tense times for the regiment are the focal point at this time of year.
"We participated in the War of 1812 and in the First World War, and the most significant battle for us in that war, of course, was Beaumont Hamel," Parsons said.
"And we have participated in a number of battles afterwards and distinguished ourselves.
"This has proven to everybody else that Newfoundlanders have a great commitment to duty and to fight for freedom, and I think we've maintained that reputation and it's important that we continue to do so."
The original colours of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment deteriorated over time while they were displayed prominently at Government House in St. John's. In an October ceremony, the official colours were transferred to a climate-controlled facility at the still-unopened Rooms and replaced at Government House with an exact replica.
It is tradition that official colours are to be preserved but not restored - meaning efforts are being made to protect the original fabrics, but no repairs will be made.
The colours evoke remembrance, as does the work of the Royal Canadian Legion, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Advisory Council and the regimental band.
Leonard said the band members, who all wear the regiment's official cap badge, regularly represent the reserve unit and its stand for freedom, to the public, including through performances at Signal Hill in the summer, at D-Day remembrance ceremonies and other public events.
Meanwhile, the regimental advisory council promotes the cause and involvement of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Together with The Telegram's Newspaper in Education program, the council has formed a committee to draft a document about the regiment's history for educational purposes.
The document, a 32-page booklet covering the regiment's history, battles, exploits and honours, has been made available to all schools throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
Insight, Monday, November 10, 2003, p. A9
A Backward Glance
War still hits home: Even though the guns are quiet on the Western Front, they still can be heard in many other parts of the world
Special to The Telegram
Tuesday is the 85th anniversary of the end of the First World War, one of the greatest man-made disasters ever inflicted upon this planet.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, after more than four years of carnage, peace was declared. The killing officially came to an end but the dying continued for many decades to come.
Remembrance Day is a time for reflection. It is a time to remember what happened during those four years of war and the profound impact it has had on so many people who were personally affected by its tragedy. I try to spend part of the day in quiet contemplation, reflecting on what the day and the war means to me as an individual and as a Newfoundlander.
First of all, I am sincerely thankful that my two grandfathers survived the war. My mother's father, Thomas Bishop of Pool's Cove, Fortune Bay, was part of the last draft of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. A young fisherman, he was the main breadwinner for his family, which included his mother, Sarah Jane, his ailing stepfather, Philip Clemo, and five sisters, four of whom were younger than he was.
During a recent visit to Ottawa, I spent some time at the National Archives of Canada, the repository for the enlistment records of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. In a thin folder containing a few official forms and other bits of paper, I learned a great deal about a man I didn't get to know, because even though he survived the war, my grandfather died quite suddenly in February 1936, some 18 years before I was born.
Thomas Bishop was one month short of his 21st birthday at the time of his enlistment on Aug. 20, 1918, having been born on Sept. 26, 1897.
Like many children at that time who lived in the hundreds of small fishing communities that dotted Newfoundland's coastline, he received little or no formal education. This is clearly evident in the fact that he signed his enlistment form with an X, indicating he was unable to write his name. One of the last men to join the regiment, his Regimental No. was 6076.
Physically, he was not a big man: five feet, 6.5 inches tall, 152 pounds, with a 39-inch chest. It was recorded that he had blue eyes, a fair complexion and a mole under his left eye. He had been provided with a clothing allowance of $60 and his mother would be sent 60 cents per day for each day he spent as a member of the regiment.
Following demobilization, Thomas Bishop planned to return to work as a fisherman. That demobilization came much sooner than he had expected. The end of war meant he did not have to travel overseas. He was discharged on Dec. 21, 1918 -- coincidentally the day on which I would be born.
There is one other document in his file -- a telegram from his mother, dated Dec. 19. It reads: "Father not much better, would like for you to come.
There is no indication that a reply was sent, but he was back in Pool's Cove early in 1919, where he married my grandmother, Janet Dodge, later that year, so it would appear that he heeded his mother's plea as soon as he was able to do so.
My father's father, Bert Riggs, for whom I am named, was working in Halifax at the outbreak of the war. A native of Grand Bank, he was born there on Sept. 21, 1891. I have no idea why he did not enlist, nor do I question his decision. But I do know that he was one of the fortunate ones, for he was still working in Halifax on Dec. 6, 1917, when a collision between the Belgian relief ship Imo and the French munitions ship Mont Blanc caused the world's biggest man-made explosion in the pre-nuclear age, killing 1,900 people and injuring 9,000 others.
He returned to Grand Bank shortly thereafter, where he worked as a carpenter and a lighthouse keeper. He married my grandmother, Rose Stoodley, on Oct. 24, 1918. He, too, died at a relatively young age, on Sept. 2, 1948.
My thoughts on Remembrance Day include another group of people that I have never met -- a group of young men who willingly gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe during that war. They are ordinary Newfoundlanders whose exploits I have read about and whose faces stare back at me from their regimental photographs.
I think of men like Frank "Mayo" Lind, whose informative and entertaining letters home were published in the St. John's Daily News. His last letter, dated July 29, 1916, from Louvencourt, closed with the line: "Tell everybody that they may feel proud of the Newfoundland Regiment."
Two days later, he was one of several hundred members of the regiment who were killed at Beaumont Hamel.
Also killed that day was Hubert Herder, one of three sons of the founder of this newspaper, W. J. Herd-er, who fought in the war. Herder, a lieutenant, took charge of B Company that fateful morning after Capt. Joe Nunns had been shot in the leg. He led the company's charge into "No Man's Land," where he, too, soon fell victim to enemy fire.
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COURAGE AND COMMITMENT
Brothers Eric and Bernard Ayre, together with their cousins Gerald and Wilfred, also lost their lives on July 1. Grandsons of St. John's businessman Charles R. Ayre, all were officers in the Newfoundland Regiment, except for Bernard, who was a captain in the Norfolk Regiment.
Eric's young bride, Janet Miller, also comes to mind. She gave up the law studies she had fought so hard to have the right to pursue in order to travel to England in 1915 to be with her fiance. They were married in Edinburgh on June 19, 1915. After his death, she stayed in England as a member of the Volunteer Aid Detachment for the remainder of the war.
DEATH OF A COMMUNITY
One story coming out of the war that has a profound effect on me is that of Stephen Norris. The only son of James Norris, the merchant in the small Notre Dame Bay community of Three Arms, Stephen attended St. Bonaventure's College in St. John's. While there, he expressed a desire to practise medicine but, ever the dutiful son, he returned to Three Arms to learn the family business.
When war came, however, Norris felt compelled to enlist. He rose quickly through the ranks of the regiment, becoming a lieutenant in the fall of 1915. He was killed by a shell on Oct. 11, 1916, at Geudecourt, in one of the last engagements of the Battle of the Somme. He was 24 years old.
It was said that James Norris never recovered from Stephen's death.
Following his own death in 1924, his business was closed. Without a merchant to buy their catch and provide foodstuffs and other goods they needed, the residents of Three Arms gradually relocated to other communities.
By 1945, there were only two families left and, by 1957, Three Arms had ceased to exist.
The war did not just cause the death of Stephen Norris, but through his death, contributed to the death of a whole community.
Of the thousands of images I have seen of members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, there is one that continues to haunt me. It is that of William Coaker Christian.
The only son of William L. Christian and Sarah Jane Coaker, he was a nephew of Sir William Coaker, president of the Fishermen's Protective. When Coaker made a plea for new recruits in the fall of 1917 to bring the regiment up to strength, Christian was the first to enlist. He was a mere lad of 18.
He went overseas in January 1918, and was killed on Oct. 26 of that year at Ooteghem-Inghem Ridge in Belgium. His youth, his naivete, his innocence and his sacrifice come through clearly in his photograph. When looking at this image, I cannot help but feel we have learned nothing in the 85 years since the end of the First World War, for even though the guns are quiet on the Western Front, they still can be heard in many other parts of the world.
Take a moment Tuesday to remember just why Nov. 11 is a holiday, and do find time to visit a war memorial near you for a little quiet contemplation of your own on what this day represents for Newfoundlanders everywhere.
Sunday Digest, Sunday, November 9, 2003, p. B1 / Front
In my father's footsteps: A woman travels to Europe to see where her Newfoundland father fought during the First World War
Special to The Telegram
YPRES, Belgium - I am following in my father's footsteps. It is a journey of war and peace -- my father's journey in wartime, mine in peacetime.
In 1916, as a young man -- but, of course, they were all young -- Norman Stanley Macdonald of Grand Bank, Newfoundland, sailed to Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. On Dec. 23, he arrived in France, a gunner attached to the Third Division Ammunition Column and, later, the 36th Battery, 9th Bridgade, Canadian Field Artillery.
For the next two years, he lived in hell.
He never talked about it. What I know of his time in France and Belgium, I know only from piecing together some of the history of his division and brigade.
In the late summer of 2003, I travelled through Flanders fields on a personal quest to bring closer the quiet man who fought amid the roar of Howitzers in the "war to end all wars."
The other Canadians in our small group were doing the same in memory of their fathers and grandfathers.
All along the way, through the green and quiet countryside, I call to mind the scarred landscape, the mud, the desolation, the horror that was Flanders when my father was here so many years ago. Now it is a peaceful place; the land has healed.
It would be easy to forget a war that was fought before most of us were born -- easy if not for family ties. Easy if not for the Belgians, whether old or young.
But I cannot forget. And the Belgians have not forgotten.
At Ypres, a city that has literally risen from the ashes of the First World War, the new Flanders Fields Museum has opened in the beautifully reconstructed Cloth Hall on the central square. A famous photograph from the war years is a haunting reminder of what happened here nearly 90 years ago: the scarred remains of the hall, standing amid the the rubble of the surrounding town, sears the soul.
At the museum, each visitor receives a computer card that tells the story of a man or woman, soldier or civilian, who witnessed the horror of that war. I ask for the card of a Canadian soldier. The computer tells me, "Chris Silversmith was born around 1890 at the Six Nations reserve in Ontario. Although many Britons considered Canada's native Americans to be inferior, they were welcomed in the British army for they were known to be courageous and loyal fighters. Silversmith arrives in the 114th Winnipeg Battalion in 1916, half of which is made up of native Americans. Later, the native Americans will be divided among other units."
I wonder if he was among those transferred. I wonder if he and my father ever met -- though he was a westener and my father was an easterner who grew up in Newfoundland and joined up in Sydney, N.S.
It is the kind of question I ask myself over and over again: was Dad here? Was he here in this city? Yes.
"He would have had to come through Ypres en route to Passchendaele," says historian Terry Copp of Wilfrid Laurier University, who is our guide through this battlefield tour.
At the museum, Copp leaves us to move at our own pace to absorb the written and film history. There is no glorification of war here. The sights and sounds -- guns blazing, soldiers lying dead in the muck, soldiers sobbing and screaming in pain or fear -- are a reminder of its horror.
We are amazed and appalled at a quote from an English officer, Julian Grenfell, who wrote in a 1914 letter to his family: "I adore war. It's just like a big picnic, without the objectlessness of a picnic." His quote is superimposed on a large mural of Ypres in flames.
It is shocking to be reminded that "Ypres was in the centre of a hollow, a sitting target. ... At first, there were trees and buildings to provide men and guns with cover. By the end of 1917, there were none left. In almost every battle on the western front, thousands of soldiers met their deaths in order to win but a few metres of land. ... The no-man's land separating the two fronts looked like a lunar landscape. ... The ground was pitted with shell holes filled with water and mud. Lacerated corpses were strewn everywhere."
My father was there -- among those who fought at the third battle of Ypres: Passchendaele. He was a gunner in "what was now clearly an artillery war," according to writer Nigel Cave.
After two hours in the museum, I am emotionally exhausted. Before I leave, I sit for a moment, in sorrow for my father. I want to weep. I can see the same sorrow and shock in the eyes of Darlene Barrett of Kingston, Ont. Her grandfather was in the First Battalion, CEF, and was gassed during the second battle of Ypres.
We are a quiet, subdued group as we leave the city, heading for St. Julien. Here, the Canadian war memorial stands. The Brooding Soldier is carved in the position of reverse arms, a position of mourning. It is a "monument that implies sorrow and reflection about sacrifice," says Copp.
Again, there is no glorification of war, only a moving reminder of its cost.
"It's impressive, isn't it?" says Bev Chataway of Ottawa. "It's so typically Canadian -- understated."
From the sombre mood here, we go to the only place the soldiers in this area could find rest and recreation. Poperinge was where the men spent their time behind the lines when they had a break.
"It was a great town, then, one of the seven wonders of the world. The other six, indeed, were temporarily disregarded," Edmund Bluden writes in Undertones of War. "The streets were narrow and there were thousands of soldiers coming and going, yet the town disappointed none, except when the enemy spoiled an afternoon with gas or long-range guns."
London newspapers were available; there were films and live shows. There were pubs for officers and pubs for enlisted men. Brawling and brothels were frowned upon but were, nevertheless, part of life here.
In Poperinge, we visit Talbot House. Was Dad here? I believe he was. It was a club for soldiers, but unusual because officers and enlisted men were treated on an equal basis.
Everyman's Club, or "TOC H," as it was called in the signallers' language of the day, was established by two Anglican chaplins. It was "a rest home for the soldiers," explains Mike Bechthold, managing editor of Canadian Military History. "It was a place where they could get a bit of a respite. It had very strong religious ties, so you wouldn't find a lot of drinking and smoking in here."
And no swearing. But there was a library, a billiard table, a garden and, in the attic, a chapel. An escape. I like to picture my father here, away from the desolate landscape of the battle. Our visit eases the sorrow I had felt earlier in the day.
I also like to picture my father back home in Grand Bank, though he didn't stay long. After the war, he studied dentistry at Dalhousie University, then spent a short summer back home doing a locum. By autumn, he had set out for Alberta and a new life. And, perhaps, a chance to put behind him the haunting memories of his years in Belgium.
When my friends and I return to Ypres, the sorrow returns at the Menin Gate, the memorial to Commonwealth soldiers and airmen who have no known grave.
The Last Post has been sounded here each day at 8 p.m. for 66 years (the memorial was unveiled in 1927) except for the years of the German occupation during the Second World War. The very night the Germans were expelled from Ypres in 1944, it sounded again and has ever since, 365 days a year.
All traffic is stopped on the main street that runs through the gate; two buglers march forward and stand quietly for a moment, then the haunting melody echoes through the town. Then, we bow our heads in silence -- 300 of us from Canada, England, Australia, France, Belgium and Holland.
I weep for my father and for all those like him who lived, or died, in hell so many, many years ago.
He never returned to Newfoundland after his move to Alberta. (His parents had joined his sister Beth's family in Saskatchewan soon after.)
Dad opened a dental practice in Drumheller, where he and my mother, who had moved West from Cape Breton, lived for a number of years.
In 1940, after more than his share of war, he enlisted in the Canadian Dental Corps, serving as an officer until 1945.
From then until his death in 1962, he practised dentistry in Calgary.
In 1974, my sister Flora and I made our first trip to Newfoundland. In Grand Bank, we met a few people who had known my father and many who had known -- or known about -- my grandfather, Allan, who was the doctor there for decades.
"Doctor Allan" had delivered most of the people we met. Among them were Curtis and Hazel Forsey, who had known my dad as a child and a young man. Hazel's father had been the captain of the ship that brought my grandparents from Cape Breton to Grand Bank when Grandpa began his medical career.
Curt Forsey's eyes filled with tears when we met down on Water Street. He insisted we go home with him to meet his wife.
"Do you know who these women are?" he asked her when we arrived. "They're Stan's daughters. They're Stan's daughters."
Vivian Macdonald is a freelance writer based in Stratford, Ont.