Approaching a momentous milestone

Gerry Phelan
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We’re almost there. The clock is ticking ever so closer to an anniversary celebration that we must make sure is like no other.

In 2016, just three years from now, we’ll mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beaumont Hamel. Monday’s Memorial Day activities in St. John’s were well organized and reverent, but I hope we are planning something spectacular for the centenary commemoration.

I’ve written before about my visit to Belgium and France, to the hallowed battlefields where so many young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians lost their lives. I have yet to meet one person who has tread across the whispering paths at Beaumont Hamel and did not feel they were in a special place. Yes, there are countless rows of crosses and monuments to the fallen. There is sadness, but there is also pride as you stare at the huge caribou statue overlooking the plaques containing names as common in our province today as they were in the British Dominion called Newfoundland then.

I spent this Memorial Day attending the various services in St. John’s. The parade seemed smaller than it used to be. Obviously there are fewer veterans to march along Duckworth and Water streets.

I know it’s summer, but I was disappointed there were not more of the younger cadets we see at similar events at other times of the year. Gary Browne did an exceptional job as master of ceremonies, explaining the significance of the occasion and the war memorial itself. I confess to wiping a tear as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Colour Party paraded onto the memorial plateau, to their marching song, “The Banks of Newfoundland.” It brought me back to the services I had experienced in Europe a few years ago.

Monday afternoon, there was a less formal event at Bowring Park, at the Beaumont Hamel Memorial — a replica of the one in France. A handful of pink and red flowers had been placed at the site which, by the way, could use some polishing. Even that could not take away from the ceremony, organized by the local Canadian Army Veteran Motorcycle Unit. Mark Hiscock of Shanneyganock stirred the crowd as he belted out a from-the-heart “Ode to Newfoundland.”

This was a family friendly service, with kids playing and dogs barking, and where people gasped as the wreaths blew over. It was interesting to watch when the ceremony was over as  people walked up to the plaque, pointing to specific names and obviously making some connection.  

Which brings me to my continued plea. What will we do for 2016?

We sent a delegation of about 40 people to Beaumont Hamel this year on an annual pilgrimage that includes wreath-layings along what is known as the Trail of the Caribou, the five bronze caribou statues that were constructed in Europe to commemorate the bravery of Newfoundlanders during the First World War.

Should we send 400 in 2016? How about 4,000?

Is it too late to try and lure some significant dollars to help make that happen? I’m thinking of students and veterans and average people.  

Private companies will probably offer special tour groups for the occasion. Can we get them to step forward now, so people who are interested can make plans? It is not an inexpensive journey, but it can be a most memorable holiday.

In this province, can we organize a week of events and parades like no other? Can we invite our families from away to help commemorate with us? Can 2016 be another Come Home Year?

In our schools, can we begin a more intensive education initiative about the importance of Beaumont Hamel? Let’s not wait until 2016 to do it.

It is a sad occasion, but also a happy one. We have what we have, in no small way, because of those who served.

The story must live on, not just in the history books, but from generation to generation.

Let’s make a significant event out of 2016.

 Gerry Phelan is a journalist and

former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Royal Newfoundland Regiment Colour Party, Canadian Army Veteran Motorcycle Unit

Geographic location: Newfoundland, France, Belgium Europe British Dominion Bowring Park

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Recent comments

  • Wondering
    July 07, 2013 - 10:23

    Mr Elms, you say we should focus on the things I refer to. Yet you say I miss the point. The piece by Gerry calls for a 'celebration' like no other. It is these elements of celebration that I oppose. 1. Glory... that war is glorious is a well known believe of Winston Churchill, a much honoured man in our society. And the glory of war is a belief of many church leaders who encourage young men into war. 2. The supreme sacrifice: these words are often used to describe the sacrifice of our young soldiers, and puts it on par with the sacrifice of Christ. but we know that when these young men went from their trenches over the top, it was not to sacrifice their life, it was to take life. The intent was to kill the opposing young men before being killed by them. Our young men didn't give their life , it was taken from them. Compare this to Christ who did make the supreme sacrifice, and further said we should love our enemy. 3. The reasons for our young men going tp war are varied. For king and country is one, but not a major one. Others are: a job to support a family, and for adventure. I have read a lot of veterans stories in the Telegram and elsewhere, and this joy for adventure is most often cited. And they soon learned it was more adventure than they wanted, mixed with horror. ADVENTURE... a poor motive to enlist, in my opinion. A neighbour of mine long ago said our fallen soldiers of WW1 were "the foolish brave" But this is not to be said aloud, and may be insensitive for respect of relatives who want to believe the loss was for duty to high ideals. 4. Almost no veteran says to have been involved was wrong. it sends a signal to the young that one must always fight war when our leaders say it is necessary. I see nothing to celebrate. But if I state the truth, this truth should be acknowledged, especially after 100 years. In yesterdays Telegram John Crosbie cites the incompetence of the General Haig, who was instrumental in the slaughter of our young men. Yet did he not come here in1924, and was much honoured. And Beaumont Hamel is but one place of the slaughter of our young soldiers. I suggest not one in a hundred of our citizens can name any of the other location of slaughter in WW1. Too few want to know the truth and the reasons for this great loss. Some still want to see the slaughter as a celebration. I remember the elements of inhumanity, and can weep alone and in silence. In the USA they re-enact the Gettysburg battle. Perhaps Gerry would approve of this approach here. It may have value, if it shines light on the inhumanity and stupidity of the events he wishes to celebrate. But it may show the younger generation that the brutality takes away from the adventure.

  • Ford Elms
    July 06, 2013 - 07:18

    Wondering, I think you're missing the point. Memorial Day is about remembering and thinking about the very things you are talking about. Those young men believed all the rhetoric about the "glory of fighting for King and Empire". We wouldn't let our troops be mixed with the Canadian troops because we wanted to take out part among the Dominions of the Empire, too, by God. And their lives were thrown away by the stupidity you mentioned. Those boys all bought into the "glory", and what did it get them? I think we have to remember that shattered idealism. It probably won't stop the same kind of stupidity happening over and over again, it's still happening now. There's years when there's not enough regiment members to make up a band, because they're all off fighting somewhere, perhaps dealing with the same kind of stupidity that we're talking about. Memorial Day isn't about the "glory" of war, it's about the horror. And in the weeks following July 1, 1916, that horror touched almost every family on this island. I think it would be a tragedy if we forget the misery of what you so rightly call an act of forced suicide. but it's not about celebrating it, it's about trying to come to grips, not just with the horror of it, but with the fact that it's still going on. It's about grief. Our modern world likes to bury "negative" emotions like grief and horror, but at least once a year can't we stop and focus on it? Perhaps if we focus fully on the waste and stupidity and misery of that war, enough of us might be motivated to try to change things.

    • Eli
      July 06, 2013 - 18:45

      For all our casualties they ban the importation of Canadian (read Newfoundland) seals. Shag 'em I say.

  • Allen Scrivner
    July 05, 2013 - 15:22

    "We’re almost there. The clock is ticking ever so closer to an anniversary celebration that we must make sure is like no other. " Commemoration yes, celebration definitely not! Nothing to celebrate in a disaster. Celebrate the anniversary of the end of the war and remember the fallen and those whose lives were blighted by it.

  • Wondering
    July 05, 2013 - 06:59

    Gerry, I suggest you read Ed Hollett's recent piece about Beaumont Hamel. That event in 1916 gives you a sense of pride. I feel disgust: for the loss of young men, misled by their leaders. Prop it up as you like, the interest keeps dying, and the 'we will remember" bit rings hollow. You may get a spike in interest in 2016. But the stupidity, inhumanity and greed of those in power shines brighter that the courage of those young men lost. A phrase like "dead men could advance no further" may appeal to you, but it turns my guts. These words from someone who gives or supports the orders to march to certain death against machine guns... an act of forced suicide.