On this eve of Remembrance Day, I thought it appropriate to repeat (with some editing and re-writing) a very personal perspective I gave about five years ago on the battle at Beaumont Hamel in France:
My grandfather, Joe Judge from Point Verde (and ultimately Grand Falls), and two of my wife’s great uncles, Norman Coultas and Will Knight from St. John’s, were three of the 801 men who walked into a torrent of bullets July 1, 1916 at 9:15 a.m. and, in 30 minutes, framed themselves into a bloodied portrait as the victims in arguably the saddest day in Newfoundland’s long history.
And when I first walked on that battlefield in 1999, while working on a documentary called “I Remain Your Loving Son,” I was thinking
not just of the incredible waste of war and the unbelievable bravery
of those Newfoundlanders who walked into hell on that sunny Saturday morning, but of something much less profound, a decidedly more personal and tangible question: into which of these now grass-covered shell holes did my grandfather crawl after a German bullet slammed into his right hand, almost tearing off his thumb and index finger?
I know the story well: Pop Judge had his rifle in one hand and, in the other, he held the end of a long piece of weaponry called a torpedo, used to blast open sections of barbed wire.
At some point during that brief but disastrous attack, the soldier holding the other end of the pipe-like device was shot and killed; when he fell, his section of the torpedo dropped and then dangled awkwardly in my grandfather’s hand.
And as he screamed for someone to replace his fallen buddy, my grandfather himself was hit and stumbled into a shell hole, an instinctive move that obviously saved his life.
Pop bandaged his wound, and lay there in that muddied pit for hours — his only company dead or dying soldiers — and waited for darkness to cover his escape back to the Newfoundland lines.
It’s hard to imagine how he kept his sanity during those long hours:
a trap skiff in Point Verde and the grinder room at the Grand Falls mill must have seemed worlds away as Pop listened to the screams of the wounded and to the deadly sounds of the German snipers who were killing anyone left alive in No Man’s Land.
I’ve seen Joe Judge’s records in the Newfoundland Archives in The Rooms, and they are amazingly detailed, containing, for example, the telegrams sent to his mother, Mary Judge, in Point Verde, following the three separate incidents in which he was wounded.
In those archival documents, there’s even an X-ray of his elbow which was shattered by shrapnel, a wound that put him in a London hospital for months and, mercifully, finally got him discharged and sent back to Newfoundland.
But it’s an elbow I know well, and was part of a ritual I followed with Pop during my family’s frequent visits to Grand Falls in the 1950s and early ’60s.
There was always some token teasing: “Oh no, here they come, the g.d. Ganderites,” Pop would bawl in a bark-worse-than-his-bite voice as my siblings and I raced down a narrow corridor to the kitchen.
Almost immediately, though, it was time for the “game” Pop and I played, a game that probably irritated everybody else in the room, but one that I loved, one Pop was
obviously intent on ingraining on my memory forever.
We knew each move as if it was a well-rehearsed scene from a stage production, but Pop played along as if it was the first time we had performed the routine.
“Show me your wounds, Pop,” I would demand. “Show me your wounds.”
And my grandfather would smile, get out of his rocking chair next to the stove, and stand in the middle of the kitchen, waiting for my next instruction.
“Show me the one in the hand first, Pop, the one from Beaumont Hamel.”
And my grandfather would extend his right hand palm-up to reveal the sharp, twisted and ugly mark weaving its way across his thumb and finger.
“Now show me the one on the back of the leg, Pop.”
And, without a word, Pop would pull up the pants on his left leg to reveal another hideous scar.
“Now the one in the elbow, Pop, the one in the elbow.”
Pop would pull his sleeve up to his shoulder so I could examine his deformed elbow, scars running like small, winding brooks all over that part of his right arm.
“OK, Pop, now put both your arms straight out and show me how one arm is shorter than the other,” I’d insist.
And that’s exactly what Pop Judge would do: extend his two arms straight out, displaying the fact that one was a good six inches shorter than the other.
And that was it.
Pop would return to his rocking chair, with that grand smile a bit wider. Then, all the normal, “adult” chitchat would start, and I’d head out to the back of the house to chase my grandfather's hens.
In retrospect, I believe Pop was determined I would never forget what I saw and heard on those
visits, that I would see, up close, the damage war can inflict on the human body and that the slaughter at Beaumont Hamel, in particular, would always have a unique and special place in my soul.
It also has a special place in our house in Flatrock, where a picture on the wall of my grandfather, young and handsome in his Newfoundland Regiment uniform, is a few feet away from similar photographs of Heather’s two great-uncles, Norman Coultas and Will Knight. Norm and Will were both killed that morning, and their bodies so blown to bits during the bombing in the days following July 1 that they were neither found nor identified.
But they’ll always live on in our home, along with Pop Judge.
On Remembrance Day 2012, I salute the three of them.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.