Where once they stood...

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on April 14, 2012
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_