— Photo by Andrew Robinson/The Telegram
Jessie Downey understands the basics when it comes to the harrowing experiences of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who enlisted with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War.
However, the 16-year-old student from Ascension Collegiate in Bay Roberts expects to have a deeper understanding of what the war was like when she returns from a weeklong trip to France and Belgium. She is joining 15 other youths from across Newfoundland and Labrador on a journey that will include visits to all five caribou monuments honouring Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who fought for Commonwealth forces.
“I’m glad to be able to go over there and kind of get a richer (sense) of it and be able to learn a bit more,” she said while filling out a form at Branch No. 56 for the Royal Canadian Legion in Pleasantville on Saturday, a few hours before her flight was scheduled to depart from St. John’s.
Trips to these sites are expected to increase with the 100th anniversary of the tragic Somme offensive in Beaumont-Hamel two years away. More than 700 soldiers from this province were either killed or wounded on July 1, 1914. Only 68 were able to answer for roll call following that battle.
EF Tours, a company specializing in educational tours that’s also responsible for the Legion’s trip, told The Telegram last week it plans to take hundreds of students from Newfoundland and Labrador to the Beaumont-Hamel site in France to mark the centenary.
Derek Winsor of E and B Travel Service-TPI in St. John’s also aims to bring hundreds to Beaumont-Hamel two years from now. In partnership with Trafalgar Tours, he hopes to see 801 people from this province travel there in 2016. That number is identical to the one accounting for the number of Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers who took part in the battle.
Winsor’s own interest in Newfoundland and Labrador’s war history stems from his family’s involvement in combat. Grandfather Hedley Winsor fought in the First World War for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and Winsor’s father Harold was involved in the Korean conflict.
“It was a dream of my father’s to be at Beaumont-Hamel for the 100th anniversary, but unfortunately he’s passed since and won’t be able to do it,” said Derek Winsor. Harold Winsor died in 2007 at the age of 79.
According to Derek, having Newfoundlanders and Labradorians present at Beaumont-Hamel to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle is important because the province’s loss was so substantial.
“It took the youngest and the brightest at that time from our province, and basically I think we lost a generation of some very key people in our province who went over to make that ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the world and in doing so, I believe, changed the history of our province.”
The population of Newfoundland and Labrador before the start of the war was almost 250,000.
Winsor has designed his trip for what he would call the ordinary Newfoundlander.
“It’s not designed for a ceremonial part of it. It’s to bring ordinary Newfoundlanders back to Beaumont-Hamel, and our goal is to have 801 Newfoundlanders there.”
Frank Gogos, a war historian and tour guide travelling this week with the Royal Canadian Legion contingent, said the youths he travelled with overseas last year had a life-changing experience.
“They come home, they’re different people,” he said. “They have a different understanding of not only Newfoundland history, but of the sacrifices of Newfoundlanders in the First World War. Because it’s primarily a Newfoundland and Labrador trip, it’s very focused around the actions of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War.”
In addition to the sites associated with the caribou trail, Legion members will accompany youths to Vimy Ridge in France.
Downey created a black-and-white poster for a contest sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion and placed second provincially to earn the opportunity to take part in this week’s pilgrimage with the Royal Canadian Legion.
“I’m super excited be going over there,” she said.
Amanda Dyson of Makkovik earned her place on the plane destined for Europe through her involvement with the Junior Canadian Rangers. She received a book from her uncle about the First World War and Newfoundland and Labrador’s involvement and found it to be very interesting. She expects it will be quite the experience to see the same places those soldiers were stationed in so many years ago.
“Even though it will be different, it will still kind of be the same,” said Dyson, who travelled outside of Canada once prior to this week. “It will be interesting to see.”