Approaching a momentous milestone

Gerry Phelan gerryp@bellaliant.net
Published on July 5, 2013

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 gerryp@bellaliant.net