Say wearing the uniform is a privilege and an honour
They look as if they’ve just stepped out of one those photographs we’ve all seen of the soldier boys in the Blue Puttees. The dark-wood, oval-framed portraits that hung in almost every parlour in Newfoundland and Labrador.
These teenagers are smiling and waving. And closer up, their Newfoundland Regiment uniforms, though well replicated, are clearly costumes, and it is obviously not 100 years ago when the province entered the First World War along with Britain.
There are women, too, in woolen uniforms. They are mingling around the parking lot with other young people dressed in regimental wear from the 1790s as part of the Signal Hill Tattoo in St. John’s. It’s almost showtime and the Newfoundland Regiment re-enactors are chatting and posing for visitors.
This year the Tattoo is paying homage to the First World War and they feel lucky to have the summer gig, some having worn the 1790s uniforms previously.
But what if it were really 100 years ago? What’s it like to put on that uniform and think of the ones who actually went overseas in the First World War and never came back? Or the ones who came back from the battlefield without their buddies?
The teens in uniform on this summer’s day talk about glory and pride, of distant relatives they never met and can’t name, but somehow feel connected to.
They talk of joining the military and defending Canada, and say they would rather be the ones carrying guns than hiding in the cellar.
Adam Saunders, 19, was related to famed First World War hero Tommy Ricketts.
“He was my nan’s first cousin,” Saunders says.
“World War One was terrible conditions the entire way through. But in the early days it was about glory. It was all about joining up and having that nationalistic pride.”
Another of his ancestors was a stretcher-bearer and message-runner, and Saunders got to follow his route during a visit to Beaumont Hamel and the Somme in France.
“If I could do that in this, it would just blow my mind,” he says, referring to tracing the route in uniform. “I doubt I ever will.”
Jason Walsh, 17, thinks about his great-grandfather and his great-grandfather’s two brothers.
“It made me feel good that I am helping to keep that alive, to bring back that past,” he says.
Liam Mackey, 19, and his brother, Jarrus Mackey, 16, couldn’t trace their family lineage. But it’s not lost on them that the boys in uniform 100 years ago felt some of the same coolness factor until they got over to the battlegrounds.
“The men who initially went to war would have thought it was for glory, and they would have wanted to do it,” Liam says.
“I guess we have that same sort of feeling they had, joining up and getting excited. I get excited to go to work in the morning sometimes.”
“They didn’t know they were going to die. They were excited to come out a war hero,” adds Jarrus.
As the four young men talk about their military hopes, they pause to acknowledge that they’re young and don’t know much yet, which may be a dangerous combination when contemplating going to war.
Forrest Crummey and Mark Rose also feel special to wear the outfits replicated from their relatives’ uniforms.
“It would have been us if they didn’t go to war,” Crummey says, contemplating a different ending to the conflict.
But could he imagine walking in their shoes for real?
“Definitely not, but it took a lot of courage,” he says.
“You can’t really picture what went down, how scary it would be to be over there,” Rose says.
During of the First World War, about 1,500 young men from Newfoundland — then a country, not a province — died.
On July 1, 1916, 801 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment mounted an offensive attack on German forces in northern France.
After the battle, only 68 soldiers from the regiment answered roll call. The rest were either killed or wounded.