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'There’s almost a sort of reverence in our story. And I guess it’s because it was so tragic.'
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Remembrance Day is an important time to reflect for residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. But, every bit as meaningful is July 1, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.
And the meaning of the day goes beyond that one battle.
“People think it’s just about the regiment on that day, when it was annihilated in the first day of the Battle of the Somme,” says Frank Gogos, media liaison for Newfoundland Command. “But in actuality it was established for all of the Newfoundland services in the First World War, even the ones that served in other countries. It’s not just about Beaumont-Hamel. In reality, it was meant to commemorate everybody.”
It continues to be a major remembrance ceremony for the province, he said.
“It’s actually seeing a resurgence since the war in Afghanistan.”
Over the last 10 years, attendance has gone from several hundred to several thousand coming out on July 1, with one of the largest turnouts in St. John’s in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.
Over the last several years, Gogos has spent July 1 at the Beaumont-Hamel memorial in France.
“For me, personally, I’m gobsmacked that I have the opportunity to take students over every year. I’m struggling for words. I think I’m one of the most fortunate people to have the opportunity to go over there and share these experiences,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
Trail of the Caribou
Every year at that time he participates in “The Trail of the Caribou.”
“The government of Newfoundland erected a number of memorials in France and Belgium following The Great War. As part of the legion trip, we take significant numbers of youth and veterans overseas to take them on the Trail of the Caribou, which usually runs eight to 10 days. Nearly every stop we have has to do with Newfoundland’s involvement in the First World War.
The travel agenda includes not just Beaumont-Hamel, but also Vimy and Menin Gate, as well as the war graves and memorials in churches in France.
While Newfoundlanders participated in other battles during the war, Beaumont-Hamel is the one that’s most prominent in people’s memories.
“It stands out in Newfoundland history because, while Newfoundlanders have a long history of major catastrophes that led to huge losses of life, I think Beaumont-Hamel was a shocker. I don’t think anyone in Newfoundland expected the regiment to go out and get wiped out. They say there wasn’t a family in Newfoundland that wasn’t touched by the tragedy on July 1.”
While the Newfoundland Regiment was engaged in other actions throughout the war, Gogos says, the Beaumont-Hamel experience came to take on a life of its own, the same way Vimy Ridge is significant to Canada, he said.
“Except Vimy Ridge is seen as something positive. It was the ‘birth of a nation’-type thing.”
Whereas in Newfoundland, the battle at Beaumont-Hamel marked the death of a nation.
“We’ve kind of gone in an opposite direction…
"One of the three things – while there are a lot more – that brought down the Newfoundland government was war and its economic tenets, along with the acquisition of the railway and the inability to collect income tax.”
As the country began to tailspin after the First World War, and the subject of joining Canada began after the Second World War, the evolution from the Great War Veterans Association to the Royal Canadian Legion was in sight.
“At our legion office, we have the minutes where they take the vote and decide to join the Royal Canadian Legion. Once Newfoundland joined Canada, it was in the best interest of the vets to join the larger organization, because they would have had a bigger voice in a bigger country.
“That’s not to say they agreed with Confederation but I don’t think there would have been a lot of resistance when they joined a larger country. It didn’t appear to be on the table prior to joining Confederation.”
Newfoundland also has a unique flower, emblematic of remembrance.
“Poppies were brought in to Canada as a fundraiser in 1921. The Canadian and Newfoundland GWVA adopted it … almost within the week of each other. It wasn’t something that took much time. They saw the benefit to raise funds and originally help the children in France.”
However, Newfoundland has another official remembrance flower: the forget-me-not, worn at the July ceremonies. Sales began just before July 1, 1924.
“Today’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment is the only regiment in Canada authorized to wear a forget-me-not on July 1.”
Gogos says everyone wears a forget-me-not, and not just on July 1.
“It’s widespread here. Some people leave it on their coats all year long, and quite a few folks I run into have that blue flower on their coats all year long.
“Tens of thousands of these were made by one woman over the last 15 years. So, it’s not like there is a mass production. They are handmade. Probably makes 10 to 20,000 a year or more.”
'There’s almost a sort of reverence in our story'
In the province, he continued, a lot of people are still very much connected to the First World War.
“There’s almost a sort of reverence in our story. And I guess it’s because it was so tragic.
“One of the most tragic things I’ve seen is that families had uncles they never talked about. They never saw their medals or their memorials. It wasn’t remembered in the household and no one spoke of them.
“In some ways, it’s probably that these families had more of a superstition or were angry with what happened for taking their son or sons away from them in some cases. Even back then, we had an independent streak; so, there were places that didn’t see this as our war and were bitter about it, whereas others wanted to fight for king and country. Newfoundland society was deeply divided on multiple levels.”
There was a time legions were for First World War veterans. The end to the Second World War, 20 years later, brought a new generation of veterans home.
“Now they’re the young fellas and they go into the legions and the older guys are saying you’re not a veteran,” Gogos said. “So, there was that divide there. I know here in St. John’s we had one branch. But, by 1960 a second branch opened up. The second branch became known as the WW2 branch and the first was the WW1 branch.
“And as the First World War branch guys pass away, the two branches became mainly World War II. That division, is still known. Now with the World War II vets passing away – almost to the last man over the last 20 to 30 years – the legion has changed its shift to associate members and civilian members to keep the legions and remembrance alive.”
Gogos says old animosities drove veterans away from the legion.
“When the old vets are saying you’re not a vet, get out, that’s what happens. So, when the new vets would retire, it was hard for them to see the legion as a place of their own.”
Bridging that gap is something that needs to be figured out, he said.
“It’s important that the legacy continues. If it’s lost, then the vets in this country will have lost the single biggest advocate for themselves that they’ll ever have in their history.
“If they allow it to fail, then the veterans’ support community will be highly fractured and they won’t have the same weight when dealing with the government. And that’s what I tell my friends who are veterans. If you want to fix the legion, you gotta join the legion. If you want to change the legion you gotta join the legion. And you need to make it work.”
Did you know?
Unlike other Canadian legions, those in Newfoundland and Labrador had a very different origin.
The first veterans’ group formed during the war in April of 1918, according to Frank Gogos, media liaison for the Newfoundland Command. In Newfoundland, it was called the Volunteer and Rejected Soldiers Association.
By 1919, it became the Great War Veterans Association of Newfoundland. The GWVA stayed the principal veteran support organization until it became part of the Royal Canadian Legion in 1950.
But the organization had a similar mandate to that of the modern-day legion.
It was charged as the guardian of remembrance. In N.L., there are two ceremonies of remembrance – Memorial Day on July 1 and Armistice Day (Remembrance Day) on Nov. 11.
There are currently 45 branches in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Millicent McKay is a SaltWire Network journalist in Summerside, P.E.I.