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Bob Wakeham: Beaumont Hamel belongs in our hearts, minds … and classrooms

<p>The Caribou statue at Beaumont Hamel.</p>
The Caribou statue at Beaumont Hamel.

It was inevitable, I guess, that the emotional tug of war that has taken place for decades in Newfoundland each July 1 between the celebrations of Canada Day and the somber ceremonies recalling Beaumont Hamel would see a more pronounced pull in the direction of the bash surrounding the national birthday.

After all, younger Newfoundlanders would be more understandably inclined to embrace their Canadian identity than those of us with an overabundance of mileage in our joints, and such an adoption of linkage would naturally cause them, and their children and, eventually, their grandchildren, and so forth, to be much more inclined to sing Happy Birthday to Canada each July 1 than make a trip to their local war memorial to remember what was arguably the most sorrowful day in the history of this place.

There was, of course, the enormous recognition of Beaumont Hamel that took place two years ago on the 100th anniversary of that Saturday morning slaughter of the Newfoundland Regiment, through a variety of documentaries, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and remembrance ceremonies here and in France, and aired on national television and radio.

And that was a good thing, to say the least.

But the magnitude of that sort of local and national education concerning Beaumont Hamel was a one-time event, and will perhaps be the last occasion when Canada Day festivities will be superseded in Newfoundland by a commemoration of that half hour of carnage when all but 68 of the 801 members of the Newfoundland Regiment who participated in the Battle of the Somme were either killed or wounded.

And I’m not suggesting the younger crowd should be scorned for waving the Canadian flag tomorrow or raising a drink (or having a toke) to honour Canada’s birthday, but it’s about time, it seems to me, that much more direct emphasis should be placed in Newfoundland’s school curriculum to ensure that Beaumont Hamel is not completely lost in the hoopla of Canada Day.

I know personally of teachers who have made a point of taking it upon themselves year in and year out to find innovative ways to force their students to gain and retain a detailed and non-sanitized knowledge of what happened on that French field July 1, 1916, and why it happened.

One teacher in my circle gave her students enough information over a period of weeks through books and documentaries that they could take on a powerful writing assignment in which they could place themselves in the trenches of Beaumont Hamel, ready to go “over the top.”

And it was both the bravery of the Newfoundland soldiers and the futility and waste of war that became apparent, it seems to me, to those youngsters who were lucky enough to have teachers aware of how important Beaumont Hamel should be in an educational environment, those teachers who devised elaborate programs to ensure that that sad day in Newfoundland history would stay with their pupils forever.

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I have a feeling, though, that those teachers who have taken the initiative to make Beaumont Hamel a vital part of their classroom year have been relatively few in number; thus, it seems to me, there’s a crucial need to officially mandate in the curriculum an inclusion of materials about that infamous battle, for regular exposure to students from Grade Five or Six and onwards, right up to the university level.

Surely, being educated about Beaumont Hamel is as important as having the names of the prime ministers of Canada at your fingertips or being able to pin point Regina or Hamilton on a Canadian map or reading Margaret Atwood.

Not that I’m downgrading Canada Day.

In fact, the more I observe the goings-on to the south of us, where millions upon millions of Americans continue to adore and support a bigot the more I’m grateful I live in a country like Canada, with its warts and all.

But it’s Beamont Hamel that will be uppermost in my mind tomorrow, as I recall, as I always do, and have vowed to do as long as I have a journalistic vehicle to do so, the very personal attachment our family has to that day of horror: my maternal grandfather, Joe Judge, was wounded at Beaumont Hamel, and two of my wife Heather’s great uncles, Norm Coultas and Will Knight, were killed.

Their photos, as I have noted every year in this space, hang side by side in our home.

Forever joined.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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