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Bob Wakeham: The war that touched us all

St. John’s sculptor and artist Morgan McDonald unveiled his sculpture “One Hundred Portraits of The Great War,” on Sunday, Nov. 4 at Victoria Park in St. John’s.
St. John’s sculptor and artist Morgan McDonald unveiled his sculpture “One Hundred Portraits of The Great War,” on Sunday, Nov. 4 at Victoria Park in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo

People throughout many lands will take a few moments on Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, that moment when the guns went silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bringing to a halt the so-called (and dramatically and devastatingly inaccurate) “war to end all wars” — a bloody and ultimately useless conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of mostly young men.


But I’ve always found it’s way too easy, too convenient, to view the war — any war, I guess — in terms of statistics; even as grim as they might be, numbers tend to sanitize the horror of what men and women have been forced by politicians and religious zealots to endure for centuries.

Just about every adult soul in Newfoundland (and the scattered young person, for sure) can rattle off, for example, the numbers from July 1, 1916 — I know I can, and have, numerous times in this very space of mine: 80l members of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at 9:15 a.m., and at 9:45 a.m., all but 68 were either killed or wounded or marooned on that farmer’s field near Beaumont-Hamel to be picked off by German snipers during the remainder of what had to have been an agonizingly long and tortuous day.

But those numbers — as shocking as they are, and providing, as they do, affirmation that this slaughter occurred in a startlingly brief period of time, a dark and tragic half-hour of blood-letting that still resonates to this very day in communities and in families throughout the province — can sometimes camouflage to a discomforting degree the gut-wrenching personal toll those statistics reflect.

And I’m talking, of course, about the impact the Beaumont-Hamel abomination had on parents, siblings, relatives of every nature, the impact it had on what was then the nation of Newfoundland, a tragedy still remembered with sadness and pride by the descendants of all the Newfoundlanders who crawled out of the muddy trenches that day and into history, and of all the soldiers, in fact, from this place who fought in the First World War.

Last Sunday, on a day when Mother Nature once again provided less than subtle manifestation of why Sir Cavendish Boyle described this place in the “Ode” as a “wind-swept land,” a crowd of those descendants and assorted friends and relatives (and even the odd politician) gathered in Victoria Park to view for the first time a magnificent piece of art that would force even the most cynical of souls to view war beyond the numbers, to view the First World War and Newfoundland’s role in that terrible conflict, in particular, in the most human of terms.

And I am referring, obviously, to the unveiling of the “100 Portraits of the Great War,” the latest sculpture by the brilliant artist Morgan MacDonald (although “unveiling” was technically inaccurate, given the fact, as the master of ceremonies for the event, Mark Critch, noted: any sort of attempt at a traditional ceremony would have seen the covering sheet end up somewhere near Fogo Island).

But the driving wind and resulting brass monkey temperatures were an irrelevant sideshow, when all was said and done, because this event was all about intimacy and warmth and poignancy. And it was with a sense of awe that anyone there had to have viewed MacDonald’s magnificent monument, 100 bronzed faces of descendants of Beaumont Hamel soldiers, welded together (forever, hopefully) inside a sizable replica of those ubiquitous oval picture frames that embrace and memorialize so many soldiers in countless Newfoundland homes.
And it was all about connections, as well, the six degrees of separation that seem to inhabit every corner of Newfoundland.

Among the innumerable ways in which I could utilize the “full disclosure” of direct connections to the “100 Portraits of the Great War”: I co-produced, with my friend and brother-in-law Bill Coultas, a documentary called “Descendants,” a film that used as its centralizing theme MacDonald’s sculpture; and my niece, Sheila Coultas, a tremendously talented artist in her own right, worked closely with MacDonald on the Beaumont Hamel project.

And, of course, those who have paid even cursory attention to these weekly epistles of mine over the past decade would be aware that my maternal grandfather, Joe Judge, was wounded at Beaumont Hamel (and twice more in subsequent battles), the reason I proudly volunteered to have my face cast and bronzed as part of the “100 Portraits of the Great War.”
My mother, Eileen Wakeham, 93 years young, Pop’s daughter, braved the weather last Sunday to take in the ceremonies at Victoria Park, insisted, in fact, that she be there. Her father would have been proud.

Pop and I had a special bond, and he has always been, and will always be, my hero, a man who returned to Newfoundland to convalesce from the wounds to his hand, his leg and his elbow, eventually married a fellow Placentia Bay native, Mary Dormody, helped raise seven children, and became what I have heard described as one of the most respected residents of Grand Falls.

I can’t help but speculate what he must have thought about 100 years ago on the day he heard that peace had been declared.
Perhaps he simply raised a glass of rum, and whispered to himself: “Thank Christ it’s over.”

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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