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Speech on the inquiry of the Honourable Anne C. Cools (Remembrance Day)

 

Honourable senators, I rise to speak to the Great War and specifically Newfoundland's participation in that war.

When Britain declared war in 1914, Britain's oldest colony, Newfoundland, a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically at war. Given the island's close history with the mother country, men across the island responded to the call for volunteers and enlisted. A unit of the Royal Navy Reserve already existed in St. John's and was immediately available. With a population of only 242,000, Newfoundland was Britain's smallest self-governing dominion. At the outset, more than 500 volunteers enlisted. In October 1914, 538 Newfoundlanders, clad in their navy blue puttees, boarded the SS Florizel, a refurbished sealing vessel, and sailed for Scotland and England for training.

One must remember that a country with such a small population was especially close-knit. Most of the men who had enlisted knew each other. They were brothers, cousins and friends — a fact that was especially poignant as casualties began to mount. It was said that in Newfoundland even war was a family affair. Newfoundlanders are proud of their heritage and did not want to be absorbed into the Canadian or British armies. They formed their own Newfoundland Regiment.

Newfoundland's sacrifice during the Great War still resonates today. Honourable senators may recall that one of the ferries servicing Newfoundland is named MV Blue Puttees in honour of this regiment. The courage and sacrifice of the Blue Puttees will never be forgotten.

In August 1915, the Newfoundland Regiment finished its training and was moved to Alexandria and then Cairo, Egypt, and then on to Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in Turkey. On the morning of September 20, 1915, they experienced their first battle, and 15 of their men were wounded. I can only imagine what those young men experienced far from home, in a different culture and a difference climate. They must have wondered at the wisdom of their decision to enlist. Before the Newfoundland Regiment left Gallipoli, it lost 45 of its men. The Newfoundland Regiment was the only North American unit to fight in Gallipoli, serving alongside soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France and India. Newfoundlanders were also among the very last troops to leave the Gallipoli peninsula as they were involved in the successful evacuation of British troops and their Allies to Egypt. In March 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment left Egypt and departed for France, arriving in April 1916 at the village of Beaumont-Hamel. There they waited and prepared for what would become the most famous massacre in the history of the people of Newfoundland and that of the British.

The Newfoundland Regiment formed part of the British 29th Division, and in the days leading up to the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, they participated in pre-battle raids with massive bombardments of the German lines. The British troops, including the Newfoundlanders, climbed out of their trenches and advanced in lines shoulder to shoulder. Over the seven days of preparation for the actual battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired. The shelling by the British was relentless. Dugouts crumbled, and German soldiers became buried and suffocated. It was reported that even the rats became hysterical under the heavy shelling. But nothing could prepare the British and Newfoundlanders for what awaited them. On July 1, 1916, the final Allied bombardment began. It was broad daylight, visibility was perfect, and there was no cover for the 100,000 Allied soldiers, a tremendous advantage for the enemy German troops.

Ahead of the British troops was the German barbed wire, which the pre-bombardment leading up to the battle was supposed to have destroyed. Allied soldiers could not get through. Germans were able to mobilize their machine guns, and the killing began. Whole battalions were reduced in minutes, but the orders to advance continued despite the bodies of the dead and wounded. Many soldiers became entangled in the barbed wire. The British medical teams were overwhelmed. As the day ended, many who had been wounded struggled to get back to their lines under darkness. It was the single worst day of casualties ever experienced by the British Army. By the end of the day, there were 57,000 causalities, a third of them killed. No unit suffered heavier losses than the Newfoundland Regiment.

Of the 790 men of the Newfoundland Regiment who went into battle that day, only 68 answered at roll call the following day. The few Newfoundlanders who survived the events of that day relayed chilling accounts of what happened to their brothers, their cousins and their friends. The front line was compared to a butcher shop with the "wounded dragging themselves in and falling down in the trenches." Those who survived prayed that their families, especially the mothers, would never know how their sons had died.

The Battle of the Somme had such an impact on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador that it is still commemorated each year on July 1. While that day is celebrated as Canada Day across the country, Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans commemorate Memorial Day and pay tribute to our ancestors who sacrificed so much during the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme eventually became 12 battles that occurred between July 1 and November 18, 1916. It ended because of the poor weather conditions. Rain, sleet and snow made the terrain impossible. To exist under such conditions became an impossible physical ordeal for the soldiers. The ground became one big bog. Dugouts crumbled, and communications to the trenches ceased to be. Artillery could not be shifted, and men died trying to cross the mud.

The Battle of the Somme led to no significant gains for the Allies. Four months of relentless assaults on the German lines had yielded meagre results. A strip of land 20 miles by 6 miles was gained but at a significant cost: British and Commonwealth forces were estimated to have lost 420,000 men; French losses were 204,000 men; and German losses were estimated between 437,000 and 680,000 men.

Much has been written about the Battle of the Somme and the incompetence of those at the highest level of command and the senseless sacrifice of thousands of young men. For the Newfoundlanders who survived that day, their stories tell of extraordinary gallantry, incomprehensible suffering and the cruelties of war.

Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans in the First World War served on land, at sea and in the air. Some fought in active battle at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium. Others volunteered as nurses or as Merchant Marines transporting essential goods to Allied countries. In the three services, 8,700 men enlisted: 6,300 in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; 2,000 in the Royal Navy Reserve; and about 500 in the Newfoundland Forestry Corps. Another 3,300 men joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In our sea-going tradition, over 5,000 men served in the Merchant Marines. Smaller numbers served in a variety of other forces such as the Royal Air Force and in the armed forces of other countries.

The approximately 12,000 men who served in the armed forces of Britain and Canada represented 10 per cent of Newfoundland's male population and 36 per cent of all men of military age.

The Newfoundland Regiment fought at Gallipoli, Beaumont-Hamel, Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Cambrai and elsewhere. Its brave actions earned it the title of "Royal" in December 1917, an honour no other British Regiment received during the First World War.

The 2,000 men of the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve were dispersed throughout the Royal Navy, serving on vessels around the globe. Winston Churchill referred to them as "the best small boat men in the world."

The 481 skilled loggers and mill workers who served overseas with the Newfoundland Forestry Corps helped supply lumber for the dugout shelters and to build the railway tracks to transport soldiers and equipment.

Many, but not all, of the 3,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War were living in Canada when the war broke out. They fought at many famous battles: Ypres in 1915, the Somme in 1916 and Vimy Ridge in 1917.

Five thousand Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans served in the Merchant Marine, working on non-military vessels carrying passengers and cargo to Allied and neutral ports. Most served in the North Atlantic where German U-boats became a growing threat over the course of the war. At least 115 Merchant Marines died in the First World War.

There were also about 175 women who served overseas as graduate nurses or semi-trained nurses. Newfoundland women worked long hours treating severely injured soldiers. They also served in other roles such as ambulance drivers. When the war ended, these women could not adjust and could not return to their domestic roles. Many joined the suffrage movement, winning Newfoundland women the right to vote in 1925.

Newfoundland and Labrador sustained high casualty rates during the First World War. About 1,500 died and another 2,300 were wounded.

When Father Tom Nangle, the Roman Catholic Chaplain of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, was tasked to commemorate the actions of the Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War, he focused on the idea of what we now call the "Trail of the Caribou", which marks the five most significant battlefields in which Newfoundlanders fought. The battlefields selected were: Beaumont-Hamel, of which I have already spoken; Gueudecourt, where 76 Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans lost their lives in October 1916; Cambrai, where 110 Newfoundlanders lost their lives in November and December, 1917; Monchy, where the fighting on April 14, 1917, was the second worst day of the entire war for Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans and where 189 men died; and the fifth battlefield was Courtrai, Belgium, where 93 Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans died in September and October, 1918.

Just as the Canadians marched with the insignia of the maple leaf to distinguish them from other fighting forces, the Newfoundlanders marched with the emblem of the noble caribou, an animal native to our homeland.

On the five battlefields in which the Newfoundland Regiment played a glorious part, there stands a massive bronze caribou gazing defiantly in the direction in which our soldiers faced the enemy. Many of our dead have no known graves and are commemorated by name only on the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial in France.

While the soldiers themselves suffered under terrible living conditions far from home, their families also suffered. Families often did not know where their sons and brothers were and, in some cases, did not know whether they were dead or alive. Information from the trenches was slow and often inaccurate. Families would be told their sons or brothers were alive or injured, when in fact they were deceased. In other cases, soldiers reported to their families as killed would turn up alive.

In many cases, the bodies of the deceased soldiers were never found, adding to the suffering of their families. Without a body, some families refused to give up hope, clinging to the possibility that their son or brother was taken as a prisoner of war.

For families of deceased soldiers whose bodies were identified, where they were buried and how their graves were marked was a major issue. Soldiers' personal belongings weren't always returned to their families, thus inflicting more pain and suffering on those families. Bodies of those killed in World War I were still being found years after the war ended. In 1933 alone, 872 bodies of British soldiers were found on the battlefields of France.

There were 180 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment taken as prisoners of war during World War I. One third of the prisoners were captured on a single day — April 15, 1917 — during the Battle of Monchy-le-Preux.

Newfoundland prisoners of war, like most POWs, suffered at the hands of their captors. Newfoundland prisoners of war were not housed together, were frequently moved, lived on near-starvation rations and worked long hours in mines, on railways and in factories, usually under harsh supervision. Many had no blankets or warm clothing. Of the 180 Newfoundlanders taken as prisoners, 38 died while in captivity.

After the First World War, it was decided that the name of every soldier, sailor or airman who died during the war would be remembered either on a headstone or, if the grave was lost or unknown, then by name on a memorial. Newfoundland decided to commemorate its missing on a memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, where Newfoundlanders had made their biggest sacrifice. There are 820 names on the memorial, as they have no known graves. One hundred and fourteen served with the Royal Naval Reserve, 115 served with the Mercantile Marine and 591 served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. There are 17 sets of brothers on the memorial and some of the soldiers whose names appear on the memorial have siblings who are buried nearby.

Some Newfoundland families lost three sons. Three quarters of those on the memorial were only 21 years of age or younger when they died.

In addition to the "Trail of the Caribou" memorials, there is a sixth bronze caribou at Bowring Park and a National War Memorial in St. John's, Newfoundland to commemorate the dead of World War I.

At the summit of the National War Memorial in St. John's is a woman holding a flaming torch and a sword, representing Newfoundland's loyalty to the British Empire. On either side there is: a sailor, representing the Royal Naval Reserve; a soldier, representing the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; a fisherman, representing the Merchant Marines; and a lumberman, representing the contributions of the Forestry Corps.

The First World War was primarily a European war but involved countries throughout the world, including all of the Commonwealth colonies and countries. They suffered as the Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans suffered. It is estimated that the number of men killed during the war was between 8.5 million and 10 million. Britain and its allies mobilized about 42 million men, of whom 5 million were killed and about 13 million wounded. The Central Powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria — mobilized over 23 million men, of whom 3.5 million were killed and 9 million were wounded.

The war was also responsible for a large number of civilian deaths. Britain's allies lost about 3 million civilians, the majority of them Russian. The Central Powers also lost about 3 million civilians. Many historians feel that the numbers killed and wounded may well be under-represented.

With such great suffering, many thought that World War I, The Great War, would have been "the war to end all wars". Sadly, it was not. Within a generation, young men and women in Newfoundland, in Canada and throughout the world would be called upon once again to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you.