November 12, 2007

March into history

For such a small place, Newfoundland's military history is formidable. The original Newfoundland regiment was first founded in 1780 to serve in the British Army. It was disbanded and refounded several times under different names. The regiment was significantly involved in the War of 1812. Soldiers fought aboard ships as marines in battles of the Great Lakes, as infantry in Michigan, and in the battle to defend Toronto from the Americans. It was disbanded in 1816.

As of September 26, 1907 (100 years ago this year), Newfoundland was a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire.

Newfoundland, being a part of the British Empire, entered the First World War on August 4, 1914. It raised the 1st Newfoundland Regiment from a small population base, to fight alongside the British Army. They faced many hardships, but one infamous battle is still in our cultural memory today. The date was July 1, 1916. The location was in France during the first World War, 801 1st Newfoundland Regiment soldiers sprang from the Beaumont Hamel trenches to engage the enemy in the Battle of the Somme.

The regiment was scheduled to reinforce what was hoped to be sweeping victories across the front.

When the time came to march to the jumping-off point, the Newfoundlanders found -most likely to their horror- that the lead trenches were tightly packed with dead and dying soldiers of the first waves. The British soldiers had been stopped by barbed wire and automatic weapons fire. The Newfoundlanders had to fall back and attack from secondary trenches.

They faced an increased amount of open ground which in effect made them sitting ducks. The Germans had a clear line of sight and were able to easily pick them off. The Newfoundland Regiment never made it past their own concentrations of barbed wire.

Out of the 801, 255 were dead, 386 were wounded, and 91 were listed as missing. Only 68 answered the regimental roll call the next day. It was, and continues to stand as, the greatest military loss Newfoundland has ever faced. To this day, Beaumont-Hamel remains the most significant single military action fought by Newfoundlanders, and it marked a turning point in the history and culture of the island. It is possible that Newfoundland never fully recovered from the loss of so many of its male population.

In late 1917 the regiment was granted the "Royal" prefix by King George V, making it the only regiment of the British Empire to receive that honour with a war already in progress.

After Newfoundland was made part of Canada in 1949, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment became the main militia unit for the province with battalions based in St. John's, Corner Brook and Grand Falls-Windsor. Since 1992, soldiers and sub-units of the three-battalion Royal Newfoundland Regiment have been alongside regular force units in Cyprus and Bosnia on peacekeeping missions.

July 1, while it is marked as a celebration of Canadian Confederation across the rest of the country, is also a Memorial Day in Newfoundland. Of course, Sunday marked November 11 - Remembrance Day. A day we fall silent to remember those who have fought for our freedoms . . . and think about those soldiers who are currently fighting in conflicts across the globe.

Three simple words: lest we forget.