They Were Young As We Are Young

September 1, 2006 by Tom MacGregor

It was plain to see that the Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to mark the 90th anniversary of the battles of Beaumont Hamel and the Somme would not be one involving World War I veterans, but it would certainly be about remembrance–with special emphasis on today’s youth.

PHOTO BY TOM MACGREGOR

PHOTO BY TOM MACGREGOR

From left: Monica MacAusland and Chantelle Mariasha LaRose shed tears at one of the cemeteries.

No World War I veterans could be on the June 27 to July 5 trip, but veterans groups, including The Royal Canadian Legion and 10 other organizations, would be represented along with five veterans from WW II and six Canadian Forces veterans. The Legion would be represented by newly elected Dominion President Jack Frost who travelled to France following the June 25-28 dominion convention in Calgary.

The largest contingent though would be the 39 youths selected from all provinces and territories by various organizations, including Scouts Canada, Encounters With Canada and the War Amputations of Canada. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador selected a number of the young people in recognition of the province’s powerful historic and emotional ties to Beaumont Hamel where the Newfoundland Regiment fought its first engagement in France–and its costliest of the war–on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

It was very fitting for the pilgrimage to begin with commemorations in St. John’s where Premier Danny Williams called the Battle of Beaumont Hamel “Newfoundland’s darkest day.”

On July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Regt. was ordered to go out over the top of their trenches to attack a well-entrenched enemy on the other side of no man’s land. In half an hour the regiment was decimated. Every officer that went forward was killed or wounded and out of the original 801 soldiers only 68 made roll call the next morning. Newfoundland had not yet joined Canada and so the young men from the Rock were fighting for the British Army.

Canadian soldiers arrived on the Somme battlefield at the end of August when the battle was two months old. From July until the battle ended in mid-November 1916, the Allied front advanced only 10 kilometres into German-held territory. Total number of Allied casualties numbered roughly 620,000, of which approximately 24,000 were Canadian.

Before leaving St. John’s, the delegation caught a glimpse of 18th century military life with a presentation of tattoo drill exercises performed by the Royal Newfoundland Regt. of Foot and the 27th Company of the Royal Regt. of Artillery. The current Royal Newfoundland Regt. can trace its roots to this group mustered in 1795 for garrison duty and used in many major battles of the War of 1812 before being disbanded in 1816.

Each summer since 1967, young Canadians have been hired by the Signal Hill Tattoo Association and Parks Canada to put on demonstrations of the day-to-day life and training of a garrison soldier.

The next stop for the delegation was city hall where the City of St. John’s hosted a special lunch. Delegation member and local member of Parliament Fabian Manning spoke about the purpose of the trip. “In politics, I was taught by a World War Two veteran that the one thing that will see you through all the tough battles ahead is that you have got to dance with the one that brought you. Soon we will be in France and we will have to stand with those who gave us this country.”

The first ceremony of remembrance was held in St. John’s Bowring Park where the group gathered around the statue of the defiant caribou, the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regt. It is one of six identical statues created by English sculptor Basil Gotto. This is the only one in Canada. The other five are in Europe, marking places where Newfoundlanders fought and fell. Here, wreaths were placed by Manning and the representatives of the veterans organizations. The Royal Canadian Legion was represented at this point by Eugene Breen, second vice-president of Newfoundland and Labrador Command.

The youth got the chance to get to know each other at the airport in St. John’s where they and the rest of the delegation boarded an overnight flight on a Canadian Forces airbus to Lille, France. Adam Fedyk of Kelowna, B.C., said, “I think most of us were in a state of chaos. Back home I am president of the student council and most of us were in the mayhem of graduation. Some of the youth even missed their graduation to come on this trip.”

Leading the delegation was Veterans Affairs Minister Gregory Thompson, accompanied by Fisheries and Oceans Minister Loyola Hearn, the regional minister for Newfoundland. Princess Anne participated in the ceremonies at Beaumont Hamel as did the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, who attended various events.

Also adding a great deal of meaning and colour to the pilgrimage’s larger ceremonies were the two battalions of today’s Royal Newfoundland Regt.

The group began the European phase of the pilgrimage with a ceremony marking the Newfoundland Regiment’s involvement in fighting that came after the Battle of the Somme, at the small village of Monchy-le-Preux, located approximately nine kilometres east of Arras, France. On April 14, 1917, the Newfoundland Regt. was part of a 22-kilometre front advancing on German lines. Only after hard fighting did the men make their objective, a fortified high position near the village. Not a single Newfoundlander remained unwounded when word came that a German force of 200 to 300 men was preparing to counter-attack. Lieutenant-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson gathered 10 remaining men available and managed to hold back the enemy for four hours before reinforcements arrived.

The group got its first look at one of the European caribou statues at Monchy-le-Preux. It stands ferociously on top of a medieval brick wall. The regiment’s honorary colonel, Ed Roberts, who is also the lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, spoke of the relentlessness of the German counter-attacks while the regiment was reduced to a unit of 10 men.

The following day the delegation visited the Courcelette Memorial which honours the Canadian Corps’ involvement in the Battles of the Somme between Sept. 3 and Nov. 18, 1916. “We remember in our tribute the people of Courcelette. This small village occupies such a large place in Canada’s history, and it still shows the scars of the great and deadly battles that were waged here,” explained Thompson. “And they were deadly: 8,000 Canadians died here between mid-September and mid-November of 1916. More than 16,000 others were wounded. The numbers still stagger us today.

“If we do not make the effort to remember them, to understand the depth of their sacrifice and the debt we owe, we do a grave disservice to them, to Canada and to ourselves. They did what they had to do, and today we do what we must do–honour their memory, thank them for their sacrifice and celebrate their achievement.”

While contemplating the scope of the fighting, air force veteran Bill Brown of Winnipeg remarked: “I guess I joined for the adventure, just like those guys. I never faced anything like that.”

As the pilgrimage moved forward, the lessons of service and sacrifice became clearer, especially to the youth. This was quite evident when the young people arrived in a cemetery north of Albert, France, on June 30–the evening before the anniversary of Beaumont Hamel.

As the sun began to set, the youth and their leaders stood silently at a place called the Second Canadian Sunken Road Cemetery. It contains the graves of 44 Canadians–all from the 22nd Battalion–who fought with great distinction at Courcelette. Each headstone had a youth rep standing in front of it when the rest of the delegation arrived on foot from the coaches which were parked out of view.

Each youth held an unlit candle in a jar as they looked at the headstone and the name and age of the person buried there. Two young masters of ceremony announced this would be a ceremony for remembering the people who fought during the war, and despite the presence of politicians, no speeches were made.

A solemn remembrance service began with the playing of the Last Post by a bugler who was standing near a piper a short distance from the cemetery’s low wall. Two minutes of silence followed and then Reveille and the reading of the Act of Remembrance. The youth also read the Commitment To Remember, a pledge that would become very familiar to everybody on the trip.

They were young, as we are young.

They served, giving freely of themselves.

To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time,

To carry their torch and never forget.

Thompson alone placed a wreath. Then the youths moved into a circle again where they had their candles lit. Each one then returned to a headstone and placed their jar with the lit candle on top. They then spent several minutes in silence in front of the graves. As the ceremony came to a close there was some tension as people began to move about the cemetery. From the youth there were only muffled sobs. One girl began openly crying and turned to the boy behind her and sobbed into his arms. That sight triggered others as the young people sought comfort in small groups and the adults looked on uncomfortably. “We were just each looking at one of the 44 graves. There were messages on them written by people who had been here,” said Megan Welsh, 16, of Yellowknife, N.W.T. “It was very emotional with everyone crying. You don’t know how comfortable you would be crying in front of everyone in your class, but we were all crying–all of the class.”

Bert Lafond of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada said he was really glad to see such a large number of young people on the trip. “I think it is the youth who will make a trip like this worthwhile,” said the Moose Jaw, Sask., resident who spent many years in the Canadian Forces. “It is the youth who must carry the message on.”

The emotions felt during the visit to the little cemetery would only be rivalled by those felt at Beaumont Hamel the next day, in the presence of the regiment and its colonel-in-chief, Princess Anne.

Approximately 2,000 people crowded onto what is now an historic battlefield park where the land remains pockmarked from the artillery shells that exploded there. The muddy landscape of 1916 has disappeared, replaced by a lush green field that is mowed by grazing sheep because of the danger of unearthing unexploded bombs. The old trench lines are still there as are other remnants from the battle. Thompson said the men of the 1st Newfoundland Regt. advanced over open ground into a relentless barrage of artillery and machine-gun fire. The slaughter was enormous, and Thompson recounted how it would be two weeks before news of the disaster reached Newfoundland. “We can only imagine the darkness that fell across the island that day. In a population of barely a quarter of a million, few families and even fewer communities were untouched by the tragedy. Fathers, sons, brothers, friends, neighbours, a generation of future leaders–lost in 30 minutes.”

The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador also spoke of the loss and the bravery of the young Newfoundlanders that day. “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour and its assault failed only because dead men can advance no further, or so their commander wrote afterwards. We in Newfoundland and in Canada must not forget.”

Princess Anne spoke only briefly. “It is here at Beaumont Hamel that we see the great courage and suffering of the regiment that caused my great-grandfather, George V, to confer the title ‘royal’ on the regiment. The only regiment so honoured during the war,” she said.

The princess would later attend a reception for invited guests of the minister in a tent near the site’s interpretive centre. She would greet veterans and local dignitaries before taking her own private tour of the site.

The next day the delegation visited Ypres, Belgium, toured battlefields and stopped at the dressing station at Essex Farm. It was in those cramped quarters where Canadian doctors, including John McCrae, then a major, tended the wounded coming off the battlefields.

On May 2, 1915, McCrae would preside over the burial of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Shortly afterwards McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields which has gone on to speak so much about the war.

The main reason for the trip to Ypres was to attend the evening ritual of the Last Post at the restored Menin Gate Memorial, a large and impressive arch that commemorates by name nearly 55,000 dead of the armies of the British Commonwealth who fell in Belgium, most of them in the Ypres Salient, but who have no known grave. Of the names, nearly 7,000 are Canadian.

Every evening at sunset, traffic under the arch is stopped and the lonely strains of the Last Post and Reveille are played by members of the Last Post Society. With delegations from Canada and Britain in attendance, the event was elevated, but its simplicity was restrained as buglers played the Last Post during the short remembrance ceremony.

Jim Fisher of Dawson City, Yukon, who served with the Canadian Guards and the Royal Canadian Regt. in Egypt and Cyprus, described the ceremony as one of the most moving experiences of the trip. “I was very moved by all the names and I hope that the youth can pass the experiences on to their colleagues. The Menin Gate really got to me. I had to get out of there.”

The group’s next visit was to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which will be the scene next April of major commemorations marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a battle that some say gave Canada its nationhood. The visit began with an informal aboriginal ceremony in one of the nearby cemeteries. Ed Borchert, president of the National Métis Veterans Association, led what is called a “smudging ceremony.” He showed his pipe and explained how the ceremony works and its purpose. “No one owns this pipe. It is loaned from generation to generation. When I light the pipe, I raise it to the Creator. Then I offer it to Mother Earth who has made a nice pillow for these boys to sleep on before beginning their journey home.”

Borchert explained that when the pipe is lit he would breathe in the smoke to take it into his heart. The pipe was then passed to his right, to Gabe Cameron of the Duck Lake, Sask., Cree First Nation, who in turn passed it to others. “I am familiar with the smudging ceremony,” said Cameron. “I take part in a lot of ceremonies at home such as powwows and pipe ceremonies. I wanted to do something for the soldiers and the youth to make them feel more connected, more at ease.”

Cameron said he felt deeply for the soldiers who served in the war. “I see so many graves of those who went to fight, and face it all at the age that I am. It is something to see how much respect people have for Canadians and Newfoundlanders.”

The group visited the memorial, but they didn’t really see it because it was covered by sheltered scaffolding as part of a massive renovation project. The group was greeted by Hélène Robichaud, director of the Canadian Battlefields Restoration Project. In May 2001, VAC announced it was allotting $30 million for the restoration of Canada’s memorials in France and Belgium. The sites are an average of 75 years old and have been worn by weather.

Young Adam Fedyk summed up how he felt about the trip. “We had some expectations, but this really turned out to be an epic production. We really got to know the veterans through everything from pleasant chit-chats to deeper, more meaningful, one-on-one discussions. There is only one way to understand and that is by coming here.”

He said he will use the photographs he took to illustrate talks he plans to give when he returns to Canada. “I’m going to stand up and do what I can in the cause of remembrance.”

Dominion President Jack Frost congratulated Veterans Affairs Canada for organizing a great trip, and he recognized the impact it had on the youth. “This has been a wonderful experience. I think the Canada Remembers program is really reaching the youth. I hope they can pass on the word when they get home.”

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