In my watercolour set, Payne’s grey is always the colour I run out of first. It is the perfect pigment for Legion blazers and overcast skies. And so when my plane slips through the clouds, and slides over the cold Atlantic, I notice St. John’s, Nfld., for the first time, and right away see that I will need another pan of Payne’s grey to paint Remembrance Day on the Rock. A little blue is peeking through the cloudy sky on the morning of Nov. 9 when District 1 Commander Peter Winsor joins me at Vanier Elementary School for a remembrance assembly organized by Grade 6 students. Winsor is one of four Legion members who’ll be marching on the colours from Pleasantville Branch in St. John’s. “The school kids today are very much in sync with remembrance,” he tells me. “They are very interested in what’s going on and are very aware of why they are doing it.”
The students have clearly put a lot of work into their production of letters, songs and poems. And now–as part of a study on peace and remembrance–they are busy performing for parents and the younger grades. “Infested, muddy and gross are the trenches the veterans fought in,” says Tim O’Regan, reading passionately from something he has written. “Why? I’ll tell you why. They did it for us, to see us smile with joy in this beautiful country of ours…. I can’t picture myself being shipped off for four years to an unknown land. I wouldn’t have the courage or strength to do it. Would you?”
Newfoundlanders do have the courage and the strength. They have proven this in many bitter actions. Perhaps the blackest time was in World War I, on July 1, 1916, at Beaumont Hamel. The Newfoundland Regiment began the day with approximately 800 soldiers. The next day, only 68 made roll call. Those who were killed or wounded had advanced straight into an absolute wall of German bullets on that first day of the Battle of the Somme.After visiting the elementary school, Winsor and the colour party continue on to Brother Rice Junior High School where Grade 7 to 9 students perform songs and present their school with a Peace Quilt.
These school visits form part of a busy schedule for the Legion here in early November. The visits make it possible for Legionnaires to add their messages of peace and remembrance to the lessons from the educators. That evening, at HMCS Cabot, more than 200 people attend the presentation of a poster that had been removed years ago from HMS Newfoundland, the only ship in the Royal Navy to bear the name Newfoundland. The poster, which is titled Battle Song of the Newfoundlanders, is presented to HMCS Cabot by Newfoundland and Labrador Lieutenant-Governor Edward Roberts.
The next morning, Legionnaires head to Memorial University of Newfoundland, built in 1925 as Memorial University College, and as a memorial to those killed in war. Three hundred and ten former students of the college enlisted in WW II. The names of 30–all of whom were reported dead or missing–are solemnly read to those attending the ceremony of remembrance. Winsor and four other Legion members carry the command colours for the event. That evening, St. John’s Branch hosts a Veterans’ Appreciation Night. The turnout is tremendous with more than 300 VIPs, veterans, Legionnaires and young people gathering for roast beef and mashed potatoes prepared by the branch’s ladies auxiliary.
Early on the morning of Remembrance Day, Newfoundland and Labrador Command President Calvin Crane and Winsor take part in a wreath-placing ceremony at the Field of Honour in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. After getting out of the strong, cold winds, they have a few minutes to warm up at St. John’s Branch before heading up to the Sergeants’ War Memorial where they represent the Legion at a wreath-placing ceremony.
The last ceremony of the day is also the biggest. It is held at the National War Memorial of Newfoundland and Labrador. Located downtown, the memorial, which has the old harbour as its backdrop, commemorates all of Newfoundland and Labrador’s wartime achievements. In spite of the winds, a colourful crowd of some 4,000 to 5,000 people fill the surrounding streets. Afterwards, during a reception at Pleasantville Branch, WW II veteran Tom Godden tells me there are “not many of us left.” He says when his regiment, the 166th (Nfld.) Field Regt., held its last annual reunion, only about 30 could attend. “Today I met two guys from our regiment, but at one time we would have filled this place.”
While there are fewer veterans around today, the branch, like the streets near the memorial, is packed with men and women from the Legion, the armed services and the RCMP. There are red, blue, navy and black uniforms scattered throughout the hall. These same colours are present that afternoon at Conception Bay Branch in nearby Kelligrews, where again the turnout is high. The ladies auxiliary cooks and serves food for everyone and a spontaneous “kitchen party” provides the music on stage.
There is a dark rain on the day I fly out of St. John’s, and it washes the sky and shore into one deep shade of Payne’s grey. It is November in Newfoundland and the smiling people here remember their military history and hold this time close in their hearts.