In Newfoundland and Labrador, July 1st is Memorial Day. It’s been that longer than it’s been Canada Day. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. But July 1st has had special significance for 99 years, since 1916.
On July 1st 1916, 801 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont Hamel in France, part of the Battle of the Somme. Only 68 answered roll call July 2nd. Of the rest, about half were killed or missing and the other half wounded.
After Beaumont Hamel
The Regiment quickly regrouped and continued fighting. Six weeks later they were at Flanders then back in the Somme. After the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, they were honoured by King George V and renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
The casualties of the First World War for Newfoundland soldiers and sailors were about 1,500 killed and 2,500 wounded. A huge chunk out of a whole generation. And a huge public debt for financing that war effort: about 10 million dollars plus pensions for veterans.
The price of fish dropped in the 1920s, followed by the depression of the 1930s. Debt, deprivation and instability led in 1933 to Newfoundland giving up self-government in favour of direct rule by Great Britain, in a Commission of Government. Another 15 years of debating how Newfoundland would be governed and by whom. Another world war to which Newfoundland again sent troops. And in 1948 a referendum, narrowly won by those who wanted to join Canada.
So July 1st is now a day of national celebration in Newfoundland and Labrador, just as it is on the mainland. But it’s a sombre day as well. It’s the day to mourn, remember and honour the men known as The Blue Puttees and their proud country.
If you haven’t already, read Kevin Major’s 1995 novel No Man’s Land. It’s wonderful.
Here is a 1988 interview with Ronald Dunn, a veteran of Beaumont Hamel pictured above.