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(November 15, 2001, Gazette)

Trip of memories

Paul Collins at Beaumont-HamelPaul Collins at Beaumont-Hamel

My friend Jen recently wrote me that my presentation on Beaumont Hamel was the most moving of the whole tour. She said hearing about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and their sacrifice, was a swift kick in the rear for her. Jen is from Calgary, and like most Albertans, knows almost nothing about Newfoundland. She and I were two of only 12 students from across Canada chosen by the Battle of Normandy Foundation to participate in this year’s battlefield tour. Every year, the foundation arranges a tour of Canadian First World War and Second World War battlefields in France and Belgium. To help with the cost, they also award each student a substantial bursary. I found out about it by chance one day when I was walking through the University Centre. I was one of only two that applied from Memorial University, and was really surprised when I was picked. I’m chronologically-challenged and the other applicant, a classmate, is in his 20s. He is, certainly, as good a student as I am, and I thought that the foundation would lean more towards a younger person. Fortunately for me, I was wrong, and shortly after finishing my last exam of the semester, I found out I was going to Europe.

I was both excited and apprehensive. For one thing, I had to come up with my portion of the cost of the trip. I approached a number of sources including Student Affairs, University Relations, MUNSU, the GSU, and my MHA, and they all contributed in varying degrees. But even more so, I was nervous about the other participants and, most of all, Dr. Marc Milner, the tour leader. Dr. Milner is considered by many to be the expert on the Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle of the Atlantic, my area of interest (I’m a history major). Frankly, that intimidated the hell out of me. Each participant was required to prepare three presentations on separate battles to give to the group, and I worried that I would not perform to his, and the group’s, expectations. I, being the only Newfoundlander on the tour, of course was assigned the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. I guess I did a good job, at least as far as Jen is concerned, anyway.

The Danger Tree, where members of the Newfoundland Regiment went to their deaths.The Danger Tree, where members of the Newfoundland regiment went to their deaths.

The Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park is situated in the middle of nowhere on the French countryside. This isn’t surprising, as most of the battles of the First World War were fought in the middle of nowhere. Once the war was over, French farmers reclaimed their land and went back to cultivating it, as they’d done for hundreds of years, and hundreds of wars! The government of Newfoundland bought a part of the battlefield from these farmers a few years after First World War, and converted it into a memorial park. Rather than erect a large monolith, or some other monument, the government decided to preserve the battlefield itself as a remembrance, the only memorial being a large caribou looking out over no man’s land. And so it was in front of the caribou, standing on the lip of St. John’s Road, the trench where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment “went over the top” to be slaughtered that sunny summer morning in 1916, that I gave my presentation that so moved my friend Jen.

I think it was really the place, not my presentation, that moved my friend. It moved me, too. It is all so peaceful now; the birds sing, and sheep munch on the grass in the middle of no man’s land. If it wasn’t for the rows of headstones in Y-Ravine Cemetery off to the right, you’d think you were in front of the caribou in Bowring Park. But closer inspection of the ground ahead quickly reminds you that you are not in Bowring Park. The dips and rolls in the grassy field are not just the gentle undulations common in most meadows, they are the outlines of shell holes and trenches. And still lying buried in those shell holes and trenches are the remains of many Newfoundlanders whose names and locations are “Known Only to God.” Those whose bodies were found rest in Y-Ravine Cemetery. It was the German machine guns sited in this ravine that caused so much of the carnage in the battle for Beaumont Hamel. Consequently, it is somewhat apropos that this is where many of their victims are buried.

Entering through the brick gate to the cemetery was a sobering experience. Row upon row of sun-whitened headstones bearing names so familiar to me: Doyle, Hickey, O’Brien, Druken, Collins ... on and on. And they were all so young — 18, 19, 23, one was only 16! He had lied about his age. These weren’t a bunch of faceless names, statistics of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, these were the unrealized future of Newfoundland. These young men were fishermen from various outports who had enlisted for adventure and to escape the poverty of the early part of the 20th century. These names also included the finest families on the island. The bright young minds that were to steer Newfoundland through the new century. One wonders what our poor, much-maligned province would have been like if they had not been taken from us.

The Y-Ravine Cemetery The Y-Ravine Cemetery

The Y-Ravine Cemetery was our first of the tour, and we would see many more over the next two weeks. Many were larger, many were more magnificent, but I don’t think any had the effect that this one had on us. We were all pretty quiet in the vans as we drove out of the parking lot. I looked around at my tour mates, all of them were young, in their early to mid-20s. None had probably known tragedy, all were healthy, educated, happy to be alive. And I think everyone, not just my friend Jen, realized to some extent, they owed that to those young men who now lie buried in a small graveyard near the French village of Beaumont Hamel.

Paul Collins is a history student at Memorial University and author of
The Dangerous Waters.