Address to convocation
Grefell Campus, October 7, 2011
In the audience as well are a number of family and friends, among them my wife, our two sons, our brand new daughter-in-law, and all six of my siblings. And with us in spirit I am sure – my late parents. This honorary degree I share with my mother Jessie, and my father Ed who placed so much emphasis on education during our growing up in Stephenville, when their own formal education was cut short as children, as was so often the case in rural Newfoundland of a century ago. I often think of my mother, a mere child of 12 heading from Bonne Bay to Labrador aboard a merchant schooner to work the summer as a cook's assistant, baking bread and cooking meals for the shore-based crew of fishermen. And how many times did I hear my father say how excited he was when, as a young boy also in Bonne Bay, he passed through the school door for the last time and joined his father in the fishing boat. My father was a great storyteller, and I like to think his gift for words found new form in his son.
My career as a writer has taken me in many directions. I see myself as a restless writer, one in need of a new and different focus with each project. If there is an overriding sense in my work, it is the immense pride I feel as someone born in Newfoundland and Labrador and who continues to live here, exploring its present and its past, and contemplating what lies ahead for us. I can be humorous (what writer from this place could be otherwise?), and I can be grim, and several states in between. I have chosen today to focus on one theme to be found in my work.
I am greatly honored to be receiving this recognition, in particular coming as it does from Memorial University, founded and named to commemorate those who died in what was known at the time as the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918.
I had two relatives who lost their lives in the Great War. One was John Wilbert Halfyard of Birchy Head, Bonne Bay, my great-grandmother's brother, my great uncle. He was 26 when he died of gunshot wounds, October 22, 1918. He is buried in a military cemetery in Belgium.
Not far from here, in Norris Point, also on the shores of Bonne Bay, stands a monument to John Thomas Major, another of those who gave their lives to the War. He was my second cousin, the son of my father's uncle George.
John Thomas enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment in February of 1917, a fisherman, and the son of a fisherman, using an "X" in place of his signature. In November of that same year he was wounded on a battlefield in France. The month before he had turned 20 years old. John Thomas was eventually transported to a hospital in London, where he died in May of 1918. He is buried, along with ten other members of the Regiment in Brookwood Cemetery, just outside London, which I have visited, where their graves are set prominently in a line in the centre of one section of that vast resting place of war dead.
As the names of you the graduates were read and you paraded so wonderfully across the stage, I could imagine in the audience these eleven young men of the Newfoundland Regiment, representing the 1200 more who died in that war, in their hearts cheering you on – 'Well done, lads!" they'd be saying. "You did wonderful, Miss!" "You all make us so very proud!"
For you today have been able to do something they never had the opportunity to do, these men, who like you were young and energetic, who sang and laughed and played sports, who fell in and out of love, and who were from all across the Island, with others in their Regiment from Labrador and places far beyond our shores:
Patrick Joseph Farrell, Ferryland
Charles Llewellyn Gilliam, Jeffrey's
Isaac John Snelgrove, Catalina
The names go on and on...
And to that list, I want to add another name, someone also buried in a cemetery in London:
Bertha Bartlett, Brigus
Bertha was one of more than 150 young women from Newfoundland who volunteered to go overseas during the war, to serve in the hospitals and nursing posts in both England and France. Bertha died in October of 1918, of influenza contracted while working at Wandsworth Hospital, caring for the soldiers, wounded and dying, brought over from France.
Theirs were lives of sacrifice, as have been the lives of soldiering young men and women since, it seems, forever. For as long as there has been conflict there have been young people willing and often eager to go off to war, whether it be Beaumont Hamel, or North Africa, or Kandahar.
We, you and I, are the fortunate ones, we who came to adulthood at a time where there was a choice. We weren't sitting in the schools and churches where teachers and priests were extolling the virtues of joining the Regiment or the Royal Navy in defense of the great British Empire. We weren't walking the streets of Curling being looked up and down, taunted for not joining up when the recruiters came around. We weren't feeling the pressure of our friends about to catch the train into St. John's and head to the Armory on Harvey Road to sign their names, or mark their 'X'.
Still, I should not leave the impression that those who did join the Regiment were down-hearted by what was happening to them. On the contrary, they saw it as a terrific adventure, an opportunity to escape the isolated routine of their lives. They didn't want to miss out on what was a defining moment on a world stage. Their training camps in England and Scotland proved tough, but a time of great camaraderie to judge by the letters home. On the way to their first assignment, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, they stopped in Cairo. There are marvelous pictures of young Newfoundland soldiers in shorts and sun helmets, sitting astride camels on desert sands, with the Great Sphinx of Giza and the colossal Pyramid of Khafre in the background. It was a very long way from the fishing boats of outport Newfoundland. There was even a moment on the battlefield in celebration of Christmas Day 1915, as recounted by Walter Steeds of Ellison (who had joined a Canadian Battalion) in a letter to his mother and father, when the two sides put down their guns and joined each other across enemy lines in Belgium. 'Believe me,' wrote Walter, 'it was some day. Not hardly a shot fired throughout the day, and some of the boys were over in the German trenches talking to the Germans..." They exchanged food and drink and, in some sections of the line the enemy troops played a game of soccer.
I used that letter in a performance piece of letters and songs that I recently compiled for our Provincial Archives. I have had the privilege to write about war without ever having to fight in one – the Newfoundland Regiment on the Somme in WWI, the sinking of the Cabot Strait ferry, the SS Caribou, in WWII, and now in recent months, again our homegrown Regiment in the Great War, this time in Gallipoli. And it has often been students and graduates of the theatre program of this campus who have acted in these pieces when they have been plays, staged by Rising Tide Theatre. For us, myself and the actors and the director, it has been a way of remembering, as I like to think it has been for audiences. As descendents of those who went off to war, as citizens who benefitted from the sacrifice, it is our responsibility to remember.
And it is our responsibility, too, as the educated of this province, as graduates of this Memorial University, not only to remember, but to reflect more deeply on war, to question, to probe, to engage in debate. Hopefully, you have come away from this institution with more than a diploma, a stepping stone to employment, you have come with a more inquiring mind. That, above all, is what a university should do, instill an ability to think, to take on the status quo, to seek a better way.
Conflict is not ultimately the better way, if sometimes it is necessary. If sometimes, as we have seen recently in Egypt and Libya, it succeeds in releasing a people into freedom. After conflict must come peace, or that sacrifice of lives is in vain.
And we must question, you and I, when violence is a starting point, when revenge precedes negotiation, when pride comes before reason. There is a moment in No Man's Land, the novel and the play based on the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, when the men of the Regiment are in the trenches on July 1, 1916, awaiting orders, the South Wales Borderers and the Border Regiment having gone before them and been decimated, many of the dead and the near dead clogging the few gaps in the barbed wire they were expected to get through to reach No Man's Land and head in the direction of the enemy trenches. There is that cruel, cruel few minutes, the air still stinging with German machine gun fire, ripe with the realization of what will have to be their fate if they too are sent over the top, a few minutes which must have felt like a thousand years... waiting, waiting, until from behind the lines comes the order: 'The situation is not cleared up. Send in the Newfoundland. Let them see what they can do!'
And there is a moment in Lead Me Home, when the German U-boat commander, in real life a Dresden lad of but 27 years old, Ulrich Graf, standing barely above the surface waters of the Cabot Strait, in the submarine's cunning tower, when through his binoculars he sees for the first time the SS Caribou (to quote his lines in the play) "...one shadow in sight. Behind it a second small one.
Freighter-passenger vessel belching heavy smoke", that moment when the lives of so many people are in his hands. That all to brief, ungodly moment. "Take advance position," he yells below. "Enemy sighted! Escorted passenger ferry." And his conclusion: "Enemy troops aboard, in all likelihood."
My words, it is true, words (if well researched) from a man who has never been to war, who knows full well that once battle is set in motion, only against great odds does it not stay in motion. Yet words that must question what was accomplished when in that actual hour on the Somme 272 men of the Newfoundland Regiment were killed, many more were wounded, and there were but 68 to answer the roll call the next day. All for naught. It is unlikely, on that day, more than one or two soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment succeeded in making it to an enemy trench.
And to question the order of a U-boat commander that resulted in the deaths not only of 57 enemy troops aboard the ferry, on their way back from leave to their military bases in Newfoundland, but 49 civilians as well, including all but one of the 11 children aboard, leaving in Port aux Basques alone 21 widows and 51 fatherless children. A decision by a man who would himself (and all 45 of his crew) meet an agonizing death a short five months later in the depths of the North Atlantic when his U-boat was sunk by the Royal Navy. A lad from Dresden whose home city in 1945 lay a bombed-out wasteland, 25,000 civilians dead.
Yes, as the educated in arts and sciences, as artists, as teachers, as nurses, as business administrators we must question, or what is education for? What is it for if when the daily job is done, the turmoil of the world still swirls around us and our sons and daughters must still go off to war.
As you head out from this ceremony, degrees in hand, to experience the joys and sometimes the frustrations of your work and personal lives, think what fortunate men and women we all are to have been born at the moment in time we were and in the war-free part of world we call home. I encourage you to remember the young men and women behind the name of the University from which you have graduated.
Think of them in their spirited, fun-loving, impetuous moments, full of hope and good cheer.
Go off, and work hard, do your jobs well, always taking time to sing and laugh and love and be loved. Those young men and women whose Memorial degrees you bear would be so very proud.