On a good summer day, the War Memorial is the nicest spot to be in downtown St. John's. Its stone and copper centrepiece is bracketed by a gentle green hill that slopes down towards the harbour. On a clear day you can see straight across the Narrows into the thick Atlantic fogbanks that hover offshore, forever threatening to consume the city.
But this emerald jewel in the downtown crown belies its human cost, the reason it stands on a prime piece of real estate between Duckworth and Water. It was erected to commemorate the colony's losses in the First World War—most notably, the virtual annihilation of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel, France on July 1, 1916.
July 1, of course, is also the anniversary of Confederation in 1867: Canada's birthday, which is a much happier occasion. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it has always felt surreal having to juggle both national memories on the same date. And as the centenary of Beaumont-Hamel approaches, I find myself having a lot of complicated feelings about this complicated day.
As part of the opening salvo of the Battle of the Somme, 800 men from the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at 8:45 AM on July 1. British commanders, in an incredible feat of imperial hubris, overestimated the effectiveness of their artillery. They fed the Newfoundlanders to German machine gunners, who only had to aim at the gaps in the barbed-wire that had been opened for the assault. Most of the regiment was dead, dying or wounded in the first 20 minutes. The next morning, only 68 soldiers answered roll call.
Over the intervening century, this story been etched into the brains of every Newfoundlander. It's a ghastly piece of history. We have never really gotten over the loss.
July 1 in the rest of Canada, of course, is a lot less sombre. Mainlanders get to roll out of bed as late as they please with no thought to anything save beers, barbecue, and blowing off fireworks. It's a day to celebrate this country we call Canada—which, in these heady days of Trudeaumania 2, feels pretty far removed from the stodgy racist backwater that John A Macdonald and friends proclaimed in 1867. But even if Canadians themselves have trouble agreeing about what kind of country they're celebrating, everyone is at least on the same page. July 1—Canada Day, Dominion Day, whatever you call it—is meant to be a fundamentally joyous occasion.It's hard for two national holidays to split a day, let alone when they're on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. So it's perhaps less than surprising that the two commemorations have started to slip together. (As I write this, there is a large electric sign outside Piper's on Elizabeth Avenue flashing the following messages: "REMEMBER OUR FALLEN! PLANT SOMETHING IN THEIR MEMORY! ENJOY YOUR CANADA DAY BECAUSE OF THEM!")
July 1 at the War Memorial is, increasingly, a day to commemorate the men who fought and died at Beaumont-Hamel in loyal service to the British vision of human freedom, as enshrined most perfectly in the Dominion of Canada. Memorial Day exists in a strange space where a dead nation bleeds into a living one. It is the site where you can feel most acutely how pre-Confederation Newfoundland history has been papered over with the Canadian story. Canada Day retroactively draws us into Ottawa's vision of manifest destiny after Newfoundland's Year Zero in 1949.
The First World War exists in the Canadian memory differently than it does in Newfoundland. The Great War destroyed the island. A lost generation, a foreclosed future, the figurative death of a nation that culminated in its literal death in 1934 when the Dominion of Newfoundland voted itself out of existence—this was the price our great-grandparents paid for service to God, King, and Empire.
This was not the case in Canada. Canada has always been more eager than most participants to romanticize the war. It was a horror, yes—but it was also the crucible in which the nation was forged. Canada went to Flanders a colonial boy and returned a national man. There is a reason the Red Chamber is ringed by battlefield vignettes.
It's very hard to remember Beaumont-Hamel. How do you make sense of something so fundamentally senseless? It's a microcosm of the entire war—the barbarity of it all. An imperial pissing contest between Queen Victoria's grandchildren that opened the box on every horror of the 20th century. (Arguably, too, much of the 21st: how much of the strife emanating from the Middle East can be traced from the cruel geometry of Sykes-Picot?)
What are we supposed to remember? The unknowable terror of a teenage boy being marched up a mountain of corpses into a maw of machine guns? The hundreds of devastated families left behind, the outport villages robbed of a future? A country so thoroughly broken by the whole awful affair that it collapsed in political suicide less than two decades later? No—it's too much.
The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel is unthinkable. It is a black hole of history from which no light escapes, violently warping everything around it. Dress it up in the cult of Noble Sacrifice all you want but it resists meaning. It obliterates meaning with all the ferocity with which it obliterated men.
It is beyond question that the men who fought and died at Beaumont-Hamel that day were brave and selfless to an extent that I will never know—that none of us, God willing, will ever have to know.
But there is little that feels noble about the sacrifice. I'm not even sure it qualifies as tragic. It's criminal. It has always struck me as fundamentally, profoundly criminal: the day the British crown murdered a generation and robbed Newfoundland of a future. And for what? Beaumont-Hamel made not a lick of difference to the war, but it broke my country. It's hard for me to feel anything right now beyond flashes of anger crashing down into a deep pit of sadness. This is what I remember. Is this what we're supposed to remember?
It's taxing on a person to spend any extended period of time remembering Beaumont-Hamel. Maybe, then, it's for the best that we only have half a day before we're called to turn our minds to happier things—the living Canadian dream instead of the dead Newfoundland one, the open future instead of the closed past, the horizon instead of the grave. Confederation has its problems but we have come so far together and we may yet go so much further if we can only hold to the promise of its vision.
But it's not easy, putting our ghosts to rest. Not when it still feels so raw, so fresh, so deep, so unresolved. Even after 100 years.
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