Revisiting Newfoundland’s First Memorial Day on July 1st, 1917
On July 1st, 1867, the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick collectively unified into one Dominion under the British Empire; thus, the country of Canada was born. The date was commemorated as Dominion Day until the Canada Act in 1982 officially rebranded the holiday as the more modernly familiar Canada Day celebration.
For Newfoundland—a former colony and dominion of the United Kingdom which did not enter Canadian Confederation until 1949— the date of July 1st was solely a solemn day of remembrance for over 30 years. While the rest of Canada paints itself red and white, indulges in fireworks, cookouts and other drunken merriment befitting of a birthday celebration, Newfoundland has spent every July 1st since 1917 sombrely remembering the horrific bloodshed that decimated the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel, France in 1916. Since 1949, Newfoundland has dealt with the dichotomy of two very different meanings to a single calendar date.
To put the ghastly significance of the date into perspective: between 1914 and 1918 of the First World War, over 1,300 Newfoundland soldiers lost their lives. Over half of those casualties—roughly 700—were claimed in a single morning on July 1st, 1916. Most of them in less than half an hour.
The tragic battle that shellshocked Newfoundland took place in the morning light of July 1st, 1916. British and French troops were preparing to cross No Man’s Land to rush the German positions and initiate the Battle of the Somme. As the Newfoundland Regiment comprised the first wave in what was supposed to be a surprise attack, the German’s were aware and prepared and met the troops with blankets of machine gun and artillery fire. At approximately 9:15AM, the Newfoundland Regiment was mowed down in a storm of German bullets. Of the 800 Newfoundland soldiers that entered the battle, less than 70 answered roll call the next morning.
In the many years since, Newfoundland has commemorated and paid tribute to our tragically fallen in the form of statues, monuments, books, songs and ceremonies. The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel is engrained in our heritage, and we’ve become so familiar with these pages of our history books that it has almost distanced ourselves from emotionally understanding what such a loss would do to our communities. To put it into perspective, Waterford Valley High School—one of today’s largest schools in St. John’s—holds roughly 800 students, the same amount of young Newfoundlanders that entered No Man’s Land on July 1st, 1916. Even in today’s population, imagine the impact of losing 700 young Newfoundlanders. Let that sink in for a moment.
To peel back to a time where the loss, shock and tragedy was a fresh wound to the island, we dove into the archives of Newfoundland newspapers to find some local press coverage. In the pages of the St. John’s Evening Advocate from July 2nd, 1917, we found an in-depth recap of the first ever Memorial Day parade, church services and other observances to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.
A majority of the ceremony from the Colonial Building in St. John’s that was captured by the Evening Advocate was a speech by Sir Edward Morris, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland from 1909 until the end of 1917. In addition to military personnel, both branches of the Legislature, the Mayor, municipal councillors, clergymen, and a dense sea of citizens who attended the ceremony, the parade was preceded by “automobiles in which were returned wounded soldiers” who were unable to “walk sufficiently well to participate in the parade. ”
The speech by Sir Edward Morris seemed like a heavy attempt to persuade the grief-stricken population into focusing on the heroic status of those who had fallen on July 1st, 1916. The word “fame” is used profusely in Morris’s address, and—with the world still in the grasp of the war—many encouraging pleas are made by Morris, as well as Sir William Frederick Lloyd—the Leader of the opposition—for the young population to follow in the footsteps of these heroes and enlist in the ongoing war effort.
The following is our exact transcript from the pages of the Evening Advocate newspaper. The transcript is word-for-word with all spelling, grammar and style intact for historical accuracy.
The Evening Advocate
St. John’s, Newfoundland
July 2nd, 1917:
Yesterday, July 1st, the first anniversary of the memorable battle of Beaumont Hamel, in which so many of our noble heroes were killed and wounded was fittingly observed as a Memorial Day. At eleven o’clock in the forenoon memorial services were held in all the city churches at which sermons suitable to the occasion were preached.
The Soldiers at Headquarters and the Forestry Company attended services of the following churches: Church of England men at St. Thomas’s, Roman Catholics at the Cathedral, Methodists at Cochrane St. Centennial Church, Presbyterians at the Kirk, and Salvationists at Livingstone Street Barracks.
In the afternoon at 3 o’clock all the military in the city and Boys’ Brigades assembled at the Regimental Headquarters and were formed up in marching order bybtheir respective officers to participate in a joint parade through the city. At 3:30 the parade under command of Major Montgomerie, left the headquarters in the following order:
Royal Nala Reserve
Expenditionary Force men (Returned soldiers)
Regimental Drum and Bugle Band
Newfoundland Forestry Company
C.L.B. Bugle Band
Church Lads Brigade
Catholic Cadet Corps
The Parade was preceded by automobiles in which were returned wounded soldiers, who were unable to walk sufficiently well to participate in the parade.
Citizens, men, women and children, assembled in thousands and lined both sides of the street all the way from the Headquarters to the Colonial Building, at both these places the crowds were so dense it was impossible to get through them. A guard of soldiers in charge of Sergt. Instructer Hussey assisted the police, under Superintendent Grimes, in keeping the gate and grounds clear until the parade arrived. The parade, on arrival, was formed up in a solid body in front of the Colonial Building. The machine guns captured by our soldiers last October were mounted at the top and bottom of the steps. Assembled here were Sir William Horwood, representing the Governor, who is absent from the city. The Premier, The Leader of the Opposition, members of both branches of the Legislature. The Mayor, Municipal Councillors, Clergymen and many prominent citizens.
Automobiles with the wounded men flanked each side of the square in which the Soldiers, Sailors, Foresters and Brigades were massed, the rest of the space inside the fence was packed with the public as also was the adjoining part of Bannerman Park, Military Road and Bannerman Street. Viewed from the steps of the Colonial Building, the gathering was most imposing and was such a one as was never seen there before.
His Excellency the Governor, who is now on the West Coast sent the following message, He is now in Burgeo where a similar function was held yesterday.
From Long Harbour, F.B, June 28,
to Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Morris, P.C.,
St. John’s ,
I deeply regret that I cannot attend in person the Commemoration Services at St. John’s on July 1st. I shall be present at the service at Burgeo on that day. It has been my ardent hope that July 1st might be adopted as the National Holiday of Newfoundland to Commemorate that morning when the soldier heroes of the Ancient Colony faced death and won imperishable glory for their native land. For most of us July 1st is a day of mourning in our homes, but to every stout-hearted Newfoundlander the pride of race will transcend the personal sorrow.
Newfoundlanders have had the right to be proud of themselves because of the valiant lads who fell this day last year. There are other dates and other battles not one whit less honourable, but July 1st, 1916 is the day when we entered the brotherhood of Fame.
To the Officers Commanding the 1st and 2nd Battalions.
In commemorating the first anniversary of July 1st, 1916, when the Regiment achieved everlasting fame and glory, the people of Newfoundland send greetings and good wishes to all ranks overseas, confident that the splendid position achieved will ever be maintained.
The Prime Minister, Sir Edward Morris, addressed the vast assemblage in part as follows: — We are assembled here this afternoon under the shadow of the Great War still devastating the fairest positions of Europe—France, Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and in the East, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, the cradle of the human race—to inaugurate a function which, in the years to come will be cherished by Newfoundlanders as the most previous anniversary in their annals. The form which this celebration will take from time to time may vary, but I feel certain that no future gathering will more fully express the sentiments which swell our breasts to-day than the assemblage I now see around me—an assemblage who esteem so highly the glory and honour and renown achieved by Newfoundland heroes, who a year to-day made the Supreme Sacrifice, offering up their young lives in defence of liberty and civilization, in defence of their homes and in defence of the Empire which we all so dearly love.
We have already this morning, as befits a Christian community, thronged in our thousands our city churches and prayers from twice ten thousand to the God of Battles and the Lord of Hosts, to Him who holds in the hollow of His hand the destinies of us all, and with contrite and humble, through saddened hearts, remembered at our various altars those young heroes who lie in far-off distant lands, but who, by the genius of Christianity, through gone from us, are still with us in that universal communion which unites the living with the dead. This morning’s services brought consolation to thousands of bereaved souls—parents, wives, sisters and brothers. There is nothing which gives so much comfort to the stricken and afflicted ones as the beautiful devotion to the memory of our departed dead. It is a beautiful thought that the spirits of the Illustrious dead participate in our earthly affairs, that the dead are close to us and realize all that we do and think concerning them, and if this be so it may not be hoping too much to believe they are looking down on us to-day. But the note I now desire to sound is a note of gladness, a note of triumph, and not a note of sorrow.
We are celebrating to-day an anniversary that as long as Newfoundland lives, as long as memory loves to linger over the deeds of the good, the valiant and the brave, so long will Beaumont Hamel Monchy, Suvla Bay, Cape Helles and Caribou Hill be to Newfoundlanders what Crecy, Balaklava, Trafalgar and the Nile have been for centuries to Englishmen at home. July 1st will, in future, be the day we celebrate, because it is the anniversary of the day our heroes fell. They fell fighting, facing the foe, taking part in the greatest military movement undertaken by the armies at the front since the outbreak of war. The work assigned to them on that day was a hopeless, almost impossible task, but it had to be accomplished in order that other points along the line might be held. Our men fully knew the nature of the task they were undertaking, but
Theirs not to reason why;
Theres but to do and die
The Germans had to be tied down to their positions, and the Newfoundland troops had to hold the trenches at Beaumont Hamel, in order to avoid German concentration, and for this alone, additional glory must forever attach to our soldiers. On that morning one thousand of our picked Regiment, those who were the first to volunteer, who had heard the call of duty, who required no artificial aids to inspire or stimulate them, who remembered as citizens of the Empire, that they could not avail of the advantages as such without assuming a corresponding responsibility, went over the parapet. They had flocked to the colours, and by their splendid example had much to do with encouraging future enlistments all over the country.
When shall their glory fade?
Oh, the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered!
I need not retail the story of their work from the time they left here till that fateful morning. All that has been told and written, and the glory of the Newfoundland troops, and the justly reflected glory on their country, has become a permanent page in the story of the world’s great achievements. It is now a part of our history, and in the ages to come on July 1st that story will be told. Beaumont hamlet ill be to Newfoundland what the Pass ot Thermopylae was to the Greeks, and the holding of the Bridge by Heratius rot the Romans in the good old days, when
None were found for Party,
Every country has its great anniversary
And all were for the State
Every country has its great anniversaries. England has its Waterloo and Trafalgar Day, France has many such anniversaries. July 4th is a great day in the United States: the day they celebrate their independence, but it is nothing to Commemoration Day, the day which celebrates the fall of their heroes, July 1st will forever be a beacon light of liberty for Newfoundland, a Pharos of the ages whose glimmering will come down through the cataracts of time and guide the youth of the country to the haven of honour and renown. The men who died that day were heroes. They represented the best of our Colonial life. Their splendid example fired the enthusiasm of the young men of the country.
They rose in dark and evil days
To right their native land;
They kindled here a living blaze
That nothing could withstand.
Then here’s their memory, let is be us a guiding light,
To cheer our strife for liberty,
And teach us to unite.
They need not have gone, they could have stayed at home and lived, but without glory and dishonour. They chose a glorious death rather than bring dishonour on themselves and their parents and their country. They are now our most precious assets. Nothing in the country to-day is as valuable as their memory, and in the years to come will be an incentive to the young men of the country to strive for high ideals. I fully realize how inadequate all this is to soothe the stricken relatives of these young heroes how hard it is to assuage the grief, where the light has gone but from the home; but I would remind the disconsolate parents that from the moment their soldier sons first lisped the name of father and mother in their cradle days, they prayed for them, not that they should live forever, but that they should live to do the duty to which they should be called and set bravely and honourably, live virtuously and win fame. This they have done—their prayers have been heard.”
Dr. Lloyd Speaks
Following the Premier’s address, the C.L.B. Band rendered “The Soldiers of the King”, after which the leader of the Opposition addressed the gathering.
Dr. Lloyd said in part it was a proud privilege to say a few words on a day in which we commemorate the heroic deeds done by our men. The heroes of Beaumont Hamel had consecrated their lives to their country, had displayed great gallantry and devotion to duty, and we, in respect to, as well as in commemoration of, those who have fallen, and further as citizens, must also consecrate our lives for the sake of our country. Those who fought and fell and prevailed were living up to the standard of devotion that has been set by the citizen soldiers who had preceded them and by those gallant now honoured as the “Old Contemptibles”, who had borne the stress of the earlier days of the war, and whose heroic and victorious retreat from Mons to the Marne had won them great renown. The Newfoundland heroes will have their names inscribed on the roll of fame just as the “Old Contemptibles.” The Prime Minister had told their immortal story and spoke of their imperishable memory: His Excellency in his message had equally praised that gallant band, and we all join in paying tribute to their steadfastness and glory; but it is for us to see that what they have done passes not from our minds, but remains as an example to us to do as they did. It would be little use for us to hold such commemorations unless we emulate their deeds and rendered whole-souled devotion to the country. Their deeds should inspire us to a higher and nobler sense of duty, and we should earnestly co-operate in doing our part. Such cooperation is necessary if we are to meet the future bravely. It is idle for us to imagine that there are not great tasks before us. We may have hard experiences to endure; there may be greater sacrifices to make. Just as those who endured at Gallipoli and in France won out to the end, so must we do our part if the Great War is to be won. More and more men are needed, and it is our duty to do all that in us lies to encourage men to join. Behind the blue and khaki there stands the brigades. It is well and fitting the boys of the Brigades should be present to participate in this event, for from them came the real strength of the original regiment. Of the first 500 men, most calm from the Brigades, and all the original officers. They played their part well in contributing the heroes who gained fame at Beaumont Hamel: in those veins flowed the same blood and spirit which inspired the “Old Contemptibles” to die rather than surrender. Neither the “Old Contemptibles” nor the Newfoundlanders had gained glorious or decisive victory; but the part they played had contributed to victory.
The “Old Contemptibles” saved France and made possible the victories of the past year. Those who participated at Beaumont Hamel made possible the victory in the other part of the line. They had seen others go over the top and disappear; but they followed bravely and unhesitatingly, and gained fame and a reputation “better than the best”, something we shall ever feel proud of. They proved the mettle of their pasture and showed that they were such stuff as victors are made. As they did so must we, by the same consecration of our lives, devotion to the duty and the same endurance to the end. The war is now a struggle of endurance, and we must carry on. The question is whether the submarine will starve Britain, or whether we can endure and provide sufficient men to oust the enemy and bring salvation to the British Isles and Newfoundland. Before victory comes we may have to buckle tight our belt, we may have to meet greater trials and difficulties than ever before, and we must prepare for them. Our entire thought and energy must be given to them. There our great industries to carry on and protest allied to them is the tonnage problem, for without shipping we cannot market our produce. These problems vitally affect our means of carrying on, of doing our share in the war, and we must bend our energies to solve them, for we must endure.
We must have team work and co-operation, all must be pulling to the same end. We need consecration and devotion to see that the great things for which the Empire stands, that this temple of Liberty before which we stand and the great institutions of freedom shall live. It should not be forgotten, however, that the cloud is not so dark as many appear. There is good reason for hope. Behind the darkest cloud the sun is shining. Our country had to meet great difficulties in the past, had its periods of stress and trial; but they were all overcome, and perhaps the country was the better for them. Periods of stress tend to stimulate and energize the whole life of the community. It was in the days following trying experiences that the greatest progress was made, when men were at their best, when the most was accomplished. Wars were always followed by greater eras. After the Napoleonic wars came the Victorian era, when Britain grew and progressed as never before. We shall win out in this war, and after it we shall be the better. But we must endure to the end, we must pledge ourselves to nobler effort, we must consecrate our lives to the cause. Only in this way can we contribute our utmost to the accomplishment of victory.
Leaving Colonial Building the parade continued east along Military Road, down Cochrane Street, along Duckworth to Prescott and Water Streets, and west to the Long Bridge where the Naval men dropped out. Return was made via Patrick Street and LeMarchant Road to the Headquarters where the parade disbanded at 5.45 p.m.
The officers in command of the sub-dividions of the parade were: Royal Naval Reserve Chief Warrant Officer Marshall; Forestry Company, Major Sullivan; Church Lads’ Brigade Colonel Rendell; Catholic Cadet Corps. Adj. Perez; Nfld. Highlanders, Lt. Mitchel.
The Evening Advocate
St. John’s, Newfoundland
July 2nd, 1917