Beaumont-Hamel

In Mary Walsh's corner of the country, November 11 plays only a supporting role in the annual ritual of wartime remembrance. The real commemorations the genuine acts of tribute and sadness take place in Newfoundland and Labrador on July 1, when the rest of Canada is having a party and setting off fireworks.

"July 1 is a very strange holiday for us," says Walsh, the St. John's actor, comedian and CBC bookworm. "To the rest of the country it's Canada Day, but to us it's the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. Traditionally, it's a very sombre occasion."

July 1, 1916, was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain's most ill-fated offensive campaign on the Western Front during the First World War. Britain's small, self-governing colony in Newfoundland had contributed 800 soldiers to the war effort. The men of the Newfoundland Regiment were largely green, yet fiercely loyal and well-disciplined troops. On the morning of July 1 they were ordered to leave their trenches, advance across open ground and assault well-fortified German lines near the French village of Beaumont-Hamel.

They were met by a hailstorm of bullets from an enemy unscathed by previous artillery barrages. Witnesses said they could see the Newfoundlanders struggling through the bullets with their chins tucked into their chests, as if braving the force of a North Atlantic blizzard.

In the space of a morning the Regiment was wiped out. Of the 780 men who took part in the assault, 684 became casualties.

"It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour," wrote a British commander of the Newfoundland effort, who said the assault failed, "because dead men can advance no further."

Although Walsh's father served in the British Merchant Marine in both the First and Second World Wars, she had an uncle who was wounded at Beaumont-Hamel.

"I guess everyone had someone they knew who fought or died there," she says. "The story of Beaumont-Hamel is to Newfoundland what Gallipoli is to the Australians."


Family Shrines, Fading Memories

So visceral was the effect on Newfoundland, says Walsh, that until recently, some families still maintained a shrine in their homes to a grandfather, or great uncle who braved the bullets at Beaumont-Hamel.

"I remember travelling around Newfoundland with a theatre company in the 1970s," she says, "and there were places on the Northern Peninsula, where families still kept their grandfather's uniform and medals and puttees, the whole bit, displayed on a kind of altar in their homes. It was a kind of art piece really."

Today, however, as wartime memories fade, Walsh says July 1 is gradually becoming co-opted by Canada Day festivities - a transformation she has mixed feelings about.

"Perhaps the celebration of Canada is more important than the memory of Beaumont-Hamel," she says. "Perhaps it's better for us to embrace that celebration than continue to mourn the past.

"On the other hand, we have to remember what we did. We will always have war I guess. And we hope that by telling the stories of past wars, past bloodshed and past horror, that we could maybe learn to avoid it."

"And maybe we have in all kinds of places. Maybe, because we know the story of the First and Second World Wars, we have avoided being at war constantly since that time," Walsh says.

"Maybe because people know that history, those stories, we've managed to avoid all kinds of terrible things, because we know what the end result will be."