July 1 is a bit of a different day in Newfoundland. It is Canada Day, and so people will be celebrating the birthday of the country (149 years today), but it is also Memorial Day for Newfoundland, commemorating a disastrous battle for the Newfoundland Regiment during the first world war (100 years ago today), and more broadly those who served and died in the war. It was one of the concessions we in Newfoundland made to the dominion of Canada in joining them in 1949, that we now have a slightly bipolar day at the beginning of July.
My family has a link to the battle of Beaumont Hamel (the specific engagement that saw hundreds of members of the Newfoundland regiment killed in roughly 40 minutes). My grandfather, Frank Dawe, was a member of the Newfoundland Regiment throughout the war.
Granddad was 82 by the time I was born. I was one of a twin born to his youngest son so I didn’t know my grandfather as anything other than an older man, who in his youth had had some noteworthy experiences in some far off exotic war.
Regimental number 915, Frank G. Dawe volunteered for service with the newly founded Newfoundland Regiment on January 8, 1915, 6 months after hostilities had begun in Europe. Most people of the time, not yet experienced in mechanized trench warfare, believed the war would be over in less than a year.
He sailed from Newfoundland in 1915 from St. John’s, and joined the regiment as they trained in England, not knowing where he would eventually see service.
By this time, the Ottoman Empire had entered the war to support their German allies (and to help stay Russian ambitions to regain Constantinople… and access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean). This was expected to have little effect, as the Ottoman’s were seen as a weak and tottering empire, which probably led to the decision to attack the Dardanelles (and eventually take the Bosphorus… and access to the Black Sea). Thus the Newfoundlanders (and my
grandfather) first saw action, not in combat against German, but against the Ottomans in the battle of Gallipoli (a battle also infamous to our cousins the Australians and the New Zealanders).
The regiment’s first death of the war was a Pte. Hugh Walter McWhirter, killed by a Turkish shell on Sept. 22, 1915. His regimental number (902) was close to my Grandfather’s, so it is likely they knew each other, probably fairly well. While the Newfoundlanders distinguished themselves as brave and competent soldiers in the conflict, the campaign was doomed to failure, and after three hellish months, the Newfoundlanders were evacuated back to Europe. After 3 months of training and regrouping in Egypt, The rest of the war would see them in France and Belgium.
Frank Dawe was in action with the rest of the Newfoundland Regiment as they served along the front lines after March of 1916. On June 15 of 1916, he was one of 11 men wounded during shelling, which the commanding officer by now called “situation normal”. This would mean that Granddad would be in hospital when the order came on the morning of July 1, 1916 to go over the top at the beginning of the battle of the Somme. The battle would have over a million casualties over the next 5 months, of which Newfoundland’s experience would be a small part.
At the beginning of the battle, hundreds of Newfoundlanders were cut down by the machine guns some elements British command had believed were “overrated”. The shelling the allied command had hoped would dislodge the German defenders had not been as effective as hoped, and so the Newfoundlanders ended up running headlong into largely intact defences.
The tragedy for Newfoundland is hard to overestimate. The population of the then-country was a little over 255,000, so the death of hundreds of her young men hit hard back here in the Dominion of Newfoundland. That is why July 1 bears such a huge importance for Newfoundland over and above the anniversary of the promulgation of the British North America Act (which serves as the birth of Canada, a foreign
country to us until April 1949). Most of the people my grandfather had served with in multiple engagements against both the Ottomans and the Germans died that day. I feel a little bad now, how I asked with shining eyes for him to tell me about the first world war. I was young and still believed that such things could be exciting. He only told me he spent months dirty in a potato field.
Granddad’s war ended during the battle of Arras on April 14th
between 9 and 10 AM. His company had moved forward to take an area in advance of the front, near the town of Monchy Le-Preux. That morning, a German counterattack
pushed back many of the defenders and surrounded his company’s position. As a Lewis gunner, he was unable to retreat under the advance, and as the story is told among members of my family, A German officer came up behind him and with his sidearm drawn informed him in perfect English, that the war was over for him. While he was reported in Newfoundland as missing in May of 1917, it would be July of that year before he would be confirmed as a prisoner in Germany.
It’s said he would attempt escape from the POW camp 3 times over the next 19 months, but before he would successfully escape, the war ended on November 11, 1918. The man w
ho was once Cpl. Frank G. Dawe would return to Newfoundland, eventually marry and have a family, which is why I am here to write this. Today, my niece, his granddaughter, is on the fields of Beaumont Hamel, to commemorate a battle my Grandfather missed, even as many of his compatriots did not, and paid for that difference in experience with their lives.
So today, as Canada celebrates its birthday, I also join with my fellow Newfoundlanders in remembering the sacrifice of so many of those who did not live to help build up our nation, now our province.