Most Canadians know July 1 as Canada Day, the anniversary of Canadian Confederation and the birth of our country. Newfoundland was the last province to join Confederation on April 1, 1949. Newfoundlanders recognize and celebrate July 1 as Canada Day but many also pay respect and tribute to the men of the Newfoundland Regiment who sacrificed their lives in World War I in the Battle of the Somme, 99 years ago.
The Newfoundland Regiment and Blue Puttees
At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Newfoundland was a dominion of Britain, like Canada. However, there was no military set in place at the time. Initially it was suspected that Newfoundland would join under the British military. However, a volunteer-based battalion was formed of approximately 1000 men aged 18 to 35, originating from throughout the island. They were officially called the Newfoundland Regiment, but the nickname “The Blue Puttees” stemmed from their non-traditional blue uniforms which they wore due to the lack of khaki fabric available on the island.
The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel
The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel was the first day of the Battle of Somme; July 1, 1916 in Beaumont-Hamel, France. The Newfoundland Regiment went into battle with over 800 men but only 68 of them reported for roll call the next day; the rest had either been wounded, had gone missing, or had been killed.
The Newfoundland Regiment was not the only military force involved or affected by the battle. Almost 20,000 British soldiers had been killed and another 37,000 wounded in the battle. Many families throughout Europe and North America were tortured with worry waiting to hear if their loved ones were still alive.
The Newfoundland Regiment was praised by the British military for their heroic sacrifices, and the first Memorial Day ceremony to commemorate the battle was held in downtown St. John’s one year later, on July 1, 1917.
The National War Memorial
The name The National War Memorial does not refer to the nation of Canada but rather to the Dominion of Newfoundland. It was designed by English sculptors Ferdinand Victor Blundstone and Gilbert Bayes. The memorial, which is located between Duckworth Street and Water Street in downtown St. John’s, was officially unveiled on July 1, 1924. It displays five figures, which are strategically placed around the center pedestal to signify Newfoundland’s participation, dedication, and sacrifices in World War I.
The Memorial pays a respectful tribute to the 814 men who sacrificed their lives in Beaumont-Hamel. It also recognizes and honours those who served with the Merchant Marines and Forestry Corps., as well other plaques have since been added to commemorate Newfoundlanders who sacrificed their lives in World War II, the Korean War, and the Afghanistan war.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial
In addition to The War Memorial erected by The Dominion of Newfoundland in St. John’s, a second Memorial was constructed on the actual site of the Battle of Somme in Beaumont-Hamel, France. A statue of a caribou—a replica of which stands in Bowring Park in St. John’s—was designed by Rudolph Cochius and Basil Gotto, and it was unveiled on June 7, 1925.
The Memorial was declared a National Historic site of Canada in 1996 and is one of the only two Historic Sites located outside of the country.