The July Drive

Newfoundlanders have their own unique way of remembering the Great War. By Dean F. Oliver.

I knew the war for the longest time as the “Ju-ly Drive.” I don’t remember it ever being obvious to me what this phrase actually meant, save that it was serious in a way that most subjects for young Newfoundland lads never seemed to be. It juxtaposes in memory with “Sun-dee drive,” a welcome family ritual usually ending in ice cream at Portugal Cove, overlooking the Bell Island Ferry, or Holyrood, where fish and chips were sometimes involved. The phraseology and emphasis were similar — “Ju-ly” and “Sun-dee” — but never the context. Grandparents and parents used it often enough to make it resonate, however hushed.

The July Drive never seemed immediately relevant to us as kids, anyway, save in its implied gravitas — much as “dead,” or “sex,” or “murder” might have, as words alone, if overheard dimly by any child on the margins of adult conversation. Ears might tweak, questions might be asked, or not, but, either way, impressionable minds would be awash in images and imaginings, squishing inferences this way and that alongside the known or the merely suspected.

We “make meaning” in this way, I think — to borrow from the idiom of museum professionals — long before we know what anything could possibly mean in the first place, intuitively crafting myths from half-understood soundings of reality. My mother, who is nearly ninety, uses the phrase with precisely the same tone that I recall from my youth, and still perhaps without full knowledge of the real war, or its impact, or the grand, incessant debates it occasioned. Does it matter that myth trumps history most of the time? I have long since known the historical reference in substantial detail, but I still stumble on its meaning. And, at times, I would just as soon know less but believe more.

“Drive” or “push” was the language of wartime optimism, as though mere effort, mental as much as physical, stood between one’s own sodden trenches and the victory just behind the enemy’s lines. The war in 1914 would be over by Christmas, for Newfoundland’s would-be generals, as for France’s or for Britain’s. The other side reflected unalloyed evil, while one’s own chaps died in a worthy cause. We would beat them quickly and teach them something (“spanking” was a common metaphor, along with “thrust,” “slice,” and “punish”). Just one more heave might do it or another, or another after that.

War news came slowly, and deliberately askew, from the slaughter abroad. Propaganda was imperfect but tried earnestly to improve: only the grim casualty lists suggested that pyrrhic victories and stymied offensives concealed rather more than the heroic cant of official cyphers.

The language of wartime optimism also mirrored the sheer ignorance of the era. Donkeys did not lead all armies, as postwar pundits would slanderously charge, but far too many did graze up and down the front, defeated — or dazed — by combinations of science, topography, technology, and tactics that mutated and defied mere human courage. Learning came slowly, and not quite in time for the Somme, which opened on July 1, 1916 (the “Ju-ly Drive”), two years into the struggle.

That first day of battle would be the British Empire’s bloodiest in history, with more than 60,000 casualties. Confidence ebbed. Recruitment fell. Propaganda struggled. “Pushing” was not so easily believed in. Victories would be measured by inches and yards, not miles and countries. Faith in the big breakthrough never entirely died — certainly not for Britain’s most senior gen-erals—but hope alone no longer sufficed. Economies struggled, dissent gained voice, determination shuddered. Dedication to the cause was now, more than ever, important, or so the patriotic gore intoned.

The Somme made it harder to be glib, but glibness limped on. The outlines are familiar: a vast push, a botched attack, horrendous British (and German) losses, a massacre that epitomized anew the war’s near-daily massacres. The war can be missed entirely when seen in aggregate, like a flaccid narrative without protagonists. The Newfoundland Regiment, a single unit among hundreds and hardly new to fighting (it had been in the Dardanelles Campaign against Turkey), was, on July 1, 1916, annihilated in mere minutes.

The names and families and religions of the dead are known and have been plotted for decades now by genealogists, historians, and demographers. When I viewed the current monument at Beaumont Hamel, France, for the first time in the i990s, the surnames could have been the roll call of my high school graduating class. It was too much for grieving families, for editorialists, for pastors, and for politicians. In Newfoundland, as elsewhere, the war overwhelmed.

As historian Robert J. Harding has argued, paeans to heroic sacrifice soon transformed the tragedy into a rallying cry; the dead became “Christian knights engaged in a modern crusade.” Corps commander Major General Sir Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle’s thrilling epitaph — “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further” — still forms the essential descriptor in Remembrance Day speeches, regimental gatherings, and proud reflections. Beaumont Hamel was to Newfoundland what Gallipoli was to Australia and New Zealand, and it remains a site of secular pilgrimage for Newfoundlanders abroad.

Newfoundland’s war was distinctly local, as most wars are, and thoroughly imperial. Connections of heart and kin to the Empire were broad and deep, if crisscrossed by complex skeins of religion and class, politics and economic interest. Commemoration tends to forget the latter — the divisions occasioned by war — or it ascribes to them crude categories of pro and anti, loyalist or some equally conjured opposite. The lived war was subtler. In Newfoundland, as in Canada, calls for non-partisanship in the face of crisis were both ubiquitous and passionate, and predictably impermanent. A “National Government,” struggling with wartime loss and home front challenge, later enacted conscription (compulsory service), as unions and others complained loudly about inefficiency and war profiteering.

Postwar scholarship waxed poetic as monuments rose from Grand Falls, Newfoundland, to Gueudecourt, France — consecrating ground, lecturing the living. The braying stag caribou, the regimental emblem, was iconic, atop rocky mounds of transplanted shrubbery and sombre plaques. In St. John’s, British sculptor Captain Basil Gotto’s twin pieces, The Caribou and The Fighting Newfoundlander, continue to define the city’s sprawling Bowring Park, itself opened — ironically enough — in July 1914, amidst the Balkan crisis that would lead the world to war.

The conflict imprinted deeply on the Dominion at large, aided by patriots and energetic veterans, and by the same commingling of grief and gratitude that marked other national efforts. It wasn’t just the men who’d left from home, but the ways in which their services were marked. Plum Street in St. John’s became Aldershot Street in 1922, for example, while Spruce became Cairo. Hamel (after Beaumont Hamel) replaced Oak; Beech became Monchy (after Monchy-le-Preux). Rabbittown, the area of St. John’s in which I lived, is thoroughly martial in this respect: Malta Street and Liverpool Avenue, Suez and Suvla Streets, Edinburgh (we pronounce it “Edin-burrow,” of course) and Salisbury, edged what was, in the 1920s, the very outskirts of urbanity: the east-westrunning Empire Avenue.

Monuments appeared in communities across the island, many purchased and installed by local patriotic associations and often bearing — as at Musgrave Harbour — an image of the fighting caribou. A memorial park took shape at Beaumont Hamel itself, encompassing the tiny battlefield with its jagged craters and slowly eroding trench lines. Memorial University College opened in 1925 as a “living memorial” to those Newfoundlanders who had died in active service during the war (it is now the Memorial University of Newfoundland and retains proudly this “living” function). One of its first students, Thomas Ricketts, was the British Army’s youngest Victoria Cross recipient during the war. A postwar druggist, his pharmacy in west-end St. John’s was among the struggle’s quietest and most dignified memories—an old soldier’s home and business, the warrior aging gracefully, far from the limelight of feckless politics or boisterous veterans’ advocacy.

The Grand Falls memorial, erected in the 1920s and modelled after the London Cenotaph, speaks to the wages of sacrifice paid by the island’s still sparsely populated interior: fifty-five names of Great War dead and, added later, thirty-one from the Second World War and one from Korea. Of the First World War fallen, three are Goodyears, including one, O. R. (for Oswald Raymond), who later formed the centrepiece of author David Macfarlane’s brilliant bestselling family memoir (and subsequent National Film Board production), The Danger Tree.

The numbers here track something else as well: Newfoundland, like Canada, suffered less in the Second World War than in the First. The later war was bigger, grander, more reassuring in the madness of its fascist, maniacal enemies; the earlier war was more brutal, more tragic, and more difficult to explain or justify. Newfoundlanders fought in many battles in the Second World War, but there was nothing for them in that war to compare to Beaumont Hamel, or to the Dardanelles, where the Newfoundland Regiment received its initial, but milder, baptism by fire in 1915. Myth loves tragedy, and tragedy therefore endures.

In Newfoundland, Canada Day was never about red-and-white face painting, Pearson’s flag, or bone-rattling rock concerts. It was Memorial Day, focused on morning (and mourning) ceremonies around war memorials with flags at half-staff, bowed heads, and ranks of Legion blazers. Comedian Rick Mercer has expressed it better: “In one of those great Newfoundland in Confederation ironies, Canada Day is actually an official day of mourning in Newfoundland.” We dressed up for the morning, or had a service at school, at 11:00 a.m., and watched the more Canadian fireworks at night. We knew little about historiography or the bitter legacies July 1 embodied: the war as Newfoundland’s proudest, if costliest, moment, and the war as the precursor to national penury, humiliation, and, by 1949, consensual obliteration.

As my parents’ generation celebrated one myth and recalled with sadness those whom it had claimed, another — the lack of political or economic options — subsumed them.

Newfoundlanders entered Canada in 1949 as torchbearers, reminding errant youth of a Memorial Day untainted by the bitter pill (for anti-Confederates, but not just for anti-Confederates alone) of Confederation, of — somehow — the old Newfoundland, the old country. I think there was the scent of this in Secret Nation, the brilliant 1992 film that has a Newfoundland-born graduate student (played by Cathy Jones) on the verge of discovering the “conspiracy” by which Britain sold off Newfoundland to Canada. They all died in vain along the Somme, a reasonable interpretation might run, for an empire that soon would cast them out.

As Raymond Blake, a history professor at the University of Regina, has argued in his 1994 book, Canadians at Last: Canada Integrates Newfoundland as a Province, the transition to Canada in 1949 was anticlimactic: well planned, well funded, and well executed. It was the same for veterans and for remembrance. Canada’s benefits regime was at least as good as Newfoundland’s and, in many areas, a great deal better. Overseas sites were maintained, pensions paid, and programs run.

But military history suffered in the decades that followed Newfoundland’s joining Confederation. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, always the centrepiece of Newfoundland’s collective memory of the war, ebbed from public view. A small regimental museum in St. John’s, seldom visited and virtually unknown, housed a handful of treasures and fading documents. There was little curriculum, post-secondary study, or public history devoted to the cause of remembering — and understanding — Newfoundland’s war history.

As emotionally committed as Newfoundland remained to its myths of heroic sacrifice and selfless service, understanding eroded as surely as the trench walls of Beaumont Hamel. We studied ancient Greece and Rome in grade school, a smattering of First Peoples, great events, and civics, but little of either war. Year after year, we graduated historically illiterate, “lest we forget” as much mockery and meaning.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a shift in the opposite direction, so much so that critics have bemoaned the threatened militarization of the national past. Less noted have been the more grassroots efforts of schools, communities, service groups, and individuals who have worked to rescue the military past from obscurity and refashion a pantheon of heroes — we should use the word shamelessly — from the forgetfulness that has at times appeared endemic to the national memory.

The Rooms, Newfoundland’s provincial museum, archives, and art gallery, launched a major online project on the First World War, while a small group of Ottawa-based, Newfoundland-born citizens orchestrate, each July 1, a Memorial Day morning service at the National War Memorial. A retired Newfoundland police officer, Gary Browne, reintroduced compatriots to Padre Thomas Nangle, the regiment’s beloved wartime chaplain, whose work was instrumental in building home-front and overseas memorials that now, one hundred years later, form the war’s most powerful points of reflection for Newfoundlanders. Memorial University has embarked on a major commemorative effort. Bay Roberts has a street named for the Newfoundland Regiment’s first wartime enlistee, Leonard Stick. It is easier to be curious and harder to be dim.

Literature and art, music and film have made “the Danger Tree,” “the Blue Puttees,” “the First Five Hundred,” and other wartime references as commonplace now as perhaps at any other time since the 1930s. There is a permanent exhibit on the Newfoundlanders at the Canadian War Museum. Where once we argued stupidly, as children do, over whose grandparents had served in the Newfoundland Regiment (ignorance being no check on passion), the variety of tools now available to verify such conceits would have seemed fantastical to us, and perhaps unwelcome. As long as all granddads had fought at Beaumont Hamel—its numerical impossibility notwithstanding — honour was served!

If such knowledge, or its availability, is the fruit of “militarized discourse,” an oft-heard charge in light of recent or upcoming commemorations of military anniversaries, it is, as my maternal grandfather might have said, “no burden to carry around.” I cite him here in some considerable shame, having once falsely enlisted him as a Blue Puttee when other mates, in schoolyard spats, were trumpeting their own lineage to the regiment. In truth, Fred Mills had been a merchant sailor, torpedoed by the Germans for his troubles. He was in no need of childish assertions of his wartime courage, the latter having been demonstrated well enough in a rowboat in the mid-Atlantic. He flew the Union Jack from a rough-hewn spruce pole in his front yard in Dildo, Trinity Bay, to his last day. It was, he’d say, good enough to serve under.

There is another reminder here, just below the surface: such loyalty was real and freely given, near limitless in its depth. It is the answer, for me, to the one great question: the war went on because we believed it should, because we believed that we were right.

Scholarship still wrestles with the First World War. The debates are sometimes caricatures but are no less fascinating for this: The Germans started it all. The Yanks won it. The Brits were idiots, and the French cowards. The Canadians and Australians were twelve feet tall and indestructible. The Italians were weak and turned coat halfway through. The Austrians were incapable, the Russians weak, and the Turks inscrutable. Submarines were the key, and maybe airplanes, or was it tanks? Horses were useless. Generals were useless. Generals with horses were the most useless of all. Militaries learned a lot, but slowly, or a little and not fast enough. We were the good guys, meaning the other guys were just as certainly bad. It ended in armistice, or was it a sellout? The armistice stopped one war but started another. Or was that another convenient half-truth? Opacity encrusts obscurity. The presses roll on; the conferences continue, as well they should.

The one hundredth anniversary of the First World War will revitalize hoary myths, refight old battles, chew through reputations, and ask, occasionally, an intriguing new question. Works of scholarly creation or artistic beauty will jostle with vapid polemics and slimly sourced nonsense. They will all carry the banners of education, remembrance, and civic responsibility. Some will be worth such monikers. Most will be forgettable and, sadly, non-refundable.

And in one small corner of the old Empire, the dreadful war will remain, for another generation or so, the “Ju-ly Drive.”

This article was originally published in Canada’s Great War Album October, 2014.