Thursday, July 01, 2010

Remembering the Blue Puttees

Forget Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it used to be called back when Canada was part of something great). No offense, Canada, but the prestige you gain as the home of Gordon Lightfoot and Labatt's is countered by the whole no-free-speech thing.

July 1 is a different sort of commemoration in Newfoundland, which in 1916 had the good fortune not even to be Canadian. It was a minor backwater of the British Empire with a total population half that of Spokane today. It was poor and uneducated, sort of the Appalachia of the Atlantic. So when a thousand young men volunteered for service in the Great War, it was a large investment.

In true Newfie style, their uniforms were improvised. Where other British regiments wore khaki around their legs, the Newfoundlanders had to make do with blue scrap cloth. This led to their nickname of the Blue Puttees.

On the morning of July 1 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, nearly eight hundred barely-trained soldiers, went "over the top" at Beaumont-Hamel. Half an hour later, there were sixty-eight.

My. God. In. Heaven. Think about that.

Yes, I know that the War To End All Wars set the stage for the bloodiest century in human history. Yes, I know that trench warfare was nothing but an exercise in futility. Yes, I know that world politics is still shaped by the changes ushered in by the First World War. Yes, I know that seven-hundred-odd soldiers didn't make the difference. Of the millions slaughtered, they were a drop in the bucket.

So what? Death comes only one to a customer. The waste of human life is horrific, but not the point here. Fishermen's sons die as readily, and as bravely, as kings' sons. These boys walked into the meat grinder of the Somme for a king who barely knew their island existed. The Newfoundlanders did what they were supposed to do, and they did it with gallantry that shames great nations.

Listen to this while you read about the Blue Puttees here and the action at Beaumont-Hamel here. And gentlemen, read and listen with your hats off.

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