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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Remembering Newfoundland and Labrador's War Heros

The Blue Puttees – Circa 1914

With Remembrance Day once again upon us, it seems appropriate today to reflect on the exploits of the so called “Fighting Newfoundlander” and remember those from the Province who fought or died in conflicts half way around the world.

When many think of the Province's military history they immediately think of The Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Although Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans have fought with the forces of other nations and continue to distinguish themselves today in the Canadian Armed Forces, it is with a special kind of pride that we remember the exploits of that Regiment.

Originally formed in 1914, The Newfoundland Regiment, as it was known at the time, consisted of what many refer to as the “first 500” or “The Blue Puttees” in reference to the blue leggings worn by the men.

An entirely volunteer regiment, the men of the “first 500”, along with those who joined them later, distinguished themselves in battle after battle during World War I. So valiant were their efforts that they were later bestowed by the King of England with the title of “Royal”, becoming the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the name we know them by to this day.

After only six weeks of training at home, The Newfoundland Regiment containing the “first 500” set sail out of St. John’s harbour on October 4, 1914. This first group contained some of the best examples of the type of young men the Province had produced. Many were athletes, some had been involved in various boy’s brigades and all were determined to show their pride in the Country of Newfoundland.

According to some historical documents, the men of the Regiment had two primary goals in mind when they arrived in Europe. The first was that they were Newfoundlanders, and intended to be known as such; the other was that they had gone over to fight, not to do garrison duty in England.

At one point during their orientation on the Salisbury Plain the idea was floated that the Newfoundland contingent should join with a nearby Nova Scotia Regiment. Both groups were only the size of half a battalion and to the brass from England this seemed like a logical step. According to articles from the time the Newfoundlanders would have no part of it. They felt that if the two groups merged the contingent would lose its name, its identity and its individuality.

During the coming months the Regiment grew as new members arrived. In time, the proud men of the Newfoundland Regiment were given the opportunity they had wanted, a chance to fight for their Country.

On the battle field these proud soldiers solidified their place in history. The Regiment earned no less than 280 separate decorations, 77 of which were awarded to original members of the “first 500” of which 170 were killed in action. In fact, one in every seven men among the original force received some sort of military honour.

Many people have heard the name of Tommy Ricketts who was given the highest honour possible, the Victoria Cross and so they should, however many may not remember some of the other brave men who fought for their homeland under the most dire conditions.

The Province has produced many great heroes, many who are not as well known, but no less deserving of recognition.

Take for example the story of Cyril Gardner, originally from British Harbour.

Lieutenant Gardner has the distinction of being the only known allied serviceman to receive the German Iron Cross during WWI.The Iron Cross which was handed out only to the bravest German military personnel was given to Gardner on the battlefield.

As the story goes, Gardner’s unit was engaged in battle with a German patrol of 70 men. During the night, as hostilities wound down Gardner, who spoke German, took it upon himself to grab his machine gun and head out to the enemy encampment.Sneaking into the enemy camp, the Lieutenant turned his gun on the officers, capturing them unharmed. With their “head” cut off so to speak, the remainder of the troop immediately surrendered. Lieutenant Cyril Gardner had single handedly captured an entire German Patrol.

Upon marching his prisoners back to his own encampment he was met by a British Officer who intended to shoot the unarmed prisoners. As the German soldiers looked on in horror Lieutenant Gardner once again demonstrated his sense of bravery by stepping into the line of fire to protect his prisoners and telling his superior officer that if one German were shot the officer would be the next one to die.

After a moment of hesitation the officer walked away and it was then that the commander of the German patrol, who had many medals on his uniform, stepped up to Gardner and removing the iron cross from his chest, pinned it on Gardner’s, to the applause and cheers of the German soldiers.

For Centuries, even before the formation of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have answered the call whenever it arrived. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans have been involved in major conflicts around the world since the mid 1600's, including:

The Anglo-Dutch Wars – 1652
The War of the Austrian Succession – 1743
The Seven Year War - 1756
The American Revolution - 1775
The Napoleonic Wars – 1796
The War of 1812
World War I – 1914
World War II – 1939

Add to this the number of young men and women who have proven themselves in places like Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and countless other areas of conflict or peacekeeping around the world, and we can clearly see that the Province has a lot to be proud of.

During this Remembrance Day and throughout the remainder of the Year of the Veteran perhaps we should all take some time to visit a legion hall or local war memorial, to stop and chat with an aging veteran and to offer a little show of thanks for the sacrifice these fine men and women have made to protecting our nation.

Statistics show that every day in this country an average of 80 veterans die. That’s more than at the height of conflict in World War II. It only takes a moment to shake a veteran’s hand or buy one a cold beer in a local bar. It might seem like a small gesture and it is, but even taking a moment to express a little gratitude may just brighten the day of some of our bravest and most deserving citizens.


BNB said...

Something the rest of Canada should be educated about and something that NL would do well to remember. Thanks for this.

FunkyPretty said...

And let's not forget that the creator of the gas mask, Dr. Cluny McPherson, fought for Newfoundland in WWI.


The Gas Mask

War has a way of rapidly driving invention: when someone is trying to kill you, it becomes incredibly urgent to devise ways to prevent them from succeeding. And that was the case in 1915 at Ypres. When the German army floated out clouds of deadly yellow mustard gas before attacking the Canadian-held front lines, Dr. Cluny McPherson hastily improvised gas masks of metal and cloth to ward off the fumes.
Because of the obvious need, the funds and resources necessary to perfect the invention were made readily available. McPherson quickly improved and refined his front-line lifesaver. Eventually it became the standard mask issued to all Allied soldiers.
After the war, McPherson's mask found a new life in Canada's mines, reducing miner's exposure to toxic fumes and coal dust. It was also adopted by the nation's growing chemical industry, in both the laboratory, and eventually home shops to filter the toxic fumes of various solvents and finishes.
One of McPherson's earliest masks is still preserved on display at the Newfoundland Museum on the top floor of the provincial parliament building in St. John's. The most current versions are (or at least should be) on display in woodworking shops and finishing booths nationwide.

Anonymous said...

Soldiers are only as brave as a government allows them to be.

And in the most dire crisis of modern times, your government has chosen to treat your soldiers like pussies incapable of standing up to an enemy they have chosen to ignore.

God Bless The Men In Uniform.

God Save You From The Men in Office.

Actually, screw God. The USA will do it for you.