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Ledger recounts the slow realization of Great War regiment's

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BerichtGeplaatst: 30 Jun 2010 22:09    Onderwerp: Ledger recounts the slow realization of Great War regiment's Reageer met quote

Ledger recounts the slow realization of Great War regiment's slaughter

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. ó A ledger from 1916 is a powerful reminder of how far communication has come since the First World War. Today, if soldiers are injured or killed in Afghanistan, Canadians know almost instantly.

But back then, with telegraph the speediest method of sharing information, word of the Newfoundland Regiment's devastating losses at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916 ó more than 300 killed and hundreds wounded ó was painfully slow to reach home.

A telegraph operator's ledger from May 22 to Sept. 4, 1916, which surfaced recently at Newfoundland and Labrador's Provincial Archives, documents the delay, and suggests the agonizing wait the families would have endured.

Word the battalion was even involved in the British-led offensive ó still considered a tragedy in Newfoundland, where it is marked on the same day that Canadians celebrate the nation's birthday ó didn't reach the then Dominion of Newfoundland until days after.

"Official messages to the governor indicate Nfld. Battalion took part in big drive on Western front were received yesterday . . . showing over 50 officers and men wounded but none killed so far," reads the handwritten ledger notation dated July 6.

The dawning realization of the extent of the slaughter would begin to roll in in the days and weeks that followed. There was an ebb and flow to the news as soldiers listed missing days earlier were later reported "killed in action."

When the regiment's final losses were tallied ó a number that wouldn't be known for months and is not in the ledger ó the news was devastating.

"Initially that battle, as recorded in that book, was seen as a success for the British, with some casualties among Newfoundlanders," says Jessie Chisholm, an archivist at the Rooms, an archives, museum and art gallery that dominates the downtown St. John's skyline. "And then, as the week progresses ó as the weeks progress ó we see the increasing numbers of casualties and fatalities recorded.

"And so the impact on the public is not the immediate impact we would have today. There's a very slow, kind of horrifying, realization of the kind of impact of the battle."

The beige, water-stained ledger was acquired from a private donor in 1975 and only resurfaced six or seven months ago when Chisholm was looking through collections and trying to determine if they could be better described. Upon seeing the dates on the ledger, Chisholm says she had a "eureka moment."

She says what struck her was the delayed realization of what had happened.

"If they had gone missing at Beaumont Hamel and the body was not found, the death was not confirmed for three months later. So there was this whole agonizing period in which people knew there had been a horrific slaughter and often didn't know what had happened to their sons. So I found that quite moving," Chisholm said.

Craig Tucker, government records archivist, said telegraph operators simply recorded information sent directly to them as well as news they would intercept. "It's basically the CNN of the time. It's the same principle," he said.

But the operator who wrote in the ledger recorded more about the battle than Newfoundland's losses.

He or she ó most were women ó also documented praise the regiment received.

A July 10 entry reads: "Governor received yesterday message from Sir Douglas Haig commander in chief of British armies in France testifying to heroism and devotion to duty of Nfld soldiers expressing admiration for their efforts and deep sympathies with those who have fallen."

Also recorded was commendation from foreign correspondents. "Their story of those heroic parts cannot be yet told in full but when it is it will make Newfoundland people proud," one said on July 13.

The journalist was right.

The site of the battle, which took place as part of the larger Somme offensive, is marked today with a memorial to the Newfoundlanders.

A delegation of veterans, students and representatives of the Royal Canadian Legion and provincial government will be at the 30-hectare site, nine kilometres north of the town of Albert, France, on Thursday to pay tribute to the regiment, which was renamed the Royal Newfoundland Regiment later in the war in honour of its exploits.

It was only the third time in the history of the British Army that the prefix Royal has been given during a state of war.

A short ceremony commemorating the battle will be held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.

© Copyright (c) St. John's Telegram

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