Monday 22 Aug, 2016

100 Years Later: Memorial Day at Beaumont-Hamel

Brent H. is a history teacher in Ottawa who has been running military history trips to Europe since 2008. He is the only non-Newfoundland Group Leader who traveled to Beaumont-Hamel on the 100th Anniversary tour, and these are his impressions of this once-in-a-lifetime event. Brent will also be leading a group of students to the Vimy Ridge 100th Anniversary Tour in 2017.

For the last few years, I’ve traveled with student groups to follow the footsteps of the Canadian military through the First and Second World Wars. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the most iconic sites of past wars, including Juno Beach, Montecassino, and sites in the Netherlands which were liberated in the Second World War.

While I’ve been to military sites on non-anniversary years, I know that visiting on an anniversary year adds so much to the experience for everyone. This is one of the reasons why I was eagerly anticipating traveling to Beaumont-Hamel for the 100th anniversary ceremony, despite not being from Newfoundland.

It’s often forgotten that Newfoundland and Labrador hadn’t yet entered Canadian confederation until 1949, so this tour gave me a prime opportunity to engage my students with a little bit of Canadian history in a meaningful way. Just before we left on the tour, we were surprised to learn that we were the only travelers outside of Newfoundland going on this trip, a detail that definitely piqued the interest of our travel companions from Newfoundland.


Preparing students for a history tour

Every one of my students prepares for their journey by researching the people of the military units we will be following on our tour. After all, war impacts people and shapes their experiences, so my students dig deeper to learn more about the individual stories of those who lived during that time. It helps personalize their tour, so in the end these trips are not about statistics or generalizations, but about the human experience.

The veteran I researched, Edward A. Ayre, I unexpectedly learned more about on the day of the anniversary itself (but more about that later). One of the most telling items I found in his records was the series of letters from his mother to the war department after his death on July 1, 1916.  This told the story not only of the loss of one of her sons but also the financial hardship his passing had on the family—a story that was repeated too many times throughout the Great War.

Beaumont Hamel

Canada Day, Edward A. Ayre and what happened on July 1, 2016

To most of Canada, July 1st is our nation’s birthday, but to Newfoundlanders, the significance of this day takes on a deeper meaning, as they commemorate the sacrifices of those who fell in battle one hundred years ago.

As befitting any Canadian, we started the day by wishing everyone around us a happy Canada Day. We were at the towering Vimy Ridge monument, where we watched the raising of the flag and sang O Canada at the site where “a nation was forged”.

As the day progressed, we traveled to Beaumont-Hamel for a special ceremony. A Canadian youth representative was reading letters from the war between a woman from Newfoundland to her boyfriend, a soldier stationed in France with the Newfoundland regiment during the first world war.  As it turned out, this young woman’s boyfriend was Edward Ayre.

Hearing his name gave me a thrill of recognition, as listening to the letters allowed nineteen-year-old Edward to live again, if only for a brief moment. Here was a young man who had all the same desires and dreams as anyone his age today, before all of that possibility and potential was cut short by war. This is not the first time I, or one of my students, have made a personal connection with someone we never met who passed on many decades ago.


A moving rendition of “Ode to Newfoundland”

Toward the end of the ceremony, we listened to the playing of national anthems, including God Save the Queen and O Canada, but also the provincial anthem, Ode to Newfoundland. Never before had I heard this song sung by hundreds of Newfoundlanders on Memorial Day, there to commemorate the loss of their kin. Music has the ability to bring people together, express feeling, and make memories, and this is one that I’ll never, ever forget.


How to create your own commemorative service

The next day we went on to visit the other four Caribou Monuments. I divided my students into four groups, so that each group had the opportunity to lead their own commemorative service as we visited each Caribou. They wrote their own poems and readings, played music, and talked about the veterans they researched. One of my students even brought stones all the way from Newfoundland to place at Courtrai for each of the fallen Newfoundlanders. Over these two special days, we came away from the five Caribous with a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices made by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and their chapter in our nation’s history.

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Related Stories:
-Learn more about the significance of July 1 and what it means to Newfoundlanders
-Gain a Newfoundlander’s perspective on why group travel is so enriching