Tomorrow is the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought formal end to World War I, sort of.
The war to end all wars, it was called. Here in the United States we pay little attention to that war, its causes, its results. We were in it for only a year yet managed to get more than 116,000 of our soldiers killed in battle and by disease. That was a little over one 10th of 1 percent of the country’s population, scarcely a patch to the Civil War, less than 60 years earlier, which wiped out 2 percent of the U.S. populace.
Several nations effectively lost a generation of young men, something that no society could then (or can now) afford. One of those countries was Newfoundland, with which I’ve fallen a little bit in love lately. (I am not sure I could tell you quite why, or even if one is allowed to bear affection for a place he’s never been, but, well, tough: we have no difficulty hating places we’ve never been.) I doubt that there’s any other country in the western hemisphere that mourns the cost of World War I as much, or with as much reason, as Newfoundland does.
Let me tell you a little bit about it.
When Germany and England went to war in August 1914, the British dominions were asked to provide soldiers. Newfoundland, with only 240,000 people, said it could raise a regiment. The recruiters told the b’ys the war would probably be over by Christmas.
Newfoundland was poor and in many ways isolated, and its best and brightest young men (and women – the dominion sent 200 nurses) signed up and left for war. More would follow. A few of the lads were as young as 14 years – they lied about their ages. Well over a thousand would die, and many more would suffer crippling injuries. One Newfoundland soldier would later write that he was not sure whether those who were killed or those who survived had it worse. The women of Newfoundland raised money for the effort – each dominion was expected to support its own soldiers – and knitted 60,000 pairs of socks, stripes at the top distinguishing their sizes, and sent them to their boys.
The Newfoundland Regiment fought bravely and ably at Gallipoli and other places; the story of the Monchy Nine is famous for the Newfoundlanders’ courage and cleverness. The name Tommy Ricketts is known to every Newfoundlander. He was awarded the Victoria Cross at age 17 and is to Newfoundland what Sgt. Alvin York is to us, except that in Newfoundland Tommy Ricketts is actually remembered.
As is, in hushed and sacramental tones, the terrible morning of July 1, 1916 at a place in France called Beaumont-Hamel. If I had all the space in this issue of the paper, and the next, and the one after that, I still would not be able to tell adequately the story of that warm and sunny summer morning, when 801 members of the Newfoundland Regiment climbed out of their trenches – “went over the top” – with full packs, bodies turned slightly sideways and chin down as if charging into the teeth of a Newfoundland storm, and how the next day only 68 were on parade for roll call. In the space of a few minutes, much of that island dominion’s future had disappeared.
The soldiers from a foggy rock in the North Atlantic had served so well, and sacrificed so much, that before the war was over their name would be changed, by grant of George V, to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment – the only unit granted the Royal designation during the entire war. (Some historians say it was also to get even more young men to enlist.)
I very much recommend that you go to YouTube and watch the excellent CBC-NL documentary, “Trail of the Caribou.” After that, watch what in my estimation is the best and saddest and most moving music video ever, “Sing You Home - Remember Them At The Rooms.” The video willmake you cry.
(The title is due to a detailed and sobering exhibit at The Rooms, which is to St. John’s what The Ridges and the Southeast Ohio History Center are to Athens. The exhibit opened on July 1, 2016, the 100thanniversary of Beaumont-Hamel.)
Canada Day to the rest of Canada is Memorial Day to Newfoundlanders, who don Forget-Me-Nots, not poppies, for the occasion. Memorial University of Newfoundland, originally Memorial University College, was founded in 1925 in memory of those who went to war and died.
Participation in the war is seen by historians as one of the first things Newfoundland ever did that brought together the whole independent dominion. Ironically, that participation would ultimately do much to take away the island’s independence. Newfoundland could ill afford the costs of war, both human and financial, and to pay its war debts it had to borrow money from England, for whom it had fought. Commodity prices fell after the war, and commodities, particularly cod fish, were what the island produced.
The Great Depression made things worse, Newfoundland went bankrupt, and control of Newfoundland was assumed by a non-elected Commission of Government with a British, a Canadian and a Newfoundland representative. It was the first step toward the island being subsumed into Canada in 1949. The scars of World War I remain close to the surface there.
(I’d also recommend that you watch the movie, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” from 2018 and, to get a sense of the criminal foolishness of World War I, the last part of the last episode of the normally hilarious – but not this time – Blackadder, “Goodbyeee.” And just last month a World War I drama, “1917” was released.)
The effects of World War I influenced much since then. Soon the Ottoman Empire would be dissolved and partitioned, creating many of the countries of the Middle East. The idea, historians argue, was to divide the area into partitions likely to be constantly at war with one another so that they would not bother the rest of the world. The first part, but not the second, went according to plan.
Woodrow Wilson, elected president on the promise of keeping the U.S. out of the war, put the U.S. in the war just over a month after his second inauguration. Following the armistice he spent many months in Europe, negotiating in Versailles to establish what would become the League of Nations, Part I of the Treaty of Versailles. The League was created, but the United States, feeling ignored by its president and unwilling to let another body declare war in its behalf, did not join and did not ratify the treaty.
World War I killed about 22 million people outright, including 4,550 from Ohio and 33 from Athens County. A similar number were seriously wounded, many of whom would never recover. The war upended the world.
It was the war to end all wars. At which it failed.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.