For Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, July 1, 1916, stands out as a monumental day of tragedy. In just 22 minutes, 324 men were killed on a battlefield in France. The story of Beaumont-Hamel is "not like any other war story," says filmmaker Barbara Doran. "This is a completely different war story. It resonates with other provinces. It may resonate with other countries. But the specific effect on Newfoundland and how it was felt is unique, I believe."
Barbara (pictured left) is an award-winning Newfoundland and Labrador filmmaker with more than 25 years’ experience. Her production house, Morag Loves Company, is co-producer of a new documentary, Newfoundland at Armageddon, along with Arnie Gelbart of Galafilm Inc. It’s directed by Brian McKenna, who co-wrote it with award-winning author Michael Crummey.
In this film, set to debut in time for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, historian Margot Duley and journalist Gwynne Dyer join other experts weighing in on the war. But what sets this war documentary apart from others are the reenactments - specifically the actors and their genetic link to the parts they play.
A callout for direct descendants of WWI soldiers who fought at Beaumont-Hamel led to the selection of 24 people, none of whom had acting experience, playing the role of their lives. They all “lived like a soldier, they ate like a soldier and they fought like a soldier,” Barbara says, adding they had to pitch tents, dig trenches and live as their ancestors on the battlefield had done, all the while carrying 70 pounds of equipment.
Critical attention was paid to detail, from the uniforms to the military equipment, to ensure that this important time in Newfoundland history was accurately represented. “People will be watching this film very carefully,” Barbara says. “We cannot afford to make any mistakes, either in the visuals in the film or in the information that we’re giving out.”
Choosing to film actors with nothing to draw on but their family loyalties added a particular depth to the performances. “It was raw. They are experiencing this for the first time, you know, being in front of the camera and playing the role of their ancestor. But in many ways, they were closer to the material than any actor would ever be because it was their family,” says Barbara.
“It was quite moving for them and quite moving for all of us, really, to be witness to that, you know. To see them going through it. And a lot of them had not really given it a lot of thought before. They knew about their relatives, but they hadn’t really delved into the story. And to help it come alive, they felt very proud of their ancestors. But also very saddened at the same time.”
It was a learning experience for the descendants; many had only heard snippets of their grandfathers’ or great uncles’ time at war. “A lot of the men who survived that battlefield came home and never spoke of it, it was too painful. And that happened to a lot.”
Though a century has passed, most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians think of Canada Day second when July 1 rolls around because the loss suffered at Beaumont-Hamel in 1916 is still remarkably fresh. “That remains a controversial day, a conflicted day,” Barbara says.
General Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, “didn’t believe in machine guns. He thought they were overrated. So our Newfoundland soldiers went out on July 1 armed with rifles and bayonets and faced a hail of German machine gun bullets,” Barbara says. “They didn’t have a prayer…And they had to know they were going to their own deaths.”
Working on Newfoundland at Armageddon did have its challenges, Barbara admits. “It’s difficult to get a distance from the material. It’s difficult for me as a Newfoundlander because we know about the loss. We still feel it. I don’t think there’s a person in this province that hasn’t been impacted in some way through a family member or relative, or a person in your community.”
Many of the men who came home after the war “were absolutely destroyed by that experience, haunted by that experience. And all of that, and the effect on the families…coupled with the economic loss and the loss of our nationhood, makes this battle profound.”
Barbara concludes, the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel “was our Armageddon.” - By Elizabeth Whitten
Newfoundland at Armageddon will air on CBC on June 30 as a two-hour special. For more information about the film, visit newfoundlandatarmageddon.ca.