Mark Critch and Allan Hawco at the Beaumont-Hamel memorial during the filming of the documentary Trail of the Caribou (Dan Murphy photo)
July 1st marks the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, an event that defined the history of Newfoundland and Labrador and decimated a generation of its people. In 1916, 753 men in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went forward into battle; the next day, only 68 of those men were present for roll call.
Now 100 years later, actor Allan Hawco and comedian Mark Critch are on the “Trail of the Caribou,” following the movements of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment from the landing in Gallipoli, Turkey, through France and Belgium. Created in partnership with the City of St. John’s and CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, produced by Rod Etheridge, and with a special appearance from Alan Doyle, the documentary will tell the lesser-known tales of those brave young men.
“Not many people know that our story wasn't just the story of Beaumont-Hamel, that the Newfoundland Regiment had such a great reputation among the Allies,” says Allan Hawco. “It was always kind of skipped over; all you ever heard about was the tragedy. It’s nice to hear the other stories.”
The documentary explores some of those personal stories, from the Newfoundlander who invented the gas mask, Cluney MacPherson, to the story of Thomas Ricketts, who at 15 was the youngest person to receive the Victoria Cross in a combatant role after lying about his age to sign up. “Ricketts’ unit was pinned down by a group of Germans,” Mark Critch explains. “He charges them on his own, gets halfway there and drops his ammunition because it was too heavy, makes the charge again, realizes he needs the ammunition and goes back to get it. He charges again, and ends up driving the 30 Germans into this farm and holding them there as prisoners.”
Mark continues, “We visited this barn on our trip, and the descendants of the family who owned it are still there. The family still has a rock with a plaque to commemorate Ricketts, and the family actually has a play that they put off telling his story. It was so neat to see that 100 years later, these guys are still appreciated.”
The film also tells the courageous story of the Monchy Nine. These nine Newfoundlanders defended an evacuated town and protected the people left behind in the hospital. As a force of several hundred Germans advanced on the town, the nine soldiers bravely made the dangerous decision to separate and fan out in the hopes of appearing as a much larger force. By taking out the runners that carried information along the German front, the soldiers were able to hide their numbers. The Germans, believing they were outnumbered, and with communications cut off, retreated.
“Every year, as a kid, I remember hearing about Beaumont-Hamel and thinking, ‘Jeez, but they lost.’ As kids, we were thinking ‘Were they any good?’” laughs Mark. “But these guys were superheroes! We spend so much time pondering the ultimate loss that the victories are also lost. The humour, the sense of honour, and the way that they conducted themselves is a lot to be proud of, and it’s a shame that gets lost because of this one big, horrible loss.”
The Battle of the Somme was not only a loss for the British forces, or for the families they left behind; losing so many men in one generation had a deep and lasting impact on the future of the Dominion of Newfoundland.
“The impact is staggering when you think of what it did to us as a country,” Allan explains. “There was something like 3,000 total deaths and injuries. The people that came back were affected in ways that we now know as PTSD, and the effect that it had on us as a country, to lose the best and the brightest in our community. These were our future leaders, our future prime ministers, our future premiers. We have no real way of knowing what that effect was. And on top of that, Newfoundland joined Confederation as a direct result of being bankrupt for not being able to pay off our war debt, which is, some would say, how we lost our identity as a nation.”
There are caribou war memorials across Europe honouring Newfoundland’s contribution to the Great War in Beaumont-Hamel, Gueudecourt, Monchy-le-Preux, Masnieres and Courtrai (the insignia of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment is a caribou head). This trail of caribou statues marks the successes and losses of the regiment. “It’s a pilgrimage every Newfoundlander should do,” says Allan. “It’s an unbelievable feeling when you get to the park and you get engrossed in the story of what the Regiment did in the First World War, how impactful they were, and the presence they have all over France. It’s kind of a spiritual thing. It’s overwhelming.”
Though following the trail of the caribou was a sombre and eye-opening journey for long-time friends Allan and Mark, a surprise discovery along the way would make this shared experience even more special. But they insist you have to see the film to find out what that was.
The project is really about finding a way to tell this story as the living memory fades. “When I was a kid there was still some of these guys left, and they could still come in and tell you their story,” Mark says. “It’s that living memory, when you could look in their eyes and see the tears well. Time passes, and now it’s just words on a page. I just feel like we need to try to bridge that gap and tell those stories in a way that really shows people the sights and sounds of where their ancestors were. One hundred years is nothing as far as history goes, but as we lose those first-hand accounts we wanted to light that torch and pass it along in some way.”
“Trail of the Caribou” will premiere on CBC Newfoundland and Labrador on July 1. It can also be seen that day at the Signal Hill Visitor Centre. - By Henny Buffinga