A Chronicle of the First Five Hundred

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 21, 2016 4:27 PM

They have always been - and eternally will be - "The First Five Hundred." They are considered the beginning of a line of brave men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment sent overseas to fight for their King in the First World War. 

Who were the First 500?
For starters, they actually numbered 22 officers and 521 unmarried volunteers; 543 military men, all told. They comprised the first of 27 drafts of Newfoundlanders (and others) enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment (referred to as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment following November 1917to serve in the Great War, 1914 to 1918.  (Not until May 11, 1918 was Regiment membership compulsory.) 

Regimental records (as best can be interpreted) reveal The First 500 did not include all of the first 521 volunteer recruits to be enlisted. Rather, they were chosen from among the first 616 men who signed up at St. John’s in 1914. Although enrolment of volunteers began on August 21, 1914, formal enlistment did not commence until September 1, 1914. The first - and only - volunteer enlisted on that date was eventually assigned Regimental No. 33.  Among those enlisted on September 5, 1914 was the volunteer given Regimental No. 1. The last of the volunteers to form part of The First 500 enlisted on October 2, 1914. He was assigned Regimental No. 616, and died in combat at Beaumont Hamel.  

More than a few volunteers overstated their ages when requested to attest (swear) they were the required minimum enrolment age: 19 years. (They didn’t have to produce their birth certificates.)  

Of the 521 enlisted men, 386 (74%) were from St. John’s, 131 were from 44 other island communities, one from Labrador (Battle Harbour), two from England and one from Quebec. (Later Newfoundland Regiment drafts - besides Newfoundlanders and Labradorians - included adolescent and adult males from England; Scotland, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Portugal, and what was then Russia.)

Except for two officers (one, the operational commander, who left on October 2, 1914 on the S.S. Carthaginian, and another who departed on November 2, 1914 on the S.S. Mongolian) and two volunteers (who departed on October 24 and November 2, 1914), the rest of The First 500 - that is 20 of 22 officers and 519 of 521 enlisted men - embarked for combat on October 3, 1914.  At 4 p.m. on that date, they paraded from their Pleasantville tent training facility (established September 3, 1914) to St. John’s Harbour, in stride with "The Banks of Newfoundland" (composed in 1820 by the island’s then Supreme Court Chief Justice, Francis Forbes). On the Harbour’s north side, at Furness Withy Company pier, they crowded onto a passenger (sometimes sealing) vessel, the S.S. Florizel, which had been converted to a troop carrier. By sunset, they were transported to mid-Harbour, where Florizel anchored.

Some well-wishers who, on October 3, 1914, ringed the Harbour shores or loitered on Harbour waters, lingered overnight and through the next day during a long farewell. Not until 10 p.m. on October 4, 1914 did Florizel weigh anchor and exit the Harbour, to join a convoy of Canadian contingent vessels for a 10-day voyage to Southampton, England (altered to Plymouth during the voyage, for security reasons). 

What happened to the First 500?
In England (on Salisbury Plain), later in Scotland (at Fort George, Edinburgh and Stobs Camp), then back in England (at Aldershot), most of The First 500 were further hardened for combat.  

On August 20, 1915, by train and boat, the combat-ready portion of The First 500 - numbering 512 -travelled to European battle theatres as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). They anticipated adventure. They encountered anguish. Their first military engagement was at Gallipoli, Turkey where, on September 23, 1915, they suffered their first combat casualty (20 years old).

By then, and since, they have also been called "the Blue Puttees." To distinguish them from other BEF contingents, they were originally kitted with dark blue cloth leggings known as blue puttees, apparently obtained from the St. John’s Church Lads’ Brigade. ("Puttee" is from the Hindi term, patti, meaning bandage.) The puttees were later replaced, in Europe, with khaki serge to conform with BEF service uniforms. (Whether or not khaki serge was available in Newfoundland when The First 500 were originally outfitted did not influence the choice of blue puttees.)

Of the 521 enlisted men, 41 would later return to St. John’s during World War I, on furlough or duty, and again set out for military service in Europe (France and Belgium). One of them did so twice. Among them, 18 had been wounded (two of them, twice) before returning to St. John’s and, after arriving back in Europe, eight of them were wounded, and five died (three in action, and two from illness).

Thirty-one of the 521 enlisted men never engaged in military action with the Regiment. They did not proceed beyond training. They included the Regiment’s first non-combat casualty (20 years old), who died from illness (pneumonia) on New Year’s Day, 1915 at Fort George. The other 30 disengaged from the Regiment either because their initial one-year term of duty expired and they chose not to re-enlist with the Regiment, or they deserted, or were discharged as medically unfit. Five of the 31, though, later transferred to, or enlisted with, allied combat forces, and one joined the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.

The remaining 490 volunteers among The First 500 saw combat. Among them, 151 died in, or resulting from, action. At Beaumont Hamel, 74 (including one classified "missing/presumed dead") were killed and six later died from Beaumont Hamel wounds.  Elsewhere, 54 perished during battle (also including one reported "missing/presumed dead") and 17 died from battle wounds. 

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Copper remembrance coins like this were given to families of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's fallen soldiers. This one belonged to the Crocker family of Heart's Delight, whose son was killed at Beaumont Hamel.

Twelve of the 490 volunteers who performed combat duty were removed from harm’s way by the enemy. They were captured in France (10 at Monchy in April 1917, and two at Mesnieres in December 1917). Eight of them had earlier been wounded: one at Beaumont Hamel, six elsewhere, and one both at Beaumont Hamel and elsewhere. The 12 captured volunteers remained prisoners of war for periods of 12 to 22 months. Not until January 1919 was the last of them repatriated.

One of the 12 served on a committee that risked death by complaining (successfully, in the result) to the enemy about their treatment while imprisoned (principally, in what is now Poland). The First 500 officer who debriefed them after the war became a Newfoundland lawyer in 1921. (The only Newfoundland lawyer to serve with The First 500 was an officer who died of Beaumont Hamel wounds.) 

Among the 490 First 500 battle-active volunteers, 381 (78%) were hospitalized at least once. (Of those, 122 were hospitalized twice; 35 of them, three times; eight of them, four times; and one, on five occasions.)         

Of the 381 hospitalized volunteers, 230 were treated for war wounds (at least two from wounds caused by friendly fire). Eighty were wounded at Beaumont Hamel, 112 wounded elsewhere, and 38 wounded both at Beaumont Hamel and elsewhere. Another 151 hospitalized volunteers were treated for illnesses, mostly incidental to combat (such as weather or horrific trench conditions). But not all of the 381 hospitalized volunteers were released following treatment. In hospital, six died from combat wounds sustained at Beaumont Hamel, while 17 expired from battle injuries suffered elsewhere, including 1 treated aboard a hospital ship and buried at sea. Some others may have died from illness.

Fifty-seven of the 230 wounded First 500 volunteers sustained combat injuries on multiple occasions (including 38 of those wounded at Beaumont Hamel). Among them, one volunteer was wounded four times, and two others wounded three times.

Thirty-eight of the 230 volunteers hospitalized due to wounding at Beaumont Hamel (11) or elsewhere (27) were killed in combat after hospital discharge. One Regiment member, hospitalized twice - for treatment of wounds at Beaumont Hamel, in July 1916, and at Gueudecourt, France, in October 1916 - was killed in action at Broembeek, France, in October 1917.

Of the 490 active Regiment volunteers, 132 were eventually assessed medically unfit to continue combat (at least one of them due to blindness). (One of those 132 later regained sufficient health to return from Newfoundland for duty in Europe.)

Among all Newfoundland Regiment enlisted men engaged in the futile Beaumont Hamel assault on July 1, 1916 (unredeemed by any territorial gain), approximately 26 percent (80) of those who were killed or died of wounds or were missing, and about 30 per cent (114) of those wounded, were from The First 500. 
Among the 22 officers serving with The First 500 five saw action at Beaumont Hamel. None were killed there, although all were wounded, and one of them later died from his wounds. Elsewhere during the war, three were killed while a fourth died from war wounds, and three survived wounding. Fourteen of the officers were hospitalized, due to wounding or illness (one of them five times). Two officers were discharged as medically unfit.

Remarkable is that any of the 22 First 500 officers survived the war. They served with walking sticks and handguns (probably Webley Mark VI .455 revolvers). Their enlisted men, in contrast, were equipped with Ross rifles or (from May 1915) Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mark 1 rifles; Lee-Enfield bayonets; Mills Bomb grenades; and, in some instances, Stokes Trench mortars and (eventually) Vickers Mark 1 heavy machine guns.                 

Only 32 of the 490 combat-active volunteers among the Newfoundland Regiment’s First 500 who saw action, and six of their 22 officers, survived the war without being captured, wounded, hospitalized, or discharged as medically unfit.

Of the 22 officers and 490 volunteers among The First 500 who fought: four officers and eight volunteers were mentioned in dispatches by their superiors, 16 decorations were bestowed on 11 of the officers (one of them being decorated three times, and three of them, twice), and 41 decorations were presented to 35 of the volunteers (one of them three times; four of them, twice).

Newfoundland Regiment officers and volunteers totalling 591 are interred in graves of uncertain location - including one officer and 73 volunteers (42 of them killed at Beaumont Hamel) from The First 500. (Some were decimated in combat, and the remainder buried by Allied forces or the enemy in unmarked graves.)

Overall, among the 22 officers and 521 enlisted volunteers - 543, in all - who were The First 500: 31 (5.7%), all of them volunteers, never saw action, while 512 (94.3%), including 22 officers and 490 volunteers, entered combat. Of those 512: 395 (77%), including 14 officers and 381 volunteers, were hospitalized; 238 (46.5%), including eight officers and 230 volunteers, were wounded; and 156 (30.5%), including five officers and 151 volunteers, laid down their lives in (or as a result of) combat. None of the 356 (69.5%) who survived from among the 512 combat officers and volunteers - 17 officers and 339 volunteers - or their families, were ever again, during their lives, able to enjoy occasions “when the great red dawn is shining” (from British lyricist Edward Lockton). Some of the survivors were blinded, crippled or lacked limbs. Many were severely substance addicted. All probably laboured, undiagnosed, from what now is called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The last of The First 500 volunteers to survive the war died on July 21, 1993 at age 101. The last of the widows of The First 500 volunteer survivors of the war died in 2000 at age (believed to be) 108. 

“The First Five Hundred” In Supreme Court
In Newfoundland, tears had not yet dried, and hearts had not yet (if ever) mended, when the former colony, by 1914 a Dominion of Britain, decided an historical record needed to be made of the service, suffering and sacrifice of the Newfoundland Regiment, including The First 500, in World War One. 

Granted, the first book about the Regiment’s exploits in The Great War had been published (probably in Toronto) in 1916 (and more recently, republished in St. John’s by DRC Publishing). The author was a Regiment volunteer, 26-year-old John Gallishaw (not among The First 500). But his 135-page book was limited, primarily, to an account of some aspects of the Regiment’s service at Gallipoli, from September 1915 to January 1916. Newfoundland wanted a much more comprehensive Regiment war publication.

Chosen for the task in 1918 by the War History Committee of Newfoundland’s Patriotic Association was Frederick A. MacKenzie (sometimes spelled McKenzie), a Quebec-born author and London newspaper correspondent. His knowledge of The Great War is not readily apparent. In any event, he produced nothing up to January 1920 (and when, in 1927, he did provide a manuscript, the Committee rejected it.) 

By the start of 1920, however, a law student being mentored at the St. John’s law firm of Squires and Winter had commenced work on an elaborate (although not complete) war history volume limited to The First 500. He was 30-year-old Richard Cramm, native to Small Point, Conception Bay. 

By 1921, Cramm had completed The First Five Hundred of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which he arranged to have printed in Albany, New York: 114 pages of text (including 33 photos and eight maps) and 201 pages of regimental records of 21 of the 22 officers and 519 of the 521 volunteers in The First 500, as well as photos of most of them. (He included a 520th person as a volunteer who, in fact, was the 22nd officer.) Most probably, Cramm intentionally omitted one of two other volunteers because he dishonourably separated (deserted) from the Regiment in Scotland.  

He prepared the book “to chronicle briefly the military operations of the heroic, fighting battalion that represented Newfoundland among the gallant and victorious troops of the British Empire in the greatest war of history, and to illustrate its persistent gallantry and splendid achievements by reference…to conspicuous individual heroism” in performing “the most solemn duty that has ever been thrust upon our country.”

Cramm’s effort to publish and sell the book is, in itself, a compelling narrative.

Not flush with funds, Cramm found public support for publication and sale of his book within Newfoundland’s government. This was not surprising. A senior partner in the firm where he was studying law was the (controversial) Prime Minister of Newfoundland: Richard A. Squires (from 1919 to 1923; and again, from 1928 to 1932). 

The Newfoundland government agreed to purchase 500 copies of Cramm’s book, at $5.50 a copy, for a total of $2,750. He received $1,000 of that amount in advance (from the government’s War Expenses account), to help pay for printing; the $1,750 balance would be paid upon delivery of the 500 copies. In addition, the government waived customs duties Cramm would have had to pay to import his books from the American printer.

In 1921, Cramm ordered the printing of 1,500 copies of his book, for $4,500. He stored his 1,000 copies in St. John’s, insuring them through Continental Insurance Company. 

On February 21, 1922 - after Cramm had sold or gifted 369 of the 1,000 stored copies of the book - fire damaged the remaining 631 copies. An insurance umpire determined that Cramm was entitled, under the Continental policy, to the cost of reprinting the 631 damaged copies plus an allowance for the work invested by Cramm in authoring the book ($1.33 1/3, per copy).

Continental disagreed, however, and brought the matter before the Newfoundland Supreme Court. The Court awarded Cramm compensation for reprinting the 631 damaged copies, but nothing for his authorship. 

It is unknown how much Cramm eventually got from Continental, or whether he had any of the fire-damaged copies of his book reprinted. Cramm was admitted to the bar on April 2, 1923, as the 150th lawyer to be licensed to practice law in Newfoundland. He practiced law in St. John’s until his death in 1958. 

In 2015, Boulder Publications, of Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, NL, republished Cramm’s book. - By David C. Day, Q.C

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The author has a personal connection to the First World War. Two paternal uncles fought at Beaumont Hamel as part of the Newfoundland Regiment’s C Company (not part of The First 500). Both survived Beaumont Hamel, uninjured, though neither knew then how the other had fared. One of the uncles, James Lewis Day (Regimental No. 1484, enlisted at age 19 - pictured above, top), later died in combat on April 23, 1917, at Les Fosses Farm, near Monchy, France (where he was buried in an unmarked grave). Walter Bennett Day (pictured above, bottom) was hospitalized in London when he received the news that James was killed. He replied (mistakenly), “I know. He died at Beaumont Hamel.” Walter, Regimental No. 1660, enlisted at age 15, giving his name as Walter Valentine Day because he was born on Valentine’s Day. (Identification such as birth certificates were not required to enlist.) He served as a Regimental drummer. He survived the war, but returned profoundly damaged psychologically by what he had endured. He was among the first patients admitted to the Caribou Pavilion, General Hospital, St. John’s. He died on November 18, 1982. The author, in memory and honour of his two uncles, volunteered his face for A Hundred Portraits of the Great War, forged in bronze by eminent Newfoundland sculptor Morgan MacDonald.