Frances Ennis and Bob Wakeham, eds., I Remain, Your Loving Son: Intimate Stories of Beaumont-Hamel (St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2017).
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This book is light in pages but weighty in emotion. It recounts the story that every Newfoundlander (and Labradorian) learns from birth, although the rest of the country does not – the First World War battle at Beaumont-Hamel, France, on 1 July 1916. The editors have pulled together a book from the transcripts of two documentaries produced on the subject – “I Remain, Your Loving Son” and “Descendants: The Past is Cast.” The documentaries were in turn made-up of letters, diaries, memoirs and interviews.
Among other things, the First World War is well-known for its slaughter of a generation of young men, for establishing the underlying conditions for the second major war of the century, and for its trench warfare. In the battle on which this book focuses, 801 members of the Newfoundland Regiment went ‘over the top’ in an obviously ill-fated plan to attack the German lines on the opening day of the Somme campaign. In approximately 30 minutes, all but 68 of the regiment were dead or wounded.
For readers looking for an analysis of the battle, or a discussion of the tactics, strategy and overall picture of the war, this is not your book. If, however, readers are looking for a window into the people who served in the Newfoundland Regiment and who participated in the battle, this will be of great interest. It quotes letters and memoirs of the participants and their families, and, as such, is a very personal account of this battle.
The letters and diaries tell the story of young men enlisting in the regiment, signing-up for fun and adventure. This is the story of young men everywhere at this time – young men who wanted to enjoy themselves and see a bit of the world before settling down to jobs and wives and families. The letters tell the story of how the fun and excitement turned out to be something much more horrifying than they could ever have imagined.
The letters and diaries tell the story of the battle, and it is enhanced by including material from the German gun crews who fought with such devastating effect from the other side. The material illustrates the problems of warfare in a time when communications and solid intelligence about the enemy were sorely lacking – the friction and fog of war. The artillery barrage that was to precede the advance did not happen, the Germans apparently knew about the attack in advance, and small things like too few holes cut in the barbed wire to let the men through made this attack the disaster that it was. The men, without protective fire or artillery support and bunched-up to get through the barbed wire, were sitting ducks for the German machine guns. The book illustrates that in the midst of a major war, the military machine cranks onwards. The machine made plans and then executed them without adapting to new information, and seemingly without consideration of the people who were assigned to undertake this impossible task.
What makes this book different from the weighty tomes on war is its personal nature. We read the short letters that the soldiers wrote home pretending that all was well, and the letters that their families wrote to them pretending that all was well without them. We see photographs of the soldiers and stories from their families of what their lives were like after they came back, and what life was like for families when they did not. In the understated letters, memoirs and interviews, it is clear that the events of the battle stayed with the survivors and that some struggled the rest of their lives with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Historians and archivists must love unearthing letters and memoirs to enhance their study of events in the past. One wonders, however, how the historians of the future will find their material. The letters and photographs of the participants at Beaumont-Hamel were treasured by their families and passed down from generation to generation. How will this work in the future? A hundred years from now, will historians be pouring over selfies, Tweets and Facebook posts? If so, there will be a smorgasbord of material, but it will undoubtedly be less poignant than the material included in I Remain, Your Loving Son.
The families of the men who died and the men who survived have worked hard to keep their memory alive. More than 100 years later, the people of Newfoundland are still working hard on it. In addition to the letters and diaries, the book includes illustrations of hooked rugs made, and poetry written, to commemorate the battle. It includes interviews with descendants of the men who fought in the battle as part of the documentary “Descendants: The Past is Cast,” produced in 2016 on the hundredth anniversary of the battle. Some of the descendants also participated in a sculpture project that will incorporate their faces in bronze as commemoration.
The bottom line is that this book is a great companion to the many books that discuss the elements of warfare in a theoretical, bloodless, academic fashion or relate the details of how a war unfolded battle by battle. War should not be divorced from the effects it has on the participants and their families. And this book does a great job of personalizing one particularly painful battle that resonates with Newfoundlanders to this day … and surely always will.
Dr. Ann Griffiths received her PhD from Dalhousie University. She is currently the Editor of Canadian Naval Review and teaches courses in international politics at Dalhousie University.