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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Nine kilometres from the town of Albert, in Northern France, lies a piece of land that is deemed sacred in the minds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, and Memorial, is one of only two National Historic sites located outside of Canada; the other is the Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
The 74-acre plot of land was originally donated to the province by the people of Beaumont-Hamel, to honour the sacrifice of the soldiers who were then citizens of the Dominion of Newfoundland.
Over the years, many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have made a pilgrimage to the site.
Jolene Butt is one of them.
The 16-year-old from Swift Current, N.L., was there for the ceremony in 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of that battle.
As a member of the Random Air Cadet Squadron in Clarenville, she developed an interest in the history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the First World War.
So when the chance came to join a contingent of youth from the province going to France for the centennial ceremonies, she signed up.
To stand there, she says, to see the land, the outline of the trenches and to image the young men who headed into battle at that point, is breathtaking.
“They must have been really scared,” she muses. “It’s really sad that their last emotion was fear.”
Ironically enough, until this trip she had not realized her family had a very personal connection to the First World War.
“It was only a couple of months before we went that we found out my great uncle, Albert Stacey, was killed in the war,” she told SaltWire, noting her grandfather casually mentioned, on learning of her trip to France, that his uncle Albert Stacey, from Sound Island, Placentia Bay, had been killed in action.
A search of online records from the provincial archives turned up several documents, giving her more insight into Stacey’s story, and her family’s military past.
Lance Cpl. Alfred James Stacey, Regimental Number 1747, was killed Jan. 20, 1918, just weeks after earning the Military Medal for his actions at the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
His military records show he was awarded that medal for:
“…conspicuous gallantry on and after Nov. 20. Repeatedly, by day and night he carried wounded to the aid post and then on into Marcoing, under heavy artillery fire. While in the town, he sought out, on his own initiative the Battalion rations which had been scattered by shell fire, and carried food and water forward to the front line by daylight through heavy shell and machine gun fire. His repeated journeys to the aid post with water considerably improve the chances of many wounded men. His work was a fine example to all ranks.”
He was 22 years old when he died somewhere near Belgium.
Butt thinks of him now, every Nov. 11, as she stands at the cenotaph in Clarenville with her fellow air cadets to honour veterans.
As the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War approaches, she’s not certain people of her age understand what happened from 1914 to 1918 and how it impacted the province. She hopes, though, they will take time to learn, and remember.
“I really don’t want their (soldier’s) memories, their stories, to get lost.”
To the question of whether the loss was worth the fight, Butt contemplates for a moment, before replying, “Newfoundland lost a whole generation of men, but for the lessons that we learned – so that it never happens again – it was worth it; but then you wish it could have been done in another way."
As for whether the soldiers themselves would think it had been worth their lives, Butt replied, “I think the soldiers would be proud of the strides we made since the war but I think they would hope that we would fight and stand up a little bit more for the things that we believe in.”
Barb Dean-Simmons is a SaltWire Network journalist based out of St. John's, N.L., and managing editor of the Newfoundland and Labrador weeklies.