Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts
The colours of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment are emblazoned with 10 of the 16 battle honours which the unit won during the Great War of 1914-18.
“Gallipoli, 1915-16" was the first honour to be awarded to the regiment. It marked their participation in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, the first time that the Blue Puttees and their comrades faced the enemy in battle. The Newfoundlanders were the only North American soldiers to earn the accolade.
Gallipoli was a disaster from April 25, the very first day that the Australians and New Zealanders, together with British, French and Indian soldiers, stormed ashore on the western coast of Turkey, at the entrance to the Dardanelles. They were met by a determined Turkish army, which fought them to a standstill.
The Australian and New Zealand Corps — the ANZACs — will forever be associated with the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. But many thousands of British soldiers fought by their side. The famed 29th Division was chief among them. The 29th, the last division to be formed during the war from regular battalions of the British Army, landed on the first day of the campaign, and had been in the thick of the fighting since then. They sustained heavy losses, and by early summer, they desperately needed reinforcements.
The Royal Scots, the senior regiment of the British Army, had been part of the 29th Division from its inception. One of its units, the Leith Battalion, boarded a train late in May 1915, on route to Gallipoli. A few hours after leaving Edinburgh, at Quintinshill near Gretna Green in Scotland, it was struck by an oncoming express train. The battalion was all but annihilated; of the 500 soldiers on the train, only 58 men and seven officers answered the roll call the next day.
The accident claimed more lives than any train accident in British history. It was the result of criminal negligence on the part of two railway signalmen, who were subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
The Newfoundland Regiment was in Scotland that day, at Stobs Camp, just north of the border between England and Scotland. The First 500 — the Blue Puttees — had arrived in England the previous October, after their initial training at Pleasantville, on Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s. Other contingents joined them over the next few months, and by June the regiment paraded 1,200 men. The British Army’s senior commanders, casting about for reinforcements for Gallipoli, decided that the Newfoundlanders should go to Gallipoli in the place of the decimated Royal Scots Battalion.
The Newfoundlanders left Scotland early in August and moved to Aldershot, the British Army’s biggest training base. A fortnight later, they were on their way to the Mediterranean. A short stay in Egypt completed their working up, and on Sept. 20 the officers and men of the 1st Newfoundland Battalion went ashore at Kangaroo Beach, in Suvla Bay on the northern part of the Gallipoli battlefield. (Another 90 men joined them in November.)
Fifteen men were wounded by Turkish shells that morning, becoming the regiment’s first battle casualties. Two days later, on Sept. 22, 1915, Pte. Hugh Walter McWhirter became the first soldier of the regiment to be killed in action. Pte. W.F. Hardy, killed the next day, was the second. The battalion, with their comrades in the 29th, stayed in Suvla Bay for three months.
Last to leave
On Dec. 19, 1915 the Newfoundlanders left Gallipoli for Imbros, a small island in the Mediterranean. But two days later the battalion was ordered to return, this time to Cape Helles in the southern sector. They were there until January 1916, when the British Army acknowledged defeat by withdrawing its troops.
Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, in The Fighting Newfoundlander, the regiment’s official history, recorded that “the Newfoundland rearguard, which was in the charge of Lieutenant [Owen] Steele, was among the very last troops to leave the peninsula," on Jan. 9, 1916.
The Battle Honour “Gallipoli” was richly deserved, but dearly bought. One in every two British soldiers — including the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Indians and the Newfoundlanders — became casualties; 115,000 were killed, wounded or missing, while 90,000 were evacuated because of sickness. Another 47,000 French soldiers also became casualties. And their enemies, the Turks, suffered 250,000 casualties. In all 500,000 men were killed, wounded or became sick during the eight months of the campaign.
The Newfoundlanders bore their full share of these losses. Some 1,000 men who wore the Caribou badge served at Gallipoli; 44 of them died, and more than 500 had to be evacuated from the front because of illness caused by the appalling conditions in which they lived and fought.
The Newfoundlanders served with the 29th Division until the summer of 1918 and developed strong ties with the Royal Scots. These were made formal nearly 40 years later, in 1957 when Queen Elizabeth II approved an alliance between the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Royal Scots.
The Newfoundlanders still play the regimental march of their sister unit on June 30 every year, at the mess dinner that marks the anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. But few remember that the Newfoundland Regiment went to Gallipoli because of the tragic accident that destroyed a battalion of the famed Scottish Regiment.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the following: firstname.lastname@example.org