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Over 100 years ago, a single day changed Newfoundland forever

Brave men from Newfoundland proudly represented their regiment in the First World War. But one battle in particular would change a generation, and Newfoundland, forever.

Brave men from Newfoundland proudly represented their regiment in the First World War.

Over one hundred years bago and an ocean away brave men from Newfoundland proudly represented their regiment in the First World War. But one battle in particular would change a generation, and Newfoundland, forever.

The battle of Beaumont-Hamel in France, recreated in CBC's Newfoundland at Armageddon would see hundreds of Newfoundlanders killed on the battlefield, and the war effort would contribute to bankrupting the future province, changing the course of history.

During WWI, Newfoundland was not yet a part of Canada, but was a Dominion of the British Empire. When the British needed their help, men signed up voluntarily. Most had no experience in battle, and the battle of Beaumont-Hamel was one of the bloodiest of the war.

On July 1, 1916, some 800 Newfoundlanders went over the top of the trenches toward German machine gun fire — only 68 made roll call the next day. These types of numbers were common during the Great War, but in a close community like Newfoundland, the deaths touched everyone.

The emotional impact of these losses echoed for years through Newfoundland, but the battle resulted in many other effects that would plague, and in some cases bolster, the province in the coming decades.

Years of debt

Newfoundland raised a huge sum of money for the war effort — $500,000 in 1916, equivalent to $11 million today — but they still borrowed tens of millions from Great Britain over the course of the four-year war. Within a single generation, Newfoundland was bankrupt. By 1932, they owed Britain $101 million, and weren't even able to service the interest on that debt.

England was particularly unforgiving, especially considering the sacrifice Newfoundlanders made to support them. In a desperate move in exchange for economic support, Newfoundland gave up its independence to Britain. No elections were held for 15 years, and eventually the government paid back its loans — one of the few combatant countries to actually get back in the black.

This debt, plus the Great Depression and its negative effect on Newfoundland's cod business, put Newfoundland in financial turmoil for decades.

A political vacuum

At the time of the first world war, Newfoundland was small — around 240,000 people — so many of its best and brightest signed up to go overseas. Men who might have one day become political leaders or captains of industry never made it off the battlefield. This left a gap a generation wide.

On a smaller, but no less important scale, families back home relied on those able-bodied men to bring in a monthly wage to keep the home afloat. When they didn't return, many in Newfoundland were financially crippled, and the effects of the loss rippled through generations as the island struggled to reestablish itself politically.

Loss of democracy

The enormous debt and a missing generation of young men lead to instability and uncertainty in Newfoundland for many years. Finally, after 15 years of repayment, Newfoundland was no longer in debt to Great Britain, it had prospered during the second world war, and it seemed was once again in control of its own future.

Newfoundlanders would have to choose between continued British rule, joining Canada in Confederation, or self-governance — a very popular option.

In 1948, in a controversial referendum, Newfoundland voted to join Canada as the 10th province, with confederation winning by a very narrow margin. Some celebrated, others flew the flag at half-mast. Had the province not gone bankrupt and lost its political rutter, they might still be an independent nation today.

Newfoundland at Armageddon – Joining Canada

CBC Television

5 years ago
1:17
The loss at Beaumont-Hamel was a contributing factor to Newfoundland joining Canada decades later. 1:17

Women's suffrage

The effects of the first world war weren't entirely negative for Newfoundland, however. Where some areas suffered politically, women charged forward to secure the vote after a strong war time showing. The money raised for soldiers was almost entirely collected by Women's Patriotic Associations, which sprung up all over Newfoundland during the war — some 240 branches.

The war changed the lives of women at home.

The women held raffles and bazaars — anything to raise cash, not to mention they sewed thousands upon thousands of socks for their boys, and made blankets and medical gauze for the effort at large.

This involvement lead to a political awakening, and in turn, a suffrage movement.

So, in 1923, seven years after the first Canadian women voted, a suffrage bill passed unanimously in the Newfoundland legislature, and a feminist movement was born.

Newfoundland pride

Despite what can be argued as a senseless loss of lives, Newfoundland was proud of its contribution to the war. Although it was small, it was mighty. Newfoundlanders had proven themselves to be tough, brave and loyal on the battlefield.

That sense of pride still resonates through the province today. Many who live there consider themselves a Newfoundlander first, and a Canadian second to this day.

Watch Newfoundland at Armageddon.

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