CBC Docs Specials·Story

Newfoundlander walks in the steps of his ancestor into battle

“I gotta admit, the hair on the back of my neck started standing up."

They woke Bryan Manning up in the middle of the night, told him to get dressed in his itchy uniform and get his gun. It took time to get his gear on properly—he'd never served in the military before, and it didn't come naturally.

He was rattled walking in the pitch black down to the trenches, surrounded by his fellow soldiers; bombs were going off, dust was flying everywhere. When his feet hit the trenches, they were instantly soaked up to his shins. It was loud. It was terrifying.

"I gotta admit, the hair on the back of my neck started standing up," he said.

Luckily for Manning, it was all a recreation.

Bryan Manning in his World War I gear. Photo by Stephen Thompson (Please send reproduction requests to stephendthompson@gmail.com)

Manning, 38, is a lifelong Newfoundlander who participated in the CBC documentary Newfoundland at Armageddon, a unique experience for descendants of soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment who fought at the battle of Beaumont-Hamel in France in the first world war.

Manning participated in the documentary on behalf of his ancestor, Andrew Yetman, Private 43 in the Newfoundland Regiment—one of the first 500 Newfoundlanders who went to Europe. What Manning experienced for a few weeks of filming, Yetman lived 100 years ago.

"I was looking after a guy ahead of me, and the guy behind me was looking after me," said Manning, of the recreation. "We were holding onto each other just making sure everything was going to be okay. That's what brought it home."

Among the first 500 to sign up for the war, Yetman was 21 when he volunteered in St. John's. He was a seaman and longshoreman, and he registered to fight by marking an "X" on the line since he was illiterate.

Manning is a program facilitator with the John Howard Society, helping to re-integrate ex-offenders back into the community. He got his masters degree in Ireland and has taught abroad in Korea, Yemen and Qatar. The circumstances of their lives may not be similar, but Manning doesn't think he and his ancestor are all that different.

"They all came up in a hard way. I have a bit of sticktoitiveness...and I realize I probably get that from them because they must have been hard men and willing to sacrifice whatever they could."

Yetman survived the battle when so many others did not. Some 800 Newfoundlanders followed orders to go over the top and walk towards the Germans, despite the first two waves of soldiers being slaughtered, and the battle all but hopeless. But not a single Newfoundlander said no. They tucked their chins as if walking into a snowstorm and carried on. Hundreds were injured, and hundreds were killed — only 68 made roll call the next day.

I've never been in the military, but I would. I would fight for Newfoundland.

"The loyalty of those men and the people I'm related to, that's what they did," he said. "They were doing it for the pride of where they came from... but also, what I started to realize is it's not about your country and all that, it's about the man next to you."

Yetman suffered from shellshock, now known at PTSD, and was invalided back to England after the battle. He fought for 17 years to gain a pension for his time in the war when psychological injuries were not yet recognized.

Newfoundland at Armageddon – Military Training

6 years ago
Duration 1:09
Military training is very tough, and living under army discipline doesn't seem to come naturally to many Newfoundlanders recruited for battle in World War 1 or to participate in the recreation for Newfoundland at Armageddon.

Manning is the first to admit; he can't ever really know what his ancestor went through, though he does understand the sacrifice he made.

"I've never been in the military, but I would. I would fight for Newfoundland."

Not long ago, he watched as another generation of his family stepped up to serve in the Newfoundland Regiment — his 18-year-old nephew.

"We're very proud," said Manning. Though after experiencing the recreation, he took his nephew aside and asked "Do you know what you're getting into? Do you know what you're representing?"

A lot of blood was shed at the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, taking away many of Newfoundland's best and brightest and leaving a void that would affect the soon-to-be province for generations to come.

But like his ancestors before him, and his nephew after him, Manning knows that proud Newfoundlanders can make it through anything.

"In that void, there's something that rises out of it to make sure we're okay."


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