Canadians at Gallipoli: Royal Newfoundland Regiment honoured

The bloody battle at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey was a turning point for British and Australian and New Zealand forces. It was also the beginning of a Canadian military dynasty.

Newfoundland troops were only North American soldiers at the bloody First World War battle

Commemoration of the 46,000 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died in a failed attempt to control the Dardanelles Straits 6:11

There are no poppies on Hill 10 in the Lancashire Landing cemetery. But there are gravestones row on row, cutting a haunting line in the Turkish meadow.

Many of those white stone markers honour some of the approximately 40 members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who fought and died at Gallipoli during the First World War.

It wasn't the biggest loss of life the Newfoundlanders would face in those years — and it paled beside the 46,000 mostly British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died in this failed attempt to control the Dardanelles Straits — but it would be a defining moment for the group and the British colonial province that later joined Canada.

"When the Newfoundland Regiment arrived, they were there to support the front," the current commanding officer of the regiment's 2nd battalion, Lt.-Col. Clarence Bond, told CBC News. "They were trying to take Istanbul to control the Black Sea."

They and the Allied forces would fail in that ambitious plan against the Turkish troops of the then Ottoman Empire, some 55,000 of whom would be confirmed dead, with more missing. But for a host of reasons, it was a battle that has gone down in the annals of history.

Remembering the original 'Blue Puttees'

Over the next three days in Turkey, that part of the First World War and the lives lost at Gallipoli and nearby will be remembered at the battle's centennial anniversary commemorations.

The Newfoundlanders were the only North American troops at Gallipoli, fighting alongside British and ANZAC — Australian and New Zealand Army Corps — forces.

22 soldiers from the Newfoundlanders regiment are buried in four sites including Lancashire Landing cemetery in Gallipoli, Turkey. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Newfoundland wasn't a part of Canada in 1914. When the call for troops came it was its own dominion, and hundreds of young men rushed to enlist. By September 1915, more than 1,000 Newfoundlanders had landed in Gallipoli.

During those lean years, a fabric shortage had given the Newfoundlanders' uniforms a blue signature. Instead of the standard issue khaki-coloured cloth — or puttee — the fabric wrapped around their boots was blue. They quickly became known as "the Blue Puttees."

A new front, a new kind of warfare

Their uniforms were the least of the unexpected turns the regiment would encounter.

The young men who signed up with dreams of joining active battle were quickly thrown into a new kind of fight: Gallipoli was the battlefield where trench warfare began.

"They began digging trenches … it was hard labour," Bond said. And some of the soldiers died from the physical diseases, including dysentery, gangrene and cholera, that came from the difficult, damp conditions. 

Ten of the soldiers would die from disease, while 30 others were killed in action.

The first loss came "through artillery fire," Lt.-Col. Bond said, just days after the troops arrived on the peninsula. Pte. Walter McWhirter died on Sept. 22, 1915.

Nevertheless, the regiment managed to eke out a small but significant victory.

About 540 men and boys with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment departed St. John's on October 5, 1914 to help in the war effort. They were the only North American contingent in the invasion. (CBC NEWS)

The Newfoundlanders succeeded in taking a peak topped with Turkish snipers. They named it Caribou Hill for the caribou badge on their hats.

The regiment would later serve twice as the rear guard for the Allied troops in their retreat from the region.

The experiences, losses and victories the Newfoundlanders would incur here and later, particularly at the battle of Ypres in France, would earn the regiment its royal title in 1917 and garner medals for several of its soldiers.

Canada's minister of state for foreign affairs, Lynne Yelich, and Newfoundland & Labrador Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan will be representing Canada at the commemorations.

They, along with senior members of the Newfoundlanders' first and second battalions, will be part of ceremonies honouring British and ANZAC soldiers, and a private wreath-laying ceremony in memory of the fallen Canadians.

About the Author

Nil Köksal

CBC News

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.

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